In a 2012 article for Film Quarterly, Fisher summarised this process as a “confrontation with a cultural impasse: the failure of the future.” Today, we might better understand this cultural impasse as the inertial whiplash of the West post-millennium; a whiplash embodied today by the political discontent of so-called Millennials. This is the irony of the apparent dwindling of hauntology’s relevance for a new generation of bright young things. Whilst Fisher is seen as out of touch by many new readers, the central critique of hauntology has, in fact, become more mainstream — politically, at least — than he could have ever imagined. Greta Thunberg, for example, has captured the attention of the world with her declarations that the future is being stolen from her generation. The same can also still be said of our relationships to our cultural artifacts, but this was stolen from us long ago, with considerably less protesting. Nevertheless, it is a sentiment that goes back some decades. As Boards of Canada most famously declared with the title of their 1998 hauntological masterpiece, music has the right to children. Music also has a right to the future.
RIP Genesis Breyer P-Orridge. The news just broke on Twitter — as it has a habit of doing these days — and it’s hard to know what to say.
There is so much I feel like I must thank Genesis Breyer P-Orridge for: An ability to affirm an amorphous sense of self; a dogged refusal to be what anyone wants you to be; an oppositional creativity as well as an ability to enter into the very depths of things. More than anything, however, on the most banal level, Genesis was responsible for illuminating the weirdness of my own backyard.
As a teenager, having previously internalised and buried the shame of a class position which was visibly usurped by a performative arrogance — my mother was a real-life Hyacinth Bucket and I was growing up to be her protégé — in a city known around the country as a shithole, it was discovering Genesis and Throbbing Gristle that made me think Hull was not such a bad place to be after all. There was poetry here, evidently, and not just the poetry of high society that my mother had a penchant for, but an otherwise evil poetry out to kill all language.
To see Genesis, breaking free of the social shackles I knew all too well, shackles that had won in that dead-end town, and then doing what s/he pleased, was the ultimate inspiration.* I’d already begun to learn about the radicals of the world, far beyond my shithole, but here was Genesis and s/he was ours. As the first domino to topple in my cultural consciousness, s/he led to a fascination with the “lives of the obscure”, as Virginia Woolf once put it, and, fittingly, Genesis increasingly felt like a real-life Orlando, seizing time and space for h/er own aims.
I feel I must add that I never met Genesis although I once had the opportunity. We were sat on opposite aisles of a train back to London from Hull in 2017, following the first weekend of the COUM Transmissions retrospective as part of the City of Culture celebrations.
It was an odd time to find myself in Genesis’s orbit. I’d spent the weekend socialising with Cosey Fanni Tutti that weekend instead, having first emailed her a few years previously, hoping to have a hand in organising the proceedings as a fresh-faced graduate, back in Hull, wanting to see my inspirations represented amongst what I feared would be a sanitised pseudo-corporate affair. When the events finally came around, it was clear that it would be anything but.**
Everyone awkwardly kept their distance from Genesis that weekend, however. Proof copies of Art Sex Music had started to make their way to the press and its revelations about Genesis’s prior behaviour were already being whispered on the winds, and most definitely backstage at that event.
It’s difficult to know how to act when in a room with two people, one of whom has just accused the other of attempted murder in a memoir…
That coloured proceedings indelibly. Genesis’s performance that night — some meandering spoken word thing about memories — felt hollow and superficial. The knowledge coloured my understanding of who Genesis is and was also. This mystic and near-mythical figure re-emerged as precisely those same things, but diminished somehow — a life of tall tales and half-truths and of a hidden energy bubbling under the surface that obviously had a real dark side alongside the nonetheless transgressive productivity of its light.
There are questions that linger about Gen’s conduct over the years. The avant-garde’s Harvey Weinstein? Such a label would surely ring true in some corners if not others. It begs that we try tackle a whole host of questions that I’ve yet to see anyone take seriously. I understand the reticence but I hope it is not completely absent from the coming obituaries.
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge inspired generations of people who I love and admire, no doubt in the same way I was inspired. S/he inspired us to break free of our carnal births and make new ones, form new identities and existences that were psychically nomadic if not physically so. There must come a time, however — surely? — when we have to ask ourselves how much of our lives we’re able to keep running from.
There is only one response that rings true for me right now, so immediately after the news has broken:
Genesis has stopped running. S/he’s dropped her body. Her legacy will continue and no doubt continue to complicate itself as the years go on. Nevertheless, may s/he rest in peace. I’ll be thinking of h/er and h/er loved ones and also thinking of others, who I hope can find a different kind of peace now too.
* The most exciting thing about launching my first book at the ICA this past week has been solely down to its stature in my mind as the place where Throbbing Gristle first penetrated this country’s imagination, with their inaugural performance and exhibition, Prostitution, taking place there in 1973.
** I chronicled that occasion on this blog in a three-parter which you can read here, here, and here.
When did dream pop lose its psychedelia and become the generic soundtrack for every new Netflix teen drama going?
I unashamedly like a lot of weird YA dramas on Netflix. Locke & Key is a good example. Dark is a better one. I liked The Umbrella Academy too. I even continue to have time for Stranger Things despite many being fed up with its pastiching. I think I just have a soft spot for shows that emphasise or try to exaggerate the sheer surreality of adolescence and childhood.
It’s an age old trope, of course. The two-part adaptation of IT might be the most obvious big screen example in recent years but it’s hardly new. Bingeing Locke & Key from my Sunday sick bed today, I feel newly aware of just how far this continuum stretches back.
The show contains numerous references early on, for instance — explicit ones, that is, in the script — to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This got me thinking about how, as a kid, I always preferred The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Then I remembered in the pub last night how I inadvertently started talking about Skellig. On Twitter last week someone blogged about Elidor. Last year I read Alice in Wonderland aloud to my girlfriend before bed, for its own merits and to support a reading of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense…
Across time periods, the strangeness of childhood and adolescence has been fertile ground for telling stories of the weird and the eerie. Perhaps that’s because fairy tales themselves have always been good examples of the weird. Culturally, we like to scare our kids, to install superegos, perhaps, but also I think just because their minds are more easily taken advantage of. It’s a fun kind of transcultural sadism…
This is all very obvious, really, but I guess what I’m trying to affirm here is that, past or present, I’m always interested to see how youth is used as a vector for sociopolitical potentials; how a child’s innately psychedelic perspective allows other worlds and forms of life to emerge in our cultural imaginations.
At times, I find my fascination with these sorts of stories becoming entangled with a sort of nostalgia for a previous social and cultural freedom but I also love to hear the new emerging from an articulation of a sensation I am already familiar with and appreciate the importance of.
Pop music can be great for this too. Lorde’s album Pure Heroine might be one of the best musical distillations of adolescent weirdness from the last decade. It’s an album that I listened to obsessively when it came out, not long after I left university, and I was totally consumed by its songs of teenage outsideness presented with a production style that felt incredibly refreshing. You’d be surprised — in fact, I even surprise myself — just how emotional that album makes me still, as an eerie document of fading innocence. That’s certainly what it felt like to me at the time, fully entering my twenties, newly outside the bubble of full-time education, feeling fully devoid of prospects, instead doubling down on the particular temporalities of unemployment in my hometown where I felt like I was slipping through the cracks into my own subcultural underworld.
I was thinking about all this and more whilst I was watching Locke & Key earlier. I thought about how much I liked the magical realism in the show, even at its most janky. I liked how this weirdness of the Locke family home could permeate the high school environment with surprisingly little resistance whilst the adults are, for the most part, oblivious to the teenagers’ dramas. The plasticity of the teenagers’ brains and the rigidity of the adults made me, as a viewer, feel oddly in between. Both responses were weird. But there was something else that kept pulling me back from this and which made it a really jarring experience, but not in a positive way at all.
The soundtrack could not have been any more generic if it tried.
I don’t know if there’s a name for this or not. There probably is. It’s that corporate pop that all sounds the same and has no message or distinguishable production style. It feels like it’s been made by some sort of hit factory somewhere. I associate it most explicitly with something like Made In Chelsea. It’s wellness pop. Gooped pop. Middle class generic pop made by some quartet who have had a completely frictionless twenties. You’ll know what I mean. Think Bastille and their hundreds of clones. It seems to permeate every teen drama there is, and it’s all the more obvious if a show has a supernatural or paranormal element.
When I think about k-punk’s various requiems for popular modernism, I always feel like we haven’t reached the true depths of its absence yet. The BBC might have sonically unweirded Doctor Who, for instance, but there was still a time recently when the music controllers for popular programming could shoehorn in contemporary oddities. I remember Top Gear car reviews soundtracked by Boards of Canada, for instance, and even though a whole generation might have wishfully modelled their lives after Skins, it felt like very few within its target audience were picking up Animal Collective albums after hearing them soundtrack a point of narrative tension.
Looking back on a show like Skins now — proverbially, at least: to actually rewatch it would be torturous — these sorts of musical decisions made it feel contemporary. It hasn’t aged well but, at the time, it felt like the bleeding edge of… something.
Watching these new weird shows, they feel distinctly devoid of a time — which, ironically, is what makes them feel most now. These scenes with cookie-cutter dream pop make the shows feel culturally disorientated in much the same way that many have claimed a show like Sex Education is. Whereas previous shows were buoyed by well chosen soundtracks these shows are dragged down by a complete lack of sonic imagination. They are defined by a sort of ambient music, especially when diegetic, that serves only to remove any well-scripted weirdness.
Why do I feel like the fault lies with Spotify? Maybe someone better informed can shine a light on the silent death of smart licensing? Maybe music licensing is one of those jobs woefully given over to algorithms? Or maybe this is the trickle down cultural impact of capitalist realism at its most banal?
Whatever the cause, all narratives of new worlds suffer if they’re incapable of referencing the newness of now. How are we meant to find connections between the radical magic of a coming new and the already contemporary if the characters on our screens aren’t given the same opportunity?
It’s almost as if we’re not supposed to. No longer are these strange tales of psychedelic childhoods meant to keep the fire of otherworldly potentials burning. They’re salves. Nothing more.
This stasis doesn’t lie with music licensing alone. I want to offer up another case in point that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: Gilmore Girls.
My girlfriend just completed an epic rewatch of that show’s seven seasons and I enjoyed watching it myself for the first time — at intervals — alongside her.
The show’s wit still holds up todat and its machine-gun cultural referencing is pretty electric. But I kept thinking: All that aside, what are we left with? A relatable story of a modern middle class family. A girl and her mum, growing up together in Small Town USA. Rori Gilmore’s life aspirations of going to Harvard and joining the rat race as a hot shot journalist are weirdly 00s and bougie but the rapidity of the hypertext dialogue was pretty incredible to me. In fact, it was what made the show so entertaining for me personally. Bands and films and other references, from low culture to high, old to new, pepper every exchange. An otherwise generic sitcom is given a unique energy as it feels like the two central characters are, when not on screen, jacked into a rapidly emerging cyberspace and a contemporary moment of atemporal postmodern cultural proliferation. It’s the sort of metadialogue that has been fetishised in a sitcom like Spaced or, more recently, Community (where it is reduced to a particular trait of an autistic character) but here it exists intergenerationally and effortlessly.
What does this mean, if anything?
I’m not sure. But I’m increasingly disturbed of late that we’re continuing to lose a lot more from our pop culture than we’re aware of. I feel more and more like this is what constituted the “frenzied stasis” of late capitalism for Mark Fisher. The spectacular but superficially new distracts us as we lose far more than is currently being produced to the ambient incursions of capitalist stasis on our cultural imaginations.
With Valentine’s Day just gone, I was mourning an old tradition we used to have that has since become technologically redundant.
My girlfriend used to have this cute red car for scooting around the place. It was the quintessential first car and was equipped with little more than an engine and a tape deck. Always keen to foist my listening habits onto our long summers together spent exploring the Derbyshire countryside, I got into the habit of making her cassette tapes, specifically for use in her car’s tape player.
