They said that this comment from Lana Del Rey was “very xenogothic” — which is not a charge I ever thought I’d hear but, tbh, I’ll take it:
GRIMES: I was reading yesterday about outrage culture, and for just about every emotionally loaded word that’s in a tweet, the tweet gets 15 percent more interaction. We live in this weird time where we didn’t evolve to engage with this many people, and we didn’t evolve to be observed as much as we’re being observed, or to observe other people as much as we’re observing them. No one is considering the psychological impact of all this crazy technology. Especially since Trump was elected, this is the first time that the general public is fully on the internet. Grandma is on the internet.
DEL REY: I think about that all the time. It’s important to say it out loud. It’s a little bit like the Wild West again in the way that we are learning how to deal with each other on a mass level and an instant, interconnected level. I’ve been trying to create my own blueprint. It’s like, how do you fit into the culture and still live your own life the way you authentically would?
I’ve got a whole chapter in Egress about Deleuze and the radicality of the Wild West — an old blog series obsessively polished into something I’m really proud of. (It’s my favourite chapter, I think.)
The Wild West is obviously often invoked as a period of anarchic chaos — and I think that’s what Del Rey is referring to here — but it does also sound like she’s saying the Wild West itself was an moment when the denizens of a not-yet-United States had to learn how to deal with and communicate with each other on a new mass level.
Deleuze’s argument was that this frontier process, which was never meant to be closed, was forced into a recoding of European bourgeois attitudes. It’s radical potentials were snuffed out by the iron fist of a European capitalist subjectivity and, over the centuries since, the US has defined itself by its addition to its hallucinations of the worst of us.
The Wild West of the web is interesting, in comparison, because it has undergone a similar process. Just before the internet is recoded into an platform-based image that mirrors the geographic constitution of the United States, with quasi-feudal rent controls defining how we now access its information, people are fighting to break it apart again. Like the US, it has been subjected to a kind of capitalist osteotomy, with nation-states fighting to try and curtail the sprawling nature of the internet’s arachnid namesake.
The instantiation of something like Facebook seemed to show that this recoding of communicative capitalism would win again with ease but, as time goes on, it seems like resistance to this is building once again.
The political right continues to lead this recoding. Like the oil barons of old, they champion the freedom of the emerging market the developing web and how it allows them to do and say what they want, whilst implementing the structures to keep it working in their favour. (It’s the same ingrown logic of championing the freedom of the American Dream — America as a land of opportunity — whilst building border walls.) The political left calls the right out for this, speaking to freedoms for all, all the while recoding the landscape according to a bourgeois propriety and moralism.
Fittingly, considering Lana Del Rey’s current album cycle, we might say that this is something that Norman Rockwell arguably dramatised most memorably in his Four Freedoms paintings.
But Rockwell was also regionalist and that often maligned art movement, at its best, is the death rattle of the Wild West’s patchwork sense of itself. It is with him the dream died. Lana Del Rey seems to be tapping into something on her latest album that understands that implicitly…
I might return to this topic soon, once I get the book draft I’m currently working on out of my system.
There is a post on regionalism that has been languishing in my drafts for months now and Lana Del Rey’s latest feels particularly appropriate to this. As is the political line over here in the UK, there are pockets of past potentials reemerging in the US as well, albeit to a far lesser extent.
Del Rey’s half-baked nostalgia seemed to want to tap into something like this when she emerged on the music blogs of the 2000s with “Video Games” being an anachronistic anthem for the Americana hipster, but her album Norman Fucking Rockwell seems to have finally managed to escape this…
I hope it has anyway… I’m yet to give it much of my attention… But I’ve been intrigued by what I’ve heard…
I’ve still kept it at a distance though. I can’t express how much I hated her debut.
The real opposite of nostalgia is psychedelic, the reverse of remembering is hallucinating…
This line, from Leslie Fiedler’s 1968 book The Return of the Vanishing American, is on my mind constantly at the moment. I’ve been trying to process it and explain — for my own confused self — how and why Fiedler’s dichotomy is nowhere near as clear cut these days. I’m coming back to it again and again in my blog drafts.
Fiedler is talking about nostalgia and hallucination in relation to the New Western or “Acid Western”. For America, the Wild West has always been a genre-space for thinking about itself and its values but, in the 1960s and ’70s, when America seemed to be undergoing a major transformation in consciousness, the standards of the Western did too. They weren’t rememberings of a fictional past anymore but hallucinations of a still-shifting frontier.
It’s hard to see this same process today but I’m certain it’s still out there. We can think about the hauntological musics of Burial, Lee Gamble, The Caretaker and others, with their distinctly oneiric qualities, which aren’t just false memories of music’s past or visions of its degradation in the present but dreams of an emergent new.
I think we have to be more attuned to these dynamics, clouded in the fog of a melancholic present. We might even start with pop that has been through this fog and has produced some very interesting results.
I thought about this when seeing that Frank Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde had topped Pitchfork‘s recent Best Albums of the 2010s list.
For Doreen St. Félix, who reviews the album for the list, Ocean captures “the whiplash experience of being young” in the United States today. The album’s “slight touches of distortion … call attention to impermanence, the trap of artifice, and, distantly, death.” But it’s not melancholic or nostalgic about moments past. She continues that, for Ocean, perhaps “the whole point of existence is that a dark musing on morality can — and should — be interrupted by soft flesh, a sticky plant, a designer shirt.”
What St. Félix taps into here, I think, is the missed meaning of a track like“Nikes”, most explicitly — a song about a grief for the future.
More often than not — at least according to Genius — “Nikes” is interpreted as a critique of materialism but I don’t see it that way. It’s about our pervasive hunger for the new. New sneakers. New art. New talent. But artists are not as disposal as merchandise. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, it’s a desire built — materialistically — into the culture, but it’s a culture in which the youth is also dying. The roll call of RIPs is contrasted, later, by the declaration that: “We gon’ see the future first / Living so the last night feels like a past life.”
It’s a theme that continues on my favourite track from the album, “Nights”. A line like “Did you call me from a séance? / You are from my past life” slides into talk of quaaludes, new beginnings and cheap marijuana vacations. Hauntings and hallucinations slide past each other and confuse present perspectives.
It’s gothic, almost by definition. As we, in the present, shift into a new temporality, both past and future are disturbed. Frank Ocean, on Blonde, seems disorientated by the whole thing, even whilst assured of his necessary direction.
The entire album is underpinned by this melancholic psychedelia and this “whiplash experience” that I think defines contemporary culture at large — I might write about my personal favourite example of this from the last decade at a later date — but I also think it’s so frequently misunderstood.
There’s an excellent example of how it is misunderstood to be found elsewhere on Pitchfork today, in an article about Ocean’s attempt to open up a queer-conscious club night in New York.
Prior examples of cultural whiplash — related to the building of a future whilst you watch it die around you — are evidently not lost on Frank Ocean and so, to me, if any megastar was to open up a club night for a queer cause, he’s it. But he was also bound to ruffle some feathers — these things always do.
Jesse Dorris’s review of the night for Pitchfork seems conflicted about this and it is a review that I think is suffering from whiplash itself. He introduces the night as follows:
Imagine if in 1985, instead of acknowledging the existence of AIDS for the first time, President Reagan had announced the discovery of the preventative drug PrEP. Imagine if, as a result of taking it, many of the greatest artists of the late 20th century had lived to see the new millennium. […]
A press release announced that the events would pay “homage to what could have been of the 1980s NYC club scene if the drug … had been invented in that era.” […] Would Ocean’s party be an orgy … where PrEP was sold at the bar instead of vodka sodas, on the dancefloor instead of MDMA? Would he perform, surrounded by survivors of the plague years? Would there be merch?
The answer to all this was no. The reality was, he asked some people to play some music in the basement of the Knockdown Center, a snazzy Queens venue-compound just north of Bushwick. If you had to ask how to get a ticket, you weren’t getting one.
After reviewing a night that — albeit exclusive — sounds like an amazing time, with appearances from Ocean himself and UK queen of jungle Sherelle, Dorris pulls back. French duo Justice headlining the night seems to undo everything that came before them. He continues:
Today, responding to suspicion of the motives and funding for the PrEP+ party, Ocean posted on Tumblr, criticizing the pricing and lack of awareness of the drug. “I’m an artist, it’s core to my job to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist and it’s a joy to,” he wrote. But hundreds of thousands of visionary queers and weirdo prodigies and casual romancers and hunks and femmes and dykes and people trapped in the closet and those who could never even fit inside one didn’t die just so we could stand at an exclusive party and listen to straight people play Buffalo Springfield. The living, and the dead, deserve better.
