The Magic of Relics

Novelty does not necessarily belong to the new. Not anymore. Novus, as the word’s etymological root, means “new” quite explicitly, but it also means “original” or “unusual”. The newness of novelty is not absolute.

Increasingly, we might define a novelty as that which has either escaped or is newly present within the typical order of things. As the new stagnates in its postmodern crisis, we find that novelty is as applicable to the tired cliché as it is to a bold new mode of expression.

As a result, Arthur C. Clarke’s assertion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” begins to lose its potency. Now it is more often the case that any sufficiently redundant technology is indistinguishable from magic also. Our most mundane analogue mediums are transformed by the passage of time into weird objects – not nostalgic objects but objects utterly decontextualised.

Old objects acquire a new power. They become relics, in the true sense of the world – the spiritually potent yet abandoned remains of old ideals.

Occasionally, this process provides older generations with an opportunity to laugh at their youngers, who are oblivious to the cultural power captured within these relics. There are countless videos online, for instance, in which we see parents give their children a VHS tape or a Walkman or something similar and ask them to guess how it worked. What is always captivating about these videos is that, whilst the children’s guesses as to what a given object is for may be way off the mark, their logic is often sound; they are simply approaching a past object from the perspective of an unfolding present.

“A VHS tape is for watching movies”, someone might say, offering up a clue. “Well, where’s the screen?” the child asks in response, curiously turning this opaque rectangle over and over in their hands.

We might interpret this hypothetical child’s attempt at reasoning to be a fine use of their imagination but, as François Bonnet has argued, “Contrary to popular belief, children do not have excessive imaginations.” In fact, when confronted by new sensations and experiences, “a child rapidly runs up against the limit of his imagination, then finds himself before the most radical, the most terrifying unknown.” This is most evident when a child hears something go bump in the night but, when confronted with the cultural artefacts of a previous generation, the situation is more complex. We don’t see terror but curiosity; the terror is instead projected onto them from anxious adults that corral around.

Consider the video above. The children’s innocent reactions to this strange object – a Walkman – are perfectly understandable; the incredulous adults betray a potent anxiety that lingers behind their smiles. After all, these children may not know how a Walkman works but they remain “digital natives”, always-already at home with technologies that baffle their elders.

One of the adults shares a telling anecdote in this regard, adding that his daughter recently went on his laptop and started jabbing at the screen, thinking it was touch-sensitive. “She is too used to her tablet”, he laughs, shaking his head with an obligatory and knowingly-clichéd “kids these days!

But this clip was first uploaded online six years ago. At the time of writing, the screen of the laptop I am writing on is touch-sensitive.

Can we go so far as to argue that the contemporary intuitions of children predict the future? To watch them mocked, no matter how gently, is to see the joke backfire. A child’s lack of imagination with regards to the past comes full circle as adults find themselves just as incapable of imagining the possibilities of the present. In this sense, Bonnet’s description of a child’s terror and uncertainty when faced with a “new” aesthetic experience is just as applicable to the adults themselves, who are today routinely confronted with rapidly accelerating technological experiences that they can barely keep up with.

Keeping Up with Hauntology (Part 2)

An interesting comment from Padraig on the recent hauntology post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Transformation — Hennessey

Friend of the blog and real person Leah Hennessey has an EP out this week. We’ve been engaged in a fragmentary back-and-forth ever since I lightly declared war on her project Slash back in February, following which we found ourselves torn in two and then stitched together across cyberspace. She’s been an excellent pen pal.

Earlier this week, Leah sent over the press release for her band’s first self-titled EP Hennessey, out September 11th (yesterday!) from Velvet Elk Records. I didn’t need any more of an excuse to write about her more recent activities. The EP’s first two earworms and the band’s accompanying livestreams have frequently soundtracked our flat during lockdown. To see the project fully realised is a joy.

What I remember most from that blogpost shot across the bow of the great ship Slash back in February was my somewhat barbed comment that Leah and her collaborator Emily Allen resembled “‘Nietzsche’s Last Women’ — ‘They are clever and know everything that has ever happened: so there is no end to their mockery'”. Leah posted this on her Instagram and added that she and Emily had never felt so seen. However, seven months later, it is clear Leah has fully embraced this gothic position at the end of history — and so she should. Frankly, it is a thrill to have written this as a critique only to now witness Hennessey owning it so magnificently. There is perhaps no better sign of the times.