I’m not sure where these tapes are now. They’re probably in a box somewhere, stored out of the way. The car died a few years back, I’m sorry to say, and went to scrap. It had a good run. She has since graduated to something with a CD player and an aux cord.
I thought about making her a mixtape, for old time’s sake, this year — something I haven’t done since at least 2015. Unfortunately, I no longer have the tools to make them. We also don’t have the tools to play them. I can’t even burn CDs anymore. The CD that lives in her new car’s slot is a masterpiece I spent the whole summer of 2016 honing and adapting until it was just right. I no longer have the tools necessary to replace it and so we continue to drive around in a 2016 timewarp.
Coincidentally, whilst looking for something else in the depths of my archive, with these old mixtapes not far from my thoughts, I found these pictures of them from 2013, taken for posterity, as if I assumed they’d one day go astray and it’d be worth having some pictures to remember them by.
Following yesterday’s brief summary of some of the papers given at the Capitalist Realism: 10 Years On conference, one of the more persistent discussions surrounding Mark’s writings was on hauntology — and it was a discussion that irked me more and more as the weekend went on.
As is unsurprising these days, numerous people had problems with Mark’s arguments regarding our cultural stagnation. This ended up featuring quite heavily in my keynote and I’m planning to condense and redevelop this argument for elsewhere so I won’t rehash it here but, essentially, it drives me mad how common poor readings of this part of Mark’s thought are, particularly regarding the assumption that Mark just thought everything new was shit.
Of course he didn’t. He could see the future coming but what frustrated him, I think, was how unevenly distributed it was, with the experimental and the mainstream no longer sharing the same spaces as they once did.
What Mark loved, however, was the hauntology of the Caretaker’s new modernism.
One should not be equated with the other. It’s like arguments surrounding accelerationism all over again. People are far too quick to flatten the distinction between acceleration itself and the subject affected by acceleration. What accelerationism does is observe the former and critique the latter.
Similarly, critics of hauntology flatten the distinction between repetition itself and the subject affected by repetition. Again, hauntology observes the former and critiques the latter.
This is to say that the Arctic Monkeys replicate uncritically a homogenising cultural mode at the end of history, seemingly without irony. They are repetition incarnate. The Caretaker, on the other hand, explicitly interrogates the impact of this very tendency on the contemporary subject, producing new sonic worlds in the process. Therefore, hauntology proper should be seen less as a description of the repetitive semiology of capitalist modernity and more as a study of postmodern capitalism’s innately repetitive nature and its effect on us as subjects.
Interestingly, however, the main critics of Mark’s hauntological thinking in this regard were a group of Huddersfield PhD candidates who would later perform together as a free improvisation group. There is so much experimentation going on today, they would argue, implicitly referencing activity on a campus known for its radical music department, and they couldn’t understand why Mark would ignore these other practices and potentials. (I’d argue he didn’t but, again, the distinctions within his work are flattened.)
The excitement and freedom they felt running through their musical practices made them openly annoyed at Mark, as if his critiques did nothing but shut down these potentials by demoralising his students. This was far from his intention, of course, but this was nonetheless how they felt reading Capitalist Realism for the first time ten years on.
Although I was vocal in my disagreement, I was also newly aware of my own over-familiarity with Mark. I could no longer imagine reading him for the first time without the baggage I carry around, so it was very interesting to hear the first thoughts of a PhD cohort otherwise unfamiliar with his life and trajectory. For example, most surprisingly, Capitalist Realism was interpreted as an indictment of political disengaged students, at least when compared with “their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s”.
I don’t interpret this as Mark being critical of individuals, however. He loved his students. They weren’t in his crosshairs. It was the system that encourage their disengagement that he took issue with. Mark made clear elsewhere — although I can’t remember where right now but it was in some interview — that CapitalistRealism was his attempt to change this and engage directly with and excite his A Level students. After all, he writes, through personal experience:
In Britain, Further Education colleges used to be places which students, often from working class backgrounds, were drawn to if they wanted an alternative to more formal state educational institutions. Ever since Further Education colleges were removed from local authority control in the early 1990s, they have become subject both to ‘market’ pressures and to government-imposed targets.
Here Mark is referring to the slow decline of the polytechnic — institutions known (and derided) for catering to vocational interests that fuelled radical experimentation. (Leeds University, for instance, is particularly famous for being a post-punk hot bed.) However, in 2009, at least in my experience, these reports of political disengagement ring true. The most politically active kid at my college was a smarmy cunt who became well-known as one of the youngest ever local Labour councillors but fell out of the public eye as soon as the anti-Blairite wave rose through the ranks. (He was a particularly slimy example.)
The politicisation of British students post-Millennium didn’t seem to happen until immediately after Capitalist Realism was published, which is partly why I think it had the surprise success that it did. It emerged at a time when Mark’s intended audience was suddenly very keen to listen.
The London riots and the protests around student fees in 2010 and 2011, for example, lit a literal fire under a whole generation who are, today, actively shaping cultural discourse. In 2009, however, that just did not exist. Owen Jones’ Chavs didn’t come out until 2011 — the book that single-handedly shone a light on the class consciousness of a generation who had not realised the ferocity of their own (often internalised) classism — but, as someone speaking to the future, he also appeared very lonely within the nation’s consciousness of radically left-wing political commentators at that time. Again, he was a breath of fresh air and this, too, is largely why his book started doing so well.
What is more sad, however, is that it is likely that Mark was going to continue to surf the edge of popular discourse but, since his death, his works have been criticised for posthumously falling behind. Further criticisms popped up infrequently, for instance, regarding Capitalst Realism‘s anglocentrism and its lack of diverse references. Pedro Alvarez — whose paper of Latin American protest music was great — derided Mark’s lack of engagement with the rise of neoliberalism in Latin America. It was sad to hear this criticism laid at his feet as Mark was intending to teach this topic specifically before his death. (One week of his “Post-Capitalist Desire” seminar at Goldsmiths, to take place in 2017, was to consider the “cybernetic socialism” of Chile’s Allende government, long before the West finally began paying attention during the riots of 2019.) Similarly, he derided the way that Mark’s references to Spinoza felt “second hand”, although Mark wrote repeatedly of his time at Warwick where he “spent over a year poring over The Ethics in a reading group.”
Others had issues with Capitalist Realism‘s political incorrectness — Mark’s impersonalisation of dyslexia under capitalism being seen as some affront to contemporary discourses around neurodiversity, for instance — but, no matter the concern, each complaint felt like a criticism made out of time and out of context and revealed, to me at least, the lasting impact of the very formalisation of state educational institutions that Mark was talking about in his first published book. As such, it felt like middle-class hand-wringing in response to a book that did not live up to an academic rigour that Mark ignored explicitly because he saw it as an acute barrier to student consciousness raising.
It should go without saying that criticisms of Mark’s work are, of course, welcomed and allowed, and I’ve heard some great critiques in recent years that have made me wonder what he might have said in response to them. Reading Mark’s writings, even posthumously, is to quickly learn that he was — as Dom put it last month — “a touchy sod.” I said something similar in my paper on Sunday in response to suggestions on the first day that Mark is a frustrating thinker. He absolutely is — and I wouldn’t have him any other way, personally. He’s a writer who remains wholly human in my mind, as a result. As much as we must resist “an emerging hagiography of Saint Mark”, we should also resist attempts to posthumously problematise him, at least if the reason for doing so is to subject him to the ever-increasing pressures of the dull academic landscape he stood in firm opposition to.
It is in this sense that I struggled with the perception of his books as excitingly accessible but academically flawed documents, embarrassing today for their lack of foresight about the academic trends of 2020, and yet repeatedly it felt like his conference critics had not given his work the attention they wished he had paid to their own particular bugbears. Mark’s claims of cultural stagnation are easily quashed, someone said, if you get online and have “a little curiosity” to push you into new zones. The same could be said of approaches to Mark’s own works. The books are easily accessible and digestible — as was the intention — but the meat was often found on his blog, purposefully disconnected from academia’s self-referential circuits of citation.
I don’t say these things to shit on anyone’s research after the fact — I, too, am merely a touchy sod — but one presentation in particular has stuck in my craw and has made me think a lot, over the days since, about what precisely Mark’s work was trying to critique and how those who disagreed with this at the Capitalist Realism conference were also, I’d argue, those most guilty of enacting it.
On the second day, Henry McPherson presented an interesting paper on the relationship between practices of mindfulness and improvisation. Reflecting on his own practice as an improviser, Henry considered how the corporate spirituality of McMindfulness is evidently well meaning but limited and captured. However, he argued that radical potentials are nonetheless still present within some of the less popular “presence practices”.
(After the conference, I was welcomed home to London by a galley of Matthew Ingram’s forthcoming book Retreat: How The Counterculture Invented Wellness which, interestingly, seems to draw a firm line between these two trends rather than attempt hold them in contradistinction with one another.)
However, I unfortunately found it a difficult paper to make head or tail of. Whilst the argument was incredibly clear, thoroughly referenced and carefully articulated, it felt like it was so polished that the medium immediately began to drastically undermine the message. A gesture of interrupting his own introduction by dragging a violin against the wall of the lecture hall was left subsumed by citations and reduced to precisely that — a gesture. All I could think throughout was: “What is it to present such a straight-jacketed academic paper about something as liberating as free improvisation?” It felt like mindfulness’s capture by a corporate spiritualism — a practice advertised as a paltry moment of internal freedom within the drudgery of the work day — was mirrored by a demonstration of improvisation’s capture by an academic affectlessness and propriety, providing a momentary creative outlet that nonetheless had to be justified by the REF-scoring expectations of the institution at large.
No offence to Henry, of course, who was a great contributor to proceedings throughout the weekend. As with Mark, the fault does not lie with him but rather the sort of institution that can disengage itself from the modes of critique it produces. (I had every intention of asking him about the relationship between his research and his practice but, unfortunately, we ran out of time.)
I also want to affirm that the free improvisation performance that followed the conference — intentionally and hilariously inserting a sort of bureaucratic anti-production into its set-up, where audience members were encourage to offer “performance reviews” mid-performance — was a welcome addition to the schedule, in much the same way that we have always emphasised the schism of a club night to follow the Mark Fisher Memorial Lectures, offering up the dance as an equally powerful way of articulating Mark’s beliefs and ideas beyond the propriety of the lecture theatre.
This is because Mark, too, was an “improvisor”. What is blogging, at its best, if not a rejection of academia’s “business ontology”; a kind of public writing performance through which success and failure are both potentials, equally embraced? Where writing is done for its own sake rather than to bolster your rating on Academia.edu or, again, to boost your REF score?
These free improvisors may have found Mark’s academic and musical references dated and oddly basic for someone supposedly on the cusp of cultural thinking, but what they tragically missed from Mark’s thinking was the way in which it offers those seeking new ways of living and thinking a practical tool kit through which to think differently. It doesn’t give you free improvisation on the one hand and academic propriety on the other. It is free action all the way down. It is getting our of your head through your head; getting out of the world through the world.
We might note here that, in mourning the separation of the mainstream and the experimental, Mark’s hauntological critiques apply as much to the stagnation of the avant-garde as they do to the stagnation of pop culture.
Galleries everywhere are awash in these brand-name reductivist canvases, all more or less handsome, harmless, supposedly metacritical, and just “new” or “dangerous”-looking enough not to violate anyone’s sense of what “new” or “dangerous” really is, all of it impersonal, mimicking a set of preapproved influences… It feels “cerebral” and looks hip… Replete with self-conscious comments on art, recycling, sustainability, appropriation, processes of abstraction, or nature, all this painting employs a similar vocabulary… This is supposed to tell us, “See, I know I’m a painting — and I’m not glitzy like something from Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons.” Much of this product is just painters playing scales, doing finger exercises, without the wit or the rapport that makes music. Instead, it’s visual Muzak, blending in.