Whatever you think of Justice, I don’t get the negativity here. I can’t think of a better person to represent the future of queer DJ culture than Sherelle who has blown up here since her Boiler Room set from earlier in the year went viral. Seeing her invited to the US by someone like Ocean provokes a distinct sense of pride in what this country has been doing recently. And, of course, Ocean himself being present as perhaps the biggest openly queer person in hip hop doesn’t hurt.
Surely, for the most part, this is better than what the 1980s had in terms of representation, collective consciousness and hope? Let’s not forget that nights at the Loft were often exclusive and, shy of raising the dead, at least Ocean put a sexual crisis at the night’s heart rather than replicate the Madonna zones that DJ Sprinkles once called “the decontextualized, reified, corporatized, liberalized, neutralized, asexualized, re-genderized pop reflection of this dance floor’s reality!”
Perhaps Ocean’s night wasn’t a complete rebuttal of that old critique but, with that kind of dancefloor in mind, Pitchfork seems like a pretty fragile-looking glass house from which to throw stones about not doing subcultures justice (no pun intended).
But this post isn’t some Frank Ocean defence that no one asked for. I wasn’t there and it’s not like I even knew about this party until the backlash, but Ocean’s own defence does seem to encapsulate the problematics of our present moment perfectly. We need artists “to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist” and find the joy in process.
We are trapped in a moment of psychedelic nostalgia where politics in particular is determined by a cooked-up nostalgia for a time that never was. On Blonde, Ocean instead mourned lost futures and he did so beautifully, but not every hallucination of a lost future has to be so haunted, does it? Ocean’s night may not wholly live up to the contentious political standards of the present but also it seems that, in this specific case, it was incapable of living up to the expectations of an non-existent past also. And I find that an odd thing to be mad about.
A night about the past that celebrates the present and future is precisely the sort of approach we need, and it certainly sounds better than Dorris’s opening predictions. PrEP orgy with “plague survivors” and merch sounds like a late capitalist horror show. That’s the worst to be expected, surely? How can anyone be disappointed by “he asked some people to play some music”? Collective joy in the orbit of a drug like PrEP seems like as good a night as any.
What’s ironic about this, of course, is that Ocean seems to be attempting an escape from the deadlock of the decade that Pitchfork thinks he has defined. I reckon it’d be better for all of us and the decade ahead if they’d just let him.
Several weeks later, after an evening of tequila sunrises, Scriabin sonatas, marijuana, and literary conversation, the three men leave for the desert at dawn. “We brought along a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon,” Wade tells his guest. “We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” […]
The trio’s destination, Zabriskie Point, was the very spot that had provided Michelangelo Antonioni with the setting and title of his 1970 hippie movie, which Pauline Kael panned as a “pathetic mess” in The New Yorker, assuming that the Italian was “baffled by America and it all got away from him.” If Antonioni was guilty of being an aging European intellectual belatedly drawn to the American counterculture’s image of youth in revolt, he wasn’t the only one. In November 1975, Foucault crossed paths with his colleagues Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari at Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University, the latter two having journeyed across the Atlantic to see for themselves: They met Allen Ginsberg backstage at Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s hometown, before flying to California, where they visited Patti Smith in Berkeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, and Henry Miller in Big Sur. At almost the same time, Jean Baudrillard embarked from San Diego on a theoretical road trip he later chronicled in 1986’s America, in whose deserts, both ecological and semiotic, he found a hyperreal “microcosm of the West,” and at Disneyland, saw “a parody of the world of the imagination.” In Death Valley, Baudrillard writes, “everything human is artificial.”
It appears that Foucault drew different conclusions. Over several hours, he and his companions take in the Mojave vistas, drink chartreuse, listen to Stockhausen, and emit the aphoristic bits of pseudo-wisdom that hallucinogens are known for prompting: “Music is our theology,” “The sky has exploded and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth.” At one point, there is an argument over whether the car doors should stay open or closed. With “tears streaming from his eyes,” Foucault declares, “Tonight I have achieved a fresh perspective on myself. I now understand my sexuality. It all seems to start with my sister. We must go home again.”
This exclamation in the desert is particularly interesting. Just as Mark noted in his Acid Communism intro, Foucault encounter with the Outside confirmed what he already knew and expressed in his previous philosophical excursions, allowing him to find the strange in the familiar.
Shout out to the YouTube channel Dank Audio Stash that has decided to turn all of my blog posts on Westworld into text-to-speech audio-essay things. I know a lot of people like this stuff and I’m all for people doing things like this if it makes working through blog series more fun and accessible.
It’s a really nice thing to see and does warm my heart a bit. It feels a little bit like being translated or something and I appreciate the time taken by DAS to make and upload these. (Evidently a sensitive fellow if I’m being humbled by text-to-speech.)
Below you’ll find Mark’s essay on Westworld — also text-to-speeched — and then my four-parter from last year that jumped off from Mark’s essay and my love for the season so far. I also still like this series a lot and I recently did a major rework of a large chunk of the series, transforming it into a chapter for my forthcoming Egress book. (More on that soon.)
If you’d like to hear more essays in this format, Justin Murphy gifted me something similar at the start of this year: a Xenogothic “audio reader” of sorts. You can check that out here.
The central horror of these films revolves around there being something supposedly absorbent about the American landscape. The importance of burial grounds being “Indian” is the most unsubtle of nods in this direction. Such a comment seems to infer there is some sort of curse placed upon the dead by the living — a sort of classically Orientalist superstition we see projected across the American West to places as far afield as Ancient Egypt — but it is a suggestion that also contains the echoes of untold horrors that Native Americans were subjected to the colonising Europeans.
In The Shining, however, things seem more complex.
Far more resonant than the “Indian burial ground” suggestion is the film’s opening sequence. As the Torrance family meander through the American wilderness, entirely in the jaws of the landscape, they discuss the Donner Party.
Shirley Torrance wonders if they’re close to where the fated homesteaders were snowed in but Jack says it was further out west. When little Tony Torrance asks what the Donner Party was, Jack tells him — with a father’s corrupting glint in his eye — that they were settlers who, when snowed in, resorted to cannibalism.
Shirley seems wary of the topic, perhaps because she doesn’t want to give Tony nightmares. He protests. “I know all about cannibalism — I saw it on TV!”
“See, he saw it on TV,” responds Jack, somehow proud yet cynical.
I think The Shining, in various subtle ways, offers us a way into the American psyche that I want to explore it in this series. The Donner Party didn’t happen here but the cultural memory of the American West foreshadows the psychological changes that the family will undergo as the film progresses.
Originally, in my brief introduction to this series, I said I want to explore Westerns — and that remains the overall purpose here — but this exploration includes the ways that the American West lingers and haunts other genres.
A common thread I’ve noticed recently is how the West haunts the pop-cultural figure of the writer especially — the prospective author of the Great American Novel.
Jack Torrance, in becoming the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, intends to spend his spare time writing. Many scenes depicting his escalating madness show him sat in the hotel’s great hall, plucking away at his typewriter. Writers, it seems, are even more susceptible to channelling the remnants of other worlds and other lives embedded within the American landscape.
This is something that Mark Fisher notes when discussing Westworld, central to the original Western posts on this blog. He notes how the robot “host” Dolores, in the series, “is increasingly subject to flashbacks, which we must understand not as glitches but as the first stirrings of memory, a recollection of her previous iterations.”
In my reading, this is something common to the American Western as a whole, and American horror and sci-fi too — the haunting of previous iterations. This is something that has only become more and more explicit as the decades have gone by. No Country for Old Men (2008), for instance, is a particularly notable film in this regard, wherein two iterations meet with violent yet impotent consequences.
In The Shining, Jack too is haunted — and even possessed — by his previous iterations. The revelation that he has “always been the caretaker” says less about him as a singular man and perhaps more about the archetypal “man” which he represents — stoic, closed off, but never far from “going Native”; an archetype reiterated last time via Leslie Fiedler concept of a “Higher Masculine Sentimentality”.
Here, across genres, memory and pop culture become almost interchangeable. Here, nostalgia is not a conservative pleasure but the reality of being possessed by an unruly dead spirit — the “spirit” of the near-mythical American West.