I have been thinking about this repeatedly whilst listening over and over again to the EP’s truly inspired cover of The Waterboys’ “We Will Not Be Lovers”. A song from 1998 that is already a surreal and anachronistic “post-trad” folk number, Hennessey’s version swaps around eras and sends the song back a decade (whilst at the same time updating its sound?). It is a dizzying whirlpool of cultural reference points that results in a sound that feels weirdly adrift and out of time. And yet, what is revealed underneath is Hennessey’s own rootedness in our time-warped present.

This has arguably long been the function of a cover song — a way to emphasise one’s own standpoint through the words of another. Despite the words not being her own, it is Leah who shines through here absolutely. No transformation necessary.

This is a sentiment Leah gives voice to in the press release and throughout the rest of the EP, including on new single, aptly titled “No Transformation”, which she says

is a kind of hymn to acceptance. I’m starting by saying I’m too this or too that, repeating these criticisms I have of myself like a mantra, but instead of comforting myself by saying those things aren’t true or by trying to become someone else I’m realizing that I can only evolve or even be happy if I start from exactly where I am. I’ve spent so much of my life tearing myself apart in the hopes that I’ll rise from my own ashes and this is me breaking that cycle.

I can relate. In fact, I imagine many of us can after this weird year. We’re told so often that we are stuck and we are a pastiche generation, languishing at the end of history. For Hennessey, however, there is something extra smuggled underneath a song that we might otherwise assume is the epitome of a millennial harking for better times. This isn’t just “New Wave cosplay”, as she sings on “Let’s Pretend (It’s the ’80s)”; this is a moment to “remember what our parents forgot.” In so doing, we might break the present cycle.

Check out the band’s website here and find the debut EP over at Velvet Elk Records and in all the usual places.

The Philosophy and Politics of Accelerationism — Course Promo

Meta-Nomad very generously asked me to collaborate with him on a course about accelerationism six weeks ago. He suggested that he’d cover the philosophy of accelerationism and I could cover the politics of accelerationism. I thought this was a really interesting idea. The result is a load of content that we’re going to be releasing this Friday (24th July 2020) via his Teachable page.

I don’t want to give away too much — we’ll be sharing more info later in the week, including course outlines and costs — but we have recorded the above chat which begins a particular conversation that we hope this course will go on to further develop.

A promotional video for the second Hermitix course called The Philosophy and Politics of Accelerationism, a collaboration with Matt Colquhoun ( The course will be a paid course consisting of 10 lectures and transcripts, with optional seminars and one-on-ones. James Ellis (Meta-Nomad) will cover the philosophical aspects of Accelerationism and Matt Colquhoun will cover the political aspects.


The Rotten Western (Part 2)

Spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2 from the very start. You have been warned.

← Part One

After the shock of Joel’s horrific death subsides, Ellie and Dina plan their trip to Seattle, where they hope to avenge Joel by hunting down the members of the Washington Liberation Front who are responsible for his demise. What Joel did to deserve such a death is, for the moment, unclear. “Joel pissed off a lot of people,” Ellie admits.

Before heading out, they visit Joel’s house to take on final look at the life they knew — a briefly sheltered life; a brief life with Joel. Inside what we find is not so much a house as a museum piece. It is unclear how long Joel has been gone — days; maybe a week or two? — but already his home feels like a living memorial. However, this home is very different to the homes we’ve so far seen Joel inhabit… For starters, the Old West nostalgia in Joel’s Jackson house is surprising. Whilst, at first glance, it seems to suit an idealised version of the man we’ve come to know, as I lingered amongst its decorations and detritus I also found it jarring with reality.

It was a moment that took me back to the start of the first game. As Ellie staggers around Joel’s now-vacant house, grief-stricken, I wanted to replay the first game’s prologue, in which Joel’s daughter Sarah staggers around their home half-asleep looking for her father.