Saltz mention of music here stings a bit. Similarly, gestures of free improvisation do not go far enough in an academic institution, less so when draped superficially in the latest moral-academic trends. In fact, it was particularly telling that the other musics mentioned during the conference that had far more political resonance were Latin American protest songs or even something like Squarepusher’s “MIDI sans Frontières”. (The latter was mentioned alongside Aphex Twin’s face-mapping in an excellent presentation by Adrien Ordonneau who discused the relationship between embodied protest and so-called “IDM” which has surely shaked off its “armchair listening” reputation by now!). These protest songs are, effectively, pop songs. But more than that, they were musics that draw in the world outside only to push it — critically — back out again.
This is something emphasised again and again and again by someone like David Toop, who notably gave the keynote at the CeReNem “Ambient @ 40” conference last year (available to read here):
Toop, as an improvisor, appreciates the outsideness of sound, understood culturally and phenomenologically. His paper presented at Huddersfield asks a number of pertinent questions about music’s capture within capitalist infrastructures that resonate here, in ways that the Huddersfield students seemed reluctant to accept and engage with. He writes, for instance:
Last year Pitchfork magazine asked me to write an introductory essay for an ambient top one-hundred they were about to unleash. I declined and when I saw the hundred choices felt glad I had. A lot of it was genre ambient, industry ambient if you like, very little to do with the softening expansions of boundaries I was proposing in Ocean of Sound in 1995 and nothing to do with the field of possibilities that existed when I recorded for Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975. […] So the question now is what ambient means at this point in time. Is it ossified, cut off from change, eternally fixed as journalists’ shorthand for any droning, slow, dreamy, drifting, barely changing, consonant electronic music? Does it supply a perennial refuge for temporarily forgetting the precarity, hysteria and threat of current conditions or can it be a vehicle for engaging with those same conditions?
Regarding the last question in particular, following the Capitalist Realism conference, I am more readily inclined to agree with the former. The free improvisors engaged in a self-aware performance, for sure, in which capitalist work ethics were referents in the performance’s structure but the playing itself was hard to interpret as anything other than “a perennial refuge”. It was less critical and more panto. Their improvisation was less an attack on expectations and more of a welcome break for the academic brain.
Later still, Toop’s comments on ambient skewer the context improvisation was placed in here. Replace “ambient” with “improvisation” and the effect is the same:
So ambient was instrumentalised — it was conceived as a functional asset to well-being, an optimisation or facilitation of a thoughtful, tranquil approach to life — and given the fractious, stressful nature of most airports, any calming instrument is welcome. The music’s potential for this role is unsurprising. Ambient formed its own specialised branch, off-shooting sometimes in a reactive way, sometimes more benevolently, from a family tree that included yoga, relaxation and meditation tapes, Muzak, easy listening, background and library music and records of bird song aimed at ornithologists, the ultimate use-value lineage.
Of course, Toop knows that this is highly resonant. He adds: “The same criticism, if it is a criticism, of instrumentalisation and self-optimisation could be levelled at other genres, maybe all genres of music.”
Any highlighting of these tensions within the Capitalist Realism conference is not intended to be any comment on the skills of the performers at the conference, who were really excellent — they demonstrated collectivised attentiveness that is necessary for any good instance of free improvisation — but simply playing the space of the institution did nothing to assuage their complicity in its politically restrictive flows.
This is the lesson for cultural practitioners still to be found within Mark’s writings. Your radical practices, particularly when practiced within the bounds of the academic institution, wilt far quicker than you might think they do. But this isn’t meant to be a bleak demoralisation — a further penchant for which was also repeatedly laid at Mark’s feet. (Shout out to Nic Clear for affirming, in the final panel discussion, that Mark often made him laugh — really laugh.) This is precisely why popular modernism was so interesting for Mark, particularly when seen from within the field of academia. It takes far less effort for pop to weird itself. (A point made poignantly by John Harries, Rose Dagul & Joe Newman over Skype, in a presentation that was, very intriguing, improvisational in nature, with the structure of the paper given over to a dice throw, with a member of the trio reading a passage depending on the number assigned to it.) A contemporary post-classical avant-garde has a lot more work to do, and that work just doesn’t look like a sound use of Chicago style referencing.
This is part of hauntology’s observations about the treacle through which contemporary culture must pull itself. It is a danger that continues to stalk all cultural production even today. When Simon Reynolds described a contemporary conceptronica — with admiration we might note, but no one likes being neologismed — powerfully channelling the same sorts of cultural protest that defined post-punk, he did so as if to raise a certain awareness around experimental music’s next phase of capture that hangs like the sword of Damocles precisely in this REF-supporting mode:
The agit-prop sector within conceptual electronica is woke music, in all senses. “Using cacophony and unusual sonics, I reject the passive experience of listening, and try to use sounds that are active to wake the listener up and to bring them into the moment,” [Chino] Amobi has said. This rhetoric recalls the post-punk band This Heat, whose song “Sleep” agitated against consumerism and entertainment as mass sedation. In conceptronica and post-punk alike, there’s a similar interest in demystification and seeing through the blizzard of lies: When Lee Gamble uses the late theorist Mark Fisher’s term “semioblitz” — the desire-triggering, anxiety-inciting bombardment of today’s infoculture — I’m reminded of Gang of Four’s 1979 song “Natural’s Not In It” and its line about advertising as “coercion of the senses.”
But you can also sense some of the same problems that afflicted post-punk four decades ago, especially in its later years, when it reached an impasse. With conceptronica, there can be a feeling, at times, of being lectured. There’s the perennial doubt about the efficacy of preaching to the converted. That in turn points to a disquieting discrepancy between the anti-elitist left politics and the material realities of conceptronica as both a cultural economy and a demographic — the fact that it is so entwined with and dependent on higher education and arts institutions.
Is it possible that Mark was guilty of this himself? It may have had a part in encouraging it but he always retained one foot outside, in his immediate environment. That should not be the basis for critique if all we are going to do is do the academy’s work for it.
We’ve seen the problems with this on this blog already very recently with Slash, the Last Women of History. I didn’t think I’d see the same thing again so soon. But then, why not? It’s endemic and requires a vigilance from all of us — but especially those of us attending conferences about radicality we wish to see in the world. If you’re going to hurl critiques from such a platform, aim them firmly at the glass house that surrounds you. Anything less than this doomed to impotence.
It’s always surreal, when a well-known figure passes away, reading what the media focus on as their major achievements, if only because it might illuminated the parochialism of your own understanding of a person’s work.
I was sad to hear that Andrew Weatherall passed away yesterday but I never really knew that much about him. I knew him as a DJ and had heard a bunch of his mixes over the years but never looked any further into his discography to discover, for example, that he worked with Primal Scream and produced Screamadelica.
That’s also probably because I never really liked Screamadelica… That’s an album the boys at school liked who were also into Oasis and The Stone Roses… Not my crowd…
I did, however, like The Sabres of Paradise and Two Lone Swordsmen — two projects I also only just discovered he worked on; two projects I only just discovered were related.
I remember back in 2011 I was trying to recommend The Caretaker’s new album to someone who was an old raver and when they asked what the music was like I said: “haunted dancehall”.
They were all over it in a flash and it was only later, when they came back disgruntled, that I later realised what I really meant to say was “haunted ballroom”…
But we ended up having a good record listening sesh at their house and they put on Sabres of Paradise and I liked it a lot.
I particularly liked it with no context and no background. I liked the mystery of it. It felt oddly like a library record. On listening to it, I had no desire to find out any more and ruin the mystery.
It was around that same time — probably within a few months of that botched recommendation — that I picked up Two Lone Swordsmen’s Tiny Reminders from a record shop in Cardiff, also without having any idea what it was about. I only knew I liked its playfulness and odd familiarity, like someone had just heard a bunch of grooves and gone back to their bedroom to have a go at recreating what they’d heard only passively. It’s close to something you know but it has a certain naivety to it that is really enchanting, like if Jandek made dance music or something… Like if the Autechre boys never grew up…
Anyway, RIP Andrew Weatherall. Thanks for the mysteries.
If there was one thing that Mark Fisher was aiming for in writing his Acid Communism, it was the reinvigoration of pop cultural potentials that were previously rife within the 1960s and 1970s.
In his introduction to the unfinished project, he discusses The Beatles expressing an anti-work ethic on “I’m Only Sleeping”, for instance, and saw this as a radical sentiment that had the potential to flick switches in the popular imagination.
Of course, the Beatles are an interesting example considering just how huge they were, but they were also a pretty soft option…
Since picking up my first one in 2013, I have developed a habit for buying reggae and dub records about how shit landlords are. Now there is a radical message smuggled inside a pop cultural phenomenon — and one that is still going strong too.
Yeah, work is bad, but hey, maybe just kill your landlord? Yeah, I get it, dancing is fun, but ever think about the abolition of private property whilst you’re doing it?
I came across a new one earlier today — the first new one for a while — so here’s a post celebrating killing landlords and smashing babylon.
I think I first fell in love with Albert Ayler’s music after watching the 2005 documentary about his life, My Name is Albert Ayler, at a 2011 ATP Festival.
I’d heard his music before and enjoyed it but coming to learn the story of his life made his music all the more resonant for me. I didn’t listen to much else for a long time afterwards, much to the dismay of my girlfriend at the time.
I haven’t seen the documentary since but I remember gaining this new understanding with him after I learned that he played in military bands as a younger man. The sonic legacy of that experience never left his work, even at its most “free”.
I’d grown up playing the cornet in an old miner’s band myself and, at first, I’d loved the uniforms and the ceremony of the local gigs we’d play, even if it was just Christmas carols in the lobby of an old folks’ home. After a few years, however, I rebelled against it.
After a time, all I was listening to was the likes of John Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I wished I could play like them but there was no such opportunity. I remember saying to my teacher at school that I didn’t want to play movie themes anymore. I wasn’t to play jazz. So he had me learn the theme to Pink Panther. Nothing felt more horrifically uncool than that, I thought, until I’d end up playing the theme from ‘Out of Africa’ for the hundredth time with a bunch of octogenarians. Then I knew there were still new lows I could descend to.
I gave up when I left home to go to university and never really looked back but when I first heard the story of Albert Ayler, I remembered feeling quite nostalgic for that time in the brass band. What I loved about Ayler was that he played free with a sonic language I was already familiar with. I didn’t know any music theory and could barely read sheet music — I only ever knew the fingerings — but, more important than that, I knew its boundaries and its standards and its palette and its expectations. And I loved how Ayler shattered all of them.
The latter half of that year’s Nightmare Before Christmas festivities, curated by Caribou and Battles, was insane. (Unfortunately, I found the first Les Savy Fav-curated day to be really dull.) ATP is synonymous, in many respects, with that “dragging bands out of retirement to play their classic albums” schtick that dominated the late 2000s. It was very easy to be cynical about after a point but those weekends were also the most incredible melting pots of acts that it’s hard to imagine playing on the same bill in any other context today.
That weekend, for instance, we’d watched Underground Resistance and Gary Numan share a stage.
Then, the next day, Pharoah Sanders played. The Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen, did their usual thing as ATP favourites, putting “Enlightenment” in everyone’s heads for the rest of the weekend. Later, Silver Apples took it in another direction entirely, with something that sounded somewhere in between the night before and what was to come…
After a full day of feeling like I’d seen all these artists that existed in some mythical time before I was born play like the last thirty or forty years had never happened, there were tripped-out euphoric sets from Factory Floor, Omar Souleyman and DJ Rashad & DJ Spinn, all of whom were riding the hype machine but hadn’t yet released an album yet — except Souleyman, of course, but his were also hard to come by.
I remember on the train home to Wales that next day, my body felt broken. I felt like I had cultural whiplash, going from this weird nostalgia for a time I was too young to know and then being jerked forwards into the future-shock of a footwork party two years before Rashad took over the world with Double Cup. Even after dancing to him for a few hours, I had any real conscious idea what footwork was. I hadn’t even heard the name. I’d heard him completely devoid of context.
