Boscastle is an unusual place. Rather than feeling contained to an area, like your average “settlement”, it sort of trickles down the hill, staggering along the edges of a slipstream to its eventual harbour.
It is as idyll and precarious as it sounds, with the two sensibilities seemingly at war with each other. In 2004, the latter won out when the village was devastated by a flood. The villagers have since rebuilt the place and, bar the occasional doorway flood gate, you wouldn’t know anything so horrific could have happened here.
The God-fearing might assume that Boscastle came in for such bad luck due to its history as a epicentre for the spread of modern witchcraft. That’s what brought me here as well.
Since 1960, Boscastle has been the home of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, founded by local mystic Cecil Williamson. Williamson was interested in Wicca and a practicing witch himself but he also found the distance between the neo-pagan witches of this marginal religion and the folkloric perception of witches in the popular imagination to be a fascinating contrast.
And so he set up the Museum, hoping to present modern witchcraft as something in between, with exhibits occulted and sinister for the morbidly curious but also faithful and in-depth for the modern Wiccan.
Throughout this week, I’ve been looking into contemporary Cornwall’s various occulted corners — with Troy Books being my favourite discovery so far: I picked up Gemma Gary’s The Devil’s Dozen earlier this week in Penzance and have been thoroughly enjoying it — and what I’ve found has continuously evoked that oft-quoted line from Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?:
To think is always to follow the witches’ flight.
The Museum in Boscastle is essentially a cabinet of curiosities exploring various outsider and occulted practices throughout history that walk this strange tightrope of “thought” — from thought as the embodiment of the individual Will to the collective thought of myth-making and superstition. It presents witchcraft, then, as a mode of thinking which plays on and acts through both vectors together — the power of the individual (particularly the outsider) in shaping and disrupting common sense; our “social sense”, as Bergson called it.
Indeed, witchcraft, as present by the Museum, becomes a mode of thought which takes what it can from a very broad arsenal of perceptions about cognition, from religious practice and mysticism to unsanctioned rationalisms and scientific play.
I have lots more to say on this but, having discovered in the gift shop that the Museum has its own research journal, I think I’ll try write something for the Museum itself. So watch this space for that.
For now though, in the spirit of this whole week’s What I Did On My Holidays blog takeover, here are a few of my favourite things found in the museum.
One of the most fascinating (and strangely DeleuzoBataillean) of objects is this taxidermic fox with a woman’s death mask affixed to it, supposedly commissioned by a witch who wanted to become one with her spirit animal — a becoming-animal in death.
Around the corner from this macabre amalgamation is the obligatory witches’ dildo. Whilst there are apparently many documents which speak of orgies with the Devil himself, the museum digs beneath the euphemism:
Several historians have surmised that due to the large amount of coven members often present at Sabbath meetings, it may be that an artificial phallus was used during the rites and this is why the Devil’s member was often described thus, “As cold as ice within me”….
Elsewhere, the Museum explicitly suggests that the orgiastic meetings of your local coven were more likely engaging in a communal exercise of feminine satisfaction, explicitly shunning their husbands for their inadequacies, with one document effectively gloating about how the Devil’s phallus is bigger and more fulfilling than any man’s.
There was a whole cabinet dedicated to Mother Shipton — shout out Yorkshire’s premier witchin’ cave-dweller — and also a load of texts straight out of English folk horror. So many daemonologies!
There are also voodoo dolls — from the commercially available (Hitler and Stalin pin cushions) to the home-made — as well as a cabinet full of mummified cats. Each one was excavated from within the walls or under the entrances to houses in the UK, said to be a superstition or charm that if you bury your dead cat in your house you’ll ward off all mice and rats.
There was also a collection of scrying mirrors (better known as “black mirrors”) and various other home-made objects that I’m tempted to try and make myself.
If I’m not careful, this blog might birth another side-series where I have a go at making magical artefacts and goth-looking ornaments.
A final museum feature worth noting is a lovely memorial wall at the end of your route, to your right just as you exit through the gift shop. It was home to various portraits, messages and obituaries for various patrons and donators to the Museum but one in particular caught my eye.
Jhonn [Balance] was a founder member of the magical rock band COIL, and was a magician, shaman and collector of all things magical, especially anything related to Austin Osman Spare, who’s art and philosophy he had championed for almost 2 decades. […] Jhonn was talking about lending or copying items from his immense collection of occult art for display at Boscastle in 2005 — when he heard about the flood he was distraught — but tragically that never happened; in November 2004 he fell from a balcony at his home, sustaining severe head injuring from which he did not regain consciousness. […] Much missed.
That night, I ended up drifting off to COIL’s Time Machines album after dipping back into England’s Hidden Reverse.
If I wasn’t already engrossed in the weird subcultural entanglements of this country’s modern occultist traditions, that has only be redoubled now.
I began this year with a long — and sort of shit — series of posts that I built out of an email conversation I had with Reza Negarestani. With his long-anticipated book Intelligence & Spirit finally out, and having been working on his career-spanning collection Abducting the Outside with Robin, I wanted to understand how his old work (which I felt familiar with, as an emphatic DeleuzoBataillean) was connected to his new work (which broadly went over my head in its references to the likes of Carnap and Sellars). So, I wanted to ask where he was now at and hear how he saw his own trajectory.
In hindsight, I don’t think I was very successful in transposing what felt was a genuinely productive conversation into blog form.
However, last night, whilst reading Edia Collone’s essay, “The Missing Subject of Accelerationism: Heavy Metal’s Wyrd Realism”, in the book Floating Tomb: Black Metal Theory, I found a side to Reza’s thought that I hadn’t previously considered and I think, in the process, I found the link between his rationalism and his gothicism, laid out right in front of my nose.
Negarestani, the current exemplar of that dry rational/technological Prometheanism promoted by the Reader, betrays an intimate link between black metal theory and accelerationism, whose ‘missing subject’, it would seem, is nothing more, or less, than what I would like to term, heavy metal’s wyrd realism, its ‘art of making reality, of knowing reality, and knowing how to make reality’ through its ‘aesthetics of inevitability’…
The link between old and new Reza is here, I think, in this knowing and making of reality — and, specifically, knowing and making it wyrd. In a way, we might consider the phrase “wyrd realism”, as far as Reza’s work is concerned, to have a shifting emphasis. We might tentatively frame Cyclonopedia as a theory-fictional attempt to make the wyrd real, by grounding Lovecraftian horror in philosophy. Intelligence & Spirit, on the other hand, could be seen as an attempt to make the real wyrd, in precisely the mode that science wyrds the world in our “understanding” of it on a daily basis.
What I mean by this is the wyrdness of, for instance, the first image taken of a black hole, which I wrote about the other day. The sense in which science has to bend over backwards and expend an enormous about of energy and resources just to make its discoveries visible to us.
I feel like an awareness of this is a consistent presence throughout Reza’s thought — that is, the ways in which science — but also politics, art and philosophy — all wrestle with their increasing (rather than diminishing) insufficiency with regards to giving anthropocentric form to their discoveries. The question becomes: How are we, at the level of the social, of the spirit, able to comprehend that which is, by its nature, not-for-us, especially when it is rendered somewhat (but — in the case of the black hole — barely) legible? Furthermore, what are the implications of our scientific (or other) frontiers being moved so much further outwards from what we can, cognitively and sensorially, process and be aware of?
These are questions that have always been central to philosophies of mind but I found it interesting to see the seeds of an old Batailleanism still embedded with Reza’s prose. For example, I think this is a key passage related to this from Intelligence & Spirit:
While the history of intelligence begins from death as a condition of enablement, it extends by way of a view from nowhere and nowhen through which completed totalities are removed and replaced by that which is possible yet distant, and that which seems impossible yet is attainable. […]
The only true nihilism is one that is advanced as an enabling condition for the autonomy of impersonal reason […] True nihilism is the beginning of reason, not its end. It is not something that can be libidinally yearned for or intellectually invested in: not only because it is neither a belief nor a desire — since the identification of nihilism as a belief or desire leads to pure aporia — but rather because nihilism can only be affirmed as that which renders our temporal beliefs and desires obsolete once it is maturely seen as the labour of truth through which the fleeting appearances of totalities — of states of affairs, beliefs, desires, and values — are destroyed. This is truth as the atemporal reality of mind, spirit as time.
Here we find the black metal theory of Reza’s philosophy of mind. Here we find the horror, the nigredo, of a truly philosophical science.
After much hype and fanfare, scientists have unveiled the first image of a black hole — and, as predicted, it’s not much to look at.
… But then, why should it be?
What is fascinating about this story, when you dig down into the science, is that we have essentially found a new way to image that which is imperceptible. By digging down and confronting what exactly this smudge represents (and how), we might even find something that vaguely resembles horror.
Produced using an algorithm written by MIT grad student Katie Bouman called CHIRP — which stands for “Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors” — the image is, in essence, a spatio-temporal cosmic collaboration, made by collating data from various radio telescopes around the world. It is, considering the scale at which it has been produced, a kind of planetary algorithmic vision.
