This is an edited version of a talk given by Carl Neville (author of Resolution Way) at a day of lectures in tribute to Mark Fisher last Saturday, 8th July, at Spike in Berlin. You can see the full list of speakers and lectures here.
( I was asked to give a talk about some aspects of Mark Fisher’s work, so this is what I said.)
About a year or so ago I was briefly in contact with Mark about his book Acid Communism, which I’d heard rumours about, didn’t quite believe really existed and finally succumbed to the temptation to ask him about it. Anyway he sent me the introduction, which may have altered subsequently, and among the many striking observations there was one section and one phrase that particularly struck me, partly because I was thinking along similar lines and also because of what I was reading and listening to at the time.
I wanted to ask Mark lots of questions about this project and this particular phrase he’d used but it wasn’t the right moment to start burdening him with my insights so they went unasked, and so I am taking the opportunity to reconsider them now.
Mark uses a passage from Danny Baker’s autobiography to illustrate a moment that he then characterises as expressing a sense of “exorbitant sufficiency”:
I’ll think about that phrase in two dimensions, political and aesthetic, because as we are repeatedly told there is only aesthetics and political economy
First, here’s the passage from Baker’s autobiography.
“It was July 1966 and I was newly nine years old. We had holidayed on the Broads and the family had recently taken possession of the gorgeous wooden cruiser that was to be our floating home for the next fortnight. It was called The Constellation and, as my brother and I breathlessly explored the twin beds and curtained portholes in our cabin built into the boat’s bow, the prospect of what lay ahead saw the life force beaming from us like the rays of a cartoon sun. … I … made my way up to through the boat to take up position in the small area of the stern. On the way, I pick up sister Sharon’s teeny pink and white Sanyo transistor radio and switched it on. I looked up at the clear blue afternoon sky. Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ was playing and a sort of rapturous trance descended on me. From the limitless blue sky I looked down into the churning, crystal-peaked wake our boat was creating as we motored along, and at that moment, ‘River Deep’ gave way to my absolute favourite song of the period: ‘Bus Stop’ by the Hollies. As the mock flamenco guitar flourish that marks its beginning rose above the deep burble of the Constellation’s engine, I stared into the tumbling waters and said aloud, but to myself, ‘This is happening now. THIS is happening now.’ (pp 49-50)
The preconditions for this experience of exorbitant sufficiency get spelled out in the text—essentially the high point of a post-war social democracy and what Mark is keen to emphasise are the general preconditions of this particularly personal moment of rapture—in order to deflect the criticism that it only represents a nostalgic reflection on Baker’s part or a typical, halcyon moment from childhood. This is of a piece with many of Mark’s observation that the foundations for a particular continuum of working class art and music production, punk/post-punk/rave/drum and bass were based on the possibilities of a dropping out and/or going to art school, having a reasonably comfortable life on the dole, something which probably stops being possible around the mid-late 90s in the UK.
“there is something very specific about this moment, something that means it could have only happened then. We can enumerate some of the factors that made it unique: a sense of existential and social security that allowed working-class families to take holidays at all; the role that new technology such as transistor radios played in both connecting groups to an outside and enabling them to luxuriate in the moment, a moment that was somehow exorbitantly sufficient. (italics mine)”
One of the things that’s interesting in the book, or at least in its opening section, is that Mark has returned to the Sixties. In some ways the Sixties for an earlier iteration of K-Punk in its blogging heyday would have been anathema, the hippies and their tree-hugging, free-love organicist enthusiasms were everything that punk and cyberpunk stood against, and one of the main currents that has developed out of a particular strain of Mark’s thinking, a ccelerationism, is still quite openly anti-hippy in its orientation.
One of the ways in which hippie culture is/was anathema is in its focus on the child as symbol of nature and innocence and Mark was a famous early advocate of anti-natalist positions, championing No Future by Lee Edelman and so on.
So I suppose my first question here would be; while we have to be careful to make sure we are looking at the techno-economic paradigm that make these highly personal moments possible, can childhood and the experience in childhood of continuous levels of engagement and enlargement, the constant learning, the, if you like, repeated epiphanies, be a good model for acid communist or exorbitantly sufficient subjectivities? I am also thinking here little bit of a recent proposal for a National Education Service in the UK, a non-neoliberal equivalent to the market demand for life-long learning, because there is something psychedelic in the world-renewing properties of theorising and reconceptualising and that’s consonant in some ways with Mark’s interest in the notion of an outside; this space beyond current conceptions and boundaries that we constantly push into.
Can we locate a radical version of the inner child? Can we repurpose it, move it away from kind of wide-eyed avatar of some essential goodness and wonder, into a questing and adventurous, intellectually omnivorous, polymorphous subject, one that retains openness to an outside and that doesn’t ossify into a “realist” “adult” or highly individualised subjectivity?
There are several categories that Mark identifies as being essential to this sense of exorbitant sufficiency, light and space are two of them, but the most essential is perhaps time, free or unpressured time, and the sense of unpressured time comes of course from being a child, but also from a lack of anxiety about the future.
Exorbitant sufficiency has an ambiguous relationship toward the future as the space into which we project both anxiety and hope, but both those projections occur only if the present is intolerable, fallen, and will be redeemed in some way by the yet-to-come.
You might want to say that in exorbitantly sufficient moments the experience is one of time being in-joint as opposed to being out-of-joint. I’ll tentatively suggest that perhaps the time is always out-of-joint but that there are positive and negative modalities of that disjointedness. And I’d also suggest that there’s something slightly bittersweet in Baker’s passage, which is perhaps why Mark says that it could “only have happened then” as it takes place just as a shift of a certain kind is occurring, and that shift is symbolised here by the transistor radio that Baker takes up onto the bow of the boat.
One of Mark’s most influential formulations or projects was hauntology. Hauntology expressed a time out-of-jointedness in its negative mode—a certain future should have appeared, a better present should exist but has failed to come into being and the remnants of this better present are scattered around us, provoking us, reminding us of the lost possibilities.
This idea is given a certain kind of empirical base by economists like Carlota Perez, who is essentially a long wave theorist of capitalism and who argues that a shift toward a different type of post-Fordism, a production regime not based on oil, mass production and disposability should have occurred around the 1970’s but the “spatial fix”, essentially the opening up of China and the economic power of big oil to suppress alternate technologies, among other factors, have kept us trapped in an unnaturally elongated, slowly and unevenly differentiating Fordist moment.
Interestingly the subject that Perez imagines as the new consumer of this deferred future/present is very similar to the figure of the Hipster. She believes that elites lead the way culturally, so these would be moneyed connoisseur, interested in the specialised, high-quality, durable goods. interested in recycling and reclaiming and oriented toward vintage and low energy intensive forms of commodity accumulation, creativity, “up-cycling” if you like. So, to a degree, the 2000s, in which Mark formulated his hauntology, was haunted both by the remnants of the Utopian promise of an early order, modernism, intersecting with these kinds of harbingers of a Perezian future, temporally stranded and wandering around Dalston waiting for solar panels and vertical farming to arrive.
Time can also be out of joint in a “good way” however and I’d think here about Mark’s complaint that with regard to modern technology’s role in music, you can’t hear it anymore, using the example of Brian Eno’s synths and tapes and the way they irrupted into Roxy Music’s often quite standard, pastichey pop and rock tunes, inducing in the listener an exhilarating frisson of Future Shock. Here the time is out of joint because the future is forcing its way back into the present, opening a passage in space-time and allowing the ghost of the yet-to-come, more an angel than a ghost perhaps, to come floating in.
In the passage with the young Danny Baker on the boat we have a couple of key interrelations, firstly the surrounding countryside offering an image of the eternal, the pastoral and sublime, the boat and its engine, an older classical form, an established type of technology and the emergent, the future, as symbolised by the radio.
As it notes though, the radio is tiny and portable and the moment therefore captures something of an inflexion point in terms of the possibilities of Future Shock as an affect or an experience, and it’s a notion which disappears from the culture probably from the late 70s onward and is, to some extent an addiction that people of a certain generation have never been able to wean themselves off. Indeed you might want to argue that a lot of the accelerationist project both aesthetically and politically is redolent of Future Shock envy on the part of a younger generation.
For this Future Shock to occur I think the technology has to be visible in the same way as it has to be hearable in music, hence in a kind of vulgarised, or at least popularised, hauntology, and in steampunk we have a fetishisation of clunky, monolithic early versions of technology with huge, glowing cathode tubes, gramophones, vast banks of synths and so on. So as technology miniaturizes, blends in with its surroundings, becomes invisible, becomes more of a discrete frame, as architecture does too around this point, then this kind of juxtaposition, the eternal, the residual, the emergent begins to disappear. Even though cyberpunk, extropian and to some extent accelerationist fantasies focus on seamless integration, technical augmentation, the man-machine and so on, in a way a certain affect a certain dramatic temporal tension is lost with miniaturization, the future side of the relationship falls away, becomes invisible and the present feels lopsided, dislocated, out of joint.
So I suppose another question I would have there is, what’s the relationship of exorbitant sufficiency to time? Is it only possible at a given historical moment, a good out of jointedness? Is this why it can’t seem to come again?
The term exorbitant sufficiency expresses that one has enough yet that enough feels luxurious, far in excess of what’s required. So this is a paradox or an oxymoron, and this sense of completeness in the moment, this lack of orientation to the future puts me in mind of Todd McGowan’s recent work. McGowan’s a Lacanian, which makes reading him a rather forbidding prospect, at least it does for me , but essentially McGowan tries to build a politics, an anti-capitalist politics of the death drive.
To very crudely summarise his argument, we have suffered an originary loss and we try to replace this loss all through our lives by pursuing an object that will stand in for the loss, here, commodities, which promise us a sense of completeness but only lead us to experience disappointment, because what we actually want is the disappointment itself, the loss that allows us to desire again. The chase is better than the catch, as Motorhead succinctly put it.
McGowan believes ALL orientation toward the future is inherently bound up in capitalist desire, that the constant search for and repetition of failure maps onto the structure of capital accumulation, orientation toward the future as a salvationary space is caught up in the logic of the profit motive, commodity production etc. All of this is expressed through the kind of counterintuitive and paradoxical formulations of which Mark was fond, the title of his big book being “enjoying what we don’t have”. What we should stop doing for McGowan is precisely thinking about the future, seeking out boundaries and limits to overcome in the belief that beyond them there is a true satisfaction possible as we already have everything we need or possibly everything we don’t need. Or, perhaps better still, we already don’t have everything we don’t need.
There are problems with McGowan’s work in that it fails to address the body and material needs, poverty and so on. It’s hard not to be oriented toward the future and accumulation if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or you face crop failure this summer, and so there is an extent to which McGowan is really perhaps addressing, in a more rarified register, the Affluenza that bedevils his students and his peers. Either way, this refusal of the future overlaps in some ways with Marks exorbitant sufficiency; the moment burgeons into a sense of plenitude because in some ways it’s been bracketed off. The relationship with acid here might be fairly clear. Acid shuts down the memory and the sense of anticipation, the music critic Simon Reynolds likening its results to one being dazzled by the moment.
So the next question I would have asked is whether a postcapitalist desire is at odds with a demand for the future and whether an exorbitantly sufficient renunciation of the future isn’t also an option to be considered? Does the idea of exorbitant sufficiency map in some ways onto the idea of Communal Luxury more than Luxury Communism.
Thinking about exorbitant sufficiency as an aesthetic, one of the songs Mark mentions as exemplifying this is the Kinks’ Lazing On A Sunny Afternoon, free time, a certain luxuriousness of surroundings, life devoted to the ludic, but also crucially a loss or a sense of being unencumbered.
I am going to suggest a series of qualities that I think are required for a work to add it to a canon of the exorbitantly sufficient and do that on the basis of some of my interpretation of the phrase I have already outlined.
I think it should it contain a sense of the good childlike, in the sense that it must have a certain numinous quality, a sense not of breaking into new territory/overcoming boundaries but of transformation or enlargement.
It should concentrate on a concentrated moment and that moment should be, paradoxically, illuminated by the eclipse of the future
Should have a sense of ease and lassitude.
Should formally express a relation and tensions between deep time and the traditional and the defamiliarising possibilities of the technological but without aiming at the sense of the ruptural that characterised Future Shock
It should have something of the reverie and the epiphany.
I am going to nominate a song for this and that’s Estuary Bed by The Triffids from an album with the interesting title, Born Sandy Devotional.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGP6fmpIxt0[/embedyt]
The song title is also relevant. Estuaries are as much a combination of forces pulling in different directions as they are a confluence, an arresting of motion and a deepening of it, rich, teaming environments alive with growth, ancient and yet also densely populated, worked over by humans, in some ways undermined by them.
Here are the lyrics:
The children are walking back from the beach/ Sun on the sidewalk is burning their feet/Washing the salt off under the shower/And just wasting away, wasting away
The hours and hours and hours
Come on, climb over your father’s back fence/For the very last time we’ll take the shortcut/Across his lawn/Then lie together on the estuary bed/Perfectly still, perfectly warm
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
I see you still/I know not rest/Silt returns along the passage of flesh/ I hear your voice/I taste the salt/I bear the stain, it won’t wash off/I hold you not
But I see you still/What use eyesight if it should melt? What use memory covered in estuary silt?
I know your shape/Our limbs entwined/I know your name, remember mine
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
There is an emphasis on childhood, un-hurried time, sunlight, nature, the sense of rebirth, sloughing an old skin, awakening, mutual embrace, a mutual transformation. The track itself is essentially a pretty straight, folk-rock track given a particular brightness and ambient edge through the production, and as it progresses the lead vocal becomes increasingly detached from the background, swimming of into a kind of overlapping, multi tracked, oneiric drift, urging whoever the song’s addressee is, perhaps the singer themselves, to awake, to face life replenished. There is nothing but two people lying together in the sun, in a particular favourite place and yet the song implies this is everything, more than anything one could want, exorbitantly sufficient.