Sarah and Joel’s house is recognisably modern. It’s messy too; the banal neglect — no doubt the product of an entwined teenage laziness and single-parent fatigue — is pervasive. It is also strangely haunted by a violence to come, in which we can already predict the surreality of a house in ruins, its present lived-in state foreshadowing an inevitable, soon-to-be looted state-to-come. But the house is lived in, at least. Joel’s house in Jackson feels like it has been laid out all too neatly, like it will be the future home of a Joel waxwork. It is sterile, and haunted by an unpredictable past rather than an all too predictable future.

We could argue that, post-outbreak, the entire world is haunted by the past in this way but the eeriness of much of The Last of Us‘s environments comes from the fact that these pasts are forgotten. As recognisable as the suburbs and cityscapes are to us as players, we become accustomed to seeing them as ancient ruins — that is, we see them through the eyes of the game’s protagonists. The difference between the two is, perhaps, one of grief. Whilst we might grieve the sight of a burned down house in our present, as the sight of it invades our capacity for empathy uninvited, we do not grieve the remnants of ancient civilsations.

The tension between the past, present and future in this regard has been the defining enviro-temporal tension of the Gothic for centuries, but this only makes the design of Joel’s house more surreal. It slips somewhere between the two — between the Gothic and the grief-stricken. It’s preservation jars with a narrative wherein life so often ends without legacy.

Most interesting to me, in this regard, are the paintings on the walls of Joel’s two houses. In the first game, Sarah’s room is peppered with posters for bands and films, for instance. As you head into the corridor and, eventually, to her father’s bedroom — it’s the middle of the night and he is, conspicuously, not at home — you see that the walls are decorated with various family photographs and natural vistas.

Much has been said about the snowy landscape “easter eggs” above Joel’s bed and set as his phone’s background, both foreshadowing an environment later on in the game where you first get to play as Ellie, but beyond this it is intriguing to see the majesty of nature devoid of any presence of the human.

On another wall in Joel’s room, for instance, there is a painting of horses running free. It is that stereotypical image of American natural beauty but it also foreshadows the stampede of infected and uninfected that the player is about to be caught up in. Elsewhere, there are pictures of ducks about to take flight, similarly evoking a natural tranquillity whilst also being a sight you might expect to see on the end of a gun. Humans are nonetheless absent in all instances.

In this sense, the decorations are more reminiscent of a dentist’s waiting room or my grandma’s house rather than a modern family home. It inadvertently emphasises some of the critiques of the first game — the player is left feeling more like an observer than an actual participant in the world around them — but, in The Last of Us Part 2, this changes; there are many figures in the landscapes that adorn Joel’s walls, as if the decoration now reflects the forced changes in play style. Actions have consequences. This is no longer (just) about an indifferent nature in-itself. This is a game with a Promethean edge, imploring the player to interrupt the world, even when the odds are not in their favour.

In the game’s next act, this point is made clear almost immediately. Whilst this is true within the context of the game’s new mechanics most explicitly, it is also evidenced by Ellie and Dina’s interactions with their environment. Take, for instance, the musical encounter that has already proved to be iconic in representing the game’s intensified emphasis on player agency and character development.

As Ellie and Dina trawl through downtown Seattle, they chance upon a music shop. Vinyl records fill the bins ready to be flicked through but, perhaps to our surprise, they are not some by-gone novelty for the pair; in Jackson, it is shown that they have the capacity to listen to music from the old world and they also watch old DVDs. Instead, confronted with this snapshot of an old way of life, Ellie wonders if there are people out there in the world somewhere who are making new movies. She writes new songs, she says, as well as listening to old ones, so surely there are people out there lucky enough to have the resources and know-how to make new movies too.

Though it may seem like a somewhat naive question, Ellie’s reasons for asking it are quite convincing. In a world so disconnected from itself, you can never account for how good or how bad other parts of the world might have it, and you also can’t account for what kind of cultural artefacts might remain a part of their social fabric. This is to say that, in its abject primitivism, the Fermi paradox is made wholly terrestrial.

As I play through the game, I find myself thinking about this a lot. Joel’s nostalgic nature isn’t something I want to criticise. In fact, it is all too relatable. In his role as father figure, he wants to inspire Ellie with his knowledge and expertise, showing her things about the old world that she can take with her into the new. Whilst Ellie’s excitement and curiosity in this regard is endlessly endearing, Joel’s own melancholy never quite fades into the background. And it is an understandable melancholy too. If I was able to watch old films or listen to old records depicting a world catastrophically destroyed by a zombifying pathogen, I think the cognitive dissonance would soon start to take its toll. For the younger characters in The Last of Us Part 2, however, this disconnect is taken to be a given. They don’t focus much on what has been lost but always push forwards, considering what they can do next. They seem inspired by the old world but only because it shows them the kind of cultural production possible in the new one they hope to build.