The algorithm traditionally used to make sense of astronomical interferometric data assumes that an image is a collection of individual points of light, and it tries to find those points whose brightness and location best correspond to the data. Then the algorithm blurs together bright points near each other, to try to restore some continuity to the astronomical image.
To produce a more reliable image, CHIRP uses a model that’s slightly more complex than individual points but is still mathematically tractable. You could think of the model as a rubber sheet covered with regularly spaced cones whose heights vary but whose bases all have the same diameter.
Fitting the model to the interferometric data is a matter of adjusting the heights of the cones, which could be zero for long stretches, corresponding to a flat sheet. Translating the model into a visual image is like draping plastic wrap over it: The plastic will be pulled tight between nearby peaks, but it will slope down the sides of the cones adjacent to flat regions. The altitude of the plastic wrap corresponds to the brightness of the image. Because that altitude varies continuously, the model preserves the natural continuity of the image.
CHIRP effectively collates various kinds of data recorded about something which is, by its own nature, invisible and infers a visual “continuity” from that data. The fact that it looks like a light as seen through frosted glass is to be expected then and this kind of imagery will be familiar to those with any knowledge of the history of scientific imaging. For so long now, we have regularly found ourselves confronted by splodges. We might even recognise in this image the true, formless nature of photography and our photographies-to-come.
Unimpressed by Barthes’ mournful, romantic and downright “wet” prose — which fails to take into account its own obfuscatory nature — Elkins instead looks to the true phenomenological limits of the photographic image, and of sight more generally, considering images of translucent, microscopic and transformative organisms and materials as his models for the photograph and photographic experience. These images are, as far as science is often concerned, objective and full to the brim of data, and yet to us, as aesthetic beings, they are empty; even “bad”. Elkins writes:
Through a selenite window, a sharp bright day will appear fractured and broken; in lake ice, everything beyond the surface sinks into night; in rock salt, the photograph is just a reminder that something cannot be seen. […] These are all failed looks into or through something. In them, the world is fractured, folded, faint, undependable, invisible, more or less ruined. Photography doesn’t work, the way it does for Barthes, diligently supplying memories, faces, love, and loss.
At its most aesthetically pleasing, Elkins’ book considers rapatronic images of nuclear explosions, and yet he still emphasises the formless nature of these images. It is nothing but a human habit to see (and seek) form where, materially, there is none. We see a world where there is, in fact, only annihilation. Scientific imagery, in this sense, far more successfully than any other kind of photography, captures the formlessness of the universe, where scientific “meaning” ruptures semiotics with its avisual taxonomies of the void. And yet, at the same time, such images are only produced in order to attempt to satisfy that innate human desire to give things form-for-us.
Photography, for Elkins, is an often myopic medium in this regard, romanticising and humanising its own practice far more than it perhaps should. We wrest it on our all too human laurels, wishing it show us the world as we know it, with any photograph that is “unfamiliar” deemed to be a failure.
We might reconsider our “bad” photography afresh in the decades to come, more so than the public imagination has so far become accustomed to. The further out into the imperceptible universe we reach, the quicker we must get used to seeing images which are obstensibly not-for-us. But maybe that too is just wishful thinking.
We will never be happy with these images. Not really. Not as long as we strive to give shape to that which resists all form. As Bataille writes:
… for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.
Increasingly, we might expect ourselves to find these “mathematical frock coats” — which this new image of a black hole is most explicitly, whilst nonetheless still being a truly awe-inspiring scientific achievement — do not satisfy our sensibilities. And how can they? Elkins writes:
After all, from a phenomenological perspective, how could such a photograph fail to be seen as if it were human-scaled both in time and in size? Indeed, what can be apprehended — in Kant’s sense of that term, in which it is opposed to comprehension — without being taken as an image made to our own measure?
In imaging a black hole, we reduce that which is beyond experience, beyond perception, beyond us, to warm spit. Of course Twitter is disappointed.
I’m back on deep assignment in Cornwall this month with various excursions planned whilst I’m temporarily (and I hope it is only temporarily) free from regular employment, so expect more pictures than writing this month as I absorb all the weird and eeriness that Cornwall has to offer.
On the way down to the England’s utter southwest, we stopped by Stonehenge today — an overdue pilgrimage captured by Robin.
It was great. I’ve seen some serious megaliths before — the region around the Carnac stones was twice a destination for the annual family holiday when I was a child — but the very fact that this monument has been unquestionably designed, and its design remains mostly in tact, is awe-inspiring.
I get asked for film and TV recommendations a lot on CuriousCat and I’m never really sure what to say. More often than not, I ignore them, because it ultimately feels quite arbitrary.
I watch everything. Or try to. I used to literally watch everything and my threshold for liking things was low. I paid my dues with French New Wave or Polish Slow Cinema or whatever else. My favourite directors were Kieślowski, Bergman and Lynch but I don’t really want to be the guy who still recommends that stuff at the drop of a hat into his late 20s. (Although, of course, I still think they’re all great.)
If 18-year-old Film Bro me was to give you a list of films that were really influential for me, it would look like this:
I’d still stand by that list, I reckon, but I’m wary of saying it is definitive because I haven’t seen most of these films (except The Thing, which still gets frequent outings) within the last 5 years — 10 years for some. As such, I could just keep going. I’ve seen a lot of films and I’ve liked a lot of films because I was a teenage sponge and there comes a point where a list just becomes redundant because it’s whatever comes to mind first. I don’t want to equate my taste with the effectiveness of my memory. Nowadays, if I watch something and it makes me feel something out of the ordinary, I’ll probably find something to write about it right here.
I could have just said all this when an anon asked earlier if I could recommend some “Gothic media essentials” and, whilst I’d otherwise be happy to, it felt like a good opportunity to offer some broader thoughts on tastes and xenogothic media. Because not all these things are recognisably Gothic and making a list doesn’t really do enough in terms of clarifying that I actually think about the Gothic (and why this blog is called Xenogothic).
I like finding the Gothic in all the telly I watch. My view of the Gothic isn’t that normative because I don’t think the Gothic is — or, rather, it shouldn’t be — that normative. At its best, it ruptures itself. The best examples of the Gothic, for me, are often thrillers and murder mysteries rather than horror movies. More often than not, I end up chatting about the latest murder mystery on Netflix than the latest jump-scare-athon. I’m a big fan of Robin Mackay’s writing on yarnwork in this regard and Robin might be the person I talk to about TV and films the most. (In fact, we shared a folk horror kick last year, watching Blood on Satan’s Claw at Urbanomic’s Cornwall HQ.) He once wrote:
The international thriller and the detective story … present us with a localised object or event that stands out from the ground of normality, suggesting forces as yet unaccounted for. At the same time they transform that vision through abrupt shifts in perspective — the ‘plot twists’ that are the stock in trade of such narratives. This continual interrogation appeals in part because it models the predicament of finite, situated cognition and its aspirations toward universal purchase.
Gothic media essentials are, then, a misnomer for me. It’s about rupturing normality, not finding the best examples of a norm. What I’m interested in is being attuned to the weird as we can find it in the here and now, and the now and then. And there are plenty of examples of media that do that, albeit not being readily seen as “Gothic”. “American Horror Story” never quite got my vote, for example, because it felt so invested in heavy-handed genre tropes. I much prefer the neo-baroque of “Hannibal“, for instance, or, most recently, I liked that new adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House“. Another series I can’t stop thinking about is “Children of the Stones“, particularly for the way that Mark wrote about it on the Hyperstition blog, tapping into a vigilant and militant dysphoria.
The Siberian Times reports that locals in the Russian cities of Prokopyevsk, Kiselyovsk and Leninsk-Kuznetsky are reporting black snow falling from the sky and covering the landscape.
Pictures shared by locals show alarming black winter scenes with one comment reading: ‘Is this what snow looks like in hell?’
Others have claimed there is a beauty in the bleak snowscapes.
Local media have blamed the gloom on local plants processing coal.
Whilst pollution is one solution, the locals might also do well to consider the geotraumatic influence of the Channel Zero black snow cult.
As long as the local media continues to report on the phenomenon, things must be okay. It’s when things go quiet that we should start to worry.
In the words of Blind Humpty Johnson: “Nothing comes out of the black snow.”
Nothing comes out of the black snow / Nothing comes to you through Channel Zero / Coming to you unlive / Coming to you unrecorded…
Zeroing in on you
That’s what we foresee / A wave of black snow / An impending absolute collective blindness / And from among the tatters of electromagnetic shadow / Seething out of the lost signal / Pour the chaotic myriads / To return the earth to its sub-primordial state.
Since writing my previous post on “Reweirding Arcadia” — about Paul Wright’s film Arcadia and how it traces a long trajectory of folk frivolity resistant subjective impositions, calling for a reweirding of the cultural and physical landscape — I’ve wondered how such a sentiment might translate over the pond, or to Australia, or to any of our newer nation-states which seem to have kept their sense of the weird more or less in tact.