That Albert Ayler documentary — his sound, his approach, his reception, his reputation — permeated it all.
I was thinking about Ayler for the first time in a long time the other day because he was the subject of a Bandcamp “Lifetime Achievement” overview, going over a bunch of his albums that are available through the platform.
It’s a nice overview, I think, that articulates the fascination that persists with his legacy, both within the jazz world and further afield.
Mark Richardson writes:
Albert Ayler’s music represents a union of opposites. The tenor saxophonist and bandleader wanted to reach the masses with songs anyone could hum, but he appended these tuneful melodies with ferocious, free improvisation that pushed the limits of what most people considered music. He felt his work expressed universal love, spiritualism, and joy, but its sheer intensity brought to mind danger, violence, and calamity. He was deeply versed in tradition and thought of what he did as a modern extension of the blues. But his innovations put him at the leading edge of the avant-garde, to the extent that many of his own peers said they couldn’t understand what he was doing. Because of the tension between Ayler’s stated aims and their sometimes-confusing realization, he’s remained a cult figure, especially admired by forward-thinking musicians but mostly ignored by the listening public. Sadly, we never got to hear the whole story, as he died in 1970 at age 34 under mysterious circumstances.
The way that Ayler moved, seemingly without friction, from traditional jazz standards to the bleeding edge of brass modernism, is a perfect example of a popular modernism that I’ve been trying to work my head around lately — this “anti-ego” approach to cultural production that is everywhere and supposedly nowhere, gone from the mainstream and the imaginations of a general public.
At CTM Festival, Dhanveer had challenged this section of Mark’s thought, arguing that just because there was a deluge of experimentation amongst rockists doesn’t mean this cultural mourning had to permeate everything. (I think Mark knew this very well but he just liked winding people up.) But there is still a sense, I think, that some of the players who were farthest out were tragically undervalued then and still are.
Ayler’s approach feels particularly poignant here. He was able to turn this schizo approach into a kind of “standard” all of his own. Take a track like “Ghosts”, for instance — its most famous variation appearing as the opening track on his 1964 album Spiritual Unity.
The first few notes sound like the slow reveal of a one-man orchestra warming up, becoming attuned to himself, before falling comfortably into a Dixieland number that swings only for a few moments before the rest of the band joins in. What results is not chaos, however. It is the spiritual unity of jazz standard and free intensity. Ghosts — plural — emerge in perfect disharmony, presenting a gospel that is truly pop and truly blue; both joyful and haunted.
It was his “hit”, in many ways, and he would play it live often throughout his career, as well as releasing numerous versions of it on his later albums. It is a track supposedly synonymous with free jazz today — a “cornerstone of the genre”, declared one YouTube video description I saw whilst trying to find the best version to embed — but it is also, paradoxically, a song from which a new tradition emerges. It is a free jazz standard — as if there could be such a thing — and this makes far more sense within the context of Ayler’s oeuvre than the variations of any other player that might have been referred to the same way in that moment.
Whilst the Bandcamp overview is nice, it is also eschews — as is common with appraisals of Ayler’s body of work — his later and most explicit pop moments. Free jazz undulating with the ghosts of jazz standards is one thing — something for the ‘heads to ponder wistfully today, perhaps — but less is said about Ayler’s forays into far more explicit funk and soul territory.
Although it was present, embryonically, on the funereal “Love Cry”, from the 1968 album of the same name, which appears to be a farewell best-of before he would turn his art on its head, this sentiment of imbuing the counterculture free-love moment of that time with the intensity of black unrest is present far more explicitly on his final and most underrated album, 1969’s New Grass.
Where Ayler would take this sound next is unknown. Within a year, he was dead, found drowned in the East River, like Rufus in James Baldwin’s Another Country. But there seemed to be no great existential crisis following this moment. Ayler was already lost.
Hated at the time of its release, no less admired today, New Grass nonetheless feels like a powerful attempt at a reinvention to me; an attempt to drag the future back, kick and sceaming, into the present. Once before Ayler had tried to lead his fellow countrymen out of a “standard”-ised jazz into new potentials, as a pied piper for the Outside — and he largely succeeded — but he did not rest on his laurels. He was looking for what came next, and found it.
Ayler had once counted John Coltrane amongst his peers, famously performing a cathartic rip of a set at his funeral. Having fans in high places, however, did not save him. Following the release of New Grass, which sold badly, he was dropped by his label. He was, at that time, playing as good as he ever had, but his relentless foray into a contemporary pop sound, laden with ear-splitting free solos, left him playing to the wind. There were reports of him being mentally unwell already by that point and, in 1970, he reportedly committed suicide (although the circumstances surrounding of his death left many unanswered questions.)
It is clear that something died that day but, in hearing the story of Ayler’s life, it is not clear that many are aware of what exactly that was. I have a theory though…
I’ve always found it interesting that Ayler was better received in Europe than in his native America. He toured extensively there and, for a time, considered moving to Scandinavia permanently, so he no longer had to put up with the misunderstandings that plagued him and his output back home.
I’ve always wondered if this foreign appreciation had something to do with the relationship between brass bands and politics that permeated out from the mining towns of Northern Europe. Even today, in the North of England, brass bands are synonymous with unionised labour.
Jeremy Deller famously tried to combine acid house with brass band culture a few years back and, obviously, a lot of people loved it, but all he succeeded in doing, to my ears, is producing something a bit like when the BBC Proms does Doctor Who.
What a contrast with the lame, sub-John Williams syrup that the BBC ladles over the current Dr Who series. This shrill, postmodern confectionery couldn’t be less unheimlich. By firm contrast with the radiophonic’s anempathic sounds, which rendered even the most everyday scene weird and alienating, the new music Tells You Exactly What to Feel…
Deller’s fault seems to be that he does much the same thing in his work. By simply connecting the professionalism and discipline of the contemporary brass band with the Acid House of yesteryear he reveals how — woah! would you believe it! — there is proper musicality in rave after all. It becomes a novelty piece for boomers who never understood their Gen X kids. It removes the politics rather than updating them.
Evidently, Deller missed Ayler’s trans-Atlantic communions. He was well ahead of his time with all that. He brought the rave out of the brass band. He didn’t need to re-enlist and bring the free jazz to the military. His was a proper popular modernism, even if it wasn’t so popular back home.
Today, his “Ghosts” is as poignant for me as Japan’s “Ghosts” was for Mark — an atemporal eulogy, written ahead of time, for something that had not yet died but soon would. (Ayler would only get name-checked once by Mark but in a very suitable pop mod context.)
When Ayler died, a new era of jazz modernism went with him. It never recovered and canonising his early work hasn’t helped. Extending the trajectory found on New Grass, cut short by the refutations of his own audience, seems like an impossibility now. There are plenty of players pushing limits and cross-polinations — Matana Roberts once felt like Ayler’s true successor — but the Outsideness of free jazz lost its moment in the spotlight.
I wonder if things might have been different if Ayler had been able to persevere.
I’m not sure there’s an equivalent today of his supposedly tasteless extremes today…
If there is, it’s still as hard an uncool pill to swallow…
My recent post about desire in writings on accelerationism didn’t come from nowhere. It also didn’t explicitly come from Twitter. Addressing the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s hubris was simply a useful and polemic vehicle for that moment but it was also a post that I worried about, at first, in case it came across like I was throwing stones from a glass house.
I’ve written about this before — in fact, on multiple occasions. I am painfully aware of the centrality of my “ego” within my own writings. It’s a bad habit, more than anything, and something I agonise over a lot, often deciding to just throw caution to the wind and hit ‘publish’ regardless.
It’s also something I’m thinking about and wrestling with a lot at this particular moment. Not just as a background concern but as something that feels particularly scary within my life right now as I look down the barrel of an immanent shift in my public profile, which is occurring gradually, for the time being, as I go from a somewhat anonymous writer into someone who writes through a far more public face.
CTM Festival was the first instance of this that required some wrestling with but I have more public speaking engagements lined up as Egress comes out and I get on that weird and uncomfortable treadmill of promoting it and Mark’s work in the process.
This is obviously something I’ve been doing here for quite some time now but it nonetheless feels like 2020 is the year I really stick my neck out.
This has already been happening in my day-to-day life. At my current day job, for instance, everyone in the office knows I have written a book. In fact, the last time I was in the office, earlier this week, there was a copy of my book, visible to everyone, on my boss’s desk. She has even posted about it on their website and, yesterday, sent an email round to everyone about bulk buying a load of tickets to the ICA book launch next month.
I can’t deny that it feels really nice to be acknowledged like this and to feel like the publication of this book is something for multiple people to celebrate in, but it jars somewhat compared to where I was at with my “public profile” this time last year.
At my last job, where I worked for close to two years, from late 2017 to mid 2019, no one knew what I did in my spare time at all. I started this blog at almost exacting the same time I started that job and it was an explicit exercise in splitting my self in two as I re-entered the real world of work whilst trying to keep one foot in the strange temporalities of weird theory Twitter. Most days I showed up to work, did what I had to do, and then went home. I felt a bit like an alien there. It was quite a prestigious place to work and I often felt a sort of unconscious hostility from some people about my presence, simply because of the way I dressed and talked — that is, poorly, in both instances. I remember on my first day, I’d gone into my first meeting with management really confident with a load of ideas but then got quietly shut down. I hadn’t meant to put my foot in anyone’s way but rather wanted to make clear that I would be an active and involved member of the team. That didn’t seem to go down so well, but this wasn’t really a surprise. This has often been the case when working in the arts as some sort of glorified technician.
I wanted Velvet Buzzsaw recently — a film I really enjoyed, with its lampooning of the LA art world taking on an In The Mouth Of Madness quality — and I laughed a lot at the art gallery technician character, always hitting on the receptionists, saying things like, “I’m not just the muscle, you know. I have ideas. I’m an artist.” I’m not like that at all, but I understood the sentiment of wanting people to know that you’re not just a body to be put to work, even if I have personally ignored it and just got on with the job at hand without trying to change my co-worker’s assumptions to the contrary. Instead, I think I hid my other life — this life right here — out of embarrassment. I didn’t want to have to explain what I wrote about to anyone. I was quite happy just being a body, in that context. I’d anticipate the potential questions in the pub after work about what I did in my spare time with a preemptive mortification. Thankfully, those questions never really came, no doubt due to my generally secretive body language.
(I watched the Netflix documentary about the band Rush the other day, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and was amused to see Neil Peart also express a discomfort in relation to his role within the band. It’s nice to see that there are some people who make it big for whom this feeling never changes.)
At my new job, I’ve been a bit more forthcoming, mostly because I think keeping the blog an active secret from people I’m spending every day with isn’t all that healthy. I hate the thought of them going online to look and read it but it also feels like a better strategy to just be open about my life and not try and compartmentalise the different parts of it. Even though it still makes me really anxious, it feels better to weather the storm of visibility than alienate my co-workers through a lack of communication.
For a lot of the last year I’ve been trying to figure out where exactly this anxiety comes from. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I think and write about, but there is nonetheless a question of how exactly I’m supposed to articulate all this; of explaining that talking about what I do here is something I find really difficult. Sometimes it erupts quite traumatically. I pride myself on a online reputation for being accessible — or at least more accessible than most — but when talking to family about politics and philosophy I think I have the opposite reputation entirely. (I became painfully aware of this over Christmas when it was me against the rest of the family in a conversation about politics which ended ugly in the early hours.) In that context, I feel like silence is taken to be judgemental — the result of a stoic but over-inflated ego. In truth, I’d rather just not talk about stuff because I don’t think I’m all that articulate in the moment and before the wrong sort of audience — that is, an audience not already laden with the particulars of Weird Theory Twitter head-scratching. (This is also to say, unfortunately, I am more comfortable speaking my mind when I know an audience has shared concerns, but maybe that’s natural.)