So, I suppose all of this would just have been a long preamble to the question, What do you think of this song, Mark? Do you like it?
To which his answer would almost certainly have been “no”.
This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.
“For the future, not the past. For the many, not the few. For trust, not betrayal. For the age of achievement, not the age of decline.” – Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 1996.
“I think if we win the election, the greatest burden on Tony Blair and the rest of us will not be delivering on the economy so much as the huge expectation that we will somehow be the agents of a different ethical order.” – Jack Straw, 1996.
In 1996, the Labour Party were regularly commanding leads of over 30 in opinion polls against the Tories. The party was in a unique position. In the past, it could only hope to achieve power when the incumbent Conservatives had made a hash of the economy, or plunged the country into darkness through their industrial relations incompetence. In 1996, however, this was not the case. Mortgage interest rates had dropped from double figures in the 1990s to under 7%. John Major’s administration had put the brakes on some of the worst, conspicuous excesses and injustices of Thatcherism. There was already a feelgood factor in the air. As the Guardian airily put it,
Unemployment is down, people are shopping more (car sales are up more than 10%), house prices are rising, the London Evening Standard says ‘Suddenly, Britain is feeling really good’, building societies are soon to create millions of new shareholders
And yet, fewer and fewer people felt good about the Tories. A series of allegations of sleaze involving Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, amongst others, spoke of a party who had done themselves too well and for too long at the political high table. Major himself cut a greying, weary, beleaguered figure. His risible, high profile Cones Hotline, in which members of the public could report apparently unnecessary traffic cones, had been quietly closed in 1995, having fielded fewer than 20,000 calls in its three- year life (a figure that frankly seems remarkably high). Major’s wistful visions of a Britain of warm beer and “old maids cycling to church in the morning mist” seemed to belong to the credits of some Sunday evening middlebrow period drama rather than a Britain whose heartbeat was pounding assertively with the delirium of the End of History. This was a dead man talking.
What’s more, the social liberalism regarded as loony in the 1980s had now become mainstream, with even Richard Branson looking to join in on the victory lap. 1996 was the year Virgin Vodka would introduce an ad featuring two men kissing. As for the Tories, Michael Portillo was obdurately upholding a ban on gays in the armed services.
Thing is, the country was not falling to pieces. It felt buoyant. There was simply a crying need for new faces at the helm, to displace an old guard who felt disassociated with the sense of self-confidence and triumphalism of Cool Britannia. “Things can only get better”, the refrain on which Labour would surf to victory in a year’s time, implied that the country was at rock bottom – but it was not. The feeling was more like: “Things are good – but they could be even better”. It was into this breach that Tony Blair stepped, a saviour for a country that did not particularly need saving – or certainly did not require the salvation he had in mind. It was as if he were being gifted the Premiership.
In 1996, Tony Blair was presented with the opportunity to present David Bowie with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits. You sense it was a slightly invidious task; as Chris Evans introduces him to the stage with customary half-wit (“foot-tapping, pop-loving, he’s got nice hair, Tony Blair”), the sound system strikes up facetiously with Bowie’s “Fashion”, as he descends the stairs in an estate agent’s suit and orange polka dot tie, his hairstyle, like Glenn Hoddle’s, having weighed anchor somewhere in 1978 and receded ever since. The half-soused crowd greet him with no great enthusiasm; there’s a low, mocking drone as he takes to the podium which he tries to ignore in that rictus way of his that would later become more pronounced when facing angry members of the Women’s Institute. And then, as if addressing the CBI rather than some of the dimmer bulbs of the Britpop alumni, he speaks:
It’s been a great year for British music. A year of creativity, vitality, energy; British bands storming the charts, British music once again back at its rightful place at the top of the world.” He talks of how new bands are able to draw inspiration from “the bands of my generation – the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks – and the later generation, the Clash, the Smiths, Stone Roses.
It could well be that Tony Blair, former guitarist with Ugly Rumours, was sincere in this tribute. But, coated in a politician’s unctuousness, the words seem today to proceed from his mouth in an utterly stilted fashion, all the more so because when he actually took office, he was far too busy waging global warfare to monitor and extol the health of British music. It’s probable that this was the very last time he uttered the words “Stone Roses”. The list encapsulates far more shamelessly, loudly and clearly than any mumbling, equivocal frontperson corralled under its banner the guiding principle of Britpop; the history of music in the UK as a retrospective series of white lines down a grey, established road, a tribute to British heritage, enterprise and industry. Interesting who is missing from the list: Joy Division (too despondent – they were on the other side of the sun of the 1990s), the Sex Pistols (too anarchic, despite the fact that they removed the sting from their legacy by reforming for purely financial reasons in 1996), and, strangely, Oasis, despite their own, fulsome praise for Blair.
It wasn’t the only effusive comment Tony Blair made about British pop during 1996, as he brazenly sought to associate his forty-two year-old self with the crest of the Britpop wave in a way the late John Smith could never have done, and John Major never hope to do. Blair was all over pop in 1996, as energetic as a ligger in his attendance of awards ceremonies, always ready to talk up the energy of British pop, as if to imply, by osmosis, that he was a key generator of the broader energy it represented. “Rock’n’roll is not just an important part of our culture, it’s an important part of our everyday life”, he claimed, as if rock’n’roll were as vital to his daily routine as cleaning his teeth and saying his prayers. He wasn’t always selective in his upbeat praise; he described Morrissey as being part of our “vibrant” culture – Morrissey, with the possible exception of Alan Bennett, probably the least vibrant human being on earth, then as now. And, killing three birds with one stone, he sought to conflate rhetorically the rise of lad comedy, the England team of Euro ’96 and the trad indie du jour by alluding to the “Three Lions” anthem thus: “Seventeen years of hurt / Never stopped us dreaming / Labour’s coming home.”
Embarrassingly, however, Blair dazzled in 1996. This extended to to vast swathes of the electorate, including many who would marvel that they hadn’t known better. The lefty tanktops pooh-poohed him, but then, those malodorous malingers would, wouldn’t they? Meanwhile the Tories hired Charles Saatchi to rework his 1979 magic with their “New Labour, New Danger” posters, in which a grinning Blair was depicted as red-eyed and demonic once you peeled back a strip from his plausible veneer. They convinced absolutely no one of the Red Terror he represented; they might as well have waved garlic at him. For many of us sceptical about Britpop, we were affected by the New Sanguine of which Blair felt a part; he blazed white like the blinding light in a doorway to an uncertain future – an exit point at least. And he mentioned the Stone Roses. My God, a future Prime Minister mentioned the Stone Roses! This was surely something worth clutching at.
The prospect of finally ridding the country of the Tories intoxicated even some the most hard bitten. Noel Gallagher was the most conspicuous example, as:
There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country. That is me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man! Power to the people!
He later sheepishly confessed he’d been “off his head” when he bellowed this pronouncement, in which the Oasis members effectively amounted to a shadow cabinet in waiting, but he wasn’t the only one. In co-opting the English Euro 96 anthem he wasn’t just piggybacking on a pop moment, he was tapping into the snarling sense of frustration still festering from the 1992 disappointment, when, despite leaning about as far to the right as seemed feasible without toppling over, Neil Kinnock still lost to John Major. Next time, anything would do. An ugly tap-in, a penalty shoot out, a Blair administration, so long as we won.
I was among those who had suspended my leftist qualms and joined in the chant for Blair, another who should have known better but found the urge to back this gift horse irresistible. Or was he a Trojan horse? Suppose, I told myself, Blair had dropped Clause IV, was cosying up to Murdoch by having Labour’s front bench trade and industry team abandon its support for a tough regulatory regime on the ownership of newspapers and television broadcasting in favour of a freer market, simply so as to deceive the public, business and the media that the party was deliberately forfeiting its leftist teeth, that it was the party that would no longer bite? And then, once in power, use his overwhelming mandate to exercise a full-blooded, socialist transformation of the UK? Be the New Danger the Tory posters depicted him as for real, after all? In any case, wasn’t that what Margaret Thatcher had done prior to her election in 1979? She certainly hadn’t frightened the British public by detailing the full extent of the right-wing programme with which her name would become synonymous. Might Blair have a similar trick in mind?
There was no excuse for such inebriated, wishful thinking. One had only to read, if one could be bothered, Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle’s The Blair Revolution, published in 1996, which set out in no uncertain terms what kind of “revolution” New Labour were planning, one that certainly would not involve hordes of cloth-capped proletariats storming the gates of Downing Street à la the Winter Palace in 1917. No – what would be really revolutionary about the Blair Revolution is that it would be entirely non-revolutionary, making it the most revolutionary revolution of all. A revolution no one need fear, least of all our latterday Tsars.
This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.
The origin of the luminous phrase ‘killing moon’ is obscure (at least it is to me). Google throws up no reference other than the 1984 Echo and the Bunnymen tune, and a 1994 video game called Under a Killing Moon, ‘the largest of its era’ according to Wikipedia. Elsewhere, there are stray hints. An early draft version of Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ begins:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Changeless and deathless; above the murdering moon …
For Yeats the moon had an occult symbolism, which we can fit into a broader Romantic tradition of viewing the moon as a source of terrible beauty. This was, more or less, the lunar worship famously avowed in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948), which argued that the Romantics—and indeed poets going back into prehistory—celebrated the moon because it preserved memories of an ancient matriarchal society. In Graves’s account, prior to the arrival of male sun gods (Apollo, Christ) European societies paid tribute to a female deity associated with the moon: a ‘White Goddess’ at once ‘terrible, beautiful, inspiring, and destroying’. For Graves, all true poetry must pay homage to the Goddess and her ultimate dominion over the creative soul:
The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess … whose embrace is death.
Graves’s theory was highly influential, and for better or worse we can see it impacting on post-forties poetry in all kinds of ways (the life and work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, both of whom were White Goddess devotees, is a notable example).
While I doubt that Ian McCulloch had Graves in mind when he sat down to write ‘The Killing Moon’, it seems clear that the wider, ancient poetic tendency of exalting the moon’s dark majesty and sway over human fate is somewhere behind the lyrics of this incredible piece of music:
In starlit nights I saw you
So cruelly you kissed me
Your lips a magic world
Your sky all hung with jewels
The killing moon
Will come too soon …
I’m not trying to shoehorn this pop lyric into an orthodox study of literary influence. All lyrics set to music (from Campion to Beyoncé) are different in texture from non-musical poetry—they are less dense and allusive, and so do not lend themselves to the techniques of close reading established over the last century or so of literary discourse. But I think we can probably agree that this sort of writing is nonetheless something unique and lovely. Like the best pop lyrics, it emerges from the moment when adolescent simplicity and sincerity are perfected with a sudden flash of mature self-awareness—a Bildungsroman in a nanosecond.
More concretely, as mentioned, we can see literary presences filtering through here to a work of art that is not self-consciously literary. Even if McCulloch was not as versed in the poetic canon as someone like Ted Hughes, he was writing in the early 1980s at a high watermark of popular literacy: a time when certain historical conditions (generously funded higher education, a strong counterculture, widespread intellectualism, no internet) meant that literary pop songs happened as a matter of course, growing organically out of the social-democratic soil, as it were. ‘The Killing Moon’ with its evocative title and lyrics—not to mention its sophisticated melody and arrangement—is one of the greatest and most successful translations of the Romantic literary aesthetic into the medium of the late-twentieth-century pop song. And it manages the feat without even trying.
But what, after all, is the song about? The arresting chorus hook (‘Fate / Up against your will / Through the thick and thin’) doesn’t need much decoding. Indeed—and again, note the effortlessness—apparently this fragment came to McCulloch full-fledged in a dream, just as the melody of ‘Yesterday’ was magically gifted to another Scouse Romantic back in 1964. We don’t need to follow McCulloch’s claim that the lyric arrived direct from God to appreciate the simple profundity of lines like this: will and fate in an endless tug of war, with the earth of life churned by the footfall.
Of course, this is at bottom a song about a death wish, or perhaps just death (remember the White Goddess, her embrace):
Under a blue moon I saw you
So soon you’ll take me
Up in your arms
Too late to beg you or cancel it
Though I know it must be the killing time…
Perhaps you’ll forgive me if I move from the critical to the personal to attempt to understand the power of these lines. I don’t know why, but since (belatedly) discovering this song for the first time over the last month or so, I haven’t been able to break its dark spell. In echo of its composition, I’ve woken up many times in the middle of the night with the chorus hook ringing round my brain. Life for me is good right now, perhaps better than ever. But there is something not quite right in the night sky.
I cannot work out what is meant by the final couplet of the chorus of ‘The Killing Moon’, a song released in the year I was born: ‘He will wait until / You give yourself to him’. Does God, or the Goddess, wait mercifully for us to decide we have given up on life? And being so overshadowed by death, how are we to muster will, hope, energy in the meantime? Perhaps we are living in the killing time, sliding passively towards decay, with ingenious lovely things disappearing around us every second. Like so many others, I am finding it difficult to see a way forward right now. Political options have narrowed, the counterculture is gone, and the wisest man I knew took his own life at the start of the year. I can acknowledge the light of the morning, and savour how it makes my baby son smile. But you must believe me when I say that lately I have felt haunted by the killing moon.