The British weird is only somewhat culturally in tact. Our consciousness of such things has been buried. You have to really dig for it. The same cannot be said of America, for instance, with its folkloric weirdness and the tourist trade being inherently entwined. What is further admirable is the way this weirdness has mutated to match new sociocultural developments. Lynchian suburbia, UFOs, cryptozoology… Weird America is very much a part of its economic system, it seems, and therefore remains close to the surface. The ghosts of its patchwork weirdness are still there for all to see.
As an outsider, every aspect of American cultural life seems to be afflicted by this symbiotic relationship between mundanity and surreality. But, viewed from within, perhaps all this is is another mode of capture.
In thinking about this, I stumbled upon what is perhaps the best and most normalised example of a proper cultural reweirding; a weird turn so quickly canonised that I bet most wouldn’t think of it as a reweirding at all. It’s not Twin Peaks or Roswell. It’s when Bob Dylan went electric.
At home over Christmas, I spotted Greil Marcus’s book Invisible Republic sat neglected on a bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. I don’t remember when or why I bought it. I like Bob Dylan — and I like The Band even more — and Greil Marcus is undoubtedly one of the greatest music writers of all time — but I don’t remember a time when I might have been enthused enough by a combination of all three to read a whole book about them.
Nevertheless, it hummed at me.
Watching Arcadia, I was struck by the film’s repeated usage of the voice of Anne Briggs. Her back catalogue of often unaccompanied folk standards, recorded during Britain’s ’60s folk revival, is a veritable treasure trove of ghostly folk.
I’ve had this obsession with Briggs ever since I first heard Grouper’s 2013 FACT mix, made whilst she was doing a residency in Bristol. She begins with three of my all-time favourite weird folk songs, combining them into such a potent trajectory it feels like she just might open up a portal to another world.
Ivor Cutler → Jandek → Anne Briggs
Ever since this mix took over my life in 2013, Briggs’ 1971 self-titled album has become, distilled through repetitive listening, the most potent vector for entering a consciousness of a haunted and haunting Britain. And so, when I heard her voice floating amongst the soundtrack to Arcadia, which features her track “Lowlands”, I got major shivers.
Over Christmas, with Briggs now back on heavy rotation in my flat, I had wanted to write a post about this usage of voice on the film’s soundtrack, somehow connecting the folk revival scene made famous by the likes of Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and others, to the rave scene in the 1990s. The film implied it but I wanted to excavate it more. However, it felt like too much of a stretch.
Then, flicking through Marcus’s book in my childhood bedroom, I saw a chapter titled “The Old, Weird America” and my curiosity was peaked. Maybe there’s something in this, I thought, and so I picked it up and brought it home to London, reading it in its entirety in a single overnight sitting. I have been blown away by it.
Immediately I was struck by Marcus’s characterisation of Dylan’s electric period, referring to the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as “a single outburst” which ranks amongst “the most intense outbreaks of twentieth-century modernism; they join the whole Gothic-romantic traverse of American self-regard.” Marcus’s focus, however, is not on the albums of that period but rather those most mythological recordings: The Basement Tapes.
Following that most infamous of tours in which he officially “went electric”, during which he was effectively booed around the world for a year, Dylan was in a motorcycle accident and ended up taking a long break from public appearances, ending up just jamming with his backing band in a Woodstock basement throughout the summer of 1967.
They recorded their efforts, for whatever reason — audio note-taking perhaps — but never intended to release a sound from them.
Nevertheless, they got out. The heavily bootlegged tapes were — and somewhat remain — the stuff of legend and Marcus describes them as these ahistorical records of moment in which both Bob Dylan and America at large are on the brink of tearing themselves apart in their odd reflection of one another at the height of his folk fame.
Marcus frames this period in America’s and Dylan’s histories not as the rupturing shock of the new but as a wrestling match between a contemporary American moment and the romanticised vision of America’s self which was allowing it to disregard itself. As such, Marcus writes that the “music carried an aura of familiarity, of unwritten histories, and as deep a sense of self-recognition, the recognition of the self — the singer’s? the listener’s? — that was both historical and sui generis.”
Marcus later notes that, as you listen to these songs, recorded in a time warp, unintended for public consumption, they soon “begin to sound like a map; but if they are a map, what country, what lost mine, is it that they centre and fix?” For Marcus, what we hear are “certain bedrock strains of American cultural language … retrieved and reinvented.”
This sense of a time warp is both the result of the events of the year itself and the circumstances of their recording — transitory, shifting, violent. That is not to say that they are these things in themselves, however. They are the product of waiting out the storm overhead. The Basement Tapes, for many, were the sound of killing time. As Marcus continues:
Music made to kill time ended up dissolving it. As one listens, no date adheres to the basement tapes, made as the war in Vietnam, mass deaths in black riots in Newark and Detroit, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Summer of Love all insisted, in their different ways, on the year 1967 as Millennium or Apocalypse, or both. The year “America fell apart,” Newt Gingrich has said; “deserter’s songs,” a skeptic called the basement tapes in 1994, catching an echo of a few people holed up to wait out the end of the world.
But what Marcus hears on these tapes is a foreseen Dylan who would not emerge onto the public stage until the early 1990s. A Dylan returning to a mode of expression that was wholly unpopular so as to reweird his beloved folk tradition. In the 1990s, “Bob Dylan, then in his early fifties, suddenly recast what had come to seem an inexorably decaying public life with two albums of old blues and folk songs, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong.” This moment is cast as an inversion; the moment Dylan went folk (again).
“It is almost inconceivable that this is the man who once broke rock — as a form, as a mode of experience — in half,” critic Howard Hampton had written of one of Dylan’s albums a few years before. “Now he’s the dutiful repairman. ‘Everything is broken,’ he sings, but promises the pieces can be put back together in his art as assuredly as they cannot be in the world. This is an inversion of what his work once meant, but it is also a continuation of the political world of the last twenty years. Society has structured itself around the suppression of the kinds of demands Dylan’s music once made, that it might make such speed unimaginable all over again.” But it seemed as if it were precisely an unimaginable form of speech — a once-common, now-unknown tongue — that Dylan had found, or was now proffering, in ancient songs.
Marcus paints the entirely of Dylan’s career as a meandering quest to keep folk weird, to keep life and art weird, restless and non-conforming — a quest uncommon to much of the folk revivals of that time, particularly the more classical, British attempts at instilling new life in folk oldies.
Where Dylan prevailed, much to the upset of his audiences, and just like when he went electric, and then back again, “his old-timey albums were bereft of any nostalgia.” For Marcus, his work is violently recursive. “If they were a look back they were a look that circled back, all the way round to where the singer and whoever might be listening now stood.”
Marcus’s book begins properly with an anecdote about Dylan’s fondness for a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day”. He recounts an anecdote from backstage at the Royal Albert Hall on Dylan’s tour of Britain in 1966 where he was actively protested by disgruntled fans who bought tickets only so that they could walk out on their former idol. Sister Rosetta must have been perpetually on Dylan’s mind those days.
Such strange things went unnoticed, however. Dylan’s fans didn’t want strange. They wanted tradition. They wanted to hear a man transduce what they saw as their own identity back to them as a pill that was easy to swallow. Instead, they were ready to riot.
Dylan’s backing band was likewise unstable at this time. Whilst Dylan weathered the storm of doubt and persevered through his audience’s anger, his band members came and went, less assuaged to their new direction and the threats they received for it. Assassinations, after all, were a frequent occurrence in 1960s America. JFK. Medgar Evans. Martin Luther King Jr. Andy Warhol. Malcolm X. It was also the decade when the “one-day mass murder” became common-place and began to increase exponentially every year afterwards. It’s not unreasonable that many of Dylan’s backing band members feared for their lives, not least because what Dylan was doing was tearing apart their sense of self before their very eyes.
But Dylan didn’t want to be a part of the folk revival any longer, at least not what it had become. The politics of the folk revival’s tandem revival of class consciousness had become deeply problematic in that decade of war and violence. That is not to say that it had not started well and well-meaning, with an internal ideology that was intrinsically aligned with the civil rights movement.
Marcus quotes Robert Cantwell who writes that the Folk Revival wanted to claim folk culture — “oral, immediate, traditional, idiomatic, communal, a culture of characters, of rights, obligations, and beliefs” — and place it in direct opposition to the new capitalist culture of the time: “a centrist, specialist, impersonal, technocratic culture, a culture of types, functions, jobs, and goals.” He also quotes Robert Shelton, who writes:
What the folk revivalists were saying, in effect, was: “There’s another way out of the dilemma of modern urban society that will teach us all about who we are. […] Long before the Kennedy Administration posited the slogan, “The New Frontier,” the folk revivalists were exploring their own new frontier, traveling to the country, in actuality or imagination, trying to find out if there was truly a more exciting life in America’s continuing past.