I’m very anxious about this at the moment as I’ve been offered the amazing opportunity of running a short three-week module at a London university — nowhere I’ve previously been affiliated with, before you start guessing; I’ll make an announcement in due course — talking about whatever I like to a group of undergraduate art students. The focus of the course is going to be about walking, as a sort of rudimentary but radical gesture — think the Situationists — and how I think having a certain relationship to the world is the most important foundation to any art practice. It’s not necessarily about the theory or the fashionable concepts but what you do with them in your daily life. (I think my interest in this comes from a teenage interest in jazz and learning to play the trumpet as a kid. I’m a terrible musician but I get the “improvisatory mindset”, if there’s such a thing. I’m just better at putting that mindset into practice with other mediums that aren’t necessarily known for having a culturally embedded discourse around a sense of improvisation — e.g. writing and photography.)
However, with a slight hint of irony, I’m also using this course as an opportunity to talk to these presently unknown students about modernism and Deleuze and Guattari. In fact, I’m in the pub right now, trying to think of a way to articulate what a “body without organs” is, as a sort of backwards introduction to a century of radical art — from Virginia Woolf to Lee Friedlander to Burial; from writing to visual art to music.
I suppose the general overview of the course is: How do you make art about your life and immediate environment without falling into that stereotype of just making art about yourself; how do you use your self as a conduit for saying something about the world around you.
Before heading out to the pub, I was updating my Discogs inventory and ended up putting on a bunch of records I forgot I owned. I was listening to Andrew Chalk, Meredith Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach… Music is the perfect way of expressing this sort of relationship to the world because sound — even the voice, at least in Meredith Monk’s case, with her disembodied, Artaudian vocalisations — is far more easily “de-individualised” and improvised with. What I find all the more fascinating about photography and writing in this regard is that the self is far more obviously their foundation. You are working explicitly with an “I”, be it a written voice or eye that is often, at least for the practitioner, hard to separate yourself from. (No surprises I’m going to be drawing on my essay about “de-individualisation” in visual art — “Points of View” — for one of the upcoming sessions.)
It probably says a lot about me that I’m procrastinating from writing this by writing something else for the blog, which — in a sort of roundabout way — is actually the perfect vehicle for articulating and letting go of all this chaff. I can get all this subjective hand-wringing out the way and figure out a way to articulate what I really want to convey later, devoid of myself.
This blog has been very good for this over the last couple of years and the irony is not lost on me that this blog is often so self-centred, because I think it gets it out my system. It becomes an abattoir for hanging up the chunks I flay off myself, allowing me to put the choicest cuts to better use elsewhere. (This is probably what this reply to my recent post was trying to get at, which I appreciate, but I don’t think that’s what goes on on the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s Twitter feed…)
I think about what Mark would have thought about this a lot. Not out of some morbid desire to emulate him but rather because his articulation of how he was able to write so much on his k-punk blog is something that I think about often.
I’ve quoted this multiple times here before but it always bears repeating:
Folks have asked me recently how I am able to write so much.
The answer is that it isn’t me who’s writing.
Modesty? Metaphor? Or (lol) post-structuralism?
No. A strictly technical description of how this body has been used as a meat puppet for channeling uttunul signal.
It’s only when the writing is bad that ‘I’ have produced it. When it’s good ‘I’ am just a space through which Lemuria speaks.
The writing is already assembled on the plane and all ‘I’ can do is bodge it by introducing subjectivist fuzz.
(It’s very telling, I think, that he was so prolific on his blog but his books were, by contrast, always very slim volumes.)
Posts that I labour over — like my recent post about CTM Festival, for example — are labours of love for me in the sense Mark talks about when he says they are things that he feels like he has explicitly written — which is to say, I am aware that this sort of post isn’t very good. They are pieces of writing that I don’t feel particularly proud of once they’re out in the world. I think there’s good stuff in them, for sure — otherwise I definitely wouldn’t post them — but I’m aware that the chaff weighs them down. It is as a result of this that I feel I am able to write and keep writing, and this is something that I’m pretty much okay with that. I don’t really care about writing shit occasionally. The better stuff always rises to the top and I am comfortable with the fact that what people often think is good is largely beyond my control.
My recent post about accelerationism, desire and the “anti-ego” is the perfect example of this. It took off, perhaps because it addressed something a lot of people were talking about on Twitter at that time, but it was, for the most part, a load of word vomit that I threw down on the page and then cut down to its main argument before then sending it out into the world. I wrote it in an hour before bed, then woke up to it doing numbers, and was surprised by that fact.
I tend to admire other people who do this a lot also, although I’m no less surprised when they self-deprecating articulate having a similar relationship to their work. I was reading an interview with Jim O’Rourke the other day, for instance, whose album from 2019, To Magnetize Money and Catch a Roving Eye, I’ve finally taken the plunge with. (I listened to it constantly whilst traveling to, from and around Berlin the other week. It’s an incredible album.)
Jim O’Rourke is someone who occupies various different scenes with ease. He can make the most pristine pop albums — Eureka and Halfway to a Threeway haven’t left the rotation of my regular listening for years and my girlfriend also likes when I play him in the car, particularly his amazing Ivor Cutler cover — but what I love most is that he can write albums like this and then also be a very comfortable improviser. However, his articulation of his relationship to his own work was really surprising to me.
Asked by Stereogum about his older albums and which albums of his — partly because he is so prolific — he wishes people had more of an appreciation for, he responds:
I don’t know directly, but I hear from folks that people still listen to ‘em. Eureka, I’ve got too much on the record about my feelings about Eureka, I’m happy when someone says they like Insignificance ’cause that one came up pretty well considering how quickly I made it. […] I’m waiting for people to like The Visitor. If there’s anything, that’s the one I’m hoping someday people will like because I worked really hard on that one. That’s the one I probably feel the most least uncomfortable about. That one got really close to what I wanted to do. And I learned to play trombone.
This is also something I really admire about a lot of UK producers at the moment, particularly someone like AYA, whose infrequentBandcamp releases, consisting of seemingly half-formed, throwaway ideas and club edits — often made with friends in mind, it seems, and (I want to emphasise) no less amazing despite their “demo” nature — demonstrate an active relationship to the scenes she is immersed in, and I think this is a product of a really interesting development following Bandcamp’s increasing popularity.
Kevin Drumm is another artist worth mentioning here too — given the prolific nature of his Bandcamp page, which I’m proud to say I subscribe to — and you should to. He feels like a new kind of musician for the twenty-first century, who has well and truly embraced a sort of blogger’s mentality within his music-making practice.
I wish more people did this. It feels like a throwback to a 2000s moment when some musicians used to have Blogspot platforms on which to share their demoes and ideas. Bradford Cox is a particularly memorable example.
The way he’d share his demoes on his blog was so inspiring to me as a teenager and I used to do much the same thing, sharing song ideas and covers of songs I recorded in my bedroom through a headset mic. A lot of people did this on MySpace in Hull at that time. Most of the bands I grew up with in that city started off in much the same way. Low Hummer, for instance, currently being treated as new kids on the block by the indie blogosphere, are led by Dan Mawer who I met fifteen years ago specifically through that kind of online prolificness. We all shared a love of lo-fi recordings and the ease with which we could create a scene for ourselves around our MySpace pages. We gigged a lot, locally, off the back of that relationship to blog technologies, and even ended up in the bedrooms of friends who had decent recording gear.
(Tentatively shared Bon Iver cover that I became quite well known for — locally at least — below…)
What I think is important about this now — this sort of “anti-ego” approach to sharing whatever comes into your head on a particular evening — is that it encapsulates, in its own way, the sort of popular modernist sensibility that Mark mourned so publicly.
I was reading Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys earlier this evening — specifically with my forthcoming undergraduate course in mind — and Justin captures this sensibility really well I think (albeit through a somewhat cumbersome theoretical language). He writes on the book’s first pages, for instance, about the ways in which:
Modernist writers enact a lucid awarenesss of the body without organs, but the exact extent and nature of this dimension tends to be left open. Aspects of the oneirosphere of the human world can be suggested — as with Shakespeare’s inorganic beings having a contact with India that does not involve travel in any ordinary sense — but a modernist dreaming in invoking the body without organs lightly suggests its existence, but does not firmly map its extent or aspects.
Prior to this, he defines modernism as a kind of “eerie arcadianism”, which I interpret precisely to be a way of thinking about your own life and immediate environment through a sort of “anti-ego”; through making your self a conduit for outside forces; making yourself half-present. He writes that “the world of modernism is always transected by an anomalous dimension inhabited by forces that are both positive and negative, and can recurrently prove to be at a higher level of power than the forces of the ordinary world.”
I know for a fact that Justin shares my love of Virginia Woolf — the way in which she wrote so effortlessly without a face, and gave a language to these outside forces more explicitly and lucidly than anyone — and he mentions her book The Waves in this context, noting how two of the characters, Rhoda and Louis, “stand, gazing toward the fluidities of the anomalous dimension” — that is, toward the body without organs; towards the anti-ego that infiltrates a self and its communities.
Justin refers to this anomalous relationship to the world — that is, a relationship that reflects the anomalies it seeks — as a kind of “lucidity”. This relationship is capable of turning an “extraordinary lucidity and courage in the direction of the white wall” — Justin’s phrase for a quotidian form of the transcendental; “a kind of white wall which is pretending here to have nothing much beyond it” — “attempting to see what could be happening, given that there is nothing but ordinary reality, and given the insistent disturbing aspects of the human world.” It is a relationship with the Outside — and, we might note, as Mark put it, “to find ways out is to let the Outside in.”
It is a kind of anti-ego that, even if later articulately through an “I”, is capable of allowing itself to be a conduit for transgressive desires — transgressive in the sense that they permeate, as Justin writes, “across the fundamental religious (oneiric-metaphysical) dreaming and thought-systems of the social field in which [we] find ourselves”.
Here, Justin is discussing Barbara O’Brien’s incredible text Operators and Things — an odd biographical text written by O’Brien in the midst of a very real schizophrenic episode. (I’m not sure how readily available this text is — I read it when it was shared with me in 2017 via a Google Doc link, which felt very appropriately occulted.) However, there are still plenty of other examples of such tales in popular culture.
Whilst sorting through my Discogs inventory earlier, I watched the new Netflix film Horse Girl, starring and co-written by Alison Brie. Brie apparently drew on her own family’s history of mental illness for the story and it is incredibly well done, I think.
Brie plays a shy woman who works in an arts and crafts store and has a neurotic obsession with a horse she rode at a local stable as a child called Willow. The film follows her quotidian existence with a sort of mumblecore vibe until she starts to succumb to a schizophrenic episode that she finds meaning in because she is wholly aware of her mother and grandmother’s previous struggles with mental illness. (It is this same awareness of seemingly hereditary mental illness that Brie drew on for her co-writing credit.) She starts to believe that she is her grandmother’s clone and her nightly dreams of alien abduction, intensified by experiences of lost time and an unconscious penchant for sleep walking, lead her to believe her abductions are very much real experiences, particularly because these are experiences that her grandmother also spoke of. By the end, the film descends into a sort of waking-dream sequence in which we watch Brie’s character living out her delusions with disastrous consequences.
I was really impressed by this film, particularly because Netflix has been incessantly recommending I watch Girl, Interrupted recently — a film I have already seen multiple times and which I have long hated for its high-school-drama-meets-One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoo’s-Nest plot which romanticises time spent on a women’s psychiatric ward full of big lunch-hall egos.
The difference between the two films, I think, is precisely this sense of “anti-ego”, which Girl, Interrupted infuriatingly lacks. Brie’s character knows, to an extent, that she is “crazy” and that her thoughts are delusional, but she is incapable of wresting herself from the grasp of her schizophrenia whilst she feels it affords her a palpable connection to her immediate family’s prior experiences. She does not feel that she is experiencing something unique and instead feels herself becoming part of an intensive continuum. In the end, she sheds her self entirely, believing that she is not a “clone” of her grandmother but that she is her grandmother, and this alien-familiarity manifests for her as an surreally believable lucidity. These are not anomalies from within her own mind that she is experiencing but rather an anomalous world that others are also plugged into.