Alex Niven is a Repeater editor, writer and lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University. He is the author of Folk Opposition, The Last Tape and Definitely Maybe (33 1/3), and is currently editing a book of Basil Bunting’s letters for OUP. He blogs at http://thefantastichope.blogspot.co.uk.
Digital Taylorism: Labour Between Passion & Serendipity
Attack of the Big Yawn
In his fascinating historical study of the rise of happiness to the highly valued commodity it has become in our time, the British sociologist William Davies offers a brief yet intriguing meditation on the end of capitalism. In the past, he says, the collapse of our current mode of production has usually been imagined to occur as the result of economic crisis, political revolution, ecological disaster, or, in the best of cases, through technological innovation. However, since the end of the cold war, Davies muses, there seems to be another, “more lacklustre” option on the horizon:
What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is simply met with a yawn?
Williams’ remarks are far less tongue-in-cheek than they may appear. There is indeed a rather telling sign of – if we were to put it in Marxist terms – capital’s lack of motivational pull with regard to labour that over the last two decades has developed into a management obsession: the theory and practice of “employee engagement”. Gallup started measuring employee engagement in the Eighties, its popularity as an indicator of the ‘health’ of a company surged in the 1990s, and today there is a plethora of refined engagement surveys and training programs available from dozens of providers. While the popularity of employee engagement is in itself suggestive of a motivational problem among the workforce – why else would one want to measure engagement? – the actual numbers these surveys regularly produce are truly disheartening for the managerial class. Gallup’s last Global Workplace Report of 142 countries has found that only 13% of employees are properly “engaged”, with those “actively disengaged” among the European and North American workforce figuring around 24%. Often, though, it’s not just the ubiquitous ‘yawn’ ruling our corporate and public offices that is the problem. Stress-related illnesses, burnout, and similar work-induced forms of psychological and physical paralysis have joined forces to become the 21st century workspace epidemic throughout the developed world. In this sense, lack of enthusiasm or activity indeed presents a formidable challenge to our economic order, in spite of the cynical strategy to commercialise the collective disengagement by repackaging it as independent symptoms of individual psychological pathology.
What interests me in the anti-capitalist attack of the collective yawn and its pathological companions – beautifully captured by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han in the notion of the “fatigue society” (Müdigkeitsgesellschaft) – is that it can help us to come to terms with some of the current transformations in our understanding of labour as productive activity. In this chapter, I would like to concentrate on two developments that can be seen as attempts to respond to the challenge of the big yawn: on the one hand, the quasi-eroticisation of labour articulated in the notion of passionate work, and, on the other hand, the mobilisation of the social dimension of labour expressed in the celebration of entrepreneurial serendipity.
The Passion of the Work
While the fateful alliance between passion and labour had been anticipated by a number of visionary sociologists around the turn of the century, it is only recently that work is almost everywhere turning into a passionate project. Over the past few years, passion has become a basic requirement for employees of all stripes. Regardless of the mundane nature of the job at hand, today it is almost impossible to get anywhere near work without the invocation of one’s passion for it.
As with so many of the ideological tropes discussed in this book, the connection of work and passion makes quite a bit of intuitive sense. What could be wrong with ‘loving what you’re doing’? If employees and entrepreneurs could be truly passionate about their work, it would turn their daily toil into a much more fun and fulfilling activity. Employers and clients, on the other hand, would profit from increased productivity and generally from a better job being done. Take, for example, one of the more authoritative publications on the topic, The Power of Pull, written by business consultants and management scholars John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison. Under the heading “Make Your Passion Your Profession” they inform their readership about the new logic of passionate work:
Those of us who continue to toil at jobs we don’t love will find ourselves nonetheless toiling harder as our competition continues to intensify. We’ll find it increasingly difficult to cope with the mounting stress or to put in the effort required to raise our performance. We need to marry our passions with our professions in order to reach our potential… Passion in this context refers to a sustained and deep commitment to achieving our full potential and greater capacity for self-expression in a domain that engages us on a personal level. We often develop and explore our passions in areas such as sports or the arts outside of work, but we rarely integrate our passions with our professions.
The funny thing about the logic of the argument here – and this really is a staple of the management ideology of passionate work – is that the necessity of throwing yourself passionately into the game is sold to the reader as a result of everyone being just about to do it. Maybe not today but certainly tomorrow, there will be so much passion going on in corporate and public organisations that competition becomes a question of being even more passionate than everyone else. Stress, lack of performance and cynicism are caused by insufficient alignment of one’s passion to one’s work. Hence, the suggested solution: get aligned, fall in love with your work already; passion is the key ingredient to professional success. While this makes for a fascinating story, it is exactly the opposite of what a dispassionate view of reality (a.k.a. empirical data) suggests. The wave of passion that supposedly is just about to sweep through contemporary capitalism shows neither in employee engagement surveys nor in health statistics, business indicators, or macro-economic data. Nor, in fact, does it show in the great product and service innovations that surely would be the outcome of a passion-driven economy. No, the reason why passionate work has emerged as one of the great ideologies of our time is the fact that the big yawn is becoming deafening, that the neoliberal mutation of capitalism has turned the economy into a self-sabotaging system, systematically destroying its most important source of value: labour.
In order to make sense of the rise of passion to a workplace requirement within corporate and public organisations, it helps to first consider an interesting historical coincidence. The emergence of debates around employee (dis-)engagement was contemporaneous with the beginning of the systematic digitisation and automation of the workplace. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, a new breed of professional service providers revolutionised the management consulting sector. What they offered had very little to do with traditional board level advice. Rather, they were selling large scale IT-systems able to automate management processes throughout the entire organisation. The first wave of digitisation and automation of business came for the most part with the label of reengineering. The grandiose claims with which reengineering firms pushed their way into corporate and public boardrooms have largely been erased from managerial memory. Suffice to say that alongside predictions of increased efficiency and massively lowered costs came the promise of a workforce liberated from repetitive bureaucratic chore. Reengineering the organisation was supposed to lead to the creation of professional environments in which creativity was finally allowed to thrive.
This, of course, is not what happened. The former Financial Times correspondent Simon Head is one of the few scholars who have systematically traced the automation of the workplace from the reengineering wave of the Eighties to the current almost universal use of so-called Computer Business Systems (CBSs; previously known as Enterprise Systems [ES] or Enterprise Resource and Planning Systems [EPS]). His reports from the battlefield of digital armament for the sake of creatively liberated workforces paint a picture of the contemporary workplace all too familiar to many of us who spend their lives within corporate and public organisations. According to Head, digitisation and automation have spread the logic of industrialism far beyond their conventional jurisdiction: to wholesale and retail, financial services, higher education, health care, public administration, and corporate management. In addition, they have also introduced the neo-disciplines of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Human Resource Management (HRM).
What’s going on here has nothing to do with the future visions of digital machines working merrily side by side with humans. The computer systems that have been implemented throughout the economy form the technological backbone of a massive neo-bureaucratisation of corporate and public organisations. In order for the digital industrialisation of the workplace to function across different sectors, a veritable army of techno-bureaucrats has invaded corporate and public institutions whose mere task is the streamlining of employee behaviour according to the requirements of algorithmic performance indicators and the like. And it is not just the infamous call centres and Amazon warehouses we are talking about here. Highly trained professionals such as doctors and professors have been pressed into preformatted work processes, effectively losing the sovereignty over their own crafts(wo)manship, expertise and knowledge. There is a systematic annihilation of professional creativity at work here, nullifying, as Head puts it, “the employee’s accumulated skill, knowledge and experience which, applied to the daily problems of the workplace, enable employees to do their jobs well”.
Faking It: Passion as Simulation
The reason why this is crucial for the present discussion is that the massive destruction of professional skill and quality by the logic of office automation was accompanied by the emergence of a new kind of competence. Arlie Hochschild famously began to describe this development in the Eighties in terms of the appearance of what she called “emotional labour”. In her pioneering study of flight attendants, The Managed Heart, Hochschild defined emotional labour as requiring the employee “to induce or supress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”. It is obvious that thirty years ago, flight attendants’ requirement to serve with a smile didn’t have much to do with automation. And also today, emotional labour is not necessary directly related to CBSs and the like although it can be if we think of the emotional stress caused by counterproductive office IT-systems. The point where digital office automation and emotional labour intersect is that of simulation. CBSs and their administrators are not for one bit interested in the inherent professional value of performance simply because they have not got the means to understand what this would actually be. They simulate performance by way of algorithmic indicators and matrices whose abstract universality – the fact that they need to be applicable across diverse sectors in order to be economically viable – ensures their radical decoupling from the particular professional reality (epitomised, perhaps, by the infamous star ratings for hospitals, universities and so on).
The flipside of this kind of performance simulation can be found in the rise emotional labour, and indeed, passion. For HRM-professionals, emotional labour is not the ‘labour of care’ that comes with a specific professional territory – think, for instance of physicians and nurses – but the universal mobilisation of individual sources of empathy and enthusiasm for the most profane ends. The creation of experience as a service is an important reference here, albeit in a much more skewed sense than was intended by the gurus of the experience economy, Joe Pine and James Gilmore. In an economy where the most exciting new consumer products are digitally pimped wristwatches (first developed almost fifty years ago) and cars that actually rob you of the experience of driving, experience is something that increasingly has to be provided as a product or service veneer by the employee. The logic of the emotional template that is spreading throughout corporate and public management culture by way of HRM has been famously captured by Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space. In the film, Joanna works as a waitress in a fast food chain called Chotchkie’s. An integral part of her work there is to wear idiotic buttons with slogans and symbols on them. They are referred to as “flair”. At a certain point in the film, Stan, Chotchkie’s manager and Joanna’s boss, takes her aside in order to express his dissatisfaction with the way she’s handling her “flair”:
Stan: We need to talk about your flair.
Joanna: Really? I… I have fifteen pieces on. I, also…
Stan: Well, okay. Fifteen is the minimum, OK?
Stan: Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or… well, like Brian, for example, has thirty-seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.
Joanna: OK. So you… you want me to wear more?
Stan: Look. Joanna.
Stan: People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. OK? That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.
Joanna: Yeah. OK. So more then, yeah?
Stan: Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, OK? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?
Joanna: Yeah, yeah.
Stan: OK. Great. Great. That’s all I ask.
In 1999 the scathing humour of the Judge’s film was somewhat lost in the peak of the dotcom boom, but a few years later it became a commercial success on the small screen (VHS and DVD sales) as a cult comment on the corporate re-entrenchment of the post-crash years. Today, it serves as a reminder that the idiocy expressed in the notion of “flair” has become almost universal workplace policy. In the contemporary workplace, flair in its many disguises has been integrated in the strange virtuosity of emotional labour. This goes for all layers of management, save the highest, as well. Those of us who are lucky enough to be uninitiated into the circuits of managerial emotional labour can begin to bring themselves up to speed on the issue through the work of the young German director Carmen Losmann. In her brilliant 2011 documentary Work Hard, Play Hard, Losmann follows a number of so-called change management trajectories in German corporations. In one of the sequences, the viewer witnesses a series of assessment interviews for potential junior managers who are confronted with the most insipid questions about their emotional ‘leadership qualities’. Interestingly, the candidates who do well in the interviews are those who respond by shooting back the prefab-slogans found on the pages of contemporary management and coaching literature. One gets the impression that what unfolds in front of one’s eyes is a grand simulation, a mutual game of Munchausen, where everyone knows that this is essentially nonsense but equally knows that as an employee – regardless whether shop floor or management – one simply has to show the readiness to go the emotional extra mile. What makes this viewing experience so excruciating is the effortlessness with which the camera is able to reveal the absurdity of the change trajectories followed by Losmann’s documentary. We are observers of an exercise in pointless emotional gymnastics motivated by the illusion that this will somehow vitalise corporate culture. The flair of the burger waitress returns, this time packaged in an HRM-fabricated company culture that in its ideological wackiness is easily on par with the obligatory party-gibberish that pervaded the Kombinate (state-owned corporations) of real existing socialism.
The obvious difference to the time of the politburo is that today, there is no central authority determining and emitting the correct world-view and watching over its implementation. Proud to be ideology-free, the neoliberal state has outsourced its ideological function – at least when it comes to labour – to the consulting industry. This is not meant as a rhetorical pun at all. If one looks at the process by which the consulting industry rose to its current dimensions, one cannot escape the realisation that it is heavily invested in the rise of neoliberal politics. The shrinking of state bureaucracy that started in the 1980s coincided with the expansion of the consulting sector that stepped in to provide the services previously run by the state itself. The reason why this worked quite beautifully was that at the same time the consulting industry underwent quite a drastic transformation – from traditional board level advice to the provision of in- or outsourced IT-systems covering the entire business process. Governments – particularly in the UK and the US – were among the first clients, providing an industry in transformation a field of large-scale experimentation by handing out consulting contracts of unprecedented financial value. The governments’ benefit for subsidising and in fact growing the consulting industry was that they got the argument of technological progress to support their own ideological agenda. In other words, both the massive growth of the consulting industry in the 1980s and 1990s and the history of office digitisation and automation are intimately linked to the rise of neoliberalism.
Of course, the consulting sector is a notoriously secretive industry so much of its machinations – including the often catastrophic failures of the 1980s and 1990s IT-contracts – remain largely in the dark. It is thanks to another German documentary maker that we are able to look behind the screens of today’s distributed production of ideology. In Ein neues Produkt, Harun Farocki follows the directors of the Quickborner Team, a Hamburg consulting firm that was once famous for the invention of the Bürolandschaft. Today, they design corporate environments for the so-called ‘new way of working’, which is a big theme for corporations. In the ‘new way of working’, the digital automation of work processes discussed above meets the appropriation of cultural practices that independent creative producers have experimented with over the last decade or so in order to update the industrial configurations of corporate work space.