Recently, I watched another Stephen King movie — Rob Reiner’s 1991 adaptation of Misery. This film, too, shares many of the same subtle motifs explored in The Shining, and likewise dramatises supposedly disparate iterations of American life coming together with disastrous consequences.
The film begins with Paul Sheldon, a successful writer, finishing off his latest manuscript. He is the author of a series of romance novels about a young woman named Misery Chastain. They’ve brought him great success but he’s bored of the character and decides to kill her off — in childbirth no less — so that he can move onto other things.
Driving to the city to deliver the manuscript, he crashes in a blizzard only to be rescued, near death, by a woman named Annie Wilkes. Together the pair are their own two-person Donner Party.
It transpires that Annie is Paul’s “biggest fan”, finding him in the snow only because she was stalking him. She nurses Paul back to health but, on reading the final Misery manuscript, things take a turn a terrifying turn. She’s appalled that Paul would led Misery die, forcing him to burn the finished manuscript and write an entirely new one. Not one to revise what has come to pass, however, this novel must start where the last one ended.
Contrary to the tradition outlined by Fiedler, it is Annie, the deeply repressed and conservative WASP who “goes Native”. She has a pathological aversion to the new, it seems — to the extent that, in the film, it is revealed she was found culpable for a spate of cot deaths whilst working as a nurse at a hospital. She embodies a stereotypically social role as a nurse but it is as if childbirth itself is an abomination to her; a symbol of life’s inevitable evolution and progression.
As such, she is enthralled by the Misery novels because they represent another time; a lost time. To take that time away from her, through childbirth in particular, is unthinkable.
What I find particularly interesting here, and what will lead us onto our first Western proper, is Annie’s aversion to revision — the scene above demonstrating her commitment to what has already happened, even if it is not to her satisfaction.
It is this terror that I’d like to address in our first look at a proper Western, particularly a Western which is part of that subgenre known as the “Revisionist Western“.
In line with the tide change which occurred in the academy around the same time, when Turner’s famous Frontier Thesis was re-evaluated as reductive and biased, new perceptions of the American West emerged in which cowboys were not all heroes and Indians not all villains. Likewise echoing the national self-reflection that grew around the Vietnam war, the Western anti-hero was born and with it a more nuanced view — relatively nuanced anyway, it’s still Hollywood — of this period of American history.
It is here, it seems to me, that the seed of modern American cinema was planted — in this tension of past iterations both actual and pop-cultural.
I’ve said that I wanted to do something like this on the blog already, having confessed to something of an American literature / American West obsession in the midst of last year, and now that I’m currently working these thoughts into my “Egress” book I want to give even more of a life to these ideas.
I wasn’t sure exactly what form this would take but then it seemed obvious.
My favourite discovery of last year was undoubtedly Leslie Fiedler. Found in a footnote in A Thousand Plateaus, unearthed by Ed Berger, I ended up reading the whole of Fiedler’s psychedelic trilogy of American literary criticism — Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Waiting for the End (1964) and The Return of the Vanishing American (1968).
I ended up applying most of my reading to a series of posts on Westworld and I really enjoyed following this lineage. In fact, Westworld is arguably all about this lineage and not a lot else. It’s not about AI — it’s about the fact that the American psyche can never get past the primal wound of lost promises and traumas that define the “birth” of the nation and, particularly, how this period continues to be associated with the American frontier.
I was already writing a lot about the relationship between state and subject in my patchwork posts at the time but here, read via the immediate influence of Gilles Deleuze, I found example after example of failed geophilosophic liberations. I ended up wanting to read every book Fiedler wrote about but I just couldn’t keep up with my own desire. I read a few of them, mind you, and even ended up going beyond, carrying his writings with me in my readings of Cormac McCarthy and even The Hunger Games. I never wrote about any of these things on the blog though. The moment passed and I moved on to other things.
Having been consolidating and building on my Westworld posts considerably for my new book, however, I’ve caught the bug again and I want to have a way of scratching this itch on the blog, maybe even extending out the project. But I’ll never keep up with myself if I do it with books. I thought maybe I could do it with films instead.
For some reason, as a teenager, I was obsessed with Clint Eastwood. I had a thing for the Dirty Harry movies, trying to collect all the films in the series on DVD through this mail order Clint Eastwood filmography thing that I’d discovered in WHSmith or some other shop. At my parents’ house, I still have Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, The Dead Pool, and maybe The Enforcer. This same mail order thing also included some of his Westerns too (and also Space Cowboys — yikes). The main ones I remember are Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales.
The Outlaw Josey Wales was a film I watched again and again and again, and I thought it might be the perfect first selection. But then I thought about the rest of his movies and realised, perhaps for the first time, that this is what they share in common.
The character of “Dirty Harry” is essentially a frontiersman out of time — I mean, that’s who Clint Eastwood seems to think he is in real life too, right? He’s an “Old” American, a sort of Classic Man, the very embodiment of what Fiedler calls a “Higher Masculine Sentimentality”.
Fiedler writes in Love and Death in the American Novel:
Primitivism is the large generic name for the Higher Masculine Sentimentality, a passionate commitment to inverting Christian-Humanist values, out of a conviction that the Indian’s way of life is preferable.
From this follows the belief that if one is an Indian he ought, despite missionaries and school boards, to remain Indian; and if one is White, he should do his best, despite all pressures of the historical past, to go Native.”
This is Clint Eastwood in a nutshell, isn’t it? The abjectly stoic white man who loves to “go Native”? How interesting that this is something that spans his characters, whether they’re meant to be alive in the 1860s or the 1960s.
Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about, one movie at a time.
I want to watch a bunch of westerns here and write individual posts about them, their historical context — fictive and actual — and hopefully, with screen shots and the like, we’ll explore the ways that these films depict interesting schisms and tensions within the American (but also, more broadly, Western) psyche as a whole. I want to watch classic westerns and new westerns and movies wholly unrelated (stylistically) to the genre which nonetheless transpose its tropes, and see what they say about the minds of a people who just can’t get over the closing of the frontier.
Watch this space for Frontier Psychiatry #1 — maybe something I’ll work on at the weekends. In the meantime, click here to explore the new “Frontier Psychiatry” tag where all these future posts will be collected together and where, at the moment, I’ve added all the old Westworld posts and a few other relevant posts too.
Since writing my previous post on “Reweirding Arcadia” — about Paul Wright’s film Arcadia and how it traces a long trajectory of folk frivolity resistant subjective impositions, calling for a reweirding of the cultural and physical landscape — I’ve wondered how such a sentiment might translate over the pond, or to Australia, or to any of our newer nation-states which seem to have kept their sense of the weird more or less in tact.
The British weird is only somewhat culturally in tact. Our consciousness of such things has been buried. You have to really dig for it. The same cannot be said of America, for instance, with its folkloric weirdness and the tourist trade being inherently entwined. What is further admirable is the way this weirdness has mutated to match new sociocultural developments. Lynchian suburbia, UFOs, cryptozoology… Weird America is very much a part of its economic system, it seems, and therefore remains close to the surface. The ghosts of its patchwork weirdness are still there for all to see.
As an outsider, every aspect of American cultural life seems to be afflicted by this symbiotic relationship between mundanity and surreality. But, viewed from within, perhaps all this is is another mode of capture.
In thinking about this, I stumbled upon what is perhaps the best and most normalised example of a proper cultural reweirding; a weird turn so quickly canonised that I bet most wouldn’t think of it as a reweirding at all. It’s not Twin Peaks or Roswell. It’s when Bob Dylan went electric.
At home over Christmas, I spotted Greil Marcus’s book Invisible Republic sat neglected on a bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. I don’t remember when or why I bought it. I like Bob Dylan — and I like The Band even more — and Greil Marcus is undoubtedly one of the greatest music writers of all time — but I don’t remember a time when I might have been enthused enough by a combination of all three to read a whole book about them.
Nevertheless, it hummed at me.
Watching Arcadia, I was struck by the film’s repeated usage of the voice of Anne Briggs. Her back catalogue of often unaccompanied folk standards, recorded during Britain’s ’60s folk revival, is a veritable treasure trove of ghostly folk.
I’ve had this obsession with Briggs ever since I first heard Grouper’s 2013 FACT mix, made whilst she was doing a residency in Bristol. She begins with three of my all-time favourite weird folk songs, combining them into such a potent trajectory it feels like she just might open up a portal to another world.
Ivor Cutler → Jandek → Anne Briggs
Ever since this mix took over my life in 2013, Briggs’ 1971 self-titled album has become, distilled through repetitive listening, the most potent vector for entering a consciousness of a haunted and haunting Britain. And so, when I heard her voice floating amongst the soundtrack to Arcadia, which features her track “Lowlands”, I got major shivers.
