I think I wrote most of this with a fever — a common experience on a few commissions last year — and now, reading it back for the first time in about six months or something, I quite like the feverish subjective dissolution bubbling beneath the surface.
At first, I thought it was an essay that was slightly confused… Now I wonder how it could have honestly been anything but…
As Woolf would write from the depths of her novel’s templexity: “How to describe the world seen without a self? There are no words.” What an opportunity for the ever-present xenopoetics of late capitalism, for there is no time here either and, for capitalism, as for us, time is all there is.
I think I first fell in love with Albert Ayler’s music after watching the 2005 documentary about his life, My Name is Albert Ayler, at a 2011 ATP Festival.
I’d heard his music before and enjoyed it but coming to learn the story of his life made his music all the more resonant for me. I didn’t listen to much else for a long time afterwards, much to the dismay of my girlfriend at the time.
I haven’t seen the documentary since but I remember gaining this new understanding with him after I learned that he played in military bands as a younger man. The sonic legacy of that experience never left his work, even at its most “free”.
I’d grown up playing the cornet in an old miner’s band myself and, at first, I’d loved the uniforms and the ceremony of the local gigs we’d play, even if it was just Christmas carols in the lobby of an old folks’ home. After a few years, however, I rebelled against it.
After a time, all I was listening to was the likes of John Coltrane and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. I wished I could play like them but there was no such opportunity. I remember saying to my teacher at school that I didn’t want to play movie themes anymore. I wasn’t to play jazz. So he had me learn the theme to Pink Panther. Nothing felt more horrifically uncool than that, I thought, until I’d end up playing the theme from ‘Out of Africa’ for the hundredth time with a bunch of octogenarians. Then I knew there were still new lows I could descend to.
I gave up when I left home to go to university and never really looked back but when I first heard the story of Albert Ayler, I remembered feeling quite nostalgic for that time in the brass band. What I loved about Ayler was that he played free with a sonic language I was already familiar with. I didn’t know any music theory and could barely read sheet music — I only ever knew the fingerings — but, more important than that, I knew its boundaries and its standards and its palette and its expectations. And I loved how Ayler shattered all of them.
The latter half of that year’s Nightmare Before Christmas festivities, curated by Caribou and Battles, was insane. (Unfortunately, I found the first Les Savy Fav-curated day to be really dull.) ATP is synonymous, in many respects, with that “dragging bands out of retirement to play their classic albums” schtick that dominated the late 2000s. It was very easy to be cynical about after a point but those weekends were also the most incredible melting pots of acts that it’s hard to imagine playing on the same bill in any other context today.
That weekend, for instance, we’d watched Underground Resistance and Gary Numan share a stage.
Then, the next day, Pharoah Sanders played. The Sun Ra Arkestra, led by Marshall Allen, did their usual thing as ATP favourites, putting “Enlightenment” in everyone’s heads for the rest of the weekend. Later, Silver Apples took it in another direction entirely, with something that sounded somewhere in between the night before and what was to come…
After a full day of feeling like I’d seen all these artists that existed in some mythical time before I was born play like the last thirty or forty years had never happened, there were tripped-out euphoric sets from Factory Floor, Omar Souleyman and DJ Rashad & DJ Spinn, all of whom were riding the hype machine but hadn’t yet released an album yet — except Souleyman, of course, but his were also hard to come by.
I remember on the train home to Wales that next day, my body felt broken. I felt like I had cultural whiplash, going from this weird nostalgia for a time I was too young to know and then being jerked forwards into the future-shock of a footwork party two years before Rashad took over the world with Double Cup. Even after dancing to him for a few hours, I had any real conscious idea what footwork was. I hadn’t even heard the name. I’d heard him completely devoid of context.
That Albert Ayler documentary — his sound, his approach, his reception, his reputation — permeated it all.
I was thinking about Ayler for the first time in a long time the other day because he was the subject of a Bandcamp “Lifetime Achievement” overview, going over a bunch of his albums that are available through the platform.
It’s a nice overview, I think, that articulates the fascination that persists with his legacy, both within the jazz world and further afield.