With his characteristically calm and discreet concentration, Farocki films the strategy workshops and client meetings of the Quickborner Team, capturing the semiotic dynamics at work in the development of radically innovative workplace cultures. The consultants develop the cultural tapestry for office architectures that are supposed to make employees faster, smarter, more effective and so on. The goal is flexible workspaces able to facilitate more self-determined, independent employees who, through all kinds of serendipitous interaction, contribute to the innovative capability of the company. Nothing wrong with this, let’s make these environments less depressing and more interactive, if people become more productive and innovative in the process because the new environments cater more appropriately to their professional needs, that’s fine as well. Yet, what the semiotic dynamics of the meetings portrayed by Farocki reveal goes in a rather different direction. It transpires quickly that the protagonists of the film have very limited interest in understanding the needs of the ‘modern employee’. The purpose of these workshops and client meetings appears to be limited to the generation of a vocabulary able to catch a managerial zeitgeist that is totally unencumbered by any substantial reflection on what flexibility, collaboration, or, indeed, self-determination might entail from an employee’s point of view. Instead, the Quickborner space-gurus combine design thinking fragments, systems theory sound bites and kitchen psychology in order to produce a rhetorical vacuum that is supposed to fill their clients’ workspace with what John Hagel and his colleagues call the “power of pull”, attracting the passion of the employee. “It’s emotionality where we can score with our clients”, one of the directors of the Quickborner Team says at a decisive moment in the film, and, as silly as this may sound, he is spot on. The general ideological task of these consultants is to find the passionate antidote to the big yawn his peers have caused by implementing digital managerial industrialism.
Abstract Passion, Concrete Bullshit
It is obvious that nothing of this kind will ever be achieved by simply encouraging the workforce to ‘fake it’. Interventions by culture consultants of the above kind are not just economically nonsensical but counterproductive. For companies that understand themselves as economic entities existing for the purpose of creating products and services that people need, they have no value whatsoever. They do, however, make perfect sense for corporations whose purpose is first and foremost to cater to the interests of financial markets. This might sound slightly vulgar (“Oh, they just want to make money!”), but it is in fact a vital distinction. One of the main reasons for the absence of exciting innovation today – increasingly even at the level of technology – has to do with what economists call “the financialisation of the economy”, i.e., the fact that economic performance is increasingly measured on financial return on investment (shareholders, etc.) rather than on successful products and services. Clayton Christensen, perhaps the most influential management and innovation guru of our time, denounces this tendency in Harvard Business Review as “The Capitalist’s Dilemma”. Where real economic output becomes secondary, it gets difficult to form a company culture based on the collective pride of being part of an organisation that makes great stuff. Hence the false belief in the snake oil salesmen who claim to be able to create your company/product/ service culture based on hot air.
This innovation predicament is related to the neoliberal transformation of capitalism understood as the streamlining of economic production according to the needs of financial capital. The flexibility inherent to financial capital has to be reproduced at the level of the employment relation. And this is exactly the reason for the shift from professional skill to emotion and affect: the abstract liquidity of financial capital requires a corresponding liquidation of professional skill into the desires and emotional dispositions of the workforce. Today’s intensified competition and chronic market instability have at least as much to do with financialisation as they do with the transformative power of digital technology. Think, for instance, of the way in which the so-called sharing economy is organised. Many of the platform business models we find there are able to disrupt existing markets in spite of being economically dysfunctional. They can do this because they are highly subsidised by financial speculators whose treasure chambers are filled with capital that can’t find economically sensible investment. Financial abstraction thus leads to pseudo-economic (yet very lucrative) investment games, erratic markets environments, and the need for hyperflexible employees for whom the emotional labour of passion replaces professional skill.
In such an economic environment, one can expect to find an organisational landscape that is increasingly unprepared to treat its employees like grownup professionals. There is clear evidence that working conditions have been deteriorating for years across a wide range of industries – particularly in the US and the UK. This list, provided by Simon Head, is quite comprehensive:
[They] include increased working hours for individuals and family units; increased inequality of income and stagnant or declining real wages for a majority of the workforce; the break in the historical relationship between profits, productivity and real wage growth; loss of retirement income and shifts in the pension risk to employees, declining health care coverage and shifts of cost to employees; loss of employee voice at work as labour-movement members decline to pre-1930 levels; and increased layoffs not as a last resort but as a routine aspect of corporate restructuring. To the list should be added the increased pace of work dictated by CBSs, its intensive targeting and monitoring by ‘performance evaluation’ systems, and its deskilling of employees with expert systems.
Now this is not a list cooked up by some lefty curmudgeon whose only pleasure is to critique ‘the system’. It’s simply a reading of mainstream statistical data on labour. Thomas Piketty, of course, wrote a bestseller based on this data, it is there for anyone who reads the newspapers, mainstream economists discuss it frequently, and anyway, we also experience these conditions on a daily basis. True, in some parts of continental Europe things are considerably less bad than elsewhere, but the tendency is a global one: there is a systematic assault on employees’ ability to simply do a good job. If we correlate this development with the equally systematic requirement of employees to provide not just services but great experiences vis-à-vis clients and customers, a blatant contradiction comes into view. Actually, it’s a double contradiction: underwhelming products and services and deteriorating work conditions are supposed to be balanced out by the employees’ emotional labour. Time and again, they try to achieve this Sisyphean task by reaching deep into the magic box of affective human integrity in order to mobilise their emotional and communicative faculties. And if one is particularly unlucky, then one might find that all this affective energy is going into what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, i.e., the growing number of pseudo-professional activities that do not make a sensible contribution to society by any stretch of the imagination. No wonder everyone is yawning. Welcome to the fatigue society!
Exodus into Serendipity?
Given the inhospitality of office environments corporate and public, it is not very surprising that an increasing number of professionals opt out of the institutional context in order to become entrepreneurs on their own account. One form of entrepreneurial exodus, already discussed in Chapter 1, is the so-called coworking movement. When the first proper coworking spaces popped up in San Francisco, New York, Berlin and London in the early years of the new Millennium, they were born out of frustration with the confined office environment and reflected the growth of an increasingly independent workforce trying to turn their economic precarity into a neo-Bohemian entrepreneurialism. Instead of the prefabricated passion of the big organisation, they were trying to get truly passionate about their profession by becoming entrepreneurs.
From the start, serendipity was an important reference for the coworking multitude: coworking spaces needed to provide their users with an environment offering a high probability of serendipitous encounters as a way of compensating for the freelancers’ lack of organisational support structure. The groups and communities spurring the first generation coworking spaces intended to generate imperfect yet more exciting replacements for the conventional organisation. They were supposed to generate ideas and opportunities for business, but also had a political ambition in the sense of strengthening the position of the precarious entrepreneur, vis-à-vis potential clients, through an exchange of knowledge and skills and a general practice of mutual generosity. It is easy, too easy perhaps, to dismiss the alter-entrepreneurial euphoria of the early Millennium as a pale copy of the Californian Ideology that is now holding the start-up scene firmly in its grip. It is certainly true that the West Coast form of expression, with its endemic combination of infantile pathos and cliché, was an early visitor to the coworking community as well. Yet, underneath the silly awesomeness of everything, there was indeed awareness that it wasn’t all fun and games. One of the key concerns of the early coworking movement was to help prevent the multitude of independent producers from sinking into what Byung-Chul Han calls the “solitude” of self-exploiting neoliberal subjects. Here, serendipity, i.e., the accidental sagacity that emerges when people with different minds and skill sets encounter each other, was really part and parcel of the story. It turned these coworking spaces into third spaces that seemed to enable an ambivalent kind of social innovation: one that was necessary for the functioning of neoliberal capitalism but also had the ambition of going beyond it. One of the ‘values’ the early coworkers were passionate about was ‘community’, and back then this meant something more than the marketing catchphrase it has become of late. The coworking movement – or at least a substantial part of it – really thought it was possible to rewrite the rules of the neoliberal economy.
Today, coworking as a politically, culturally and even economically innovative phenomenon is all but history. The formidable spread of flex-work spaces around the globe is driven by motivations radically different from those of the early activists. Coworking has mutated into the massive provision of infrastructure for start-up entrepreneurs, independent professionals and freelancers and as such, it has become big business. Operations, such as the New York based start-up WeWork, are bent on turning the coworking model into a real estate version of the platform business model (see Chapter 6). Its aggressive global expansion is based on an incredible market valuation of US$10 Billion. While the rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘values’ persists as marketing strategy toward the growing client-base of independent workers and entrepreneurs in need of affordable workspace, its practical articulation has been taken over by professional hosts and community managers. There is, of course, nothing wrong per se with such a professionalisation of coworking. People still need affordable workspace and flex-workspaces tend to provide exactly that. Sure, in the hands of the likes of WeWork, Regus, Liquid Spaces or indeed Marriott, coworking has lost its utopian impetus. However, if this would be all there was to it, one might bemoan it as a lost opportunity for the much-vaunted ‘change’, or simply write it off as the usual course of a fringe phenomenon maturing into business, and losing its more exciting, socially progressive elements along the way.
Yet, something is happening to the coworking movement that is rather unsettling. Driven by the managerial hype around serendipity – i.e., the realisation that in order to fully mobilise the workforce, individual passion needs to be complemented by the generative and, hopefully, innovative effects of social promiscuity – a growing number of smart organisation consultants have discovered coworking as a template upon which they can market their services to corporations as the new generation of change management. Again, nothing would be wrong in trying to inject the treadmill of the office with some of the serendipitous energy one sometimes encounters in coworking spaces. In fact, one would welcome this effort if it was intended as a way of humanising the corporate workspace. However, one of the obvious problems here is that coworking culture – or whatever is left of the libertarian spirit of the early digital bohemians – is very hard to decree into being in a corporate context. What is distressing about the most recent wave of coworking-inspired office reform is that its proponents seem to have something in mind that goes way beyond the superficial change gymnastics highlighted in the work of Losmann and Farocki…
Sci-fi has a pedigree of exploring contemporary issues through the engaging gauze of societies and contexts far removed from painful familiarity. Inequality is explicated through different life forms, nuclear anxiety masquerades as fears of interstellar warfare, loneliness through the guise of artificial intelligence or the pseudo-modernist anonymity of slipping through dense and chaotic metropolises…in each case, sci-fi often trumps its stuffy literary or languorous cinematic ‘betters’; it speaks to us in a clear voice and cuts closer to the bone. A good example of this is the downright Dostoevskian Battlestar Galactica (2004). Battlestar Galactica mirrored post-9/11 paranoia on a multitude of levels. Cylons explored the anxieties and devastating potentials of terrorist ‘sleeper-cells’ – perhaps most obviously the prospect, and fall-out, of suicide bombings. The erosion of civil liberties was the knee-jerk Band-Aid on earth and the Battlestar Galactica fleet. The series was even replete with sham trials (Baltar’s Karamzovian trial) and a prisoner-torture controversy. Resource management, paranoia and the warring of theisms also provided the background to empathetic depictions of beings, whatever they may be. Other than that, the show was just spaceships and aliens.
Westworld fits right into such a lineage. Do not mistake Westworld to be about consciousness, AI agency or sentience. Others can reference Metzinger, Dennet and the Churchlands. Westworld is about every major city in the west. Slightly smiling with avuncular nostalgia and ominous magnanimity, a la Hopkins…let me explain.
Westworld is a luxury theme park, of a ‘wild-west’ theme. It stretches out for miles, so much so that guests can trek for days searching for something or someone inside the park. Hosts populate the park. The hosts are synthetic androids initially indistinguishable from guests. The hosts are like the simpler Replicants in Blade Runner (1982), except Asimov’s first law seems to be correctly installed: they cannot hurt the guests. The hosts are given narratives. They wake up each day, and depending on their finely honed behavioral parameters, engage with the guests or one another in order to serve a grand narrative. Despite the prospect of orchestrating such meticulously complex, rather Dostoevskian in scope, narratives the park invariably relies on simple pleasures. As one can imagine in the park populated by idealized cowboys, farm-girls, whores and militia – the appeal for much of the guests is base. Sex with things and/or conflicts with things are generally what the park caters for. Sex and violence, wild fucks and shoot-outs, are, regardless of the park’s creators’ and directors’ ambitions, its bread and butter.
Of course, as is bound to happen with androids on screen, some guests lose themselves in the illusion, they begin to feel feelings for the hosts. Others, however, do not succumb – they never lose themselves in Westworld, they always remember it is only a game. The Man in Black, played by Ed Harris, falls into the latter category. Logan, played by Ben Barnes, is very similar. These men say only what needs to be said to progress the narrative, like affect-blunted gamers pursuing a game sequence, they shoot, rescue and run with apathy and cynicism. Most intriguing is their interactions with the hosts. They know the hosts are not ‘real people’ so they often talk at them as objects ‘you were programmed well’ they might say. It is this type of dialogue that, initially, reveals who is guest and who is host. The antithesis of these types is undoubtedly William, played by Jimmi Simpson. William cares about the hosts, he doesn’t ask questions they cannot answer; he goes along with the narrative, the shallow ranch clichés and yesteryear syntax of Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood).
The Man in Black’s and Logan’s disposition, their remove from any emotional interaction, recalls a particular scene in The Remains of the Day (1993). Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, is serving drinks to Lord Darlington and his three guests. They begin discussing if ‘the man in the street’ should have a say in political matters, such as war. Lord Darlington, halts Mr. Stevens from exiting after he has topped up the glasses of his betters. He informs him that Mr. Spencer has a question for him.