Over Christmas, with Briggs now back on heavy rotation in my flat, I had wanted to write a post about this usage of voice on the film’s soundtrack, somehow connecting the folk revival scene made famous by the likes of Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and others, to the rave scene in the 1990s. The film implied it but I wanted to excavate it more. However, it felt like too much of a stretch.
Then, flicking through Marcus’s book in my childhood bedroom, I saw a chapter titled “The Old, Weird America” and my curiosity was peaked. Maybe there’s something in this, I thought, and so I picked it up and brought it home to London, reading it in its entirety in a single overnight sitting. I have been blown away by it.
Immediately I was struck by Marcus’s characterisation of Dylan’s electric period, referring to the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as “a single outburst” which ranks amongst “the most intense outbreaks of twentieth-century modernism; they join the whole Gothic-romantic traverse of American self-regard.” Marcus’s focus, however, is not on the albums of that period but rather those most mythological recordings: The Basement Tapes.
Following that most infamous of tours in which he officially “went electric”, during which he was effectively booed around the world for a year, Dylan was in a motorcycle accident and ended up taking a long break from public appearances, ending up just jamming with his backing band in a Woodstock basement throughout the summer of 1967.
They recorded their efforts, for whatever reason — audio note-taking perhaps — but never intended to release a sound from them.
Nevertheless, they got out. The heavily bootlegged tapes were — and somewhat remain — the stuff of legend and Marcus describes them as these ahistorical records of moment in which both Bob Dylan and America at large are on the brink of tearing themselves apart in their odd reflection of one another at the height of his folk fame.
Marcus frames this period in America’s and Dylan’s histories not as the rupturing shock of the new but as a wrestling match between a contemporary American moment and the romanticised vision of America’s self which was allowing it to disregard itself. As such, Marcus writes that the “music carried an aura of familiarity, of unwritten histories, and as deep a sense of self-recognition, the recognition of the self — the singer’s? the listener’s? — that was both historical and sui generis.”
Marcus later notes that, as you listen to these songs, recorded in a time warp, unintended for public consumption, they soon “begin to sound like a map; but if they are a map, what country, what lost mine, is it that they centre and fix?” For Marcus, what we hear are “certain bedrock strains of American cultural language … retrieved and reinvented.”
This sense of a time warp is both the result of the events of the year itself and the circumstances of their recording — transitory, shifting, violent. That is not to say that they are these things in themselves, however. They are the product of waiting out the storm overhead. The Basement Tapes, for many, were the sound of killing time. As Marcus continues:
Music made to kill time ended up dissolving it. As one listens, no date adheres to the basement tapes, made as the war in Vietnam, mass deaths in black riots in Newark and Detroit, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Summer of Love all insisted, in their different ways, on the year 1967 as Millennium or Apocalypse, or both. The year “America fell apart,” Newt Gingrich has said; “deserter’s songs,” a skeptic called the basement tapes in 1994, catching an echo of a few people holed up to wait out the end of the world.
But what Marcus hears on these tapes is a foreseen Dylan who would not emerge onto the public stage until the early 1990s. A Dylan returning to a mode of expression that was wholly unpopular so as to reweird his beloved folk tradition. In the 1990s, “Bob Dylan, then in his early fifties, suddenly recast what had come to seem an inexorably decaying public life with two albums of old blues and folk songs, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong.” This moment is cast as an inversion; the moment Dylan went folk (again).
“It is almost inconceivable that this is the man who once broke rock — as a form, as a mode of experience — in half,” critic Howard Hampton had written of one of Dylan’s albums a few years before. “Now he’s the dutiful repairman. ‘Everything is broken,’ he sings, but promises the pieces can be put back together in his art as assuredly as they cannot be in the world. This is an inversion of what his work once meant, but it is also a continuation of the political world of the last twenty years. Society has structured itself around the suppression of the kinds of demands Dylan’s music once made, that it might make such speed unimaginable all over again.” But it seemed as if it were precisely an unimaginable form of speech — a once-common, now-unknown tongue — that Dylan had found, or was now proffering, in ancient songs.
Marcus paints the entirely of Dylan’s career as a meandering quest to keep folk weird, to keep life and art weird, restless and non-conforming — a quest uncommon to much of the folk revivals of that time, particularly the more classical, British attempts at instilling new life in folk oldies.
Where Dylan prevailed, much to the upset of his audiences, and just like when he went electric, and then back again, “his old-timey albums were bereft of any nostalgia.” For Marcus, his work is violently recursive. “If they were a look back they were a look that circled back, all the way round to where the singer and whoever might be listening now stood.”
Marcus’s book begins properly with an anecdote about Dylan’s fondness for a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day”. He recounts an anecdote from backstage at the Royal Albert Hall on Dylan’s tour of Britain in 1966 where he was actively protested by disgruntled fans who bought tickets only so that they could walk out on their former idol. Sister Rosetta must have been perpetually on Dylan’s mind those days.
Such strange things went unnoticed, however. Dylan’s fans didn’t want strange. They wanted tradition. They wanted to hear a man transduce what they saw as their own identity back to them as a pill that was easy to swallow. Instead, they were ready to riot.
Dylan’s backing band was likewise unstable at this time. Whilst Dylan weathered the storm of doubt and persevered through his audience’s anger, his band members came and went, less assuaged to their new direction and the threats they received for it. Assassinations, after all, were a frequent occurrence in 1960s America. JFK. Medgar Evans. Martin Luther King Jr. Andy Warhol. Malcolm X. It was also the decade when the “one-day mass murder” became common-place and began to increase exponentially every year afterwards. It’s not unreasonable that many of Dylan’s backing band members feared for their lives, not least because what Dylan was doing was tearing apart their sense of self before their very eyes.
But Dylan didn’t want to be a part of the folk revival any longer, at least not what it had become. The politics of the folk revival’s tandem revival of class consciousness had become deeply problematic in that decade of war and violence. That is not to say that it had not started well and well-meaning, with an internal ideology that was intrinsically aligned with the civil rights movement.
Marcus quotes Robert Cantwell who writes that the Folk Revival wanted to claim folk culture — “oral, immediate, traditional, idiomatic, communal, a culture of characters, of rights, obligations, and beliefs” — and place it in direct opposition to the new capitalist culture of the time: “a centrist, specialist, impersonal, technocratic culture, a culture of types, functions, jobs, and goals.” He also quotes Robert Shelton, who writes:
What the folk revivalists were saying, in effect, was: “There’s another way out of the dilemma of modern urban society that will teach us all about who we are. […] Long before the Kennedy Administration posited the slogan, “The New Frontier,” the folk revivalists were exploring their own new frontier, traveling to the country, in actuality or imagination, trying to find out if there was truly a more exciting life in America’s continuing past.
The folk revival was hugely successful in providing people — but also primarily a burgeoning new leftism — with an retooled identity to carry forwards into a new world. It was patriotic but likewise revisionist. It wanted an America that stood by its own founding values, that stood by its declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was the true music of “We the people…”
This is a familiar sentiment with many musics since this time. We might likewise note that A Tribe Called Quest, as a bastion of a “classic” and politicised hip hop, seized this sentiment for themselves very recently, in the age of Trump — making a comeback to fill a void they felt had been opened up with Trump’s election, a void that made an old voice worthy of renewal, but a voice that was nonetheless infused with a new and vibrant afrofuturist call for the new.
As Bob Dylan sang — like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, or any of hundreds of other folk singers, but more powerfully, and more nakedly — or as he was heard, he embodied a yearning for peace and home in the midst of noise and upheaval, and in the aesthetic reflection of that embodiment located both peace and home in the purity, the essential goodness, of each listener’s heart. It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by people mostly from small towns and tiny settlements in the South, a strange and foreign place to most who were now listening — music that seemed the product of no ego but of the inherent genius of a people — the people — people one could embrace and, perhaps, become. It was the sound of another country — a country that, once glimpsed from afar, could be felt within oneself. That was the folk revival.
We might acknowledge that this was not just the folk revival but also the thriving world of jazz, taken to cosmic heights with the dawn of afrofuturism, but also the world of rave too. The music of a people that contains within it the atemporal echoes of a people to come.