Joel’s is less focused on the future. Whilst this might seem like a cynical appraisal of his character, one look around his house makes it quite clear that, if Joel Miller had a film camera in post-apocalyptia, he’d be making Westerns. Whereas Ellie’s inner songbook contains the works of A-Ha and Pearl Jam; Joel’s starts to feel like a world of reactionary American primitivism — what Leslie Fielder once termed a “higher masculine sentimentality” — where a rugged music like the blues might suddenly makes an ahistoric comeback. After all, there are cowboys everywhere. Joel has even taken up carving them ornately into wood. But this romantic figure of man and horse — seemingly representative of a fraught if nonetheless very human relationship with nature — is far more reminiscent of the life Joel has acquired for himself after the apocalypse rather than being representative of anything that came before it.

In many ways, this is precisely the function of the Western in popular culture — a way of laundering the present through the romanticism of the past. As Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch (among other Westerns), once said: “The Western is the universal frame within which it’s possible to comment on today.” However, in a game like The Last of Us Part 2, this sort of process is most commonly inverted — we launder the present through the horror of the future. As such, it is strange to see the Western’s original polarity contained with the game in miniature; it renders it strangely cyclonic, with overlapping feedback loops, giving rise to a kind of temporal horseshoe of cowboy metaphysics that immediately renders time out of joint.

This strange templexity is only made more apparent by the abundant references and archetypes taken directly from many a classic Wester. For example, walking around dead Joel’s house, I found myself thinking about his previous adventures and general misanthropy — at least in the first game. As I try to picture him as some archetypal cowboy, he starts to resemble Uncle Ethan in Henry Ford’s The Searchers — the coldhearted horse-riding rifleman.

The Joel we met in the first game — before Ellie eventually thawed him out — was similarly violent and cold, traversing the plains of former downtown financial districts, overshadowed by wrecked skyscrapers not unlike the geological towers of Monument Valley. However, this hardly seems like an existence Joel would want to romanticise after the fact, in the way he has done in Jackson.

But even in a film as revered as The Searchers, the cowboy’s life is deeply disturbing. Ethan the anti-hero, played by John Wayne, isn’t just cold; he’s a horrible and vindictive racist — surely even by the standards of 1956 (and this is apparent from the opening scene). The horror that often greets his actions, painted on the faces of his dysfunctional and god-fearing posse, is tellingly triggered most often by the strange disregard Ethan has for the living and the dead. He mutilates corpses out of spite, for instance; he also has no sympathy for the Indians, allowing them no respite so that they might deal with their dead and wounded after a shootout. This disturbs his fellow travellers even more than the racialised threat of the Red Man. (These attitudes are less scandalous when expressed following a zombie apocalypse, when the Indians are substituted by undead hoards, but we might note that this only normalises Joel’s familiar contempt as dead.)

Despite all of this, The Searchers, in the popular imagination at least, continues to be upheld as this classic and deeply romanticised representation of the Old West. It is as if the sheer majesty of its location quite literally overshadows the deeds depicted on screen.

Joel seems to romanticise his own life in much the same way. The majesty of the classic Western becomes a way for him to look beyond the violence of his life and revel in nature. It is an understandable compartmentalisation, considering the plant-horror of the cordyceptic pathogen, but still, the extent to which his house starts to feel like a Searchers shrine, with its paintings of gun-toting cowboys in Monument Valley, seems oddly out of place.

Why does Joel retain such a firm grasp on the Old West? Is this just Joel romanticising his own trauma in order to better deal with it? Is this him compartmentalising a life he never knew in the form of old genre tropes many of those younger than him may have never seen? Is a fall back into the Texan stereotype really all it takes to scrub the horror of his life away?