The folk revival was hugely successful in providing people — but also primarily a burgeoning new leftism — with an retooled identity to carry forwards into a new world. It was patriotic but likewise revisionist. It wanted an America that stood by its own founding values, that stood by its declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was the true music of “We the people…”
This is a familiar sentiment with many musics since this time. We might likewise note that A Tribe Called Quest, as a bastion of a “classic” and politicised hip hop, seized this sentiment for themselves very recently, in the age of Trump — making a comeback to fill a void they felt had been opened up with Trump’s election, a void that made an old voice worthy of renewal, but a voice that was nonetheless infused with a new and vibrant afrofuturist call for the new.
As Bob Dylan sang — like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, or any of hundreds of other folk singers, but more powerfully, and more nakedly — or as he was heard, he embodied a yearning for peace and home in the midst of noise and upheaval, and in the aesthetic reflection of that embodiment located both peace and home in the purity, the essential goodness, of each listener’s heart. It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by people mostly from small towns and tiny settlements in the South, a strange and foreign place to most who were now listening — music that seemed the product of no ego but of the inherent genius of a people — the people — people one could embrace and, perhaps, become. It was the sound of another country — a country that, once glimpsed from afar, could be felt within oneself. That was the folk revival.
We might acknowledge that this was not just the folk revival but also the thriving world of jazz, taken to cosmic heights with the dawn of afrofuturism, but also the world of rave too. The music of a people that contains within it the atemporal echoes of a people to come.
Unfortunately, like all scenes and genres of its kind, this beating heart was stopped, arrested by the creeping fingers of commerce and false consciousness. The Folk Revival — or any other more explicit form of popular modernism — may not have begun this way but this is where it was inevitably led. For Marcus, what must be acknowledged here is the romanticised understanding of this music and how, for Dylan especially, it had begun to starve itself of oxygen. This equivalence of a sound and its people led to the sort of life = art philosophy that killed a young sociocultural movement. He writes:
The kind of life that equaled art was life defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion. In folklore this was nothing new. “Thanks to folksong collectors’ preconceptions and judicious selectivity, artwork and life were found to be identical,” historian Georgina Boyes writes in The Imagined Village. “The ideological innocence which was the essence of the immemorial peasant was also a ‘natural’ characteristic of the Folk and their song.” A complete dissolution of art and life is present in such a point of view: the poor are art because they sing their lives without mediation and without reflection, without the false consciousness of capitalism and the false desires of advertising.
Marcus goes on to cite Ellen J. Stekert, who saw the New York City folk revival through which Dylan made his name as the direct descendent of the Communist folk music circles found in the city in the 1930s. However, for Stekert, the romantic equivalence of art and life that soon defined the revival was a “pitiful confusion”. She once wrote that it was “monstrous for urbanites to confuse poverty with art.” (This is, of course, something you’ll find in every city in the West these days, although it is a poverty that is generally only pursued by those who can afford it.) Marcus himself writes:
When art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people.
When Bob Dylan went electric, rupturing his now famous troubadour image, it was this — says Marcus — that he was turning away from and “in the most spectacular way.”
In September 1965, as the juror over his replacement of object with subject was growing, he tried, at a press conference in Austin, Texas, site of his first performances with the Hawks [later known as The Band], to explain. He argued, it seems, that in a profound sense his music was still folk music, though that was a term he would refuse soon enough: “Call it historical-traditional music.” Despite the phrase, it was as if he saw traditional music as being made less by history or circumstance than by particular people, for particular unknown reasons — reasons that find their analogue in haunts and spirits. One can hear him insisting that the song he had been writing and performing over the previous year were those in which events and philosophies with which one could identify had been replaced by allegories that could dissolve received identities.
This dissolution of identity which is such a common but also a much maligned affect of the lived experience of the American West, along with its persistent place within the American psyche, is precisely a function which drew me to write about Westworld last year. This is a form of cultural production that is so intensely American and yet also a form of cultural production that America seems to largely hate about itself. What is ridiculed as a “self-disregard” aboard, may be championed in another light at home, where this self-disregard, if channeled correctly, forms a foundation for a people-to-come.
The dumbest thing America ever did for itself was to think that it had gone from a people-to-come to a people arrived, throwing away their inherent becomings for the consolidation of the nation-states most of the population had moved away from.
White America was captured by an unfortunate Robinson Crusoe logic — a logic derided by so many, from Marx to Deleuze. Most recently, however, I read a summary of this issue as articulated by Henri Bergson:
Vainly do we try to imagine an individual cut off from all social life. Even materially, Robinson Crusoe on his island remains in contact with other men, for the manufactured objects he saved from the wreck, and without which he could not get along, keep him within the bounds of civilisation, and consequently within those of society. But a moral contact is still more necessary to him, for he would be soon discouraged if he had nothing else to cope with his incessant difficulties except an individual strength of which he knows the limitations. He draws energy from the society to which he remans attached in spirit; he may not perceive it, still it is there, watching him: if the individual ego maintains alive and present the social ego, he will effect, even in isolation, what he would with the encouragement and even the suppose of the whole of society. Those whom circumstances condemn for a time to solitude, and who cannot find within themselves the resources of a deep inner life, know the penalty of “giving way,” that is to say of not stabilising the individual ego at the level prescribed by the social ego. They will therefore be careful to maintain the latter, so that it shall not relax for one moment its strictness towards the former. If necessary, they will seek for some material or artificial support for it. You remember Kipling’s Forest Officer, alone in his bungalow in the heart of the Indian rukh? He dresses every evening for dinner, so as to preserve his self-respect in isolation.
In Bergson’s diagnosis, we see the seed for Deleuze and Guattari’s later rebellion. But what is intriguing about the case of America, as Dylan himself drew attention to so controversially, is that it is not “civilisation” which the American clings to in times of isolation but what Leslie Fiedler has called the “Vanishing American” — the native, the Indian, the savage — that stereotype so oppressed by American history which every American nonetheless professes to have some ancestral genetic connection to. The wild, pre-consolidated American. This itself became a crutch for preserving American self-respect during their isolation within modernity.
I don’t think it is any coincidence, now considering this pivotal cultural moment in 1967, that Mark Fisher returned to this time for his unfinished book, Acid Communism. Indeed, he repeatedly quotes Herbert Marcuse and his book One-Dimensional Man, which was so inspirational for many within the counterculture. At one point he notes how “Marcuse worried about the popularisation of the avant-garde, not out of elitist anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture.”
Dylan’s fans were perhaps afflicted by an elitism. Electric guitars were the sound of pop. They lacked purity. But, for Dylan, this pop moment of technocultural advancement gave him visions of a new folk that was no less resistant. It may have articulated itself in the sonic language of pop — or, perhaps more accurately, pulp — but that was so it could reveal to the folk revival its own puritanical frog march into conservatism.
As Mark wrote:
The subduing of the counterculture has seemed to confirm the validity of the scepticism and hostility to the kind of position Marcuse was advancing. If “the counterculture led to neoliberalism”, better that the counterculture had not happened. In fact, the opposite argument is more convincing — that the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed.
In Marcus’s book, we can see this sentiment encapsulated in a microcosm. The year that Dylan went electric was a dreaming of a new folk future, repudiated by those supposedly on his side. History mocks them, but we should mourn the loss of such sonic challenges to our inner Crusoe’s.
The last post on this occasioned a great comment from Ed which I can’t let languish below the comments line. (Has Twitter replaced the old fervent comments section activity of yesteryear?) Ed writes:
The question of whether or not capital has agency — or something like agency — is also intimately connected to the question of ‘what is capital?’. In the standard economic account capital denotes wealth in its various guises — physical assets, financial assets, factors of production, etc, measured and expressed through monetary value. If we go with this understanding of capital, then the question “does capital have agency” comes to appear like a silly one: one owns capital in the form of assets or whatever, thus making one a capitalist. One then is able to move one’s assets about, selling them off, buy new ones and so on, often with certain strategic elements in mind (bringing in things like Austrian theories of time preference). It makes sense why the various orthodox schools of economics would flock to this basic understanding, since it cedes power to the capitalist and above all emphasizes the role of the individual commanding the power at their disposal.
When the left picks up this understanding, the result is predictable: the problem becomes less structural, and can be solved simply by getting rid of the ‘bad people doing bad things’. The gamut of solutions from egalitarian liberalism to conscious capitalism to replacing the capitalists with the state — or in other cases, the workers themselves — stems fundamentally from this problem. Which of course is the problem you raise here, brilliantly… I was hoping to write something up on the intersection of the agency question with magical voluntarism but you beat me to it!
It should go without saying that Ed should definitely pick this up. He’d no doubt expand on it with far more insight than me!
Relatedly, I’m coming to realize more and more what that the critique of agency by U/Acc was, at least for me, a critique of voluntarism. This bit from Fisher’s critique of Bakker is brilliant in spelling that out:
“Agency does not entail voluntarism. On the contrary, voluntarism is likely to impede agency by obfuscating the causal factors which prevent entities from acting, or which can enable them to act more effectively. Marxism has always known this – what does the famous claim that men make history but not in conditions of their own making mean if not that agency is not the same as the assertion of will? In truth, leftist voluntarism involved a backsliding from the model of agency which Marx had proposed. This Marxian account of agency strikingly resonates with Catherine Malabou’s account of plasticity, which, as Nick Srnicek pointed out in his discussion of Neuropath, offers rich resources for rethinking agency in the light of neuroscientific discoveries. “‘What we have called the constitutive historicity of the brain is really nothing other than its plasticity,” Malabou claims. “In ordinary speech [plasticity] designates suppleness, a faculty for adaptation, the ability to evolve. … Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, ‘formable,’ and formative at the same time. … But it must be remarked that plasticity is also the capacity to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create.”