The impetus behind Justin’s elucidations on modernism emerge from a similar place. The subtitle to his book — “Haunted by the Future” — resonates with Horse Girl’s dramatisations of a strange templexity in which Brie’s character feels she can perceive the future but also is the future for the alien-subject that is her anomalous and almost mythical grandmother. It resonates profoundly with the conclusion to Justin’s book — which I also use as a chapter epigraph in Egress — which reads:
To travel into the unknown is a sober-joyful process of gaining energy by overcoming self-importance, and by eradicating all forms of self-indulgence — and it is a development of the ability to have effective, creative comradeship-alliances with other human beings. It is a process of perceiving — and dreaming — a way toward wider spaces of existence.
Beyond the ongoing disaster of ordinary reality is the second sphere of action. You don’t get to be there on a sustained basis unless in some sense you are part of a group, and a group can only form (no plan is possible, only continuous improvisation) if you have learned to let yourself be swept away into the intent-currents of Love-and-Freedom that run through the world — intent-currents that take you South, into the Future.
This is a lovely point to end on, and I am fighting a temptation to end this post here also, but I can’t help but want to affirm the very difficulty of enacting this sentiment in day-to-day life.
Because it is so easier said than done, and it is also, frankly, a terrifying process. Justin’s invocation of “intent-currents that take you South” feels like an explicit reference to the horrifyingly liberatory journey that Kerans undertakes in JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, and this is hardly a “sober-joyful journey” into the intensities of community — unless you see lizard–brain people as constituting a kind of intentional community.
And in a way, that is a community of the anti-ego, quite explicitly, and whilst Ballard whilst emphasises the horror of it, the horror is nonetheless an important consideration, because that horror is the horror of giving into alien-familiar desires that take one out of one’s self.
I don’t think I know anyone who is really committed to this sort of communal, body-without-organs thinking who doesn’t find its innate sociality difficult to bear. Maybe that says something about it… Most optimistically, it is a concern for those who feel most stultified by their ego and by its inescapability. That’s certainly how I feel. The question becomes: How can this be enacted in a way that is just an exercise in positive affirmations?
I’m reminded of Simon O’Sullivan’s essay about this, which also features in Egress briefly, in which he articulates the importance of thinking Deleuzian communities precisely because, he says, friendships have never come easy. That essay is a feature because I feel that way too, and the tragic irony of these concerns is that simply having them — over-thinking them — is often an obstacle to enacting them.
… either we are obsessed primarily by what desire, by what burning passion suggests to us; or we can with reason hope for a better future.
Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros
My thirty-six hours in Berlin for CTM Festival were a beautiful blur.
On February 1st, after arriving back in the UK, I slept for 14 hours, from midnight to mid-afternoon. That, in a way, says it all. Swept up by a week of nervous adrenaline, a half-day shutdown was necessary, more for mind than for body.
After waking up at 5.45am on the morning of January 30th, following a week of restlessness, and heading to the airport, I felt like I was constantly moving and thinking until all of a sudden I was in Berghain for the first time and it felt like I might be about to see 5am roll around again — a thought that made me feel a bit sick, if I’m honest.
(I haven’t voluntarily been up that long in years, and the last time I partied like that abroad, the day before a flight, I was sixteen, having spent a week in Rome, and I found myself hungover and dropped off at the wrong airport. My parents ended up having to phone up an obscure Italian relative, there was a case of mistaken identity involving Edward Norton, and I ended up costing my parents a load of money that they didn’t have. That memory haunts me even now, over a decade later. I am now a very anxious traveler.)
As a result, I ducked out of the party at Berghain early, wanting to get home (to the hotel and to the UK) with all my faculties in tact and my funds in order. (I did almost get dropped off at the wrong airport again. If the taxi driver hadn’t checked who I was flying with I would have been up shit creek again.) This meant I missed Sherelle’s set at Panorama Bar, which I think I’m going to regret for a very long time…
…but my overall experience of CTM was wonderful regardless.
Before I tell you all about it and pour out all my thoughts and feels, scribbled frantically into a notebook at Berlin’s Schönefeld airport on the afternoon of January 31st, I want to share my gratitude to Terence Sharpe for inviting me in the first place; to CTM Festival for being so incredibly well organised, considering the scope of their operation; to Dhanveer Singh Brar for hanging out and asking the most pertinent questions on his panel, and for being a Berghain buddy (I don’t think anyone was more excited about AYA playing DJ Hype’s Remarc remix than he was); and I particularly want to thank Lisa Blanning and Steven Warwick for being such excellent fellow panelists and for being so welcoming to this unknown blog entity entering an unfamiliar offline world for what felt like the first time. Much of what is to follow below would not have been experienced were it not for Lisa in particular, letting me tag along on her evening adventure. It was the best snapshot of the city that someone so new to it could have asked for.
At the risk of being overly earnest, to speak on a panel at a music festival like CTM — and in another country to boot — felt like a really big deal for me. To do so had been on my bucket list for the next few years ahead and so it was a very nice shock to be able to tick it off in January already. However, I had never done anything like it before and so my suffuse anxiety surrounding this whole thing — although entirely self-perpetuating and irrational — was exhausting. I don’t think I slept properly for the whole week in the lead up to it and still did not relax until I was back in my own bed. Thankfully, Terence selected the perfect people to be involved in his two panel discussions, all of whom mitigated this feeling effortlessly. Not that they would have known they were doing this but I’m grateful all the same. They made it an absolute pleasure to be there.
The question that dominated CTM Festival for me was as follows:
To what extent can we resist the capture of ourselves and our cultural artifacts in our contemporary late-capitalist moment?
This was a question that permeated both of the panels organised and moderated by Terence Sharpe that day. Whereas the second talk, with Dane Sutherland and Dhanveer Singh Brar, asked this question explicitly, the first panel — with myself, Steven Warwick and Lisa Blanning — instead began with questions of egress and escape, starting with the assumption that we are already captured and looking for suggestions regarding how best to remedy that situation. In particular, we were looking for remedies ready to be excavated from the work of the late Mark Fisher.
(Both panels were filmed and should be up online in a couple of months so I don’t want to rehash their contents here in too much detail.)
Framed in this way, it is possible to think of the panels as being presented somewhat back to front, but in many ways this order helped to exacerbate the entangled nature of the conversations themselves. To ask questions of our seemingly perpetual capture and egress is to ask questions of chickens and eggs. As a result, how we resist and how we escape are questions to be asked simultaneously, particularly for those who produce art objects and sustain cultures in the present moment.
To unpack this preliminary question a little, we need to define what exactly we are at risk of being captured by. The short answer is “capital”, most abstractly and succinctly. Less succinctly, we might say we are captured by the confluence of affects and circumstances that constitute the economic cycle of the general formula of capital, as described by Karl Marx — a cycle, we should note, that is constantly mutating.
(Marx’ famous formula of M-C-M’, used to describe the positive feedback loop that exists between money and commodities, and which structures our economic systems, echoes this chicken-egg situation well.)
But again, what does any of that mean? How is any of that useful to us, culturally speaking? How is that useful to anyone not thinking about the world and their place within it in explicit economic terms?
When we say our cultural artifacts are captured by capital, the basic implication is perhaps that our desire, our drive to create — an activity which we might think we engage in for reasons that justify themselves — is reduced to what this activity can do for the market or otherwise for financial gain.
“Making things” is perhaps too vague a phrase to have much resonance here but this is essentially what we mean. The act of “making things” has been captured by capitalism’s cycles of production and commodification. (This is how Dhanveer and Dane defined the general activity behind the production of our cultural artifacts in their panel discussion.) Thought of in this way, it is undoubtedly obvious to all that the act of “making things” has been captured, in the broadest sense, by the systemic preferences of a capitalist system. Therefore, it requires an exit.
Dane noted that Suhail Malik’s work is important here and I’d recommend checking it out too if you want to sink your teeth deeper into these questions of capture and escape in a contemporary art context. Suffice it to say that the means of cultural production are far more slippery than capitalists would like us to think they are. As Suhail notes, “contemporary art as a field of activity … includes artworks but also common places, idiolects, received ideas, judgments, justifications, social and administrative quasi-structures, power operations, and so on.” The means of art’s production are incredibly diverse — far more diverse than the art market would like us to acknowledge. As such, it is important for us to affirm that cultural production — referring, as Suhail emphasises, as much to the immaterial production of culture as it does to the most visible means of its material production — is something that both predates capitalism and will also seemingly exceed it.
However, there are plenty examples of the prevailing system attempting to implicitly convince us otherwise. For example, we might note that, in an inspired instance of retconning, the Wikipedia article for capital argues that “in a fundamental sense a stone or an arrow is capital for a hunter-gatherer who can use it as a hunting instrument”. Here we see a seemingly innocuous attempt to apply the logic of capitalist realism to the furthest reaches of human civilization, as if to suggest uncontacted tribes or even our prehistoric ancestors are still embryologically capitalist. (There’s a good argument to be had here but it’s one for another time.)
However, this contestable Wikipedia example proves a point about capitalism’s intentions: Anything produced in order to fulfill some sort of desire becomes proto-capital ready for capture. The question then becomes: Does the seizure of the means of production — whatever they are and whatever they are for — eclipse the very drive we have to make and use things in the first place?
Georges Bataille, in his final 1961 work The Tears of Eros, asked this question explicitly, attempting to locate the cultural trajectory of erotic desire within visual art, from cave paintings to the artistic transgressions of the seventeenth to twentieth centuries (from the Marquis de Sade to Francis Bacon).
Erotic desire — eroticism — cannot simply be understood as a sexual drive. For Bataille, it is rather a term for desire’s gratifying essence, whatever form that desire takes. It is also the generic prism through which Bataille investigates this very question of capture — the sense in which human sexual desire persistently ruptures its utilitarian form as sexual reproductive activity. Humanity’s obsession with sexual intercourse is, then, he writes, “a psychological quest independent of the natural goal.” Extrapolated outwards from its sexual context, “culture” emerges as another name for this psychological quest, which Bataille makes distinct from “nature”. (NB: Bataille writes at length on the role of eroticism in instigating our transition from “nature to culture” in this regard in his 1957 work Eroticism.)
The horror of philosophy in the twentieth century, for Bataille, is a new understanding of the way in which these erotic (cultural) excesses are continuously funneled into dead ends by the prevailing system that limits our understandings of nature, with the truest egresses from capitalist capture existing at extremes that most people today would dare not venture near, whether they be snuff films or religious ecstasy. He also notes, tellingly, that whilst the most transgressive cultural extravagances have previously been associated with those who have access to the highest echelons of society — no less true today in an era culturally defined by the Jimmy Saville’s, Bing Crosby’s, Harvey Weinstein’s, and Jeffery Epstein’s of the world — referred to by Bataille in Eroticism via de Sade’s trope of the sovereign man — is, in The Tears of Eros, a tendency transposed onto the working man instead.
For Bataille, the key to our escape from capitalist capture comes from the system’s propensity, in the twentieth century, to convert all individuals into working individuals. Even the aristocrat today must work to survive. Landed gentry give themselves over to the tourist trade and operate museums dedicated to their own ancestries. With all other avenues increasingly closed off, it is through work alone that productive transgression today lies.
The trangressions of industrial music emerge here as particularly telling examples — works that affirm the subjective mutations of capitalism, creating beings who slip entropically through the mesh of capitalist alienation. Throbbing Gristle, for instance, chanting for discipline over regulated beats, still shocks today as we watch Genesis P-Orridge dissolve into their own militant mantra, expressing a virulence through a workaday eroticism taken to its limits.
(Cosey Fanni Tutti’s radical approach to sex work as a means to a wholly new transgressive and nomadic end is perhaps an even more powerful example, although — and perhaps because of the fact that — it is not so visibly witnessed online.)