Perhaps this mournful dissonance is unescapable for Joel. After all, he seems to recognise, implicitly, that he lives in a new Rotten West, but the only way he can find hope for himself is by going backwards. Ellie and Dina, retaining a very different (post-)cultural foundation, find the West taking on a very different form — theirs is a postmodern Western, no doubt, but it is far more hauntological in that sense; that is, it is a kind of “good PoMo”, as Alex Williams once put it, compared to Joel’s “bad” form of reactionary pastiche.

I think this is because, whilst Joel has a world to mourn, it is a world that decisively dies with him. Most of what Ellie and Dina know of life is violent political factionalism and the equally violently indifference of nature. Whilst this might resemble the Wild West absolutely, they don’t seem to know that. It’s not an echo of the past for them; just the present that they know. As such, they’re still mournful, but their alienation seems to come from the fact that they don’t actually know what it is they’re supposed to be mourning. They live a hauntological existence precisely because they are mourning their own stuckness.

I’d argue that this position echoes my own (revitalised) version of hauntology quite acutely, but Alex Williams’ old critique is still worth bearing in mind. For Williams, hauntology is always representative of “a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form.” Because of this, hauntology “cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose, because of an a priori assumption: that there is nothing else (at this moment in time at least), that nothing else is possible, and as such we [must] make the best of this (and that the best we can do is to hint at the possible which remains forever out of reach — with all the pseudo-messianic dimensions this involves).”

What we see in Joel’s house is precisely a “making the best of it”. The scenes represented on his walls are representations of the life he already lives, but exorcised of all horror and instead jettisoned to a few hundred years in the past. This temporal displacement is precisely an aesthetic instantiation of the a priori Williams is talking about. There is nothing else at this moment in time at least; ergo, all that is really possible is to return to a past moment, and a past moment that Joel himself has not experienced. It is a theoretical past rather than an observed one; the very definition of the Western as an ideological a priori.

So, what of the girls? Williams’ nod to Badiou in his conclusion is a factor I think most people interested in hauntology and accelerationism have forgotten. For Williams, Badiou’s “analysis of the emergence of the new” — recently discussed — “would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.”

This is perhaps where Ellie and Dina lie. Whereas Joel, no matter how loveable, inhabits the reactionary misanthropy of a classic Western like The Searchers, Ellie and Dina personify a more revolutionary kind of homesteader, given the fact that they do not see themselves as some sort of iteration of the past. They respond with vengeance but because they are determined to pass through their new world of grief and transform it into a world where the same thing cannot happen again.

It is an intriguing form of the categorical imperative. They act upon the world in such a way as to punish those who live amongst them and think they can act with impunity. But they do so without much consideration for the now-normalised zombie apocalypse. This is, in itself, an intriguing gulf also present in many a genre film. The characters in any Western exist on a knife edge, where the indifference of the desert and the indifference of their fellow human beings produce quite distinct (but also oddly entangled) responses. In the Rotten Western, this already fine line becomes impossibly blurred. Nature and society are no longer false dialectical opposites, as they have been since the Enlightenment — or, perhaps, it is precisely that, but the falseness of this relation now takes precedent, transforming nature/society into a kind of corpse bride, with each mirroring the other and with each causing the other to rot.

It is a gross (but also nihilistic and realist) bastardisation of the relationship that dominates Joel’s house. Whereas he sees the best in this entanglement, represented by the image of a cowboy and his bucking broncho, in a cyclonic relationship that surfs the tension between natural rebellion and societal respect, the flatline construct of body alive and body dead is perhaps a far more honest appraisal of their new reality.

The figure of the survivor on horseback is an apparition; the reality is two humans, survivor and undead, in a never-ending tussle.

The Games Industry: Accelerationism and the Hauntological in Microcosm

I’m currently doing a load of research into accelerationism — when am I not — for a new thing. I’ve been digging far back into the blogosphere to try and accurately trace its development from its 2007 beginnings to the present, but without all the distracting retconning of various philosophers who have at one time or other expressed an accelerationist opinion. (I found a very early Benjamin Noys post where he offers a few examples of accelerationist positions and one was a quote from Roland Barthes so I’m left feeling like just about anyone could be a Noysian accelerationist at this point.)

What I’m currently intrigued by is how the accelerationist split first emerged. (Alex Williams’ (at least I think it’s his) old blog is proving to be fascinating reading right now — straight-up red-hot Landianism over there — no surprises he’s since deleted most of it.) In fact, its split is arguably its founding gesture — an appropriate Big Bang moment for the first blogosphere when the first atom split and birthed a whole network of weird social media enclaves that just keep splitting.