Which delivers us to your question: “Why focus on capital?”
Contra BA in the thread, I don’t think that capital is just one system amongst many. If we take capital in the narrow sense addressed above them yes, it is an element, ultimately under human control but perhaps mystified (or perhaps double-mystified in the case of ideologues: capital under human control -> capital as self-moving substance -> actually under human control after all), that exists in conjunction with other interacting systems. But turning the Marxian account of capital is essential, since it annihilates this individualist supposition and reveals how capital does have an agency in the sense that you have defined here: ability to act as a causal force. Capital isn’t simply owned assets, or means of production, or money (if it was reducible to one of these things, we could theoretical extend capital infinitely into the past, a nonsensical proposition), but something other than them that is nonetheless identifiable to them in this historical moment. It allows convertability between them, empowers their circulation; basically, it moves beneath them, hence the “general formula for capital” being the M-C-M’ loop in itself, and not a distinct moment in it.
The “realisation that our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own” sums it up perfectly: far from being a something moved about by the individual capitalist, capital imparts a unique mode of social mediation, which deposits itself, as Deleuze and Guattari might say, in every pore of society. As the movement of value, it may in distinct moments ultimately derive from labor, but read as a historical flow it captures because it has imposed the value-form on it, making labor into a commodity. Totalizing? Yes, but that’s something that must be taken seriously and not shrugged off. Limits our range of options? Yah. But it also points to the place where politics is capable of being reborn: not in some unmolested pocket free of capitalist relations, or in some mythologized past, but in the abstract possibility of the future. And it illustrates the limit of capital’s domination: in the value-form itself.
An epiphany was had today, and — as ever — it was because of something Robin said.
A frequently debated and ridiculed suggestion that circles the acceleratosphere is that capital has its own agency; that it is an autonomous agency. What is meant by this is very dependent on context.
The two examples that always come to mind for me — that is, the examples I’m most familiar with — are Fisher’s nods to it in The Weird and the Eerie, when he writes, in his introduction to the book’s second half:
Since the eerie turns crucially on the problem of agency, it is about the forces that govern our lives and the world. It should be clear to those of us in a globally tele-connected world capitalist world that those forces are not fully available to our sensory perception. A force like capital does not exist in any substantial sense, yet it is capable of producing any sort of affect.
I also think about Cyclonopedia, in which Reza invokes the petropolitics of oil, describing oil itself as an “inorganic demon” of geotrauma and latent capital. He writes that inorganic demons “are parasitic by nature, they themselves give rise to their xenotating existence, and generate their effects out of the human host, whether as an individual, an ethnicity, a society or an entire civilisation.” There are countless more examples as well. These two, in particular, evoke Fisher’s Gothic Materialism. Many others also call back to the Ccru’s meatpuppeteer Monarch Program and the geotraumatics of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (“Who does the Earth think it is?”), even to Nietzschean materialism and Spinozistic visions of nature.
My question when faced with these suggestions has generally always been: “What do we mean by agency here?” Agency is seemingly always tied to a conscious subject but the dictionary definition is perhaps more vague than you might expect, understood as an “action or intervention producing a particular effect”. No mention of a subject here. Philosophically speaking, it is much less slippery, of course. When we speak of agency we mean an actor’s capacity to act, and this definition is typically associated with ethics.
For Mark, Reza and others, the definition taken is something in between. The definition of actor, for instance, is taken broadly. For Mark, the eerie is a question of agency because, at the level of perception, we may be able to sense an action without any concrete knowledge of its source — Mark’s example is the “eerie cry”; a voice produced by an unknown body. That doesn’t mean there is no actor there but rather that knowledge of an actor may not necessarily precede the sensing of its actions.
The complaint of those who dislike this definition being applied to capital is that this serious sociopolitical concept is allowed to slip between economic realities and fictions — narratively speaking, that is — although, on the stock market, this quantum and speculative understanding is commonplace.
Such an argument showed up on Twitter recently, with @brightabyss sharing an article by Alain Badiou in which he apparently “doesn’t get taken in be the fantasy of Capital as autonomous agency” — in fact, it seems to me that he does. He refers to capitalism as an actor in the title.
Nevertheless, @brightabyss is clear to note that “Capitalist systems are steered by capitalists.” The main point to be made here, I think, is one clarified by @b8zs: suggesting that it is a case of the distinction between “Capital as autonomous agency vs. Capitalist systems steered by (individually responsible) capitalists” — we should really emphasise the point that capitalists are taken to be “individually responsible” for capitalism here.
I won’t recount the whole twitter debate here — although it was a good’un — but rather stick with this initial framing of the argument. Because the question of agency, as I see it, is not one of picking a side but rather acknowledging the flow between these two positions — one socially amorphous and the other reductively individualising.
The danger of framing discussions strictly along the lines of the latter is that it places all agency on the head of the individual which, in itself, is a typically neoliberal framing of debates around the likes of climate change or poverty — what Mark Fisher (via David Smail) once called “magical voluntarism”. Mark writes in his essay “Good For Nothing”:
For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ — the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be — is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression — whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it. A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.
What are the benefits of taking this and using it to punch upwards? We can do this for members of government, who are occupationally responsible for such things, sure, but to spread this thinly across society as a whole is no better a solution than the reading of “agency” supposedly being critiqued. It frames the problem laterally rather than hierarchically — reducing “capitalists” to as broad a moral demographic as “meat eaters”. It seems more like the learned behaviour of this ideology in and of itself, reflected back at the powers that be.
Without the inclusion of a critique of social structures, the analysis is as oppressive as it is impotent.
The theory-fictional approach to horrorising this omnipotent agency should not be taken “literally”, but that is not to say we cannot acknowledge the cultural importance of our fictions and the ways in which they raise consciousness around issues through narrative extrapolation. This was, in part, the point made by Robin through the analogical image of the jungle.
The anarchitecture of the jungle, as found in so many literary examples — Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ballard’s The Drowned World were ours — is representative of the disappearance of a familiar architecture that you know; an external infrastructure which helps to give shape to your sense of self through habit and language and semiotics.
Once this architecture — understood most generally as space-time but we can draw things into a sociopolitical infrastructure — is dissolved into the chaos of the jungle, you can only keep attributing your actions to a self for so long. Eventually, the familiar sociopolitical architecture of habit and understanding is no longer in place so that you cannot distinguish your agency from the agency of your own environment.
This is the entire plot of They Live!, isn’t it? The sunglasses make the jungle of libidinal engineering under capitalism suddenly legible. Once you become aware of the messages all around you, our understanding of individual agency is dissolved.
Or we can think about The Truman Show. Here the plot is inverted. Truman lives a dull existence until, one day, he comes to realise that no one around him has any agency of their own. They are all part of a literal architecture that structures his entire life. He is the only agentic subject in the Truman Show. Is this emphasising of his agency liberatory? No. Not at first. Whilst he remains trapped in the overbearing infrastructure, his desire to run headlong into the transcendental wall of his existence is portrayed as a kind of megalomaniac paranoia — even if we, the audience, know he is justified.
This fictive realisation that our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own is precisely the point made by countless theorists and fiction writers. The solution to this is not to double-down on one conspiratorial agency or our individuality, but rather hold both as influencing their other in tandem.
Badiou, in the article shared by @brightabyss, seems to say as much himself — and let us not ignore, at the very start, the way in which capitalism is framed as a “sole culprit”; an agentic actor. He writes:
Technological transhumanism remakes us as that hackneyed, inexhaustible theme of horror and science fiction movies: the creator overwhelmed by his creation, either enchanted by the coming (which has been awaited since Nietzsche) of the Ubermensch, or fearful of it, taking refuge in the skirt of Gaia, Mother Nature.
Let’s take things a step further. Humanity, for four or five millennia, has been organized by the triad of: private property, which concentrates enormous wealth in the hands of very slender oligarchies; the family, through which fortunes pass through inheritance; the state, which protects both property and family through armed force. It is this triad that defines the Neolithic age of our species, and we are still there — indeed now more than ever. Capitalism is the contemporary form of the Neolithic, and its enslavement of technologies by competition, profit, and the concentration of Capital only brings to their apex the monstrous inequalities, social absurdities, warlike massacres and deleterious ideologies which have always accompanied the deployment of new technologies under the historical reign of class hierarchy.
The suggestion here seems to be that, whilst we may imagine ourselves being overcome by our own creations, we fail to acknowledge the ways in which this has already occurred. But this is precisely the role of so many theory-fictional enterprises: the extrapolation of the situations we are already currently in.
Why focus on capital? Why not? It is inseparable from any other multiplicitous organising system. Whatever the target of our ire, the question of agency remains central.