Mark Richardson writes:
Albert Ayler’s music represents a union of opposites. The tenor saxophonist and bandleader wanted to reach the masses with songs anyone could hum, but he appended these tuneful melodies with ferocious, free improvisation that pushed the limits of what most people considered music. He felt his work expressed universal love, spiritualism, and joy, but its sheer intensity brought to mind danger, violence, and calamity. He was deeply versed in tradition and thought of what he did as a modern extension of the blues. But his innovations put him at the leading edge of the avant-garde, to the extent that many of his own peers said they couldn’t understand what he was doing. Because of the tension between Ayler’s stated aims and their sometimes-confusing realization, he’s remained a cult figure, especially admired by forward-thinking musicians but mostly ignored by the listening public. Sadly, we never got to hear the whole story, as he died in 1970 at age 34 under mysterious circumstances.
The way that Ayler moved, seemingly without friction, from traditional jazz standards to the bleeding edge of brass modernism, is a perfect example of a popular modernism that I’ve been trying to work my head around lately — this “anti-ego” approach to cultural production that is everywhere and supposedly nowhere, gone from the mainstream and the imaginations of a general public.
At CTM Festival, Dhanveer had challenged this section of Mark’s thought, arguing that just because there was a deluge of experimentation amongst rockists doesn’t mean this cultural mourning had to permeate everything. (I think Mark knew this very well but he just liked winding people up.) But there is still a sense, I think, that some of the players who were farthest out were tragically undervalued then and still are.
Ayler’s approach feels particularly poignant here. He was able to turn this schizo approach into a kind of “standard” all of his own. Take a track like “Ghosts”, for instance — its most famous variation appearing as the opening track on his 1964 album Spiritual Unity.
The first few notes sound like the slow reveal of a one-man orchestra warming up, becoming attuned to himself, before falling comfortably into a Dixieland number that swings only for a few moments before the rest of the band joins in. What results is not chaos, however. It is the spiritual unity of jazz standard and free intensity. Ghosts — plural — emerge in perfect disharmony, presenting a gospel that is truly pop and truly blue; both joyful and haunted.
It was his “hit”, in many ways, and he would play it live often throughout his career, as well as releasing numerous versions of it on his later albums. It is a track supposedly synonymous with free jazz today — a “cornerstone of the genre”, declared one YouTube video description I saw whilst trying to find the best version to embed — but it is also, paradoxically, a song from which a new tradition emerges. It is a free jazz standard — as if there could be such a thing — and this makes far more sense within the context of Ayler’s oeuvre than the variations of any other player that might have been referred to the same way in that moment.
Whilst the Bandcamp overview is nice, it is also eschews — as is common with appraisals of Ayler’s body of work — his later and most explicit pop moments. Free jazz undulating with the ghosts of jazz standards is one thing — something for the ‘heads to ponder wistfully today, perhaps — but less is said about Ayler’s forays into far more explicit funk and soul territory.
Although it was present, embryonically, on the funereal “Love Cry”, from the 1968 album of the same name, which appears to be a farewell best-of before he would turn his art on its head, this sentiment of imbuing the counterculture free-love moment of that time with the intensity of black unrest is present far more explicitly on his final and most underrated album, 1969’s New Grass.
Where Ayler would take this sound next is unknown. Within a year, he was dead, found drowned in the East River, like Rufus in James Baldwin’s Another Country. But there seemed to be no great existential crisis following this moment. Ayler was already lost.
Hated at the time of its release, no less admired today, New Grass nonetheless feels like a powerful attempt at a reinvention to me; an attempt to drag the future back, kick and sceaming, into the present. Once before Ayler had tried to lead his fellow countrymen out of a “standard”-ised jazz into new potentials, as a pied piper for the Outside — and he largely succeeded — but he did not rest on his laurels. He was looking for what came next, and found it.