Unfortunately, like all scenes and genres of its kind, this beating heart was stopped, arrested by the creeping fingers of commerce and false consciousness. The Folk Revival — or any other more explicit form of popular modernism — may not have begun this way but this is where it was inevitably led. For Marcus, what must be acknowledged here is the romanticised understanding of this music and how, for Dylan especially, it had begun to starve itself of oxygen. This equivalence of a sound and its people led to the sort of life = art philosophy that killed a young sociocultural movement. He writes:
The kind of life that equaled art was life defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion. In folklore this was nothing new. “Thanks to folksong collectors’ preconceptions and judicious selectivity, artwork and life were found to be identical,” historian Georgina Boyes writes in The Imagined Village. “The ideological innocence which was the essence of the immemorial peasant was also a ‘natural’ characteristic of the Folk and their song.” A complete dissolution of art and life is present in such a point of view: the poor are art because they sing their lives without mediation and without reflection, without the false consciousness of capitalism and the false desires of advertising.
Marcus goes on to cite Ellen J. Stekert, who saw the New York City folk revival through which Dylan made his name as the direct descendent of the Communist folk music circles found in the city in the 1930s. However, for Stekert, the romantic equivalence of art and life that soon defined the revival was a “pitiful confusion”. She once wrote that it was “monstrous for urbanites to confuse poverty with art.” (This is, of course, something you’ll find in every city in the West these days, although it is a poverty that is generally only pursued by those who can afford it.) Marcus himself writes:
When art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people.
When Bob Dylan went electric, rupturing his now famous troubadour image, it was this — says Marcus — that he was turning away from and “in the most spectacular way.”
In September 1965, as the juror over his replacement of object with subject was growing, he tried, at a press conference in Austin, Texas, site of his first performances with the Hawks [later known as The Band], to explain. He argued, it seems, that in a profound sense his music was still folk music, though that was a term he would refuse soon enough: “Call it historical-traditional music.” Despite the phrase, it was as if he saw traditional music as being made less by history or circumstance than by particular people, for particular unknown reasons — reasons that find their analogue in haunts and spirits. One can hear him insisting that the song he had been writing and performing over the previous year were those in which events and philosophies with which one could identify had been replaced by allegories that could dissolve received identities.
This dissolution of identity which is such a common but also a much maligned affect of the lived experience of the American West, along with its persistent place within the American psyche, is precisely a function which drew me to write about Westworld last year. This is a form of cultural production that is so intensely American and yet also a form of cultural production that America seems to largely hate about itself. What is ridiculed as a “self-disregard” aboard, may be championed in another light at home, where this self-disregard, if channeled correctly, forms a foundation for a people-to-come.
The dumbest thing America ever did for itself was to think that it had gone from a people-to-come to a people arrived, throwing away their inherent becomings for the consolidation of the nation-states most of the population had moved away from.
White America was captured by an unfortunate Robinson Crusoe logic — a logic derided by so many, from Marx to Deleuze. Most recently, however, I read a summary of this issue as articulated by Henri Bergson:
Vainly do we try to imagine an individual cut off from all social life. Even materially, Robinson Crusoe on his island remains in contact with other men, for the manufactured objects he saved from the wreck, and without which he could not get along, keep him within the bounds of civilisation, and consequently within those of society. But a moral contact is still more necessary to him, for he would be soon discouraged if he had nothing else to cope with his incessant difficulties except an individual strength of which he knows the limitations. He draws energy from the society to which he remans attached in spirit; he may not perceive it, still it is there, watching him: if the individual ego maintains alive and present the social ego, he will effect, even in isolation, what he would with the encouragement and even the suppose of the whole of society. Those whom circumstances condemn for a time to solitude, and who cannot find within themselves the resources of a deep inner life, know the penalty of “giving way,” that is to say of not stabilising the individual ego at the level prescribed by the social ego. They will therefore be careful to maintain the latter, so that it shall not relax for one moment its strictness towards the former. If necessary, they will seek for some material or artificial support for it. You remember Kipling’s Forest Officer, alone in his bungalow in the heart of the Indian rukh? He dresses every evening for dinner, so as to preserve his self-respect in isolation.
In Bergson’s diagnosis, we see the seed for Deleuze and Guattari’s later rebellion. But what is intriguing about the case of America, as Dylan himself drew attention to so controversially, is that it is not “civilisation” which the American clings to in times of isolation but what Leslie Fiedler has called the “Vanishing American” — the native, the Indian, the savage — that stereotype so oppressed by American history which every American nonetheless professes to have some ancestral genetic connection to. The wild, pre-consolidated American. This itself became a crutch for preserving American self-respect during their isolation within modernity.
I don’t think it is any coincidence, now considering this pivotal cultural moment in 1967, that Mark Fisher returned to this time for his unfinished book, Acid Communism. Indeed, he repeatedly quotes Herbert Marcuse and his book One-Dimensional Man, which was so inspirational for many within the counterculture. At one point he notes how “Marcuse worried about the popularisation of the avant-garde, not out of elitist anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture.”
Dylan’s fans were perhaps afflicted by an elitism. Electric guitars were the sound of pop. They lacked purity. But, for Dylan, this pop moment of technocultural advancement gave him visions of a new folk that was no less resistant. It may have articulated itself in the sonic language of pop — or, perhaps more accurately, pulp — but that was so it could reveal to the folk revival its own puritanical frog march into conservatism.
As Mark wrote:
The subduing of the counterculture has seemed to confirm the validity of the scepticism and hostility to the kind of position Marcuse was advancing. If “the counterculture led to neoliberalism”, better that the counterculture had not happened. In fact, the opposite argument is more convincing — that the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed.
In Marcus’s book, we can see this sentiment encapsulated in a microcosm. The year that Dylan went electric was a dreaming of a new folk future, repudiated by those supposedly on his side. History mocks them, but we should mourn the loss of such sonic challenges to our inner Crusoe’s.
I’m surprised that I’ve never seen either the left or right Accelerationists talk about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ll be disregarding the film adaptation, which, though it has some high-grade acting, misses the entire point of the novel due to consequence of its medium making the acts of McMurphy the dram, rather than the commentary of Bromden. The interior perspective of Chief Bromden is, frankly the uniquely interesting part of the book; the rest is just an uncouth prison drama. I’m inclined to think that a better way to think about OFOTCN is that it’s a story from the perspective of Bromden, as he is only able to contextualize the triumph of pseudo-capitalism in America as something equivalent to a unfriendly artificial intelligence of the paperclip maximizer variety. He terms this process as “the Combine.”
“The Combine”, as Bryce demonstrates with some passages from the book, is a central part of the story expunged from the film adaptation. It’s the Chief’s conspiratorial name for a kind of fascistic dynamic that permeates the Inside/Outside barrier between society and the psych ward. Bryce continues:
Bromden blames himself for failing to fit into the Combine’s progam, while also understanding that the Combine’s program is destroying everything he values. The mental patients, as “culls from the Combine’s product” are unable to participate in the American system, which is to say adequately adapted to an artificial environment built by the Combine manifesting its destiny all over the place. However, Bromden still frequently takes the perspective of the Combine as legitimate […] The central tragedy of the novel should not be understood as McMurphy’s failure to successfully lead a rebellion of inpatients, but Bromden’s simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification.
Some readers may remember that I have written about accelerationism and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before but, having never read the book, I can’t claim to have done so very well. I mentioned the film in passing in one of my posts on Westworld from a few months ago and how it was caught up in my readings of the work of Leslie Fielder. In Part One, I wrote:
… does Westworld not become a dramatisation of this very [madness], inherent to the idea of the American West? The revolt of the AI “hosts” of the theme park is as much a catalyst for a “new world” to come as it is the materialisation of a spectre of a past waging war on the woeful consolidation of its own future. […] To be haunted by the fractured memories of previous iterations is surely the central condition which entwines the consolidated American State and and its Self.
Fiedler comes in here for the way that he aligns the figure of the “Indian” with the internalised geographic unconscious of the American psyche, which I wrote about more in-depth in Part Two.
At the end of that post — which I don’t want to rehash so give the link a click if the context isn’t immediately clear — I wrote:
Perhaps the best analogy for all that we have discussed, continuing this ever-entangling entanglement of consciousnesses that Fielder and others explore, is the finale of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Jack Nicholson’s character, “Mac” (aka McMurphy), is, in a way, the ultimate Westerner; the rebel, who stirs up and antagonises the status quo. He is, as Fiedler calls him, “the New American Man.” Fiedler writes on the original 1962 book, set in a psychiatric hospital: “McMurphy chooses instead if not madness, at least aggravated psychopathy and an alliance with his half-erased, totally schizophrenic Indian comrade — an alliance with all that his world calls unreason.”