Most people should know by now that “Accelerationism” as a term related to political philosophy was coined by Noys but it was arguably Mark Fisher and Alex Williams who made it what it is. (And, credit where due, Steven Shaviro’s blog was arguably the blog where the initial discussion started.) I’ve mentioned this a few times on here and on Twitter but the initial developments came from  Noys writing his 2010 book The Persistence of the Negative in which he critiques Continental philosophy’s obsession with affirming a certain kind of negativity. Fisher, in deftly trollish fashion, then affirmed Noys’ negative critique. In hindsight, this may have been a mistake on Fisher’s part but, for better or for worse, the name stuck and everyone has been confusing Noys’ and Fisher’s versions ever since.

It seems to me — although I’m still untangling this — that Fisher did this to demonstrate that Noys’ position as being somehow above this entanglement of negations and affirmations was a fallacy. In late capitalist society, we affirm negations and negate affirmations every day. The problem is that this process is far from the vaguely similar process first described in Marx’s dialectical materialism. This is to say that, in the 21st century, the dialectic of capitalism’s positives and negatives has become wholly impotent. This was the discussion within the blogosphere. It was not simply about how all the Conties affirm the negative but about how the negative itself was and remains in crisis.

So why not just be positive? Fisher’s argument was that that is what capitalism wants. It wants positivity all day every day. In this sense, the negative takes on a new potency but it has lost its effective charge. The question was, how can the negative produce the new? Accelerationism, in Noys’ hands, as that byword for everything “bad” about capitalism was the perfect sandbox to try this out in. Can we affirm the negatives of capitalism to produce the new?

It wasn’t as simple as that though, because nothing ever is. Accelerationism was also picked up by the blogosphere because it had obvious implications for the various and already well-established discussions around hauntology.

The relationship between the two is quite interesting, I think, and it is also far more nuanced than the usual assumption of accelerationism is fast and hauntology is slow. As Fisher noted in one post, this is not a philosophy of mind-numbing tautologies where what is negative is bad because it is negative and what is positive is good because it is positive. In fact, what seems to really galvanise discussions around accelerationism is that it is seen as the positive cultural charge to hauntology’s negative charge. Taken together, each with their own internal positives and negatives, they describe a strange tension within the 21st century.

The full argument I have about this might get hashed out somewhere else in more detail but I thought of an illustrative example of this relation that is culturally still prevalent (if not more prevalent) over a decade later but which doesn’t fit into what I’m working on: the games industry.

Accelerationism, as hauntology’s hyperactive cousin, was seen by Fisher and others as an analysis of the ever-increasing speed of technological progression under capitalism and how this was affecting human cultural production and the production of subjectivity. These issues are all still pertinent today. In fact, they can arguably be seen most readily in the microcosm of the games industry.

There, technological hardware is being improved at an astounding rate, with new devices, consoles and ways to play appearing with an increased frequency, and yet it is also an industry currently infatuated with remakes of classic games.

Why is this?

In some ways, the reason is practical. The technological innovations far outpace cultural development so that those foundational cultural experiences become lost as the hardware improves. Because we have memories longer than the rapid cycle of a “console generation”, we don’t just desire the new all the time. Sometimes we want the comfort of something we know. So what do you do if you want to play your old games?

There are some obvious answers. People might still own their old consoles, for example, but playing them on modern TVs can be a nightmare. (I, for instance, still lug my N64 with me wherever I go but it is increasingly temperamental.) Do I need to keep time capsules of all my old home entertainment technology if I want to enjoy something? This level of fetishism is commonplace, with people preserving old setups like vinyl nerds, but it’s hardly practical. There are other workarounds and emulators, of course, but the industry itself seems like it is only just coming to appreciate its tandem responsibilities — not only pushing out new products to feed the desire for the new and improved but also its responsibility to archive and retain access to past experiences that are in danger of being left behind and lost to the casual player who doesn’t sideline as an amateur games historian.