Ayler had once counted John Coltrane amongst his peers, famously performing a cathartic rip of a set at his funeral. Having fans in high places, however, did not save him. Following the release of New Grass, which sold badly, he was dropped by his label. He was, at that time, playing as good as he ever had, but his relentless foray into a contemporary pop sound, laden with ear-splitting free solos, left him playing to the wind. There were reports of him being mentally unwell already by that point and, in 1970, he reportedly committed suicide (although the circumstances surrounding of his death left many unanswered questions.)
It is clear that something died that day but, in hearing the story of Ayler’s life, it is not clear that many are aware of what exactly that was. I have a theory though…
I’ve always found it interesting that Ayler was better received in Europe than in his native America. He toured extensively there and, for a time, considered moving to Scandinavia permanently, so he no longer had to put up with the misunderstandings that plagued him and his output back home.
I’ve always wondered if this foreign appreciation had something to do with the relationship between brass bands and politics that permeated out from the mining towns of Northern Europe. Even today, in the North of England, brass bands are synonymous with unionised labour.
Jeremy Deller famously tried to combine acid house with brass band culture a few years back and, obviously, a lot of people loved it, but all he succeeded in doing, to my ears, is producing something a bit like when the BBC Proms does Doctor Who.
What a contrast with the lame, sub-John Williams syrup that the BBC ladles over the current Dr Who series. This shrill, postmodern confectionery couldn’t be less unheimlich. By firm contrast with the radiophonic’s anempathic sounds, which rendered even the most everyday scene weird and alienating, the new music Tells You Exactly What to Feel…
Deller’s fault seems to be that he does much the same thing in his work. By simply connecting the professionalism and discipline of the contemporary brass band with the Acid House of yesteryear he reveals how — woah! would you believe it! — there is proper musicality in rave after all. It becomes a novelty piece for boomers who never understood their Gen X kids. It removes the politics rather than updating them.
Evidently, Deller missed Ayler’s trans-Atlantic communions. He was well ahead of his time with all that. He brought the rave out of the brass band. He didn’t need to re-enlist and bring the free jazz to the military. His was a proper popular modernism, even if it wasn’t so popular back home.
Today, his “Ghosts” is as poignant for me as Japan’s “Ghosts” was for Mark — an atemporal eulogy, written ahead of time, for something that had not yet died but soon would. (Ayler would only get name-checked once by Mark but in a very suitable pop mod context.)
When Ayler died, a new era of jazz modernism went with him. It never recovered and canonising his early work hasn’t helped. Extending the trajectory found on New Grass, cut short by the refutations of his own audience, seems like an impossibility now. There are plenty of players pushing limits and cross-polinations — Matana Roberts once felt like Ayler’s true successor — but the Outsideness of free jazz lost its moment in the spotlight.
I wonder if things might have been different if Ayler had been able to persevere.
I’m not sure there’s an equivalent today of his supposedly tasteless extremes today…
If there is, it’s still as hard an uncool pill to swallow…
I was in the pub bathroom close to closing time and, as I was washing my hands, I noticed a little USB stick left by the cold tap on the porcelain.
I was very intrigued by it. I just stood and looked at it for a moment, thinking what — if anything — I should do with it. Who would leave that here? Maybe their phone number is the drive name or something. I had my laptop with me…
I should probably just leave it… Whoever left it will probably remember and it’s so close to closing time someone else will find it who is much more sober than I am and they’ll know what to do with it.
But as I turned to leave, I couldn’t shake the urge to check out what was on it first. I don’t know why. I mean, who leaves USB sticks in bathrooms? Only spies, as far as I know — and this is south east London. I could plug it into my laptop and find secret plans to blow up Greenwich Observatory like I’m in that Joseph Conrad novel. But I also know that sticking unknown hardware into your personal computer is just about the dumbest thing you can do.
I slipped it into my back pocket and headed back to the bar. As I made my coy approach, the woman serving said, “Sorry, last orders — we’re not serving anymore.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I just found this USB stick in the bathroom and wanted to hand it in to you in case someone comes looking for it.”
I reached into my back pocket and brandished it at her, holding it between my thumb and forefinger and she gave me a look.