McMurphy, we must remember, is not actually mad. He pleads insanity when convicted of crimes of battery and gambling, believing he will receive a more lenient sentence. The tragic irony of the story is that he is eventually lobotomised, and it is the Chief, in the film at least, on seeing what has become of his friend, the fully-erased New American Man, who breaks out of his affective impotence and heads for the Outside.
Just as the Man in Black, in seeking the maze, is disappointed to find it is not for him, there is perhaps a parable here for the current White Western Man that the revolution is not for him. This seems to be what has the Right running scared. In wanting to take responsibility for their actions only, and not the actions of others, they may be left treading water.
If the White Man really wants to exit, he can’t lead but only follow…
What Bryce introduces on his blog may seem like a very different (even contradictory) reading but I think that the two tragedies of the book, as Bryce describes them — Mac’s failed revolution and Chief’s psychological impotence — are inherently connected.
For Fiedler — something he later clarifies explicitly in the final chapter of his book, The Return of the Vanishing American — madness is a potential avenue for “White transcendence”. For Fiedler, noticing the frequent trope of how White Europeans are so frequently paired up with non-White counterparts, highlights the desires of the White man that these characters are said to represent. If the partner is Black “we tend to interpret as a parable of an attempt to extend our sexuality, to recover our lost libido” — I watched Training Day (of all things) yesterday and that film is a fascinating example of this but its also common to all sorts of stories: Wuthering Heights, in particular, comes to mind. However, if the partner is Indian, “we are likely to read as signifying a desire to breach the limits of reason, to extend our consciousness.”
What is of central importance to Fiedler is the role of whiteness in this story. Both Mac and Big Nurse are tandem figures of a virulent whiteness — an authoritarian whiteness and a whiteness looking for a way out — both of which threaten to snuff out the other but it is Chief who puts Mac out of his miserable post-lobotomy existence. However, as Fiedler points out, the novel can be read as a meta-exploration of this failure. Written by a white man, Chief becomes Ken Kesey’s own internal Indian who he seeks to let free. As Fiedler writes in his previous book, Waiting for the End:
What we customarily call the “oppressed minorities” (and the same is true when the oppressed are, in fact, majorities) are exploited not only economically and politically, but also psychologically, though this latter fact is less noticed in election speeches, newspaper editorials, or even serious analyses of class and race relations, whether pro or con. Oppressors, that is to say, project upon the oppressed certain of their own psychic dilemmas, elements of their own mental life of which they are ashamed, or toward which they are deeply ambivalent.
Nowhere is this more common than in tales of white transcendence such as this, and I think that Bryce’s comment on this pseudo-capitalism is an apt one. The logistics of exit are so frequently racialised along these same lines — unwittingly, perhaps, but I think they should be done so purposefully.
What Fielder calls the Higher Masculine Sentimentality — “a passionate commitment to inverting Christian-Humanist values, out of a conviction that the Indian’s way of life is preferable” — is rampant in Right Accelerationist circles whilst Left Accelerationism often parrots a patronising Christian-Humanism without fully contending with the consequences of the revolution to come.
To be absolutely clear: Accelerationism should be understood as a spatiotemporal philosophy of entropy for preparing ourselves for the future, for making ourselves worthy of the event of acceleration. What this entropy will — we hope — ultimately lead to is the destruction of the institutions that structure our lives, at the levels of individual, state and planet. These institutions are driving themselves into the ground and we should encourage this — not willy-nilly but from the perspective that this is a necessary process if we are to reach a new future, and we should understand these institutions as white, male and bougie.
If we can read Nyx’s Gender Accelerationism blackpaper as an exploration of the fact that “the future is female” isn’t a soft feminist slogan for democratic politics but a violent transformation of the patriarchal subject / subject under patriarchy, we can likewise read the works of Leslie Fiedler — and so much American culture besides — as containing the implicit message that whiteness is gonna have to go too.
In fact, is the argument that Chief Bromden’s character is defined by his “simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification”, not precisely the argument shared today by Afropessimists and Blaccelerationists? The argument that a worthy critique of capitalism requires an exit from the white male supremacy that structures it at every level?
If run-of-the-mill Accelerationists don’t talk about this more, that might be because many don’t want to think about the social suicide they are encouraging for themselves. But they should.
Fiedler again, with a conclusion to The Return of the Vanishing American that is downright Deleuzean, echoing the narrative of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest explicitly and pointing to its relevance to any accelerationist project:
We have come to accept the notion that there is still a territory unconquered and uninhabited by palefaces, the bearers of “civilisation,” the cadres of imperialist reason; and we have been learning that into this territory certain psychotics, a handful of “schizophrenics,” have moved on ahead of the rest of us — unrecognised Natty Bumppos or Huck Finns, interested not in claiming the New World for any Old God, King, or Country, but in becoming New Men, members of just such a New Race as D. H. Lawrence foresaw. (How fascinating, then, that R. D. Laing, leading among contemporary psychiatrists of the theory that some schizophrenics have “broken through” rather than “broken down,” should, despite the fact he is an Englishman, have turned to our world and its discovery in search of an analogy; he suggests that Columbus’s stumbling upon America and his first garbled accounts of it provide an illuminating parallel to the ventures of certain madmen into the regions of extended or altered consciousness, and to their confused version, once they are outside of it, of the strange realm in which they have been.)
Obviously, not everyone is prepared, and few of us ever will be, to make a final and total commitment to the Newest West via psychosis; but a kind of tourism into insanity is already possible for those of us not yet ready or able to migrate permanently from the world of reason. We can take, as the New Westerns suggest, what is already popularly called — in the aptest of metaphors — a “trip,” an excursion into the unknown with the aid of drugs. The West has seemed to us for a long time a place of recreation as well as of risk; and this is finally fair enough, for all the ironies implicit in turning a wilderness into a park. After all, the West remains always in some sense true to itself, as long as the Indian, no matter how subdued, penned off, or costumed for the tourist trade, survives — as long as we can confront there a creature radically different from the old self we seek to recreate in two weeks’ vacation.
And whilst the West endures, the Western demands to be written — that form which represents a traditional and continuing dialogue between whatever old selves we transport out of whatever East, and the radically different other whom we confront in whatever West we attain. That other is the Indian still, as from the beginning, though only vestigially, nostalgically now; and also, with special novelty and poignantly, the insane.
Gaming is weird and seems to have only gotten weirder. It used to be my life as a kid with many a Saturday spent in Hull’s old Gamestation shop — a little goth cave off the high street, tiny, blackened walls, no windows, full of metal heads, games for every console in existence everywhere you looked, somehow smellier than the Games Workshop down the road but also always populated with Mums trying to understand their children’s obsession, looking mighty intimidated by the crowd of towering, burly regulars. I never thought I’d have such Proustian memories over that particular early 00s flavour of teen BO…
Gamestation got bought out by Game in 2007 and I don’t remember spending time in any other gaming shop so it’s safe to say that that’s about the time I stopped following gaming as an industry quite so religiously and got priced out of keeping up with all the new developments. To be honest, it didn’t even feel like an industry then. It had managed to avoid the cringeworthy, performative professionalism of a medium trying desperately to be taken seriously.
I think I bought an Xbox 360 around that time and the last game I bought for it was Skyrim… I have remained more or less in an out-of-date timewarp since that time, sticking by my Bethesda games, Half Life 2, my N64 and GameCube also getting the occasional outing, and not much else… So I’ve mostly been watching the weird controversies of the last few years from the sidelines, totally bemused by the hills that gaming culture has chosen to die on: its general defence of mental health politics coupled with a violent rejection of feminist input feeling like the central kernel of evermore convoluted displays of cognitive dissonance.
Not to hate on contemporary gaming culture too much. It’s extremely bone-headed reputation is not mirrored in the games it has to offer. It’s a weird, fucked-up but nonetheless beautiful subculture, if you’re looking in the right places.
Just like everything else, those who shout loudest are the ones everyone with sense wants to tie in a bag and throw in a river…
Anyway… I’ve evidently not been entirely disconnected. I’ve instead moved into a sort of child’s wide-eyed but broke engagement with the culture, having no money to spend on it and instead watching Let’s Play videos on YouTube and pushing my 2015 laptop to its absolute limits for the past few years. (Dying Light was the limit of what it could handle and the only new-ish game I’ve spent a lot of time with although now it weirdly triggers my anxiety, having perhaps spent too much time with it during one too many a depression.) A few months ago, however, my girlfriend’s brother lent me his Nintendo Switch with Breath of the Wild in it and that got me itching to catch up and see what I’ve been missing behind the headlines.