The main reason why this is an important consideration is that it is arguably one not shared by any other medium. Although they do get remade with a depressing frequency, a film doesn’t need to be entirely remade to be enjoyed easily in the same way that a game does. For games, it is a question of accessibility as much as aesthetics. This is to say that it is not always just a money grab but a way to celebrate the existence of something technologically maligned and also remind aging gamers of their foundational gaming experiences that they might want to enjoy for a lot longer than the rapidity of technological development may allow. Still, speed is a factor here. We’re not talking about experiences from decades ago. One decade might be all it takes for the remake treatment to become feasible. This timescale might shrink in future if nothing changes.

Here’s the problem of capitalist speed and cultural drag in a nutshell. The quick fix of just remaking old titles and making them shiny again is one way to do it but it doesn’t always solve the practical problem.

There is a further side effect from this, however. I wonder, considering how precarious gaming culture is, with technological progression and cultural instability leading to what we have at present — a frenzied stasis — isn’t it also this precarity that has led to a largely reactionary culture within the gaming community? One that salivates over superficial progression (graphics!) whilst hating real change? Is this not the very same issue that we see everywhere in society, albeit on a micro scale? That is to say, isn’t it precisely this capitalist acceleration, independent of human culture, which only causes it to drag, that leads not to a frustrated capitalism but to an increasingly reactionary subjectivity? Isn’t the fact that gamers are often such sensitive small-c conservatives a result of a sort of cultural-subcultural negative feedback loop? Stasis becomes a demand left oddly unfulfilled because capitalism cannot help but speed ahead of the lifespan of our desires.

“Well done, Xeno”, I hear you say. “You’ve demonstrated an obvious point about late capitalism using a really annoying example.” But part of me also feels like, if gamers could see themselves as the microcosm of neoliberalism that they are, maybe they’d be less sensitive about incompetence in their industry and more sensitive about how that incompetence mirrors the wider world around them.

Biden is Bethesda, you guys. Will you think a bit more about politics now?

You Are Not A Postmodernist

A nice little post here from the Velcro City Tourist Board, following on from my previous post on why most people who call themselves “accelerationists” are kinda missing the point. Paul Raven writes:

The point being: for the most part, though with some notable exceptions, postmodernist thinkers were not advocating for a doctrine of postmodernity so much as they were attempting to describe the contours of a new cultural condition that had been assigned that (unfortunate and contentious) moniker. As such, I’m tempted to see accelerationism as Colquhoun sees it — which, I concede, may not be a universal conception of that term — as being a condition rather than a creed, in the same sense that postmodernity was a condition rather than a creed; in both cases, the conditionality may suggest certain stances in response, but that’s a very different thing to waving a flag that says “postmodernity, yay!”

Interestingly, my original thought emerged from a post I started working on around the same time that was going to argue this exact same point. Unfortunately, I ran out of energy to complete it but the gist was: “Why are so many people on YouTube obsessed with defending postmodernism?”

The draft consisted of a single paragraph I had intended to build out:

It seems like, in a bizarre twist of fate, postmodernism has become a defendable position simply because Jordan Peterson equates it with “cultural Marxism” and whatever else the left is apparently plotting, but just because Peterson thinks its dangerous and bad doesn’t unfortunately make it good.

Lots of Breadtubers are guilty of this binary thinking and their audiences tend not to know any better to pick up on it. Nevertheless, reactively taking on Peterson’s idiocy only ends up extending it into our own discourses. It’s depressing to see.

This is an opportune moment to share Mark and Robin’s old Ccru essay on pomophobia, and from there on out the trajectory is clear. Postmodernism is absolutely a condition rather than a creed. Mark would further distil this point into his later writings on hauntology. Accelerationism was what came next.

I have an account of this trajectory written up in the first chapter of Egress. The connection between Mark’s hauntological and accelerationist writings is explicit, precisely because they are complimentary modes of writing that attempt to deal with the conflicting temporalities contained within what we used to call “postmodernity”. Keeping those modes distinct is not simply pseudo-academic pedantry on my part but an attempt to halt the trajectory I feel myself more and more explicitly fighting against — the flattening and homogenising of all critical faculties. Too many continue to do pomo’s job for it unwittingly. That’s even more depressing than Peterson’s reactionary critics.

Same Virus, New Zombies: Towards a New Hauntology

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

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

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

Mark hated the Arctic Monkeys, for instance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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