My recent post about desire in writings on accelerationism didn’t come from nowhere. It also didn’t explicitly come from Twitter. Addressing the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s hubris was simply a useful and polemic vehicle for that moment but it was also a post that I worried about, at first, in case it came across like I was throwing stones from a glass house.
I’ve written about this before — in fact, on multiple occasions. I am painfully aware of the centrality of my “ego” within my own writings. It’s a bad habit, more than anything, and something I agonise over a lot, often deciding to just throw caution to the wind and hit ‘publish’ regardless.
It’s also something I’m thinking about and wrestling with a lot at this particular moment. Not just as a background concern but as something that feels particularly scary within my life right now as I look down the barrel of an immanent shift in my public profile, which is occurring gradually, for the time being, as I go from a somewhat anonymous writer into someone who writes through a far more public face.
CTM Festival was the first instance of this that required some wrestling with but I have more public speaking engagements lined up as Egress comes out and I get on that weird and uncomfortable treadmill of promoting it and Mark’s work in the process.
This is obviously something I’ve been doing here for quite some time now but it nonetheless feels like 2020 is the year I really stick my neck out.
This has already been happening in my day-to-day life. At my current day job, for instance, everyone in the office knows I have written a book. In fact, the last time I was in the office, earlier this week, there was a copy of my book, visible to everyone, on my boss’s desk. She has even posted about it on their website and, yesterday, sent an email round to everyone about bulk buying a load of tickets to the ICA book launch next month.
I can’t deny that it feels really nice to be acknowledged like this and to feel like the publication of this book is something for multiple people to celebrate in, but it jars somewhat compared to where I was at with my “public profile” this time last year.
At my last job, where I worked for close to two years, from late 2017 to mid 2019, no one knew what I did in my spare time at all. I started this blog at almost exacting the same time I started that job and it was an explicit exercise in splitting my self in two as I re-entered the real world of work whilst trying to keep one foot in the strange temporalities of weird theory Twitter. Most days I showed up to work, did what I had to do, and then went home. I felt a bit like an alien there. It was quite a prestigious place to work and I often felt a sort of unconscious hostility from some people about my presence, simply because of the way I dressed and talked — that is, poorly, in both instances. I remember on my first day, I’d gone into my first meeting with management really confident with a load of ideas but then got quietly shut down. I hadn’t meant to put my foot in anyone’s way but rather wanted to make clear that I would be an active and involved member of the team. That didn’t seem to go down so well, but this wasn’t really a surprise. This has often been the case when working in the arts as some sort of glorified technician.
I wanted Velvet Buzzsaw recently — a film I really enjoyed, with its lampooning of the LA art world taking on an In The Mouth Of Madness quality — and I laughed a lot at the art gallery technician character, always hitting on the receptionists, saying things like, “I’m not just the muscle, you know. I have ideas. I’m an artist.” I’m not like that at all, but I understood the sentiment of wanting people to know that you’re not just a body to be put to work, even if I have personally ignored it and just got on with the job at hand without trying to change my co-worker’s assumptions to the contrary. Instead, I think I hid my other life — this life right here — out of embarrassment. I didn’t want to have to explain what I wrote about to anyone. I was quite happy just being a body, in that context. I’d anticipate the potential questions in the pub after work about what I did in my spare time with a preemptive mortification. Thankfully, those questions never really came, no doubt due to my generally secretive body language.
(I watched the Netflix documentary about the band Rush the other day, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and was amused to see Neil Peart also express a discomfort in relation to his role within the band. It’s nice to see that there are some people who make it big for whom this feeling never changes.)
At my new job, I’ve been a bit more forthcoming, mostly because I think keeping the blog an active secret from people I’m spending every day with isn’t all that healthy. I hate the thought of them going online to look and read it but it also feels like a better strategy to just be open about my life and not try and compartmentalise the different parts of it. Even though it still makes me really anxious, it feels better to weather the storm of visibility than alienate my co-workers through a lack of communication.