Because, subcultural fuckery aside, gaming is a fascinating medium and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, the current generation of console gaming has raised the quality in games to happily rival film and television — an opinion long held by fans but now with more than enough evidence to back it up, even if those who seemed to miss the initial boat in their teens or childhoods remain stuck in a mire of indifference.
I write about books, films, TV and music fairly frequently on this blog, folding observations around these mediums into all kinds of posts on the regular, and the only reason gaming has been omitted from this so far is down to my access to what’s new in games. Commenting on stuff via Let’s Plays alone feels like cheating. If I’m to write anything, it needs to come from my own player experiences.
That being said…
As recently tweeted, the office where I spend a few days a week here in London has entered a week-long summer shutdown — not sure what for but I’m not complaining. It’s a week off I’ve started strong, buying a battered second-hand PS4 for about as cheap as I’ve ever seen it with Fallout 4 secondhand and The Last Of Us Remastered — the former I failed to get to run on my laptop (I really love Bethesda RPGs for all their buggy flaws) and the latter is a game I’ve wanted to play ever since bingewatching a surprisingly affecting Let’s Play series of it when it first came out.
I’ve largely binge-played The Last Of Us so far this week. It’s a beautiful if relentless game that tells the story of one man’s journey through a post-ecozombie apocalypse where most of the population has become infected by cordyceps.
It’s an inspired idea. The spectacle of nature taking back the world from human civilisation is a common and now ubiquitous trope within zombie movies, but here this trope is folded back into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style flora-infecting-fauna twist.
Wandering around the game’s beautifully rendered natural environments, there is a distinct unease that this beauty is both the result and cause of the world we’re currently existing in. Whether in the inner city or the outskirts, buildings and nature itself seem to — somewhat unnaturally — tower over you, far bigger than you would otherwise expect, with nature’s ruthless drive towards reclamation making even the man-made feel newly intimidating.
Fallout 4‘s version of post-apocalyptia is very different to this. Nothing seems out of reach. Rather than being in constant peril at the bottom of some new food chain, in Fallout 4 it seems that, instead, the playing field has been completely levelled — the most notable difference to existence being that everything is still there for the taking.
This is very much a part of the franchise’s parody of capitalism, to an extent, although here the sense of parody feels like it is waning somewhat… Or perhaps it has intensified… I’m on the fence.
Fallout 4 takes the franchise back to its beginnings. We begin in pre-apocalyptia, in an alternative universe where the USA has fully — even excessively — embraced nuclear technology, using it to rapidly advance technology in general and power absolutely everything from the automobile industry to the superhuman armour of the army’s foot soldiers. There is a Metal Gear-esque narrative here, but one that (again) places the nuclear on a level with the human rather than looming precariously above it. It is not just a gateway to technological monstrosities but rather remains accessible to the everyman, powering his desires.
The world of the game has, notably, not advanced aesthetically past the 1950s. When I say that literally everything is nuclear-powered, that seems to include a newly robust American Dream as well. Social consciousness runs on the power of the atom. It’s a marvellous demonstration and parody of the extent to which nothing is beyond the reach of capitalism, particularly a capitalism run on the fundamental but also radical power of nuclear fusion — an atomic capitalism, in every sense of the word.
Even the game’s currency of used bottlecaps feels like a hilarious example of the way capitalism might smuggle its own longevity into its own suicidal detritus. Capital continues to run, albeit at limited capacity, on its own death drive.
This societal love of all things nuclear further defines the landscapes in which human influence continues to permeated far beyond the reaches of the human. In the game’s back story, China attacks and invades the USA, blasting most of the country with nuclear weapons and so, as with every game in the series, you begin your journey into post-apocalyptia in a numbered Vault, used to (nefariously) house future generations who emerge on a new world very much full of life but mutated beyond previous recognition.
Other plants and animals might have been “advanced” and made more dangerous by nuclear fallout but the position of humans within the world seems largely unchanged. There is little embarrassment about the ruinous effect of human civilisation on the world. Everything is taken in the stride of the American psyche which permeates all and so society seems to continue advancing undeterred by even the most violent of events. Infrastructure has broken down but the will of the individual, the true backbone of American society, is stronger than ever!
As such, these two games offer a fascinating contrast when played back to back. In The Last of Us, nature fights back and is our downfall, humiliating us, curtailing desires to their absolute minimum.
For example, children are central to the story of The Last of Us and when our protagonists — old man Joel and teen Ellie — meet another man and his ward, their relationship for the viewer is defined by the way that the boy in is care is not allowed to be the kid that he nonetheless inherently is. Ellie, on the other hand, the game’s young, female co-protagonist, is a symbol of hope and retains a child-like wonder and enthusiasm for all of life, as fascinated by this new Nature as she is by comic books and other remnants of pop culture found strewn throughout the landscape. Her new friend, Sam, however, also her age, when caught picking up a toy in a toy store, is told firmly to put it back. The number one rule of “taking stuff” in this universe is “take only what you need”.
This is reflected in the gameplay itself, where collectable items are completely lacking in variety. There are only five or six types, each used for crafting a specific tool or weapon. Ellie’s role as loveably rambunctious little gobshite is to be a new seed for desire, for the libidinal, for a paternal hope in the future. In other words, she is a new hope for the overturning of an endemic post-apocalyptic austerity, both emotional and material.
In this way, it feels like it is deeply inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a ubiquitous influence on pop cultural post-apocalyptia and one likewise cited by Fallout 3‘s dev team — an influence increasingly absent from the series as it has progressed. The inescapable Grey of Fallout 3, often derided as aesthetic mud but something I think worked brilliantly, is now far more vibrant with the neon glow of nuclear fallout.
In Fallout 4, in contrast to the austerity of The Last of Us, every piece of detritus can be picked up and utilised, no matter what it is. This is common to Bethesda games but seems to have been overhauled here. If it exists, it can go in your inventory. It can likewise all be used in crafting weapons and tools but the world is very much your own personal post-apocalyptic toy store. Take what you want and play,
What has interested me most about both of these examples — explicitly related to these dynamics, I think — is the (re)presentation of our own historic sense of ourselves as a species and as a civilisation, despite what we have done to the world we’re now inhabiting.
Halfway through The Last of Us, I find myself fighting hordes zombies and cannibalistic non-infected humans called “hunters”, running through a destroyed museum that is littered with mannequins, paintings and the unrecognisable detritus of a history now largely forgotten — or, at the very least, put out of mind as just another reminder of all that has been lost. The detail presented to the player here is scarce. It remains a beautiful and complex environment in terms of its textures but the signs of the old world are otherwise basic and distant. Pictures on the walls seem to be the most telling sign of what the building was previously used for, but beyond that they are simply wallpaper. History is ever-present but unimportant. Human (but also the specificity of American) culture is diluted, still traumatic.
Fallout 4, again in contrast, presents us with a museum as the first “outside” environment that we are able to explore. Having emerged from the vault and wandered around our desolated former home, the first quest takes you to the nearby town of Concord, surprisingly in tact after the bombs, all wooden frontages and dirt roads. We come across a battle between a group of raiders and a band of survivors who have holed themselves up in a museum and they are the first group of “settlers” you are given the opportunity to help.
Straight away, with this introductory quest, the franchise’s previous retro-futuristic aesthetic is injected with a huge dose of recursive frontierism (reminding me of my previous run of Westworld posts: here, here and here).
American history has always languished in the background of these games but previously as a similarly forgotten discipline and interest, now just a hobby for the concerned few. I’m reminded, in particular, of a quest in Fallout 3 in which you have to break into a museum, now home to a troop of mutants, in order to steal the Declaration of Independence for a jobbing historian. The indifference with which you pick up the document as a now largely unimportant object is funny but distinctly in contrast to the new wild west tone of Fallout 4. Here, this “Museum of Freedom”, complete with decrepit animatronic displays detailing a piecemeal and fractured vision of the American revolution, is transformed into a new Alamo for the 23rd century. This is less a civilisation built from the ashes and rather one which remains very much in touch with its past.
(This seems to be a twist the franchise is now going to run with, with Fallout 76 out in a couple of months, the marketing campaign of which has already played a lot with a theme of America’s tricentennial anniversary — 1776 to 2076.)