Elsewhere, we can note how the TG track “What A Day” has much the same impact on a wider culture. The deranged repetition of a thoughtless adage, typically uttered with a sigh as someone sinks into a sofa at the end of a dull day, becomes overwrought with a sexually disordered energy. It is like the “All work and no play” of The Shining‘s Jack Torrence — workaday monotony as a vector for insanity and psychic egress.
By contrast, those who own the means of production become impotent relics of a time gone by, fated to redundancy by their inbred capture in outdated socioeconomic norms. As Bataille writes in The Tears of Eros, echoing this sentiment:
It was the slave, in any case, and not the warrior, who by means of work changed the world; and it is the slave, in the end, who is changed in his essence by work. Work changed him to the extent that he became the only authentic creator of the wealth of civilisation; in particular, intelligence and knowledge are the fruits of the labor to which the slave was constrained, working in the first place in response to the master. It is in this way, we should point out, that work engendered man. Those who do not work, who are dominated by the shame of work — the rich aristocrat of the ancien régime or those with private means today — are mere relics.
With this in mind, it is unsurprising that we find ourselves perpetually confronted by a plethora of dystopian fictions that encourage the worker, the slave, the robota, to fear themselves and their own desires. Throbbing Gristle turned this tendency on its head, reflecting the world’s desires back through a cracked mirror, but, more often than not, expressions of our shared alienation are nonetheless oppressed by those we seek to rattle. This tendency is confirmed by Bataille in his prescient observation that “the transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it.”
Enter the innate templexity of accelerationism, all too often reduced to the argument that we must affirm capitalism in order to transcend and complete it, missing the real point — which was Bataille’s point also in Eroticism — that what should be affirmed is our desire’s persistent capacity to mutate the self that produces it; what must be affirmed are the escape routes that capitalism inadvertently creates, through its processes of libidinal engineering, but must always later obstruct; what must be attuned to is the very process of subjective mutation rather than any mindless outburst that results from the process itself. (Again, for old time’s sake, the point here is that white supremacist “Accelerationsts” are precisely the subjects accelerationism originally sought to critique, who violently reject the self’s and society’s transformations rather than attempting to radically go with the flow. Their rage at their impotence is the point of entry, not exit.)
In this sense, the end of the world being easier to imagine than the end of capitalism, as Mark Fisher put it, is both symptomatic of our present stuckness but also provides us with a cartography of the ultimate transgression under capitalism — the taboo of capitalism itself; of systemic wage-labour; of capitalism’s own unreason: the dark side of capitalist coercion and manipulation. The last taboo, injected directly into ear drums by Throbbing Gristle, is the completion of capitalist resentment into the cultural equivalent of going postal on the aesthetic forms capitalism prefers. Capitalism turns the universe itself into a commodity. We must instead affirm the universe’s formlessness.
We might think also — to offer up an example mentioned by Steven Warwick on our post-dinner walk through Berlin’s streets — of the music of Whitehouse, transcending and completing the taboo of Mary Whitehouse herself. What is more censorious than noise music? A mess of aural pixelation packaged in provocative names and associations? You know what is missing. There is little left to the imagination but the blockage is apparent nonetheless. As such, the mind is forced to give form to the formless.
Bataille skewers this conservative logic impeccably, foreshadowing what Mark Fisher would later refer to as “capitalist realism”, arguing that what must be affirmed is a surcapitalist irrealism, nonetheless produced by capitalism itself — the dark matter left over by the captured means of production. As he writes in one of Eroticism‘s most riling calls-to-arms,
Nowadays everyone has to take responsibility for his actions and obey the law of reason in everything. Leftovers from the past do persist but only the anti-social underworld preserves a quantity of energy that does not go into work.
If we follow the dictates of reason we try to acquire all kinds of goods, we work in order to increase the sum of our possessions or of our knowledge, we use all means to get richer and to possess more. Our status in the social order is based on this sort of behavior. But when the fever of sex seizes us we behave in the opposite way. We recklessly draw on our strength and sometimes in the violence of passion we squander considerable resources to no real purpose. Pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a “little death”. Consequently anything that suggests erotic excess always implies disorder. Nakedness wrecks the decency conferred by our clothes. But once we have ventured along the path of sensuous disorder it takes a good deal to satisfy us. Destruction and betrayal will sometimes go hand in hand with the rising tide of genetic excess. Besides nudity there is the strangeness of half-clothed bodies; what garments there are serve to emphasize the disorder of the body and show it to be all the more naked, all the more disordered. Brutality and murder are further steps in the same direction. Similarly prostitution, coarse language and everything to do with eroticism and infamy play their part in turning the world of sensual pleasure into one of ruin and degradation. Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose, just as if a wound were bleeding away inside us; we always want to be sure of the uselessness or the ruinousness of our extravagance. We want to feel as remote from the world where thrift is the rule as we can. As remote as we can: — that is hardly strong enough; we want a world turned upside down and inside out. The truth of eroticism is treason.
Bataille’s affirmation of nakedness here, with its sense of a broad societal body horror, chimes with a fear of interiority that was also discussed briefly on our panel.
In an email exchange before our discussion took place, I’d mentioned to Steven that I had been in attendance for his presentation at the ICA in late 2016, during which he explored his collaborative project with Nora Khan, Fear Indexing the X-Files — an exploration of some of The X Files’ early terrors that are, in hindsight, incredibly telling of the sort of fears gripping America in the 1990s and 2000s.
The episode, “Gender Bender”, for example, from season one — its title gives away its concerns somewhat — follows a murderous shape-shifting entity capable of changing gender at will to aid in their desire to do crimes.
There is an obvious interpretation here — The X Files is transphobic — but also, if we might tentatively be more generous to what is, at best, a tone-deaf exploration of the issue, we might argue that this is simply a reflection of The X Files‘ central conceit — it is less a show about aliens and more a show about alienation.
The alienation central to the show is the fear of the interiority, both of the self and of the (Big) Other. I am not what I seem. People are not what they seem. Government is not what it seems. As uncomfortable as the plot of “Gender Bender” is to us today, it nonetheless demonstrates a show attempting to tackle questions questions of otherness and America’s intensifying fear of interiority, whether its own or that of others. (There are episodes, just as uncomfortable today, that tackle just about every taboo subject going. This article from Vulture lists the worst ones, critically but also unproductively, presumably so you can easily cancel your Gen X relative’s problematic fav.)
This conspiratorial mindset suits the American imagination like a duck to water, but it also echoes Bataille’s comments about De Sade and the sovereign man. For example, in Eroticism he writes:
Moral isolation means that all the brakes are off; it shows what spending can really mean. The man who admits the value of other people necessarily imposes limits upon himself. Respect for others hinders him and prevents him from measuring the fullest extent of the only aspiration he has that does not bow to his desire to increase his moral and material resources. Blindness due to respect for others happens every day; in the ordinary way we make do with rapid incursions into the world of sexual truths and then openly give them the lie the rest of the time. Solidarity with everybody else prevents a man from having the sovereign attitude. The respect of man for man leads to a cycle of servitude that allows only for minor moments of disorder and finally ends the respect that their attitude is based on since we are denying the sovereign moment to man in general.
(The X Files is a show that struggles to couple together the moral isolation of its central characters. I could rant for hours about how Mulder and Scully’s little archipelago of belief — and have written done so once before.)
Here, a number of paradoxes emerge. Today, the default response is surely to reject Bataille’s call to sovereignty, echoing, to our ears, a capitalistic individualism, but moral servitude and collectivity are not mutually exclusive mindsets.
It turns out that Berlin — and Berghain in particular — is the perfect place to explore these tensions today…
In her essay, Bell quotes Jack Halberstam who quotes Foucault and, following this trail of references I find “Friendship as a Way of Life”, an interview with Foucault in which he
critiques dominant forms of queer collectivity which harden and become militantly — even reactively — defensive as they try to keep the ever-rising tide of capitalist forces at bay. Whilst such a stance is perfectly understandable, all things considered, to close off passageways to the Outside is nonetheless always to consolidate oneself into a type, paradoxically making a community easier prey for capitalism’s blobjective tenacity and cultural appropriation of otherwise incompatible ways of life. As Foucault explains, the goals “is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships.”
Here we might argue that Berghain, in its utter hostility to just about everyone, is holding onto an outdated mode of transgressive relation — sadism in precisely the sense that Bataille describes it above, where moral servitude to the other is eschewed in favour of the radical sovereignty of the individual — and yet it also produces another kind of relation, one through which solidarity emerges counter-intuitively, through a sense of a shared alienation.
These are the Bataillean ethics of community that I’ve written on and around for a few years now. Jean-Luc Nancy critiqued such an ethics as being “inoperative” or “unworkable” but Blanchot shot back that the community is instead “unavowable”. A community without work that is at work nonetheless. (All of this is in Egress so excuse my brevity.)
This is, arguably, Foucault’s point also, and he affirms that the popularity of sadomasochism in gay scenes around the world has helped alleviate the problems of what would otherwise emerge from a lack of power relations. The assumption made by many is that the minoritarian politics of a maligned social group lends itself to a hegemony of relation, where everyone is perceived to be of the same social class, and such an equality of dispossession may lend itself to the proliferation of anarchic relations that are liberating but impotent in that they lack any sort of leverage over those that are oppressing them.
Here we can extend some of Foucault’s observations to the contrary. He writes, for instance, that “the important question here, it seems to me, is not whether a culture without restraints is possible or even desirable but whether the system of constraints in which a society functions leaves individuals the liberty to transform the system.” Here the importance of S&M and, we might argue, Berghain’s notorious mean-spiritedness emerges. Foucault continues:
S&M is not a relationship between he (or she) who suffers and he (or she) who inflicts suffering, but between the master and the one whom he exercises mastery. What interests the practitioners of S&M is that the relationship is at the same time regulated and open. It resembles a chess game in the sense one can win and the other lose. The master can lose in the S&M game if he finds he is unable to respond to the needs and trials of his victim. Conversely, the servant can lose if he fails to meet or can’t stand meeting the challenge thrown at him by the master. This mixture of rules and openness has the effect of intensifying sexual relations by introducing a perpetual novelty, a perpetual tension and a perpetual uncertainty, which the simple consummation of the act lacks.
When I entered Berghain, I found myself on the receiving end of a bouncer’s ire almost immediately. A woman on the door had little patience for me not immediately clarifying that I don’t speak German when asked to turn out my pockets. “You need to tell me if you don’t understand me if we’re to have any hope of communicating,” she said, fiercely impatient, making me feel meek. However, she then proceeded to communicate through hand gestures, slapping her hand down on a table to signal that she wanted to search my bag — something I did not cotton onto until she barked “your bag!” at me a second or two later. Communication was hardly something she cared about, regardless of her initial protest.
As she rummaged through my stuff, chucking my copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to one side and placing a sticker over my phone’s camera lens, as is their custom, I felt like I was watching this Foucauldian power relation in action.
I’m reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the moment as I’m intending to teach a class on it later this month and so I have been carrying it with me everywhere. I find I am only able to take it out of my bag at opportune moments, however, with its cover being quite provocative and its reputation preceding it, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. It is, in a way, like my own portal Berghain. The sex, for which it is infamous, feels largely unimportant — an embodied expression of the sociopolitical musings that surround it. This is to say that the book — like the club — is, in essence, a story about — the club: an embodiment of — the potential of erotic desire — sexual desire, most explicitly, but also an eroticism in Bataille’s more general sense — to radically transform sociopolitical relations.
Seeing the book get thrown around inside my tote bag, I, at first, felt my travel anxiety bubbling up inside of me. I do have an unfortunate tendency to become tongue-tied and mute when faced with a language barrier. Writing is one thing. In most other situations, I find speaking and conversing a challenge — and that’s in my mother tongue! When not channeling my energy into a piece of writing, I feel wholly entrapped within my own body, bashing against the edges of a self that struggles to settle into social expectations of how it should be used. Suffice it to say, I am a bumbling Englishman through and through. I was left, as D.H. Lawrence might put it: “frayed”.