For a lot of the last year I’ve been trying to figure out where exactly this anxiety comes from. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I think and write about, but there is nonetheless a question of how exactly I’m supposed to articulate all this; of explaining that talking about what I do here is something I find really difficult. Sometimes it erupts quite traumatically. I pride myself on a online reputation for being accessible — or at least more accessible than most — but when talking to family about politics and philosophy I think I have the opposite reputation entirely. (I became painfully aware of this over Christmas when it was me against the rest of the family in a conversation about politics which ended ugly in the early hours.) In that context, I feel like silence is taken to be judgemental — the result of a stoic but over-inflated ego. In truth, I’d rather just not talk about stuff because I don’t think I’m all that articulate in the moment and before the wrong sort of audience — that is, an audience not already laden with the particulars of Weird Theory Twitter head-scratching. (This is also to say, unfortunately, I am more comfortable speaking my mind when I know an audience has shared concerns, but maybe that’s natural.)
I’m very anxious about this at the moment as I’ve been offered the amazing opportunity of running a short three-week module at a London university — nowhere I’ve previously been affiliated with, before you start guessing; I’ll make an announcement in due course — talking about whatever I like to a group of undergraduate art students. The focus of the course is going to be about walking, as a sort of rudimentary but radical gesture — think the Situationists — and how I think having a certain relationship to the world is the most important foundation to any art practice. It’s not necessarily about the theory or the fashionable concepts but what you do with them in your daily life. (I think my interest in this comes from a teenage interest in jazz and learning to play the trumpet as a kid. I’m a terrible musician but I get the “improvisatory mindset”, if there’s such a thing. I’m just better at putting that mindset into practice with other mediums that aren’t necessarily known for having a culturally embedded discourse around a sense of improvisation — e.g. writing and photography.)
However, with a slight hint of irony, I’m also using this course as an opportunity to talk to these presently unknown students about modernism and Deleuze and Guattari. In fact, I’m in the pub right now, trying to think of a way to articulate what a “body without organs” is, as a sort of backwards introduction to a century of radical art — from Virginia Woolf to Lee Friedlander to Burial; from writing to visual art to music.
I suppose the general overview of the course is: How do you make art about your life and immediate environment without falling into that stereotype of just making art about yourself; how do you use your self as a conduit for saying something about the world around you.
Before heading out to the pub, I was updating my Discogs inventory and ended up putting on a bunch of records I forgot I owned. I was listening to Andrew Chalk, Meredith Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach… Music is the perfect way of expressing this sort of relationship to the world because sound — even the voice, at least in Meredith Monk’s case, with her disembodied, Artaudian vocalisations — is far more easily “de-individualised” and improvised with. What I find all the more fascinating about photography and writing in this regard is that the self is far more obviously their foundation. You are working explicitly with an “I”, be it a written voice or eye that is often, at least for the practitioner, hard to separate yourself from. (No surprises I’m going to be drawing on my essay about “de-individualisation” in visual art — “Points of View” — for one of the upcoming sessions.)
It probably says a lot about me that I’m procrastinating from writing this by writing something else for the blog, which — in a sort of roundabout way — is actually the perfect vehicle for articulating and letting go of all this chaff. I can get all this subjective hand-wringing out the way and figure out a way to articulate what I really want to convey later, devoid of myself.
This blog has been very good for this over the last couple of years and the irony is not lost on me that this blog is often so self-centred, because I think it gets it out my system. It becomes an abattoir for hanging up the chunks I flay off myself, allowing me to put the choicest cuts to better use elsewhere. (This is probably what this reply to my recent post was trying to get at, which I appreciate, but I don’t think that’s what goes on on the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s Twitter feed…)
I think about what Mark would have thought about this a lot. Not out of some morbid desire to emulate him but rather because his articulation of how he was able to write so much on his k-punk blog is something that I think about often.
I’ve quoted this multiple times here before but it always bears repeating:
Folks have asked me recently how I am able to write so much.
The answer is that it isn’t me who’s writing.
Modesty? Metaphor? Or (lol) post-structuralism?
No. A strictly technical description of how this body has been used as a meat puppet for channeling uttunul signal.