I’ll end with my favourite (early) passage from Ballard’s The Drowned World:
This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
The ASSEMBLY programme at Somerset House last weekend was pretty incredible. Unfortunately, I found out about it all far too late. I scrambled to get a couple of tickets for events but, in the end, only went to see two talks.
(I was very excited to see Gazelle Twin perform on Friday night but illness meant her show had to be cancelled last minute.)
With Xenogothic being heavily invested in the revitalisation of our otherwise captured gothic tendencies, the idea of a panel discussion on a new gothic extreme romanticism seemed right up my street.
Whilst it was a fun talk with some brilliant people, unfortunately I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with the way the discussion went. It revolved, primarily, around ideas of a new communality in extreme music, a new sense of compassion, but I was left unconvinced it was anything new… It felt instead like watching a group of people rediscover a forgotten element of goth’s DNA, and an unfortunate example of a music scene demonstrating the internalisation of its own bad press.
Amongst discussions of the politics of BDSM and John Bence’s barely repressed murderous impulses, what struck me most was a discussion around the failure of atheism. Ravens noted how, as a teenager, she was an adamant atheist, as were most kids, refusing to entertain any form of irrationality. Atheism was synonymous with a (proto-)neo-rationalism but this is, apparently, in 2018, no longer cool.
Goths today, it was suggested, are less defined by a cosmic pessimism and more by an occulted spirituality. The things that many people would previously not have been caught dead near are now all the rage: horoscopes, tarot, crystals… The oddities of our spiritual pasts have now reemerged to constitute a more broadly populist spiritualism, with goth dragged into the milieu and given a new superficial foundation in the 21st century. There’s nothing wrong with those things exactly, in and of themselves, and I know many people who dabble with them under the light of a lucid materialism, but I refuse to swallow the argument that these things are indicative of gothic innovation or a new form of romantic extremity. Surely, it’s well-trodden ground, with this “new” form being nothing more than a symptom of goth’s continued capitalist capture?
The pervasiveness of capitalism means that, of course, it has become an integral (albeit contradictory) component of our innumerable contemporary subjectivities and ideologies — even those that profess to stand in opposition to it. To miss this and direct the blame at our countercultures in themselves is very symbolic of our current melancholic mindsets.
For the panel, regardless, the verdict was damning and framed in a way that I really did not expect to hear: these elements have been revitalised within goth culture because atheism has failed. It’s too cold.Too cold even for goths…
I couldn’t help but think that this was a false characterisation of a nihilistic atheism informed by its own critics; by the inherent religiosity of a moralising contemporary Left, its problematic outcries caught in their own echo chamber, only strengthening the inner Catholic whip, caught between an attempt to heretically invert Judeo-Christian rituals whilst nonetheless being immediately captured within their normalised parameters.
This was something that the panel themselves were nonetheless humorously aware of. The abject tension of John Bence introducing his Kill EP as an opportunity for him to channel his very real murderous impulses felt like a case in point — until somehow laughed and crossed the impasse of British politeness. Bence then continued to poke fun at this by feigning(?) a sensitivity to the anti-Christian. But it was hard to know to what extent everyone was in on the joke or how far down the joke went, and, as a result, much of the conversation seemed to continue with a bizarre sincerity…
This was most evident when music itself was held up as central to this new communality — the panel was made up of musicians after all — and it is true: music does resonate with the outside most effortlessly. However, for this panel, music’s affective nature was limited to its associations with an organised religiosity. No one thought to make the point that the “sacred” in music is an expression of something that is “religious” by association only, incapable of being limited to religion in and of itself. I kept wanting to jump in, stick my hand up, and champion the Bataillean “sacred” — that atheological but nonetheless sublime experience of “communion”; of “communication”.
The “sacred”, for Bataille, is a world distinct from work; a world of “festival, intensified delight, joy, and abandonment.” And Bataille was, of course, the OG Goth of the 20th century, viscerally informed by Nietzsche’s thinking. The intensive compassion of his communism seems totally in line with this “new” gothic that the panel had gathered to discuss, albeit ejected into some new beyond through a templexed association with a moral antiquity. (But when they was familiar territory even for Bataille.)
Here I was reminded of my Wednesday night out with @thejaymo, at one point discussing our shared interest in Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth, with its aim towards “updating and de-mystifying religious thought [through] magick, technology, poetry, musick, whatever!” I still like TOPY’s self-aware appeals to magick. They’re clear in their intentions. For example, their “statement ov intent” is downright Deleuzean. It reads:
As first steps towards change, we attempt to cultivate an awareness ov thee consequences ov our thoughts and actions, and to direct our energies in constructive directions. All this is done on thee understanding that our thoughts and behaviour form thee interface between our lives and thee lives ov others, and their repercussions are therefore endlessly returning.
Awareness is consequently a requirement for our personal and collective survival and evolution. Still, we recognise that awareness itself is dependent on information, communication, and personal commitment. Our work is subsequently practical, exchanging models and methods we have found useful to ourselves. Thus we do not dictate, but rather focus on expanding thee available possibilities through thee cross-fertilisation ov suggestions, successes, and failures. And for us this is a full-time commitment, a continual process ov being, an endless myriad ov becomings.
I mention this here only because I feel like so many post-80s (cyber)goth cultures have been rooted in some form of these same beliefs. It was a 21st century anethics presented via a language and aesthetics that was wholly other to the prevailing interests and discourses of the time but nonetheless centred around the power of collective rituals, whatever they may be. It likewise echoes the delirious mythos of the Ccru: the irrational rationalism of technomagick explored in tandem with the rational irrationalism of stock market hype. (What is hyperstition if not a magick that de-mystifies the religious pathologies of financial speculation in cyberspace, amongst other things?)
Here, the suspicion remains: perhaps I’m not in on the joke. Perhaps everyone knows this. Each of their works traverse these lines with skill and with ease, containing and dramatising all of these elements, traveling far beyond them. (Gazelle Twin, most specifically, even in her absence, epitomises this new gothic.) None of their bodies of work can be reduced to a wayward panel discussion, but I was nonetheless left bemused by it. If all of the above is familiar to them, they’re doing an awful job of articulating it…
Then I hear Gainsborough’s suggestion that we are, in fact, all to blame for goth’s subcultural failings, saying something along the lines of: “When God died, we threw the baby out with the bathwater” — conjuring up a wonderfully and inadvertently grotesque image. His argument seemed to be that the death of God also killed our communality and a renewed pop cultural interest in the materiality of the occult and the esoteric is a reaction against the normalised nihilism of our mandatory individualisms, emboldened by a societal fear of the collective ritual. But we might note that TOPY’s statement ov intent reads like a rave sensibility made goth and there are many other subcultures like it. So where is this sensibility now? It seems long gone, and most certainly neutered, but by what? By our own lack of faith? I don’t think so. All this new pop irrationalism signals, for me, is the project’s failure to ward off capitalist capture. I’d even go so far as to argue that the death of God has nothing to do with it — at least not explicitly
I have always felt like the image of Nietzsche’s madman in the marketplace was particularly prescient in being situated in a space of commerce, as if capitalism had long been primed to infiltrate that space reserved for God’s slowly decomposing corpse. The point of the parable of the death of God is surely that the world is indifferent to its announcement, preoccupied by the market. It is he who mourns the death of God — a death that can only of interest to the philosopher — who momentary ruptures the new everyday in his hysteria. But nothing happens. The shock to the madman is the world’s indifference to indifference.
If we are to nonetheless stay with Vessel’s analogy for a moment, it seems to me that, with God out of the bathtub, Goth subcultures have long been drinking deep, ingesting this soiled bathwater so that they might spread a gnostic dyssentry throughout the popular imagination. The intention being to cultivate an active nihilism, and act in the face of indifference, affirming it.
I’m reminded of that brilliant and blood-drunk post from Southern Nights on the cosmologies of Nietzsche, Bataille and Land, echoing the rantings of Nietzsche’s madman with an atheological prose that entangles the triumphs and humiliations of rationalism:
What if all we see around us in this visible universe of dust and light is nothing but the byproduct of endless expenditure, an excess expunged by the engorgements of a darker world of forces that the ancient dreamers, shamans, and Gnostics could only hint at in their negative theologies, and our scientists can only mathematize in their theoretical alchemy of this universal degradation and catastrophic trauma? What if we are mere shit in the drift of things unseen? Dead waste in a floating sea of black impenetrability? The Big Bang nothing more than a burp in the body of some great blind entity roiling in its own excess? Is this madness a metaphoric marshalling of strange tales from heresies of dead worlds?
Modern cosmology stripped of its ancient lineage of myth forces the cosmos into the procrustean bed of a bare and minimal system of holographs, strings, and vibrating systems of chaos and order. Has this given us anything better than the older myths? Is this universe bled of its fabrications, emptied of our desires, become a mere artifact of our insanity — an indifferent and essentially blind machine without purpose or telic motion? And, even if we revitalized a gnosis stripped of its redemptive qualities, its soteriological thrust how will we move those dark forces to reveal themselves? How unconceal their potential by way of math and technology? And, to what ends? Utilitarian ends for some human destitution? A bid to enslave the elements, develop even greater destructive power than our atomic weaponry? Are we nothing more than sorcerers nibbling at the table of existence, seeking ways to tap into its secret machinations, control and master its dark blessing?