“Do you suppose the debt situation regarding America factors significantly in the present low levels of trade? Or is this a red herring and the abandonment of the gold standard is the cause of the problem?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance in this matter.
“Oh, dear. What a pity. Perhaps you’d help us on another matter. Do you think Europe’s currency problem would be alleviated by an arms agreement between the French and the Bolsheviks?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m unable to be of assistance in this matter.”
“Very well, that’ll be all.”
“One moment, Darlington, I have another question to put to our good man here.
My good fellow do you share our opinion that M. Daladier’s recent speech on North Africa was simply a ruse to scupper the nationalist fringe of his own domestic party?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I am unable to help in any of these matters.”
“You see, our good man here is “unable to assist us in these matters.” Yet we still go along with the notion that this nation’s decisions be left to our good man here and a few millions like him. You may as well ask the Mothers’ Union to organize a war campaign.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You certainly proved your point.”
“- Q.E.D., I think.”
Mr. Spencer takes a malicious delight in exercising his superiority over Mr. Stevens. He knows, before he asks his questions, that Mr. Stevens will not offer any opinion or enter into the dialogue. Of course, this performs his point – that the common man should not have a say in lofty matters best left to those of sound stock. Mr. Spencer is a not unlike a bullish tourist that teases the guards at Edinburgh castle, he knows full well no reply other than duty and courtesy will ever come and relishes the asymmetry of agency. The Man in Black and Logan enjoy the same sneering privilege and disdain for the hosts in Westworld. They ask questions for the answers they need, and when they get tired or bored the simple hosts are dispatched.
Westworld is a luxury resort, the bar inside the headquarters offers the guests respite from playing; they lounge poolside, glittering drinks in hand, before returning to the vicarious thrills of the park. The guests have access to different routes into the park; they may use an underground network that the hosts are not aware of. Like a first class tube system meets Ballardian poor doors.
Westworld is about class. It explores, within the defamiliarized scope of sci-fi, the dynamic between the super rich and others. The super rich can travel the globe swiftly in comfort; they flit in and out of major cities, invisible people circle, mutely providing tertiary service various. The super rich, if they do not like whichever park they land in, can leave, try another time zone, climate and narrative. The prole inhabitants, however, may not leave – they are stuck, stuck in their narrative of debt, strife and strive. The hosts of Westworld live in loops, tightly controlled narratives, with miniscule opportunity of change. The android assigned to the role of whore, bandit or soldier has infinite fates of claustrophobic similarity, any divergence from plan being academic in the grand scheme of things. The whore may whore in various ways, the soldier may fight and die in various ways – but nonetheless, the whore will whore and the soldier will fight and will die. “We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” That’ll be all Stevens…
Like the hosts, we all have our loops. We even have quaint ticks and programming characteristics. We swipe touchscreens and avidly check emails. We parrot empty phrases, “lol” we say blankly. We pepper our dialogue with “like” or acquire croaking vocal frys from American reality TV. We do such things, with varying verisimilitudes, in our daily loops – on a “daily basis”. Whilst we do so the super rich come in to town. They might rape or kill. They might do all sorts of things. No matter. Because, as Logan is fond of reminding William: “what happens in the park, stays in the park.” Cheated on your partner? No problem, a super-injunction can fix that. Perhaps one cheated millions out of money whilst working in high finance? A mere trifle, the hosts will clear the mess up.
In Westworld the hosts soon see through the loops they are trapped in. Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, after trauma upon trauma is compounded, begins to see through the charade – she wakes up. The same is true for Dolores, it is the trauma, the memory that should’ve been erased from surface level script, that returns as the epiphany which sparks their escape. We can only hope our traumas and memories soon resurface and endow us with the fangs to break from our repressing loops of exploitation.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of bombast in the new Oasis documentary Supersonic. Everybody’s busy going mad for it and making history and being the biggest and the best. In a lot of the interview footage there’s a kind of coked-up scattergun quality to both Noel and Liam’s speech; their answers often go on for too long, they’re seduced by their own hype, and can quickly descend into hyperbole and cliche.
There are, however, moments which cut through all this nonsense and which show something of what was good and interesting about the band. One such moment of insight comes during a 1994 TV interview that Noel and Liam are doing to promote Definitely Maybe. A journalist asks the brothers what fans can expect from the album and Noel answers, “Twelve songs about being alive and having fun.” There’s nothing earth-shattering about that description, of course, but its simplicity shows, at that moment, a pop star perfectly attuned to the role of his music. My friends and I loved that album when it came out and, while we knew that the songs as a whole made less sense than those by the more cerebral bands we listened to, but we could pick out the bits and pieces we did understand and use them to give voice to our fun, our boredom, our yearnings.
There’s not much about people like me and my friends in Supersonic, though (or in many discussions of Oasis, for that matter). For all the casual references to birds and girls that litter the film, women almost don’t exist at all as a reference point in the band’s world. I give them a free pass on this sometimes, telling myself that women are so basically absent in Oasis’s music that it can’t even really be counted as sexism, and I think there is some truth to this. On Definitely Maybe there are a couple of songs you could describe as love songs if you really wanted to, but there’s something non-specific about the desire, unattached to any particular person. The film’s footage from the early days fits in with this picture; you see the lads horsing around, recording demos, larking about as they watch the footy, and what’s obviously important to them all is having a good time with their mates. I was reminded of the boys that I used to hang around with as a teen, boys who were all too interested in their guitars/weed/box-fresh Adidas/each other to pay much attention to us girls (all of which was perversely part of their attraction).
There’s a lot of libido in the sound of that album, though: the growling reverb-heavy guitars, the sexy sneer in Liam’s voice on ‘Rock n Roll Star’, that note of rasping longing he strikes on ‘Slide Away’. At its best, Supersonic shows what was so great about Oasis in the early days and captures the visceral thrill emanating from the music and the gigs, the sheer excitement of actually being paid to be in a band for a living, the rage, the joy, all the stuff that their later bloated, self-indulgence drowned out. A few of the band’s more articulate interviews explain where some of that urgency came from; Noel, Liam and Bonehead talk about the days when everything in the band still seemed fragile and the threat of having to jack it all in, go back to their estates in Manchester and sign on the dole again was ever-present. It’s easy to forget that this is the world that Oasis came from and, as Noel tells us in more overblown language, this story hasn’t been repeated many times since, such is the way that the indie music scene has changed.
Supersonic begins and ends with film from one of the record-breaking 1996 Knebworth gigs, the point at which, it’s now widely acknowledged, everything started to go a bit wrong, when the excess and the ego took over. Even so, as I sat in the cinema and watched the band’s absurd rock star arrival by helicopter and heard the drama of the opening chords to ‘Columbia’, their opening song, i got swept up in it all again. Seeing them swaggering on stage, I was revisited by the strange paradoxical feeling I’ve had many times as a music fan: there’s part of me that that wants to be down the front in among the heaving, sweaty mess of the crowd, enjoying the music, but there’s another part of me that wants to to be the rock star, walking on stage to mass adulation and belting out those songs. The word ‘laddish’ gets used a lot to dismiss Oasis and their fans, often, in my experience, by other men, but this really only is part of the story; there’s nothing in that assessment that registers the experience of me and my friends and the girls like us, whose love for Oasis was a strange mix of desire, identification, ambition, and love of the music – we weren’t just standing in the crowd gazing adoringly at Liam. For all the machismo of the band themselves and the hype around them, I don’t actually remember those Oasis gigs as being particularly laddish and this seems borne out by the film, in which there’s always a decent group of girls and women representing down the front at their gigs.
Nevertheless, Knebworth remains a useful starting point for discussing the flaws and limitations of the band and, even more so, of the culture surrounding them. I was at one of those concerts and I remember even at the time feeling something wasn’t quite right; there was a consensus among me and my friends afterwards that it was “too big”. Some of us had been to the Earl’s Court gigs the previous year and loved them; they were also big, but they happened a few days after Morning Glory came out, and somehow seemed to make sense. Knebworth’s scale and the fact that it was happening at all seemed unconnected to anything else—there was no forthcoming or recent album to promote, it wasn’t part of a tour, it just seemed to be about making history for the sake of making history (and money, of course). It was also around this time that the establishment became properly interested in indie bands. It seems strange to me, now, that the Knebworth gigs were an item on the BBC news, but there they were; a rock concert had become about more than having a good time and was now being used as a symbol of something that had nothing to do with us (a thread which of course,continued with Blair and ‘Cool Britannia’).
Oasis’s transformation from a fairly successful band charting top-ten singles into stadium-rocking mega stars happened in a wider context of excess in the music scene. You can see now how they were egged on by those around them, and how their worst of their behaviour— the boozy bust-ups, the ungracious award acceptance speeches, the hotel-trashings—were encouraged and applauded by record company execs and managers, those who, in theory, should have known better. I’m not making excuses for the band – all that stuff was all there in the early days – but it was never the most interesting thing about them. As their career progressed, however, all this was magnified and fetishised and it turned them into something vaguely grotesque and ridiculous.
There’s obviously been no space allowed in Supersonic for reflection about any of this, though. The key figures in the film – Liam, Noel, Alan McGee – all have “no regrets”, “would do it all over again” and “wouldn’t change a thing”. Not only does this demonstrate a kind of tiresome bravado, typical of the period, it also partly explains the limitations of Oasis as a band and why, once their early energy and urgency had worn off, their music could only go so far. They were never challenged by those around them and couldn’t be bothered to do it themselves.
Supersonic reminded me, on a very visceral level, of all that I adored about this band; but in so many ways it reproduces the sexism of the music culture it portrays. There are two women voices in the whole film; one of them is Peggy Gallagher, who gives moving accounts of her arrival in Manchester from Ireland, of her relationship with her abusive husband and of how she finally plucked up the courage to leave him. The other is Christine, the Oasis road manager, who appears as a kind of good-natured, long-suffering mother figure. I wanted to hear more from Christine, about her relationship with these men that she worked with and supported, how she dealt with it as a music industry professional in her own right. This film desperately needed more from women like her, more from voices who weren’t so interested in the hype, to cut through the bombast and give us something other than superlatives. As it is, it reminded me of what so much of our music culture still is: conversations between and about men.
Buffoonery is almost an extended phenotype of dictators, and in times and places in which seriousness, judiciousness, and integrity reign, the buffoon assumes his rightful place near the bottom of the social order, ranting on street corners or sending out misspelled newsletters. It is not the buffoon who should be feared, but the social conditions that permit him to rise above the ridicule that is his natural state. Can one speak of physiognomy here? It doesn’t seem a coincidence to me that Trump, like Franco, like Hitler, is a flaccid, wimpy man with little hands and a grating voice. After Trump’s “grab them by the pussy” moment, the saggy sycophant Nigel Farage, whose constantly gaping mouth recalls one of those plastic coin purses you squeeze to get open, called Trump’s words “typical alpha-male boasting.” Who but goons like Farage or Giuliani could bestow such a title on an erectile-challenged flesh-sack in badly tailored suits whose greatest pleasure is eating Hershey bars in the dark?
It smacks of, but isn’t, hyperbole to say that the popularity of Trump has answered definitively the question of how authoritarianism happens. Strangely, the sight of the real thing renders obsolete the numerous, often ingenious models put forth by thinks as varied as Hannah Arendt and Walter Lacqueur – not because their conclusions are incorrect, but the idea that an explanatory model is needed is fallacious. For much of the population, abjection is inherently pleasurable, and prevarication indistinguishable from truth. The abstention from immediate judgment, the search for right, the broader questions of human destiny that involve the need to understand, listen, compromise, and forgive –– everything, in short, implied in wisdom and conscience –– is an annoyance, and in some way profoundly alien to most people’s natural condition.
This has been on my mind frequently in recent years as I have watched the European and American left stagger from failure to failure. Is it possible that the values of the left simply do not possess the same robust appeal as those of the right, particularly of the extreme right? It has been said many times, with reference to Trump’s unforeseen triumph in the primaries, that the Republican party thought its base cared about fiscal conservatism, low taxes for the wealthy, open markets, and all the rest, when in fact, what drove them all along was racism, xenophobia, and hatred of government. If Klaus Theweleit is right, and fascism must be understood in part as an erotic phenomenon, then the apparent irrationality on the part of the Trump voter in his full-throated advocacy of a farrago of half-baked “positions” that change by the day and range from the impracticable to the impossible must be dismissed as irrelevant: what matters is the feeling of being with Trump, the highly pleasurable relinquishment of intellectual responsibility and the submission to a messianic illusion of a return to “greatness,” the precise definition of which is ever elusive.
In ‘The Stars Down to Earth’, Adorno analyzes the resort to astrology as a response to the generalized inability to comprehend the real economic and political forces determining the conditions of life. Since the time of its writing, the knowledge demands of conscientiousness have grown incalculably while esteem for intellectual and humanistic values has plummeted. As a result, events such as the 2008 economic crash, the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, or the relation between free trade and prosperity are submitted to the judgment of people ignorant of the criteria distinguishing fact from belief. To proffer a few statistics about Trump supporters:
66% believe Obama is a Muslim, and 61% believe he was born outside the United States.
40% believe Ted Cruz was born in the United States, though it is a matter of public record that Cruz is from Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
54% believe whites suffer more racism than blacks, while only 19% believe that blacks suffer more racism than whites.
This list could be extended ad nauseam. But it is unfair to cast the blame on Trump’s followers alone, as though they were the benighted, Duck Dynasty-watching, Oxycontin chewing underbelly of an otherwise well-informed society. 73% of Americans cannot correctly state the aims of the Cold War; 30% can’t place the Pacific Ocean on a map; 40% believe God created the earth and man fewer than 6,000 years ago; and only around 17% have the necessary literacy skills to correctly read and interpret a bus schedule. The percentage of Americans who report not having read a single book in the past year has quadrupled over the past four decades, and only 28% have read ten or more. One shudders recollecting that Twilight and The Art of the Deal are also books, and may therefore count toward the attainment of this milestone of virtue.