It’s only when the writing is bad that ‘I’ have produced it. When it’s good ‘I’ am just a space through which Lemuria speaks.
The writing is already assembled on the plane and all ‘I’ can do is bodge it by introducing subjectivist fuzz.
(It’s very telling, I think, that he was so prolific on his blog but his books were, by contrast, always very slim volumes.)
Posts that I labour over — like my recent post about CTM Festival, for example — are labours of love for me in the sense Mark talks about when he says they are things that he feels like he has explicitly written — which is to say, I am aware that this sort of post isn’t very good. They are pieces of writing that I don’t feel particularly proud of once they’re out in the world. I think there’s good stuff in them, for sure — otherwise I definitely wouldn’t post them — but I’m aware that the chaff weighs them down. It is as a result of this that I feel I am able to write and keep writing, and this is something that I’m pretty much okay with that. I don’t really care about writing shit occasionally. The better stuff always rises to the top and I am comfortable with the fact that what people often think is good is largely beyond my control.
My recent post about accelerationism, desire and the “anti-ego” is the perfect example of this. It took off, perhaps because it addressed something a lot of people were talking about on Twitter at that time, but it was, for the most part, a load of word vomit that I threw down on the page and then cut down to its main argument before then sending it out into the world. I wrote it in an hour before bed, then woke up to it doing numbers, and was surprised by that fact.
I tend to admire other people who do this a lot also, although I’m no less surprised when they self-deprecating articulate having a similar relationship to their work. I was reading an interview with Jim O’Rourke the other day, for instance, whose album from 2019, To Magnetize Money and Catch a Roving Eye, I’ve finally taken the plunge with. (I listened to it constantly whilst traveling to, from and around Berlin the other week. It’s an incredible album.)
Jim O’Rourke is someone who occupies various different scenes with ease. He can make the most pristine pop albums — Eureka and Halfway to a Threeway haven’t left the rotation of my regular listening for years and my girlfriend also likes when I play him in the car, particularly his amazing Ivor Cutler cover — but what I love most is that he can write albums like this and then also be a very comfortable improviser. However, his articulation of his relationship to his own work was really surprising to me.
Asked by Stereogum about his older albums and which albums of his — partly because he is so prolific — he wishes people had more of an appreciation for, he responds:
I don’t know directly, but I hear from folks that people still listen to ‘em. Eureka, I’ve got too much on the record about my feelings about Eureka, I’m happy when someone says they like Insignificance ’cause that one came up pretty well considering how quickly I made it. […] I’m waiting for people to like The Visitor. If there’s anything, that’s the one I’m hoping someday people will like because I worked really hard on that one. That’s the one I probably feel the most least uncomfortable about. That one got really close to what I wanted to do. And I learned to play trombone.
This is also something I really admire about a lot of UK producers at the moment, particularly someone like AYA, whose infrequentBandcamp releases, consisting of seemingly half-formed, throwaway ideas and club edits — often made with friends in mind, it seems, and (I want to emphasise) no less amazing despite their “demo” nature — demonstrate an active relationship to the scenes she is immersed in, and I think this is a product of a really interesting development following Bandcamp’s increasing popularity.
Kevin Drumm is another artist worth mentioning here too — given the prolific nature of his Bandcamp page, which I’m proud to say I subscribe to — and you should to. He feels like a new kind of musician for the twenty-first century, who has well and truly embraced a sort of blogger’s mentality within his music-making practice.
I wish more people did this. It feels like a throwback to a 2000s moment when some musicians used to have Blogspot platforms on which to share their demoes and ideas. Bradford Cox is a particularly memorable example.
The way he’d share his demoes on his blog was so inspiring to me as a teenager and I used to do much the same thing, sharing song ideas and covers of songs I recorded in my bedroom through a headset mic. A lot of people did this on MySpace in Hull at that time. Most of the bands I grew up with in that city started off in much the same way. Low Hummer, for instance, currently being treated as new kids on the block by the indie blogosphere, are led by Dan Mawer who I met fifteen years ago specifically through that kind of online prolificness. We all shared a love of lo-fi recordings and the ease with which we could create a scene for ourselves around our MySpace pages. We gigged a lot, locally, off the back of that relationship to blog technologies, and even ended up in the bedrooms of friends who had decent recording gear.