This Baroque nihilism is the epitome of the Gothic stylings I was drawn towards in my formative years. The Gothic, specifically in its traditionally Frankensteinian mode of new myth grown out of new science, has always been about the paradoxical attempts to de-mystify that which we can still never hope to know. (It’s why Kant and Lovecraft work so well together.)
In this way, we can understand the Gothic itself as inherently tied to the Enlightenment, in much the same way that Gryczkowska acknowledged the entanglement of Somerset House’s neo-classical architecture and status as high-flying London arts institution and subterranean location of her band’s performance earlier that week in the Deadhouse, a crypt-turned-venue-for-hire… Such a relationship can be seen as a critical positioning that nonetheless depends on the Enlightenment for contrast so that it might define its own structures in negative. Goth, too, in hindsight, feels like an 80s subculture gilded in a similar forge, negatively echoing the new moralities and immoralities of a Thatcherite neoliberalism. Lest we forget how omnipresent vampires were to that time, as both figure of a timeless bourgeois decadence and the youthful abandon of a generation lost to politics.
This feedback loop, viewed cynically, demonstrates just some of the ways that capitalism’s greatest trick has been to sell back to us those things that we have always already had in our possession. It affirms itself and sells its homogenised worldview back to us, offsetting our alienation with the superficial salve of data-mined connections. Vampires remain poignant figures for both state and subject, depending on how you choose to look at things. However, the death of God never resulted in societal collapse because capitalism swooped in to sell our spirit back to us, at new and competitive prices. Capitalism has effectively upcycled human nature, reducing that which was always ours to little more than a novel Christmas gift. (I am left wondering how a new Light Gothic may truly be emerging but, instead of being Sad Christianity Lite, it may function as a movement of conscious and critical complicity with the developments of the Dark Enlightenment, so infamously explored by Nick Land. (Something to explore another time.)
As such, if there is to be a new Gothic, it is doomed to the same impotent fate of past subcultures if it cannot account for this inherent positioning, parallel to, if nonetheless framed negatively against, the new complicities and complexities of our age. What is this new popular magick if not a response to the post-truth of a ruling capitalist class, echoing the market itself in its indifference to the quality and content of a message, just so long as there is something to circulate? It is the epistemological slippage of contemporary politics reflected in the contingencies-for-sale on the counter of your gentrified neighbourhood crystal shop. To assign this socio-subcultural development to a latent Christianity seems, to me, like an utter waste of time.
The panel ended somewhat abruptly, unsatisfactorily, having started late and being cut down promptly, as is the usual struggle of festival scheduling.
But then, an hour later still, the work of Mark Fisher was invoked to set things straight for us…
The k-punk session revolved around Mark’s little-known 2016 text, “Baroque Sunbursts”, from the book, Rave: Rave and Its Influence on Art and Culture. With Laura Grace Ford also being sick — London is a viral piece of shit this time of year — we were left in the very capable hands of Dan Taylor and Repeater Books’ Tamar Shlaim to guide us into Mark’s later work and their newly-published k-punk collection.
It must be said that “Baroque Sunbursts” is one of Mark’s best texts from recent years and, as Dan and Laura have highlighted time and again, it would no doubt be a cornerstone of what was to come in his Acid Communism.
The essay takes its name from a passage from Jameson (emphasis added to those parts most relevant to us here):
We may argue that Utopia is no longer in time just as with the end of voyages of discovery and the exploration of the globe it disappeared from geographical space as such. Utopia as the absolute negation of the fully realized Absolute which our own system has attained cannot now be imagined as lying ahead of us in historical time as an evolutionary or even revolutionary possibility. Indeed, it cannot be imagined at all; and one needs the languages and figurations of physics — the conception of closed worlds and a multiplicity of unconnected yet simultaneous universes — in order to convey what might be the ontology of this now so seemingly empty and abstract idea. Yet it is not to be grapsed in this logic of religious transcendence either, as some other world after or before this one, or beyond it. It would be best, perhaps, to think of an alternate world — better to say the alternate world, our alternate world — as one contiguous with ours but without any connection or access to it. Then, from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible.
What is this Jameson text if not a wonderfully expressive instantiation of what our subcultures can make possible, setting the gothic grotesque and the baroque across from each other in a way that rings as true with Fisher’s The Weird and the Eerie as it does with the psychedelia to come.
The diffuse frustration of the previous session aside, the k-punk talk, in light of this text, would go on to address — and not just address, but demonstrate — the sociopolitical problems that any modern goth subculture (and other subcultures besides) must inevitably contend with — which is to say, whilst “Baroque Sunbursts” may only address the halted legacy of rave, in very general terms, it also describes a fate that has met many a subcultural music current, seen through the homogenising gaze of capitalist control.
For example, Mark describes the programme of capitalist neutralisation as being pursued in three steps:
The campaign against rave might have been draconian, but it was not absurd or arbitrary. Very much to the contrary, the attack on rave was part of a systematic process — a process that had begun with the birth of capitalism itself. The aims of this process were essentially threefold: cultural exorcism, commercial purification and mandatory individualism.
He goes on to note that the radical communality of rave was precisely a core threat to the newly established neoliberal status quo, but that is not to say that it was, in itself, new.
Rave’s ecstatic festivals revived the use of time and land which the bourgeoisie had [long] forbidden and sought to bury. Yet, for all that it recalled those older festive rhythms, rave was evidently not some archaic revival. It was a spectre of post-capitalism more than of pre-capitalism. Rave culture grew out of the synthesis of new drugs, technology and music culture. MDMA and Akai-based electronic psychedelia generated a consciousness which saw no reason to accept that boring work was inevitable. The same technology that facilitated the waste and futility of capitalist domination could be used to eliminate drudgery, to give people a standard of living much greater than that of pre-capitalist peasantry, while freeing up even more time for leisure than those peasants could enjoy. As such rave culture was in tune with those unconscious drives, which as Marcuse put it, could not accept the ‘temporal dismemberment of pleasure… its distribution in small separate doses’. Why should rave ever end? Why should there be any miserable Monday mornings for anyone?
Mark continues, chiming with our present clawing for collective joy and abandonment:
‘As the bourgeoisie laboured to produce the economic as a separate domain, partitioned off from its intimate and manifold interconnectedness with the festive calendar, so they laboured conceptually to re-form the fair as either a rational, commercial, trading event or as a popular pleasure-ground.’ Such a division was necessary in order that the bourgeoisie could make a clean and definitive distinction between morally improving toil and decadent leisure — the refusal of ‘the temporal dismemberment of pleasure’. Hence, ‘although the bourgeois classes were frequently frightened by the threat of political subversion and moral license, they were perhaps more scandalised by the deep conceptual confusion by the fair’s mixing of work and pleasure, trade and play.’ The fair always carried traces of ‘the spectre of the world which could be free’, threatening to rob commerce of the association with toil and capital accumulation that the bourgeoisie was trying to impose. That is why ‘the carnival, the circus, the gypsy, the lumpenproletariat, play a symbolic role in bourgeois culture out of all proportion to their actual social importance.’
The carnival, the gypsy and the lumpenproletariat evoked forms of life — and forms of commerce — which were incompatible with the solitary labour of the lonely bourgeoise subject and the world it projected. That is why they could not be tolerated. If other forms of life were possible then — contrary to one of Mrs Thatcher’s most famous formulations — there were alternatives, after all.
And then, he concludes:
This psychedelic imagery [of Jameson’s gothic baroque evocation] seems especially apposite for the ‘energy flash’ of rave, which now seems like a memory bleeding through from a mind that is not ours. In fact, the memories come from ourselves as we once were: a group consciousness that waits in the virtual future not only in the actual past. So it is perhaps better to see the other possibilities that these baroque sunbursts illuminate not as some distant Utopia, but as a carnival that is achingly proximate, a spectre haunting even — especially — the most miserably de-socialised spaces.
Mark’s genealogy of the rave as a form of postcapitalist festival fervour chimes with Bataille’s notion of the “sacred”, but here, at Somerset House, in a packed room in the West Wing, these forms were demonstrated, rather than just described, through the musics that Mark loved so much and, also, often wrote about.
Rufige Kru are a case in point. The mundane refrains of “Ghosts of My Life”, from a mournful David Sylvian to the libidinal exorcism of that most famous of First Choice samples, crashing against the rocks of its rolling breaks, dashed in all directions. Ghosts slip into the everyday, just as an illusory mundane begins to haunt the extraordinary weirdness of capitalism itself. In this way, jungle is Jameson’s diseased eyeball or, rather, an afflicted inner ear. Your libido has been thrown off balance with an acidic labrinthitis. “Do you want what you say you want?” The elusive answer drags you into the downward spiral. Egress is imminent.