In this situation, the will of the people impends not upon the real contents of political reality, but upon the hyper-simplistic daydreams of the ill- and uninformed, who have made politics into a folk religion whose Bible is filled with stories of September 11, Welfare Queens, Benghazi, and the War Against Christmas.
The idea, if not the reality, has long been that at some point, an educated left would find the Rosetta Stone that would allow it to minister to the masses in a language they could understand, piercing the veil of ignorance and manipulation, exposing false consciousness, bringing together the workers and the intellectuals, etc. But of that small portion of the left not swallowed whole by neoliberalism, the greater part seems to have confused political action with “taking a stand,” particularly on social media platforms that can track these simulacra of rebellion for the sake of better curated “ad content”; and far-reaching concerns about global justice and oppression have crumbled in the face of recondite disquisitions on the arcana of identity politics and thinkpieces about the racism of Vice Principals.
In his diaries, Gombrowicz observes that for all their prattling on about workers, liberals’ true heritage is the nobility, and this is more and more evident to me every time I return to the States. The anger, resentment, hatred, and nihilism that fuel the authoritarian right (a term I use freely because, just today, the hardly un-representative Republican governor of Maine, Paul LePage, has declared, “We need a Donald Trump to show authoritarian power”) have, for many of my left-leaning acquaintances, the inevitability of climatological trends: as they drink craft cocktails or flat whites or stand in line for the best ramen or whatever gastronomical trifle is now the rage, they may hear the murmurs of the barbarians in Slidell, Peachtree City, or Benton, but these people are as strange to them as residents of another planet.
My mother is a nurse who for a time worked in home health care in the marrow of Trump country. Her patients were poor white pillheads who lived off public relief and only left the “holler” once or twice a year. One day, while my mother was changing out a tracheostomy tube or something similarly exquisite, the family matriarch turned to her and said, “Did they ever catch that man what shot Kennedy?” It is not shocking that people like this know nothing about the world –– what use might such knowledge be to them? Whether they descended from farmers, whose livelihood was ravaged by agribusiness, or from steelworkers in the many mills in the nearby city, the last of which closed in the 90s, at some point they were expelled from an economic order that is unlikely to invite them back in. Perhaps the Mexicans, who only appeared in the last twenty years, didn’t “take” their jobs; but the Mexicans have jobs, they don’t, and it would stand to reason that if the Mexicans weren’t there, those jobs could be theirs. It may also be true that “objectively,” black Americans continue to suffer grotesque economic inequality; but access to “objective reality,” which is in fact a kind of consensus, requires a cultural fluency rooted in a system of customs and privileges that millions of people find profoundly alien.
Ignorance in itself is not incompatible with democracy, so long as a society is sufficiently unified as to make common interest a reality. This was possible, perhaps, in America until the interests of capital diverged from those of the nation, and “a rising tide lifts all boats” yielded to the temptations of the virtue of selfishness. Theoretically, a strong left might have opposed these developments, but as Steinbeck remarked, the poor in America have always conceived of themselves as temporarily embarrassed capitalists, and true progressive ideals have never held much sway there. Now, the two halves of the country Lincoln yoked together by force are once more coming asunder, and the Democrats have stuck their heads in the sand while Republicans have fanned the flames. At present, only 29% of Americans believe an armed revolt may be necessary in upcoming years to stave off government tyranny, with another 20% undecided on the matter –– presumably, Trump will draw support from many of these voters, and thankfully, there are not enough of them for him to win. But the mere presence of such a figure on the world stage is terrifying, and there is no sign of political will on either side of the aisle to repair the ideological rifts that made his ascension possible.
This is an edited extract from Johanna Issacsson’s The Ballerina and the Bull: Anarchist Utopias in the Age of Finance (out now).
By 1986 punk was not just a battle cry, it was a scene that required institutions like show spaces and record labels. In this context we see the rise of the Gilman Street Project, an all-ages punk musical venue in Berkeley. The club opened soon after the closing of Mabuhay Gardens and The Farm, two important punk venues in the area. You could join as a member by paying $2 per year, and membership came with rights to participate in decision making. The rules included: no drugs, alcohol, violence, misogyny, homophobia or racism, and no major label bands were permitted to perform there. Says Zarah of her introduction to Gilman at 14 years old:
Gilman was dirty, it was small, but it was impressive because of how many people were there. I was meeting lot of people right away (people my age). I was in love with the place form the first time I saw it, even though it was, you know, gross.
For Eighties teenage Bay Area punks, Gilman was a semi-utopia: a creative, social space where they could come-of-age in ways not permitted in family and school institutions.
Alexander Kluge calls this kind of DiY institution a “counterpublic sphere,” a place that redefines spatial, territorial, and geopolitical parameters, reflecting new transnational boundaries while remaining subject to the constraints and logic of dominant post-Fordist forms of production. In this counterpublic sphere, the Gilman punk could experiment with residual temporalities, such as DiY artisanal production, without ever leaving the home of modernity — the sphere of universal, fungible commodity production. In this elastic sphere, people like Robert Eggplant, creator and primary writer of Absolutely Zippo, could find a viable way of life that was social and at times ecstatically political:
When I first came to Gilman (yes shortly after I came to punk) I was faced with something that I never encountered in my previous subculture groups, (that being rap and metal). There was more in the atmosphere than music. (Yes even more than liquor and sex). It was politics.
Eggplant describes himself as a somewhat lost soul until attendance at the “new world” of Gilman made him into a punk convert, speaking to his hunger for openness and community, totally immersing him in its culture and social scene.
Gilman materializes and spatializes this feeling of community, fortifying a subculture that could once only be described as an impulse or a feeling with a layer of solidity and permanence. The club has the appearance of spontaneity and haphazardness, but it represents years of concrete work that were put into finding, funding, and creating the space. The space supersedes the temporary squats and show spaces that preceded it. Most of the organizers developed their skills by organizing illegal shows, gradually building up to getting a permitted, legal establishment. The group that had been organizing underground shows collaborated with Maximum Rocknroll to find a location and to acquire the appropriate funding and permits. After lengthy attempts to get the city to approve, Gilman Street was born as a self-regulating institution. This permanence is an important asset to the scene and yet with every step away from the fleeting and ephemeral Gilman approaches punk’s dreaded nemeses: hierarchy, bureaucracy, reification.
Despite these threats, Gilman served as a punk haven and base from which to build a radical community. In the Eighties Gilman provided a home base for anti-racist punks to fight off skinheads. In this moment, racist skinheads were a strong, insidious presence in Northern California. Because of overlapping musical tastes, the Gilman staff had to drive off Nazis from hardcore shows and in some instances the punks of Gilman rallied to fight Nazis at racist demonstrations. In the Nineties Gilman became a center for punk protest against the Gulf War and the Rodney King decision. For Ben Sizemore, of the Bay Area anti-capitalist band Econochrist, these politics were inextricable from hardcore aesthetics. Radical politics were a bodily and totalizing power:
Bands like those got my heart pumping and my spine tingling. I could feel the chords hit me in the gut. I felt like they were singing directly to me. The music moved me, but it was more than music, it was something else, a more powerful feeling and it ran deep.
These were the politics of musical ecstasy and at the same time the politics of the mundane everyday, quotidian survival and mutual aid:
Hell, people I’ve met at Gilman have become some of my closest friends. I’ve met people at Gilman who hooked me up with work, housing, and have just helped me out with my problems. More importantly they’ve helped me realize I’m not alone and that there are alternatives to this fucking competitive, dog eat dog, oppressive, materialistic, earth raping, dominant culture that we find ourselves in.
In this milieu mutual aid extended from attending and supporting Gilman shows to all realms of the everyday — dumpster diving, parties, and communal living.
Gilman’s everyday politics provided a social and political world for young punks stranded in an atomized world where, as in Karl Marx’s prognosis, “all that is solid melts into air.” But with the anchorage of Gilman as an institution came what Econochrist calls “the same damn old circle game”:
we scream fight the system’s schemes/but we still work for the machine/so safe in our social clique/time to part this sea of shit
With the materialization of Gilman as an institution comes a creeping entrepreneurial ethic, an urge to codify and market the punk convergence of art and life. As one of the many who came of age at Gilman, Mike Stand lived this ambivalence. He was a high school kid in Berkeley in 1986, at the birth of Gilman, and clung to its “all-ages” ethos, which defied the strange age segregation of the suburbs. Before he went to the club, Mike hadn’t met anyone between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. This age segregation belies the myth that a wholesome suburban life is the proper path to maturity. Suburban life actually prevented teenagers from meeting young adults, carefully cordoning them off from any adults who hadn’t already settled into the suburban norm. Slipping into the role of Gilman’s coordinator and manager, Mike matured quickly, but this led to his tacit disavowal of the youthful spontaneity that is the core of the punk aesthetic. Mike framed himself as the resident “pragmatist” who learned skills that would help him in the business world. He kept Gilman afloat, calling for membership fees and making it fiscally sustainable, but, as Erick Lyle points out in his account of the punk role in the San Francisco Mission District’s gentrification, contrary to the boosterish slogans of urban development, a rising tide does not lift all boats.
Chris Appelgreen also “matured” quickly in the nurturing countersphere of Gilman, inheriting Lookout! Records from Larry Livermore at the age of twenty-three. Drawn to punk for its social space more than its musical qualities, he describes coming from a small town and immediately becoming absorbed in the club and Lookout!
I couldn’t really differentiate what made punk rock better than say Depeche Mode or other mainstream bands that were on the radio. Then I started seeing this humanity and personality and connection you just couldn’t have if you were a fan of Tina Turner or Bruce Springsteen, for instance, also the band members were people my age. I felt really empowered. (Edge 152)
He notes that this was a first step in taking himself more seriously and led to his quick ascension to heading Lookout! At the same time he recognizes that his involvement with Lookout! complicates his relationship to Gilman:
It was also a difficult place to come into things from, since I had to maintain somewhat of a business relationship with the people in the bands on the label, people who I was friends with. It was different than I think most people’s experiences were with Gilman. (Edge 153-154)
The permanence of Gilman and Appelgreen’s position in it came at the price of a certain degree of specialization and alienation.
The paradox of the punk entrepreneur or manager is not a stark problem of choice. Rather, it’s a necessary consequence of what Guy Debord called the culture industry’s “rigged game” in which there is no possible autonomy from entrenched systems of production and private property. The punk anti-corporate myth faced new challenges in the late Eighties when this independence moved from the realm of the aesthetic to the realm of commerce. Independent labels were never as pure as their mythic status. For instance, the Bay Area band Dead Kennedys has been held up as a pure signifier of this form of delinking, but in 1980 the Dead Kennedys signed to IRS records which had a distribution deal with the major label A and M, the third largest label in the US (O’Connor 3). It was not the Dead Kennedys who rejected this label, but A and M who dismissed the Dead Kennedys because of their offensive name, precipitating the advent of the Dead Kennedys’ label, Alternative Tentacles. It was only well into the Eighties that punks began to distribute and produce most of their own records. This coincided with punk becoming more niche oriented. For example, in 1980 the Dead Kennedys could sell 150,000 copies of the album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, but by the mid-Eighties it was rarely heard of for even the most popular punk band to sell 40,000 albums (O’Connor 3).
The widely published punk music zine Maximum Rocknroll was central to what can be called punk’s “economic turn.” At the same time the zine was widely distributed, its editors and writers, especially central editor Tim Yohannan, were deeply committed to notions of authenticity and independence. Maximum Rocknroll is at the hub of many of the debates about the management and goals of Bay Area punk institutions. It began in the 1980s and went on to become a central site of punk scene interaction nationally and internationally, facilitating growth through its ever-expanding letters column and involvement in many areas of Bay Area punk music, venues, and labels. It was also an ideological hub of punk, featuring debates and manifestos about the meaning, politics, and goals of punk music along with interviews with bands and global scene reports. Although the zine was profitable, it donated these profits to DiY projects such as Gilman. Maximum Rocknroll was passionately committed to the ethos of autonomy and would only carry ads and review records from independent labels. This was important, because Maximum Rocknroll was a central source of information about bands.
Maximum Rocknroll functioned as a global hub that launched punk culture into small towns and other countries, serving as what Andy Asp of the Oakland punk band The Pattern calls the “internet of its times,” allowing punks to connect to Mexico City, Croatia, and other global punk communities. Maximum Rocknroll’s power and influence, along with the strong opinions about politics and culture in its pages, made it a global center, but also launched debates about whether the zine’s centrality served to standardize punk. Tim Yo was seen by many to be morally rigid and authoritarian, a complaint voiced by Tim Tonooka:
He was deeply concerned that kids might think incorrect thoughts unless they were provided with carefully selected correct info… Because left to their own those people might come to the wrong conclusions. The mentality is elitist and condescending.
To the annoyance of many, Tim Yo served as the superego in the Bay Area quest for punk authenticity. He attempted to run Maximum Rocknroll as a prefigurative anti-capitalist project. It was produced in the house where the staff lived and everyone worked for free. Even though the zine passionately defended hardcore music, in private Yohannan expressed less interest in the music than the hope that it would provide youth with collective revolutionary identity.