(Tentatively shared Bon Iver cover that I became quite well known for — locally at least — below…)
What I think is important about this now — this sort of “anti-ego” approach to sharing whatever comes into your head on a particular evening — is that it encapsulates, in its own way, the sort of popular modernist sensibility that Mark mourned so publicly.
I was reading Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys earlier this evening — specifically with my forthcoming undergraduate course in mind — and Justin captures this sensibility really well I think (albeit through a somewhat cumbersome theoretical language). He writes on the book’s first pages, for instance, about the ways in which:
Modernist writers enact a lucid awarenesss of the body without organs, but the exact extent and nature of this dimension tends to be left open. Aspects of the oneirosphere of the human world can be suggested — as with Shakespeare’s inorganic beings having a contact with India that does not involve travel in any ordinary sense — but a modernist dreaming in invoking the body without organs lightly suggests its existence, but does not firmly map its extent or aspects.
Prior to this, he defines modernism as a kind of “eerie arcadianism”, which I interpret precisely to be a way of thinking about your own life and immediate environment through a sort of “anti-ego”; through making your self a conduit for outside forces; making yourself half-present. He writes that “the world of modernism is always transected by an anomalous dimension inhabited by forces that are both positive and negative, and can recurrently prove to be at a higher level of power than the forces of the ordinary world.”
I know for a fact that Justin shares my love of Virginia Woolf — the way in which she wrote so effortlessly without a face, and gave a language to these outside forces more explicitly and lucidly than anyone — and he mentions her book The Waves in this context, noting how two of the characters, Rhoda and Louis, “stand, gazing toward the fluidities of the anomalous dimension” — that is, toward the body without organs; towards the anti-ego that infiltrates a self and its communities.
Justin refers to this anomalous relationship to the world — that is, a relationship that reflects the anomalies it seeks — as a kind of “lucidity”. This relationship is capable of turning an “extraordinary lucidity and courage in the direction of the white wall” — Justin’s phrase for a quotidian form of the transcendental; “a kind of white wall which is pretending here to have nothing much beyond it” — “attempting to see what could be happening, given that there is nothing but ordinary reality, and given the insistent disturbing aspects of the human world.” It is a relationship with the Outside — and, we might note, as Mark put it, “to find ways out is to let the Outside in.”
It is a kind of anti-ego that, even if later articulately through an “I”, is capable of allowing itself to be a conduit for transgressive desires — transgressive in the sense that they permeate, as Justin writes, “across the fundamental religious (oneiric-metaphysical) dreaming and thought-systems of the social field in which [we] find ourselves”.
Here, Justin is discussing Barbara O’Brien’s incredible text Operators and Things — an odd biographical text written by O’Brien in the midst of a very real schizophrenic episode. (I’m not sure how readily available this text is — I read it when it was shared with me in 2017 via a Google Doc link, which felt very appropriately occulted.) However, there are still plenty of other examples of such tales in popular culture.
Whilst sorting through my Discogs inventory earlier, I watched the new Netflix film Horse Girl, starring and co-written by Alison Brie. Brie apparently drew on her own family’s history of mental illness for the story and it is incredibly well done, I think.
Brie plays a shy woman who works in an arts and crafts store and has a neurotic obsession with a horse she rode at a local stable as a child called Willow. The film follows her quotidian existence with a sort of mumblecore vibe until she starts to succumb to a schizophrenic episode that she finds meaning in because she is wholly aware of her mother and grandmother’s previous struggles with mental illness. (It is this same awareness of seemingly hereditary mental illness that Brie drew on for her co-writing credit.) She starts to believe that she is her grandmother’s clone and her nightly dreams of alien abduction, intensified by experiences of lost time and an unconscious penchant for sleep walking, lead her to believe her abductions are very much real experiences, particularly because these are experiences that her grandmother also spoke of. By the end, the film descends into a sort of waking-dream sequence in which we watch Brie’s character living out her delusions with disastrous consequences.