There is a somewhat twisted message here, explicitly connecting the threads of capitalist realism and nationalist realism, previously explored on this blog at length: the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of the United States. Bethesda makes great use of this future-proof nationalism to great comic effect but there is a sense that the joke might be lost on some within the fanbase…
As I keep playing, I suspect I’ll have much more to say so watch this space. In perusing the world of games now open to me, I’m likewise aware that post-apocalyptia dominates this market. (Horizon Zero Dawn is next on my to-play list.) The easiest thing to observe is that these post-apocalyptic RPGs and shooters are a symptom of contemporary unease and uncertainty but, as Fallout 4 comically demonstrates, there is nonetheless a belief that much will survive our seemingly inevitable demise. Each game seems to offer a different vision of just what those surviving elements may be and the nuances of those visions are far more interesting than making some analogy based on Trump terror.
We have been told recently that there is a crisis in masculinity in America, and that we should be worried about it. We have been subjected to ideologues using this “crisis” as impetus to consider radically regressive ideas about sexuality. We can counteract this fearmongering by remembering the misogyny of the [literary] canon, which reveals to us that we have always worried about male sexual frustration more than we need to (or at least, more than we worry about more widely devastating social issues). We have always treated the alienation of men as if it deserved thousands of pages of analysis, perhaps because we feared it had the power to endanger us all.
The Guardian recently reposted an essay by Erin Spampinato, asking the question: “How does the literary canon reinforce the logic of the incel?”
In her essay, after charting the now-familiar rise to prominence of the “incel” “movement” on- and offline, Spampinato wonders if it is less underground internet cultures that have nurtured its principles and more the Great American Novel that has given these alienated young men such odd ideas about sexual entitlement. She writes that incels “aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture — they are the product of the American literary canon that has long glorified male sexual frustration”; the product of the Great American Novel, that nationalised canonical signifier, which “treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all.”
In reading this historical overview of so-called “involuntary celibacy”, I can’t help but feel like Spampinato is overseeing Western misogyny more generally, albeit topically narrowed to address the recent “incel” explosion. Her observations will already be familiar to most — old-fashioned misogyny and “involuntary celibacy” are, of course, closely linked and share many of the same dissonant contradictions, which she highlights here explicitly — but there are nuances here which can perhaps tell us more about American literature, and certain subsections of the American psyche today more generally, than Spampinato’s overview immediately allows.
The primary frustration for Spampinato is that she is fed up of being force-fed this kind of literature, at the expense of all else that is written within the country and about its society. Her central recommendation is that men broaden their horizons when it comes to their reading habits — suggesting that women’s lives may in fact depend on it — and whilst that is almost certainly a legitimate concern, there is, at the same time, that suggests the “incel movement” is a symptom of modernist man finally being well on the way out.
In reading Spampinato’s essay, I am reminded — once again — of Leslie Fielder’s Love and Death in the American Novel, a book I really haven’t been able to stop going on about in recent months, with it having galvanised a newly ferocious appetite for the “classics” of American fiction that I have previously had no (studious) contact with.
This does not detract from Spampinato’s criticism of over saturation, of course. Male sexual frustration is given all kinds of precedence in the anglo-American literary canon, but what lies beneath this?
At one point, Spampinato links to another article by Rebecca Solnit — “80 Books No Woman Should Read” — written in response to an Esquire article of what it considers to be the 80 best books that everyone should read. Here, the various books are presented to the reader through a woefully performative masculine brevity. (#1 is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Because he showed us just how long the road could be.” It’s like a coffee house spoken word bro’s personality turned into a listicle. It makes me want to retch.) Solnit writes:
Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.
But still I struggle to marry up the criticisms wholly with the reality. Whilst the whole atmosphere around these books and their canonical reputation is intolerable, there is surely more to many of the books themselves.
Many are books, most notably, about men trying and failing to be men. Mass murder seems less an extreme expression of “the job” done well and more the result of a buckling under its weight. These books, to me — as a recent and quite possibly naive reader — demonstrate a sort of protective romanticisation and dramatisation of men’s historic inability to be themselves. These are undoubtedly violent books about frustrated and troubled characters, but rather than offering men with an example to follow, surely what they demonstrate is masculinity at the edge of itself — or, indeed, at the edge of something else.
Take McCarthy’s The Road as a prime example; as a book about fatherhood at the end of the world. Surely it is no coincidence that these two topics are tackled together.
Or, perhaps, to sidestep into the cinematic, Howard Beale in Network. Is he not the epitome of the modern American man? He isn’t just a newsreader. He’s a man despairing at his situation. A man who despairs within his patriarchal role as information-giver and his actual impotence in the face of it.
Fiedler’s argument is even more specific than this in Love and Death in the American Novel and, in contrast to Spampinato’s argument, contends less with the general sociohistorical misogyny of Anglo-American culture and more with the entangled homoeroticism and impotency that defines, for him, all classical literary representations of American masculinity.
Classic American fiction, Fiedler writes, is less misogynistic through its sense of entitlement to the female body and more through its avoidance of women altogether, instead turning “from society to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing.” Fiedler continues: “the typical male of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilisation,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility.”
Fiedler even goes so far as to declare that “there is no real sexuality in American life and therefore there cannot very well be any in American art.”
Of course, so many of these writers, like today’s incels, have long engaged in similar feats of mental gymnastics to account for their own misogyny and sociosexual impotency. Fiedler highlights, for instance, how Mark Twain, in 1601, “contrasts the vigor of Elizabethan Englishwomen with their American descendants; contrasting the sexual utopia of precolonial England with a fallen America where the men copulate ‘but once in seven yeeres'”.
As with Spampinato’s view of today’s incels, this sexual frustration seems borne of ineptitude rather than a distinct lack of flirtatious opportunities with the opposite sex. However, unlike Spampinato, it is this which Fiedler takes to be the primary focus of the American novel. It’s sexual context is perhaps a left-over tradition from the modern European novel as it has defined itself since its conception. Whilst it nonetheless relates to sexual conquest explicitly, let us not limit the symbolism of impotence to this alone. It becomes, instead, a national trait in all circumstances.
The first modern novel, so says Fiedler and countless others, is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a classic story that concerns itself with seduction more than anything else. The tribulations of seduction are also, notably, what seem to end up killing everyone in the story.
This central engine, arguably ever-present but exaggerated in modern literature is, in the most general sense, what Fiedler would suggest is the primary concern of an American literature in his most famous essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” — not love or seduction as such, but an abstracted, at first at least, interpersonal responsibility and failure to uphold it.
This presents the American psyche with a potent challenge, one which has tended towards conservatism ever since the time of the frontier: “the white American must make a choice between coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy or formu- lating radically new ideologies.”
What is the “incel”, in this respect? Is it a radically new ideology in the face of an institutionalised impotence? A new accounting for that central condition of the American psyche? No — it’s certainly not new, Spampinato and Fiedler both make that abundantly clear. Is it, then, instead, another generation’s way of coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy, here interpreted to refer to the blanket misogyny of Western society more generally, as a deeply institutionalized discrepancy between the sexes?
Fiedler notes, already, that queerness and blackness have, for many decades, been the tandem discrepancies to be processed by the white American man. These remain potent points of contention and each has been a central concern for mass shooters in recent years too but now, relative to previous moments in the recent history of American gun violence, it is misogyny that seems to be provoking the most violent ire.
Indeed, considering the hype surrounding the homoeroticism of Bronze Age Pervert, it seems that queerness at least has been absorbed into the male psyche. (Mike Crumplar did well to highlight this strange turn in his review of Bronze Age Mindset.) Blackness still has a long ways to go but, surely, given the continual shifting of demographics, it is only a matter of time. Misogyny, on the other hand, shows no signs of abating.
In the theorising of the “incel” mindset in such a way that seems to bottle this condition, long said by the likes of Fiedler to be a foundation of the American male psyche, we nonetheless see a distinct lack of self-awareness in these online groups. Spampinato suggests that part of the problem may lie in how these books are taught — as well as broadening their horizons, if America were more honest about the way it has long represented itself, it may stop kidding itself.
Because the truth is, if it has always been hard to be a man, it is only getting harder, and the irony of how much effort is being put into retaining misogyny by some groups is astounding and — surely — unsustainable.
As Uri tweeted recently:
Edit: A note on the title:
And I didn’t think about changing it before posting…
Note to self: pick titles after you’ve written things, not before.