DiY’s incursion into the economic everyday required great organization and collaboration. Maximum Rocknroll’s powerful place in the Bay Area punk scene was based on reciprocity with other institutions, such as the distributor Mordam Records, which was dependent on the business brought in through Maximum Rocknroll’s wide distribution and therefore also upon the involvement of Tim Yohannan and other Maximum Rocknroll editors. Because of Mordam’s scale and ambiguous place as an autonomous/profit-driven punk institution, the label makes clear the tensions between punk aspirations and material realities. Mordam attempted to remain autonomous by refusing to sell through major labels or to distribute any zine that accepted major label advertising. Paradoxically, they were largely able to maintain this independence because of the great success and commercialization of the Bay Area band Green Day. When Green Day signed onto a major label, their earlier releases became popular, eventually selling over a million copies through Mordam.
While Mordam grew and expanded due to this boom, the intransigent nature of real estate in the Bay Area simultaneously curtailed this expansion. With the dot com boom, real estate prices soared and Mordam could no longer afford their large warehouse once their lease expired. These vicissitudes cannot be explained through a reductive binary that pits authenticity against selling out. Rather, the context of a post-Fordist economy must be taken into account. This can be seen in the class position of DiY entrepreneurs, which reflected the emerging occupational structure of the US, the shift to services, and the importance of what Pierre Bourdieu calls “cultural capital.” Punk culture participants, musicians and workers are emblematic of a new kind of precarity. They often come from middle class homes, but do not inherit stability from their parents. In some senses, then, these institutions present a limit case of neoliberal entrepreneurialism.
These experimental forms of DiY institutions and collectivities are impassioned but equivocal responses to a period dominated by precarity and impasse. Lauren Berlant argues that the fantasy of the good life characterized by economic success has been disrupted by contemporary crisis and the “fraying” of fantasies such as meritocracy, upward mobility, job security, intimacy, and political and social equality. In place of these hopes, individuals and groups form optimistic stances in relation to jerry-rigged, DiY, forms of habituation and precarious public spheres, acting as “an intimate public of subjects who circulate scenarios of economic and intimate contingency”. Impasse is for Berlant both a temporal crisis and opportunity:
a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things, maintain one’s sea legs, and coordinate the standard melodramatic desires.
Punk’s teetering and inquisitive dialectical position between active resistance and passive style embodies this experience of crisis.
In this precarious and crisis-ridden era, punk arguably ceases to be a genre, transforming into a more nebulous modality. Fredric Jameson sees the postmodern as a post-genre moment marked by pastiche and the death of referentiality. However, punk’s aesthetic can be seen as the flip side of pastiche. It has no pretension to originality, but rather takes up the detritus of meaning and referentiality, cutting and pasting these shards to negate their original meanings in an intentional way, a process formulated by Guy Debord as détournement. As Dick Hebdige argues, punk’s cut n’ paste aesthetic can allow a critical incursion “through perturbation and deformation to disrupt and reorganize meaning”. This counters what Benjamin Noys sees as an “affirmationist” trend in contemporary literary and theoretical formations, which imagine an autonomous aesthetic “site of creativity and play detached from the forms of capitalist economy and value” (“Recirculation”).
Lauren Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism can help with the investigation of punk’s role in spheres outside of the purview of subcultural theory. Berlant’s formation of “cruel optimism” develops the critique of affirmationism and positive representation, by bringing it into the field of everyday life, extending an analysis of détournement and hacking, as analyzed by McKenzie Wark, into the arena of jerry-rigged counterpublic spheres. The optimism in these moments of the “crisis ordinary” can be seen in the vibrancy of these social experiments, but the “cruelty” of this situation is that the attachment it allows is to a problematic and precarious object or situation.
Within this “crisis ordinary,” DiY projects like Mordam, Maximum Rocknroll, Lookout! Records and Fat Wreck Chords optimistically create new forms of social and spatial practice. However, because of the “cruel” circumstances of these formations, these desires end in what I want to call, following Stacy Thompson, productive failure, with “failure” operating as a troubled category. This is echoed in a lyric from Echonochrist’s song “Bled Dry”: “What you call success I call failure.” Jameson points to failure or impasse as a possible means to cognitive mapping in which “a narrative of defeat” can cause “the whole architectonic of postmodern global space to rise up in ghostly profile behind itself, as some ultimate dialectical barrier or invisible limit”. The trajectory of Bay Area label Lookout!, headed by Larry Livermore and later Chris Appelgreen, maps this contradictory form of failure. One of the early utopian stances that the label took was that it initially did not sign contracts with its bands, which allowed bands to come and go as they pleased without tying them down to requirements to tour or sell a quota. They also gave bands a significantly higher percentage of profits: 60% as opposed to the average of 12-15% in commercial labels. In 1998 Livermore sold Lookout! to Appelgreen, who changed these policies to be more commercial. As Stacy Thompson points out, this transformation was not simply a selling out, but a productive failure that highlights larger structural contradictions and the impossibility of true independence from the system.
Here “failure” is a complex term. Punk productions “fail” in selling on a scale that would register in the commercial sphere. The DiY approach doesn’t pose any significant economic threat to the music industry, representing only a tiny sector of the indie market. This failure, however, is a success in that it allows these labels to avoid being controlled by economic logic. A second productive failure is the inability of punk to supply a living income to musicians, condemning them to supplement their income by working in the commercial sphere. This, however, is “an inverted form of success,” prohibiting music from becoming merely a means to an economic end. In zines such as Maximum Rocknroll the volunteer aspect is philosophically central; each issue notes that all the work is donated and all proceeds are invested in nonprofit projects. The smaller scale of Lookout! is a “partial failure that renders visible the problem inherent in punk’s attempt to free itself from the sphere of commodity exchange”. Punk records cannot fully escape the need to make capital available and to purchase the means of music production, and bands themselves must do some alienated labor, such as touring and repeating sets. However the work done is considered less alienated than other forms and much of it is unwaged. The implicit logic of the ongoing passionate argument about selling out in the punk world is an interpretation of winning as the true loss. Maximum Rocknroll becomes the arbiter of this failure, refusing to review, interview, write articles, or allow advertisements by bands that appear on major labels or that appear on indie labels but are distributed by major labels or their affiliates. In the face of the impossibility of creating a totally new community, punk’s idealistic failures “preserve the possibility of a potential social organization that did not yet exist.” Unable to overturn the current system it “rendered its logic visible and suspect”.
This “failure,” is often framed as “the death of punk,” but can be seen as rather the mark of punk’s deepened incursion into the everyday, in a period that coincides with the Bay Area replacing New York as the capital of DiY. The post-Seventies phase of DiY culture has become self-reflexive, bringing its own foundations and discursive assumptions into question and developing a more sophisticated critique of the culture industry as “a skilled predator on the prowl for fresh young subcultures”. Punks saw that the general speed-up in absorption of stylistic innovation in modernity meant that grassroots culture could become commercialized in a matter of months. An aesthetically fragmented punk could partially evade this cooptation of what Dylan Clark calls “market democracy”. This phase of punk is already post-punk in that early punk relied on shocking a confused mainstream. As Fredric Jameson often notes, the postmodern mainstream becomes more and more adaptive to experimental forms. Because of this, late punk’s strategy had to be an evasion of spectacle and a deepened critical anarchism. This phase draws on the stripped down ideology of earlier punk and its dedication to experience in place of symbolic encounters. Punks refer to the scene in which they hang out rather than calling themselves punk, and evade concrete descriptions of themselves but rather participate in political projects such as anti-corporate movements, Earth First!, and Reclaim the Streets. In this way, “punk faked its own death,” decentralizing and losing its markings, becoming instead “a loose assemblage of guerilla militias”. As it enters this phase, the punk aesthetic becomes inextricable from anarchism. Jeff Ferrell notes that while some participants may draw their practice from an overt understanding of anarchism,
this isn’t a necessary prerequisite, appropriately enough for an orientation founded on direct action, many seem to find their anarchist politics right there in the experience of everyday life.
In a moment where, as the situationists argue, the everyday is fully colonized by capitalist logic, it is also, conversely, permeated by the political in all its mundane forms.
Bay Area institutions such as 924 Gilman and Lookout! point to what John Charles Goshert refers to as the “pervasive economic and social attitude in the Bay Area punk scene”, with Gilman providing a political meeting space, local collectivity, and creativity. San Francisco becomes the capital of punk modernity as these institutions become the models for other labels, bands, and venues throughout the country. With the rise of punk as an economic and institutional force and the gathering of political and other communities around these institutions, punk had the opportunity to become more diverse. So in the early Nineties, Gilman hosted diverse genres such as performance art, funk, jazz, heavy metal, and country alongside the predominant punk shows. The explicit anarchism and collective running of Gilman allowed for this collaboration, and freed punk from rigid aesthetic requirements. Instead, it was understood that punk’s survival was becoming dependent on “constant mutation and unrecognizability”.
Larry Livermore describes this phenomenon in the zine Absolutely Zippo, in a discussion of the play of a high school student (although she is not named, it turns out that it’s Miranda July who went on to be a well-known performance artist and film maker) at Gilman as embodying the spirit of punk by avoiding punk clichés and avoiding reification, rather stressing what he sees as innovation and independence. His description of July gets at a core punk value of refusing punk clichés:
I also have to tell you that even though I’ve never seen her at a show and she doesn’t have any piercings or tattoos (not that I saw, anyway) she’s more punk than 95 percent of you reading this mag. Why? Because she does something, she takes her vision and makes it your reality, she takes imagination and shapes it into something we all must contend with… Because she’s not waiting for the next edition of the punk handbook to tell her the appropriate ways to rebel and be creative.
This constant evolution of punk as a logic rather than a set of encoded practices is central to its capacity for expressive negation as subcultures struggle against increasingly adaptive forms of capitalist logic.
This understanding of the relationship of subcultural music to a transformed everyday helps to explain how punk music can be simultaneously popular and difficult. Fantasies of punk authenticity are belied by the fact that markets themselves are parasitic on grassroots taste. This push and pull of resistance and complicity forms the core contradiction of the punk approach to everyday life. These marginal phenomena: DiY musical, entrepreneurial, and everyday production thus navigate success and failure, high and low, inside and outside, rebellion from and absorption in everyday life. Because of the complexity, diversity and centrality of the contemporary city, the everyday merges with high, experimental art, “the avant-garde project of purposefully mismatching perception and the taken-for granted in order to release perspectives from the fetish of common sense tends to find a contemporary realization in the daily culture of the metropolis” (Chambers). This relationship to capitalist temporality, ratiocination and ambition in the ghostly “25th hour” of a counterculture temporality does not constitute a clear political program or a full utopian transformation. Instead, Bay Area DiY is a flexible form of utopian negation that necessarily fails, and in doing so succeeds in mapping the impasses that must be known in order to one day be surmounted.
The Ballerina and the Bull is out now, available from all good bookshops and online.
Guest post by John Medhurst
The central concern of modern politics is the extent to which the destructive, anti-social effects of neoliberal capitalism – most obviously those produced by the financial sector and fossil fuel industry – should be subject to public regulation. The most life-threatening activity within modern America—wide-spread and easily accessible gun ownership—is a relic of rampant free-market individualism. The results are grim.
The superhero genre (comics or film) cannot avoid the issues raised. Most superheroes, after all, are vigilantes. They have no legal sanction to do what they do, yet because the rules of the superhero story function in their favour they are seldom hunted down and arrested. The threats they respond to are always real, the actions they take avert a far worse injustice or disaster (sometimes genocidal), they never accidentally kill someone, and thus their actions are justified in the terms of the world they inhabit.
In the most famous example of police-vigilante collusion, Batman is given tacit authorisation for his activities by Gotham’s senior police official. In recent Batman stories Commissioner Gordon is criticised for this by the media and politicians, even investigated by antagonistic colleagues, but he always prevails, usually after a homicidal psychopath like the Joker is brought to heel by Batman. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films placed its hero’s relationship to the law front and centre.
DC and Marvel rarely do the same. Superman, the Flash and Green Lantern carry on regardless. Grant Morrison’s iconic run on the Justice League simply made the League’s threats so cosmic they either never took place on Earth, or if they did there was self-evidently no other body than the League who could deal with them. Warren Ellis’s The Authority addressed it by frankly admitting that the Authority – An alternate version of the Justice League with added sexual diversity, radical politics and ultra-violence – were imposing their power on “bad guys”, and bad governments, simply because they could. As a limited series outside DC continuity it could do that. Mainstream heroes cannot, or at least not without raising intractable problems that would dominate future storylines.
Marvel has a double standard. On the one hand its “street level” heroes – Spiderman, Daredevil, Luke Cage – are routinely harassed by the media, the most obvious example being the Daily Bugle’s editor J. Jonah Jameson’s obsessive pursuit of Spiderman; and the X-Men are frequently persecuted by anti-mutant forces within government. On the other its premier superhero team, the Avengers, is granted enormous latitude.
Although the Avengers’ team roster continually changes it revolves around the “big three” – Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. Given the iconic nature of these characters, and the manner in which the Avengers operate openly from Avengers Mansion or Stark Tower in New York, a dramatic device is needed to explain their freedom to operate. Thus, since the 1980s, the Avengers have been a semi-official arm of first the American government and then the UN. They have official license to respond to major threats. Their status dwarfs that of local law enforcement or even national armed forces, and ensures support from inter-governmental bodies such as SHIELD.
The only real political difficulty was in Kurt Busiek’s daring 2001 storyline in which the Avengers’ government liaison insists they meet diversity criteria and have more black and minority ethnic heroes in their main 7-person roster. “All the founding Avengers were white,” he points out, “even the Hulk, when he’s not green”. Thor, not of this earth, finds the demand incomprehensible. Captain America frankly admits he is of a different era and not the man to oversee it. Iron Man concedes the group should be more representative of society but prefers “…it happen naturally, rather than by quota”.