I was really impressed by this film, particularly because Netflix has been incessantly recommending I watch Girl, Interrupted recently — a film I have already seen multiple times and which I have long hated for its high-school-drama-meets-One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoo’s-Nest plot which romanticises time spent on a women’s psychiatric ward full of big lunch-hall egos.
The difference between the two films, I think, is precisely this sense of “anti-ego”, which Girl, Interrupted infuriatingly lacks. Brie’s character knows, to an extent, that she is “crazy” and that her thoughts are delusional, but she is incapable of wresting herself from the grasp of her schizophrenia whilst she feels it affords her a palpable connection to her immediate family’s prior experiences. She does not feel that she is experiencing something unique and instead feels herself becoming part of an intensive continuum. In the end, she sheds her self entirely, believing that she is not a “clone” of her grandmother but that she is her grandmother, and this alien-familiarity manifests for her as an surreally believable lucidity. These are not anomalies from within her own mind that she is experiencing but rather an anomalous world that others are also plugged into.
The impetus behind Justin’s elucidations on modernism emerge from a similar place. The subtitle to his book — “Haunted by the Future” — resonates with Horse Girl’s dramatisations of a strange templexity in which Brie’s character feels she can perceive the future but also is the future for the alien-subject that is her anomalous and almost mythical grandmother. It resonates profoundly with the conclusion to Justin’s book — which I also use as a chapter epigraph in Egress — which reads:
To travel into the unknown is a sober-joyful process of gaining energy by overcoming self-importance, and by eradicating all forms of self-indulgence — and it is a development of the ability to have effective, creative comradeship-alliances with other human beings. It is a process of perceiving — and dreaming — a way toward wider spaces of existence.
Beyond the ongoing disaster of ordinary reality is the second sphere of action. You don’t get to be there on a sustained basis unless in some sense you are part of a group, and a group can only form (no plan is possible, only continuous improvisation) if you have learned to let yourself be swept away into the intent-currents of Love-and-Freedom that run through the world — intent-currents that take you South, into the Future.
This is a lovely point to end on, and I am fighting a temptation to end this post here also, but I can’t help but want to affirm the very difficulty of enacting this sentiment in day-to-day life.
Because it is so easier said than done, and it is also, frankly, a terrifying process. Justin’s invocation of “intent-currents that take you South” feels like an explicit reference to the horrifyingly liberatory journey that Kerans undertakes in JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, and this is hardly a “sober-joyful journey” into the intensities of community — unless you see lizard–brain people as constituting a kind of intentional community.
And in a way, that is a community of the anti-ego, quite explicitly, and whilst Ballard whilst emphasises the horror of it, the horror is nonetheless an important consideration, because that horror is the horror of giving into alien-familiar desires that take one out of one’s self.
I don’t think I know anyone who is really committed to this sort of communal, body-without-organs thinking who doesn’t find its innate sociality difficult to bear. Maybe that says something about it… Most optimistically, it is a concern for those who feel most stultified by their ego and by its inescapability. That’s certainly how I feel. The question becomes: How can this be enacted in a way that is just an exercise in positive affirmations?
I’m reminded of Simon O’Sullivan’s essay about this, which also features in Egress briefly, in which he articulates the importance of thinking Deleuzian communities precisely because, he says, friendships have never come easy. That essay is a feature because I feel that way too, and the tragic irony of these concerns is that simply having them — over-thinking them — is often an obstacle to enacting them.
This is a short, shitty video made on location in Derbyshire with bad equipment and a horrifically old version of iMovie over Christmas 2019, for an event that took place in Milan in January 2020, showcasing a book I was asked to contribute an essay to.
The cultured coven at NERO Editions have recently produced Insufficient Armour, a collaboration with Giorgio Di Salvo from United Standard, exploring prostheses and the augmented body.
I took the opportunity to write something explicit about the xenogothic. (A first, believe it or not.)
I’ll share more info about the final publication once it’s ready and available.