Mark once wrote for The Wire that jungle “was best enjoyed as an anonymous electro-libidinal current that seemed to pass through producers, as a series of affects and FX de-linked from authors.” It was “less like a music and more like an audio unlife form, a ferocious, feral artificial intelligence that has been unwittingly called up in the studio.” It remains the Gothic antithesis and grotesque mirror image of a 90s technoculture. The acceleration of alienation that complemented the accelerated accumulation of capitalism’s Thing-like functionalities. The popular imagination is what suffers.
Next, we would fast-forward to the 1970s with The Temptation’s Psychedelic Shack — the song at the heart of Mark’s Acid Communism introduction.
It’s got a neon sigh outside that says Come in and take a look at your mind You’ll be surprised what you might find Strobe lights flashing from sun up to sun down People gather there from all parts of town Right around the corner, you know it’s just across the track People I’m talking about the psychedelic shack Psychedelic shack, that’s where it’s at Psychedelic shack, that’s where it’s at Psychedelic shack, that’s where it’s at
A new humanity, a new seeing, a new thinking, a new loving: this is the promise of acid communism, and it was the promise that you could hear in “Psychedelic Shack” and the culture that inspired it. Only five years separated “Psychedelic Shack” from The Temptations’ early signature hit “My Girl”, but how many new worlds had come into being then? In “My Girl”, love remains sentimentalised, confined to the couple, in “Psychedelic Shack”, love is collective, and orientated towards the outside.
Such talk of love is not antithetical to the Gothic — something I think has been made very clear on this blog previously. What is most important, and must continually be emphasised, is this orientation towards the outside.
This was what was missed in “Extreme Romanticism”. The compassion and libidinal fervour is not akin to the dewy-eyed and godly “love” of your Sunday school service, though they may inevitably share a language. Goth love is necrophilic and spectral. It is not a love for what has passed, but the libidinal energy flows of unlife and undeath, skirting along the edge of a doorway to somewhere new. A cock in the glory hole of an unknown politics. A grotesque image, no doubt, but one with a form that capitalism understands. Get ready for the bait and switch…
If we communicate for two minutes only It will be enough For knowing that someone in this world Feels as desperate as me — And what you give is what you get
Mark writes — and the whole post is absolutely worth reading in full:
The Jam thrived in public space, on public service broadcasting. It mattered that they were popular; the records gained in intensity when you knew that they were number one, when you saw them on Top of the Pops — because it wasn’t only you and fellow initiates who heard the music; the (big) Other heard it too. This effect was maximised in The Jam’s case because their best work happened in the three minute single. At that point, singles staked a place in the mainstream, directly affecting the conditions of possibilities for popular culture. What we witnessed with punk and postpunk — or more broadly, with the whole efflorescence of popular modernism since the 50s — was an ‘affective contagion’, to use a term discussed in Frederic Jameson’s enthralling new book The Antinomies of Realism. One of the problems with many of the horizontalist models of political action is that they assume that we already know what we think and feel, and we are simply prevented from expressing ourselves by oppressive power structures. Yet mass mediated art could name and focus feelings that were not only suppressed — by ‘internal’ as well as external censoring agencies — but which were inchoate, unformed, virtual. Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently. And you could say that all of this was self-consciously worked through by Weller, with his Mod(ernist) affiliation, and its hunger for new sensations.
As Marcello Carlin put it in a post that is as moving an account of a fan going back to a former obsession as you’ll ever see, it’s now unbelievable that something like ‘Start’ — a record ‘which goes so far as to debate with its listener what a pop single might be for, and that it might actually be a stepping stone in helping people get along and bond better’ — could ever have been a number one record. I’m pretty sure that this song about a fugitive encounter in enemy territory — which contained the line, ‘knowing someone in this life/ who feels as desperate as me’ — was another one of the Jam records I first heard when it was played on Top of the Pops.
I took The Jam for granted, but the thirty odd years since they ruled the charts have been a painful process of watching what we once took for granted being taken away from us. Seeing — and working with — John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation and The Stuart Hall Project has prompted many thoughts, one of which concerns confronting just this process of watching the taken for granted become the (retrospectively) impossible. The way to avoid nostalgia is to look for the lost possibilities in any era, and Hall’s work — from his earliest writings on Cool jazz and Colin MaccInes in the late 50s, through to his New Times essays at the tail end of the 80s — alerts us to a persistent failure to make connections between left-wing politics and the popular culture, even when both were much stronger than they are today. Parliamentary socialism could never come to terms with, still less hegemonise, the new energies that had come out of jazz, the Sixties counterculture, or punk. By the time that explicit attempts were made to link the parliamentary left and rock/pop — in the earnest hamfistedness of Red Wedge — it was already too late. Blair’s Britpop flirtations, meanwhile, were like a double death, (the end of) history laughing at us: the corpse of white lad rock summoned to serenade socialism succumbing to capitalist realism.
The relevance of this is obvious here, I hope. That which was once taken for granted, the inherent communality of extreme musics and the gothic, has now become something to be rediscovered, made speculative and impossible. Extreme musics and pop music are not dissimilar in this respect, conjoined in Mark’s thought by the thread of a “popular modernism”. Again, outsiderness remains the orientation in the best examples of both. Extreme musics must understand that their form alone is not enough to escape the gravitational pull.
The tone of the first panel was frustrating in that it seemed to miss this (admittedly subtle and elusive) point, placing an extreme romanticism beyond our immediate capabilities, as a new striving, and whilst it is a post capitalist spectre, as Mark himself wrote on rave, we must likewise account for the ways it has been purposefully exorcised from our ways of being.
K-Punk rectified this, emphasising the immediate malleability of cultural production.
This was a point emphasised most poignantly, I thought, by David Stubbs. Sat in the audience, he arose for a moment to play a clip from Luigi Nono’s Non consumiamo Marx, a dose of acid communist mystique concrete in which the sounds of revolution become the foundations for a new music, bringing to mind the technomagick of William Burroughs’ tape experiments. Here, the everyday was — literally — sampled and reshaped for a politics to come.
The final track played was a mix, apparently made by Mark and Laura, of tracks by Jam City. Jam City is perhaps the perfect demonstration of the above.
Tamar noted that, for Mark, Jam City was to his “Acid Communism” as Burial was to his “Ghosts of my Life“. The sounds heard are all somewhat familiar, but rather than being haunting, as Burial are, they are evocative. They likewise portray a lost future, albeit positively conceived.
Whereas Burial, for me, and countless others, evokes the future musics heard by the uninitiated, further twisted and mutated by their environments, out of the windows of passing cars, muffled by the void between your pavement-dwelling self and a lofty tower block flat party, mediated through your body rather than your afflicted and colonised ears alone; Jam City glimmers through the gaps in between.
The track was illustrated by a photograph by Laura, taken in a graveyard near Canary Wharf, the gothic loomed over by the HSBC building, or rather London’s dead threatening to unground those buildings that seem to sure of themselves. The track appears along the edges, the “jam” in between a patchwork cityscape, where something else bleeds through.
It’s as gothic as it always was. It’s xenogothic. Disco as a dark weapon against the dayglo irreality of a mundane workday. It is, and always will be, Hull fair to me — a square-mile of neon and bass bins, palm reading and caravans, carny jungle and gabba on the waltzers. Travellers stop, just for one week, coming from all around Europe, to open up a hole in the middle of the city, turning a match-day car park into the zombic heart of autumn. It’s a gigantic and effervescent rupture, brighter and louder than anything you’ve ever seen. It’s sugar-fuelled penny gambling and chip spice and a new community grown in a council-sanctioned Petri dish, transforming the whole city that you might think you know so well. It’s not new. It’s over 100 years old. You can see the lights for miles around — at least 15 miles away by one count one year — and it’s still goth as fuck.
A separate and far more personal highlight of the evening was later being introduced to David Stubbs at the bar. Stubbs’ writing has been just as important to me as Mark’s over the years. When Fear of Music came out, it was a revelation for me. It was a book I read wishing I’d had it a few years earlier, which spoke to me as a young A Level Art edgelord who loved noise music and was Rothko obsessive and had a hard time articulating why they were two sides of the same coin. The rest of his work is masterful in much the same way and this year’s Mars By 1980, a personal and twisted history of electronic music, from the Futurists to Aphex Twin and beyond, was something I demolished in a week. Go check it out.
It was truly an honour to meet David and chat about the history of British comedy, of all things, over a few drinks at the ASSEMBLY bar. Later, after exchanging Facebook profiles, I saw a status update David wrote on the night and Mark’s legacy that encapsulated things perfectly. I’d like to end this post with a part of it:
The scope, audacity, penetration of [Mark’s] writing went way beyond music journalism. I’m convinced that this volume will be a cornerstone for future young thinkers if the world survives; that he will function like a latter-day Nietzsche, a fireball, in that it won’t so much matter what judgments he arrives at as the flamethrowing, impassioned, impossible-demanding eyeballs he casts around our present, seemingly impossible situation to which he demands, outlines reasonable, near-impossible solutions.