Frayed! It was as if the very material you were made of was cheap stuff, and was fraying out of nothing.
As the bouncer patted down my person, I was tense, awaiting another blow to my ego, some comment passed about turning up to the club with a tote bag full of junk. (I had arrived in Berlin and spent three minutes in my hotel room before setting off on a thirty minute walk to the Drei Schwestern restaurant in Kunstquartier Bethanian to meet my fellow panelists. I had packed with the rest of the day in mind rather than packing light for my hot and sweaty Berghain excursion.) However, once the encounter with the bouncer was over, feeling a little battered by her short shrift, I trailed behind Lisa into the venue and found instead that I felt quite good about it. I had withstood her fury and made it inside. Being told off felt pretty good… She wasn’t just a bouncer high on her own power. It felt like there was a game involved. On a regular night, I reckon I would have been too meek to make it inside — and I did feel a bit self-conscious once reports made their way to us that they had closed the side entrance we had used to skip the queue and flash our festival “PARTICIPANT” passes, soon after we passed through it — but it felt like I had weathered this relation despite my individual misgivings.
During our panel, we had discussed this sort of relation implicitly. Terence, at one point, quoted Mark’s controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” in which he writes that “it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications.” This quotation resonated with me throughout the rest of the day and night.
Identitarianism, understood from the right, is a catch-all term for nationalism, white supremacy and other types of identity-fortification. From the left, however, it is seen as the darker side of “identity politics”, through which an attempt to fortify minoritarian struggles leads to minority communities becoming far too susceptible to an unconscious appeal to the authority of the Big Other — typically the state and its standards of relation.
This is a slippery argument. To take the example of “trans rights”, the desire is to emphasise the point that “trans rights are human rights” — humanising trans people in the face of what is often dehumanising discrimination. However, on the flip side, having trans experiences recognised by law and by the state also requires a compartmentalising of what these experiences can involve. Whilst trans rights are necessary to fight for, we must be vigilant that the defense of trans desires and interests do not become a Trojan horse for foreclosing these very desires and interests, adapting them so that they appear more palatable to the state.
An alternative example of this is perhaps “lean in” feminism. The fight to establish gender equality in business has simply led to an entrenchment of an explicitly capitalist view of feminist politics, in which privileged white women may find themselves having greater access to boardrooms but class and race divisions are, more broadly, left in tact and even further entrenched. This is perhaps the most explicit example of an identitarian politics being furthered in one sector whilst the broader desires and interests that fuel this position are left untouched by critique. What is left in tact, then, are institutionalized desires and interests, emboldened by supposedly progressive identity politics.
Foucault spoke about a similar challenge to relations in “Friendship as a Way of Life” but also found reason to retain hope that our desires will still perforate this kind of institutionalized relation. At one point he says:
… you can see how, in the military for example, love between men can develop and assert itself in circumstances where only dead habits and rules were supposed to prevail. And it is possible that changes in established routines will occur on a much broader scale as gays learn to express their feelings for one another in more various ways and develop new lifestyles not resembling those which have been institutionalized.
Berghain, despite its reputation for a very singular and unforgiving way of operating, retains this sense of hope also — but its position as an institution in its own right must also be kept in mind.
Although my experience with the bouncer was exactly what I might have expected from my first time in this space, once I had made my way inside this hallowed hollow, my experience shifted and became defined by the absence of any displays of its typical forms of interrelation.
Stood by the bar, with the sounds of Nene H and Ensemble Basiani emanating through the doorway from the main stage, Dhanveer was the first to inform me of just how different the space was compared to the last time he had been here. Berghain was devoid that night, he said, of the “smell of life” — the smell of bodies; of sweat and cum. He also mentioned a noticeable lack of cock-grabbing when trying to make your way through the crowd from bar to bathroom.
This absence — whilst commented upon to accentuate our distance, in that moment, from an “authentic” Berghain experience — whatever that is — was powerful nonetheless for the alternative relations it allowed to flourish.
These alternatives were epitomised by the first performance of the evening from Lyra Pramuk, who described her music as the result of her previous attempts to make her own techno — techno inspired by the sort of music she was used to hearing on her trips to Berghain. However, at some point, in the midst of her own soundscapes, she decided to strip all of the techno out. The result sounds something like a Gregorian whale song. Her voice, layered to create incredibly dynamic and thalassic soundscapes, is reduced to its most primal function. No lyrics, no drums, all affect.
I said to Lisa — who also happens to be Lyra’s booking agent — shortly after her performance, how these otherworldly vocalisations reminded me of the affectations Arthur Russell added to his vocals in between lines of lyrics, as if, even though there was no lyrical content to be expressed at that specific moment in the composition, the vocal cords kept moving; as if his vocal cords were bowed in much the same way as his cello — continuously, with interjections inserted to coax a sense of rhythm from the formless.
With this in mind, to say Lyra does to techno what Russell did to disco is a very tempting but nonetheless ill-fitting comparison. Each performance style is so utterly singular. Nevertheless, in that space, in Berghain, with its cavernous height and mysterious holes and pipes jutting out around and above the audience, I couldn’t help but feel like I was listening to World of Echo in an echo chamber. Identity, reverberating and ricocheting of the walls of the self, melts into pure desire. The bodies around us may have lacked the erotic throng to be expected from a Berghain dancefloor, but desire was still present, presented in a wholly new way for a new kind of audience.
The importance of performing her music in this space seemed in no way diminished for Lyra despite this change in circumstances. CTM simply became a prism for new refractions.
After some time spent chatting with new friends at the bar downstairs, we made our way up to Panorama Bar at midnight to see AYA.
I’m not sure what else I can say about AYA and the power she exudes from the booth. Since playing one of our for k-punk nights, I have seen her perform in the Barbican and now Berghain. On each occasion I have been repeatedly struck by her style of MCing. In every instance I’ve heard it, it cuts through the bullshit of a particular space. Her Northern twang has always evoked, for me at least, a paradox of self-deprecating vulnerability and bloodymindedness, channeling a Manchester drag night whilst at the same time encapsulating the sort of colloquial brass neck heard down the working men’s club.
Dhanveer, however, leaning into my ear, placed her in the context of a Chicago house MC. I found this really interesting. I was suddenly aware of my own understanding of an AYA performance coming from my own background and, as is the case with all her performances, the plethora of associations on offer shift depending on the venue and the audience within. Here, again, it seems there is no AYA identity, only AYA’s desires. What felt like a skewering of British class dynamics and high cultural expectations in the main hall of the Barbican felt instead like a challenge to Berlin’s sociocultural hard-nosed seriousness. Had the performance changed? Not really, but everything around it had, and that exacerbated AYA’s singularity. As such, the context of Berlin and Berghain triggered a particular constellation of thoughts and reflections.
Steven, talking about his favourite club night over dinner earlier in the evening, at Berlin’s Cocktail D’Amour, suggested that playing disco in Berlin in 2020 was a far more political gesture at the present moment than puritanical techno. This declaration was orbited by conversations with and comments by others, reflecting on instances where people have witnessed DJs being told, “You don’t play x type of music here” in Berghain. (Theo Parrish and Kode9 were two names mentioned who had been accosted in the booth in this way and responded by doubling down on their perceived transgressions.) There was no possibility of such a thing happening at CTM, however. AYA’s set of jungle classics and leftfield club edits — a thumping ode to Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At” frankly had me cackling — seemed like a huge hit with all of those present.
But this reception also begs the question: Why? And at what cost?
This is the strange paradox of a place like Berlin. I don’t pose these questions as some omniscient outsider, looking for an excuse to shove in critiques where they aren’t wanted or even necessary. Rather, it seems to me that these are the questions that some of the city’s venues — Berghain most infamously — constantly ask of themselves.
This was struck in stark relief by an industry showcase Lisa and I caught the tail end of before we made our way to Berghain that evening.
After dinner, we walked to some sort of haute couture shop, down the road from — I was told — Tresor, that seemed to only sell sunglasses but which had been transformed into a makeshift venue for a Nyege Nyege Tapes showcase. When we arrived, we were greeted by a percussive set — in terms of both sound palette and DJing style — from DJ Diaki.
It was an electric set of jagged polyrhythmic percussiveness. I briefly met Errorsmith — who I was too shy to tell I admired a great deal — and his presence helped me to connect a bunch of dots, suddenly making this intercontinental scene make sense to me in this strange space. I was reminded of what I wrote about rkss’ DJ Tools back in 2018. Here was a sharp demonstration of pushing a familiar sonic palette out beyond its limits. This is not a demonstration of “less is more” but of doing more with less.
But still, the venue jarred. Lisa drew our attention to the disparity first — artists from a scene of relative poverty performing within a shrine to decadence. This disparity, once recognised, was hard to ignore. Furthermore, the displays that surrounded the shelves, constructed from welded-together spectacle frames, provided an uncomfortable visual association with the detritus of human lives still on display at Auschwitz, further compounding this sense of an apocalyptic decadence shot through by a carnivalesque mania from the Outside.
These two displays existed side by side with an odd productivity, however. The juxtaposition was not one happened upon threw insensitivity but felt like a surrealist amalgamation of scene detritus. It was a terminal beach for Berlin hedonism, brought to bear on itself.
This productivity was retained on our walk to Berghain, through industrial estates, as Lisa offered up a fly-by guided tour of the area. “Tresor is over there… Berghain over here…”, she said, as we passed bars and flats and home improvement warehouses. These places were not hidden, as they often seem to be in London, tucked away out of sight and out of earshot. They dominated, exploding through their surroundings with a confidence that is hard to ignore in this city. Berlin’s underground erupts.
To have so much cultural activity occurring in such close proximity made London’s nightlife feel all the more oppressed in that moment. (And I say all of this as someone who feels largely out of touch with the ins and outs of a community that I only slip into occasionally — so what do I know.)
Perhaps this is just a case of different rates of development. Whereas Britain’s modernist moment occurred between the First and Second World Wars, with every successive collective outburst of creative renewal seemingly responding to a new sense of lost futures. We won the war, we love to remind ourselves, but every creative challenge to the status quo that has emerged since has been interpreted as an attempt to undermine a post-war identitarian sovereignty. (Except Britpop, obviously.)
As a result, Britain’s persistent cultural melancholy is underlined by what Dhanveer referred to as “a post-colonial melancholy” — something that Mark had a blindspot for, he argued convincingly. By contrast, Germany’s cultural shifts poignantly occurred after the wars. It is of little surprise, with the benefit of hindsight, that so many saw Berlin as a new hotspot for popular modernism during the Cold War.
With nothing left to hold onto after that momentous global event, the country’s cultural teething processes have been defined by successive egresses from a state-imposed sense of self. Post-war, post-wall, it is a city defined by a continuum of desires, persisting in the face of geopolitical wranglings. The result is a scene that feels strange and untimely. But it is nonetheless as under threat from a globalised capitalism as anywhere else. The strange poignancy of CTM Festival is that it is a festival on a precipice, potentially being both a blessing and a curse — a vector for experimental and commodification in equal measure.
All of this might be the naive observations of a small-island mentality, commenting on what is obvious to everyone but me. And yet, if there is something I am left wanting to affirm as I get back into my English routine, is that there must be new ways of making these desires — that are undoubtedly shared — transgress borders.
It was hard to ignore the fact that I flew home on Brexit day, coming back to the news of celebrations in Parliament Square, whilst roaming through airport security surrounded by cautious travelers wearing face masks, hoping to avoid the coronavirus. There are plenty of things in this world that do not care for borders — viral infections and desires are only two of them. Both are dangerous but both can also be liberating — explored through one of the world’s most famous gay scenes, it is hard not to think of both going hand in hand. In this context, capital is the virus, piggybacking on desires. We must develop ways to avoid one devastating the free movement of the other.