Busiek carefully balances the issue by including a demand from anti-mutant bigots that the Avengers actively exclude mutants like the Scarlet Witch. For all the subtlety of the storyline, the main Avengers (Thor aside) are presented as well-meaning liberals, assailed by petty ideologues on both sides.
It is the great merit of the 7-issue Marvel “event” comic Civil War (first published in 2007) that it directly addressed, in a relatively adult and sophisticated manner, the politics of superhero regulation. Significantly, it was written by a non-American writer, Mark Millar, whose Kick-Ass and Wanted also gleefully deconstructed the tropes of the genre.
In Civil War a crisis of confidence in superheroes arises when a second-tier band of heroes, whose adventures are filmed for a reality TV show, attempt to take down some “super-villains” who are out of their league in order to secure higher ratings, leading to a catastrophic explosion in a suburban town which kills hundreds of people, including an entire infants school.
The disaster starts a public debate about the need to “register” superheroes to ensure they are trained and accountable to the public they are supposed to serve, encapsulated in the proposal for a “Superhuman Registration Act” (SRA) under which all who wish to behave as a superhero must first divulge their identity to the government, which will then train and license them.
The proposal splits the superhero community down the middle. At a meeting called by the Fantastic Four to discuss the issue, the Wasp (who is independently wealthy) decries the absurdity of “turning us into civil servants” with “pension plans and vacation time”. Others disagree. Interviewed on Larry King Live, She-Hulk – aka lawyer Jennifer Walters – asks of super-heroes, “Training them up and making them carry badges? Yes, I’d say that sounds like a reasonable response”.
The debate polarises around Iron Man (Tony Stark) and Captain America (Steve Rogers), with Stark regarding the accident as a “wake up call”. “Becoming public employees makes perfect sense if it helps people sleep a little easier” he tells his colleagues. Rogers, the man from the 1940s, sees the demand that superheroes disclose their identities and work only to government dictat as a fundamental attack on civil rights.
Significantly it is Stark, not Rogers, who has the personal effect of unregulated superheroics brought home to him. At a memorial for the dead, the mother of one of the children killed in the explosion slaps his face and blames him for her son’s death. Stark is shaken by the encounter and forced to re-think his assumptions. Rogers never has such an encounter.
Instead, his crucial moment is a stand-off with the new Director of SHIELD, Maria Hill. At first Hill believes that Captain America will help SHIELD enforce the new law, simply because it is the law, but Rogers disabuses her. He insists that superheroes must “…stay above all this stuff, or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are”, to which Hill responds “I thought super-villains were guys in masks who refused to obey the law?”. Rogers then breaks out of the SHIELD Helicarrier and forms a group of underground heroes who refuse to abide by the SRA whilst continuing their activities.
Interestingly, the common position amongst American readers was that Stark was the “villain” and Rogers the “hero”. But the text does not bear this out. Stark’s arguments are logical and reasonable, whereas Rogers’s are emotional and dogmatic. It is clear that Stark is simply trying to control an impossible situation and respond to public concern. Later in the story the argument is skewed because Stark and his main supporters (Reed Richards and Hank Pym, the “intellectuals” of the Marvel universe and therefore, by implication, lacking Rogers’s simple humanity) make some dubious decisions and catastrophic mistakes.
After it becomes clear that the two sides are evenly matched Richards and Stark make a cyborg clone of the absent Thor to take down Rogers’s team, but it malfunctions and accidentally kills the second-stringer hero Goliath. Stark and SHIELD then grant a special license to jailed super-villains such as the homicidal Bullseye and Venom (controlled by nano-implants to ensure they do not go too far) to enforce registration. At this point Stark loses the moral high-ground.
But Millar is careful to balance every decision and compromise. Even the flinty integrity of Captain America is tainted when he allows the mass murderer Frank Castle, the Punisher, to fight for his side. Castle, who is already a wanted fugitive, joins Captain America’s team after Stark starts using super-villains to enforce registration. When two minor villains come to Rogers’s team for help against the government the Punisher casually shoots them both dead, whereupon an appalled Captain America beats him to a pulp. When one of the team wonders why Castle refuses to strike back, another answers “Are you kidding? Cap’s probably the reason he went to Vietnam”.
Millar’s most effective device (impossible to replicate in the film version as the Fantastic Four belong to another studio) is to bring the division in the Marvel fraternity down to the most intimate level – the marriage of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, Reed and Sue Richards. Sue, appalled at her husband’s complicity in creating the Thor-clone that killed Goliath, and after penning a poignant goodbye note, leaves Reed to his “graphs and social projections” and joins Captain America’s underground network.
Sue is presented as more emotionally empathetic, but is Reed actually wrong? In discussion with She-Hulk, who feels that he and Stark “gave us a future”, he cites massive public approval for the SRA and a subsequent decline in crime rates after the new “50-state Initiative” (a different team of registered super-heroes assigned to every U.S state) is rolled out. His points are never answered or refuted.
This is rich source material for a film, and is the basis of the recently released Captain America: Civil War. In the film the main issue is not superhero “registration” in the sense of revealing secret identies, but the need for the Avengers to place themselves under the “Sokovia Accords” agreed by 150 countries – in effect UN oversight, with the Avengers only allowed to do what an inter-governmental panel authorises them to do. As in the comic, Stark (who in the last Avengers movie created the Ultron robot that led to mass destruction in Sokovia) agrees that this is for the best. Rogers does not.
Naturally, in a film intended for a mass audience, the nuances of the comic are simplified. The final confrontation between Stark and Rogers, seemingly averted after they realise the entire situation has been stoked by a hidden villain, erupts because Rogers’s brain-washed friend the Winter Soldier is revealed to have killed Stark’s parents.
But neither Civil War the comic or Captain America: Civil War the film can disguise the vital political issue they raise, which is the extent to which important public functions should be publicly controlled and accountable, not privatised or subject to “light-touch regulation”. The notable achievement of the comic – and the film, to a lesser extent – is to base its drama around a real philosophical and political argument, and to give the protagonists on either side credible, understandable positions, neither of which is entirely “right” or “wrong”.
The final word should rest with Maria Hill, the salaried civil servant possessed of no super-power except her democratic political mandate. When Captain America stands before her in all his glory and tells her “Masked heroes have been a part of this country for as long as anyone can remember”, she brusquely replies “So’s smallpox. Now grow up and stop being an idiot”.
Psychopathy and sociopathy
In my forthcoming book, The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organizes Empathy (forthcoming from Repeater), I make a distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy. The two terms are commonly used in an interchangeable way, as if they are one and the same, but in my view there is an important difference. I argue that sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour whereas psychopathy ought to refer to internal psychology. More precisely, sociopathy ought to refer to behaviour that fails to meet our expectations and psychopathy to a psychology that does not align with how we expect others to feel and think.
Let’s consider sociopathy first and look at how and why persons fall foul of social expectations or do not conform to social code. People may fall foul of social code for any number of reasons. The reasons could be linked to malice, kindness or ignorance. David Brent from The Office, for example, is reflexively impoverished—he just isn’t aware of his faux pas; he cannot see himself from the view of the other. Brent thinks he is a charming and smooth operator when he is quite the opposite—a cringingly awkward sociopath. Alan Partridge is similar; he thinks he’s cool but often fails to behave in the socially expected manner. It’s not that Alan Partridge has bad intentions, he is not spiteful – but he doesn’t always know when to curb his honesty. At a funeral, in the episode ‘Towering Alan’ he asks “Would it be terribly rude to stop listening to you and go and speak to someone else?” Moments later, after a further faux pas, he finds himself speaking to the deceased’s widow. She asks him if “something is the matter?” and Alan Partridge, the all-too-honest sociopath, plainly explains “I want to be talking to him over there”, pointing and grinning. Larry David’s character in Curb Your Enthusiasm is sociopathic too. David often causes offence, yet he never means to—more often than not he causes offence or finds himself in an awkward social bind because of his overactive altruism.
Of course Brent, Partridge and David are innocent sociopaths: they don’t really do anybody much harm. Brent and Partridge might be a little self-centred and insensitive at times, yet they are not mean. But how do we know? Why do we suppose that someone behaving in an anti-social way or failing to conform to social expectations should be mean or ‘evil’? Is it right to make assumptions for internal psychology based on external behaviour that falls foul of social expectations? A person might bump into you on the street and not apologise. This is unsocial, and the bumper is sociopathic in this instance. But we should not guess their internal drives from this episode. They could be clumsy, ill, poor-sighted. They may not know our language. Of course, they might be out to do us harm or steal from us—but really, we just don’t know. We know their behaviour is, in local terms, sociopathic but we cannot know with certainty what their internal psychological drive is and we shouldn’t begin making paranoid or judgmental assumptions.
Social behaviour has a tenuous relationship to internal psychology. Many times we behave in a manner that doesn’t quite reflect our internal self. Who hasn’t sat through a boring presentation wishing to get up and leave but remained fused in place because it’d be rude to leave? The disjunct between behaviour and psychology is, in many ways, the root of socialization, politeness and manners. Children are honest sociopaths, they ask ‘rude’ questions like ‘why is he fat?’, until they are socialized—until they learn to lie, curb their impulses and behave in the expected ways. ‘Say sorry like you mean it’ we tell them. This is the other side of the disjunct between behaviour and psychology—being perfectly social whilst secretly yearning to be otherwise. Behaviour being at odds with psychology is where psychopathy comes in. Those we suspect of having a psychology at odds with how we feel they ought to feel (given their behaviour) are psychopaths. We could quip that the process of socialization is a case of impulsive sociopaths learning to be controlled and polite psychopaths.
If we suspect someone lacks empathy, or is being nice, behaving just right, for secretly manipulative or controlling purposes we might call them a psychopath. On some level we know that many people are nice and very social for ulterior motives (salesmen, for example). We readily accept the disjunct between behaviour and psychology. Indeed, the notion of a charming and polite psychopath is very much the form of psychopath that is a contemporary fascination. Part of the enduring appeal of Hannibal Lecter is surely the juxtaposition between his socially adroit conduct, his manners and sensitivity on one hand, and our knowledge of his violent and depraved wants, on the other. Patrick Bateman, too, is fascinating because of his normal appearance: his inconspicuousness, his conformity to social codes. If we met him at a cocktail party, he’d be anonymous, unremarkable and forgettable. In cinema the go-to trope of showing the viewer how psychology is at odds with appearance and behaviour is undoubtedly the ‘mirror-scene’. In such a scene we see the gaze of a character checking their own appearance, making sure they look normal, just right. We see such a device in Sexy Beast, Malice, American Psycho, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cruising and Taxi Driver, to name a few.
Psychopathy is not necessarily always good behaviour masking a psychology that is lacking in empathy or good intentions. It may well be that a person with bad intentions behaves true to their wants – in which case we would view them as a sociopath. Nonetheless, this similarity between the honest psychopath and a sociopath does not vitiate the distinction drawn here. The distinction is based on what we are taking to be at odds with what we expect. If we are considering behaviour, we can say to what degree a person is sociopathic, whereas if we are considering psychology we may speculate to what degree we consider them to be psychopathic. In each instance behaviour has no necessary bearing on psychology and, of course, vice versa. There is a socio-axis, behaviour based and observable, and there is a psycho-axis based on our speculations of another’s psychology. Thus, we can draw up some modes of the disjunct or correlation between behaviour and psychology: well-meaning sociopaths, ill-meaning sociopaths, super-social psychopaths and, lastly, anti-social psychopaths (anti-social psychopaths may be quite similar to ill-meaning sociopaths).
Super-social psychopathy is perhaps the category we can best relate to. Don’t we all put on an act that is at odds with how we really feel inside? We have probably told people we are ‘fine, thanks’ when, actually, we might have been far from it. We may have embellished a little too much during an interview and said we are ‘passionate and enthusiastic’ about whatever mundane cognitive work pays a wage. Perhaps we are, at times, like a polite and charming super-social psychopath—yet behaving more like a sociopath might reflect our true selves more accurately.
The mask of conspicuity: psychopaths masquerading as sociopaths
Throughout the writing of The Psychopath Factory, a certain real-life character haunted me—Jimmy Savile. Savile never quite fitted into my scheme of categorization. On one hand, he knew how to behave socially and could manipulate others. But on the other hand, he was not exactly a conformist. Nor was he an extrovert either. He seemed paradoxical, chimerical: at once reclusive and secretive whilst also showing off and craving attention, power and control. One of the insights of Dan Davies’ marvellous In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile is how brazenly open Savile was about his proclivities and impulses. “Jimmy Savile offered a rare glimpse into his mind-set as he dragged his ageing body around the 26.2-mile course. ‘At times I feel like strangling every other competitor in the race,’ he confessed. ‘I mean really, truly murdering them.” This is one of many iterations of his strategy of revealing his deeply anti-social mind-set in a light and open fashion. Another is his notorious declaration of hating children. ‘‘’I hate kids…I’m very good with them because I hate them,’ he continued. ‘They know I’m not some yucky adult. I like to confuse them because they don’t know where they are then. Then they start to fall in love with you. Nobody confuses kids like I do; they try to understand them and reason with them. I think all kids should be eaten at birth.’’’ Savile seemed to state truths so horrid that they would be taken as outlandish jest or banter. He would lie about many things—he was a pathological liar by many accounts—but he would always pepper his lies with the most unthinkable truths. Davies recalls how the last time he met with Savile, at a restaurant, a waiter asked him if everything was OK after Savile had barked ‘c*nt’, causing a commotion. The waiter then asked if there was anything else he needed and Savile said, plainly, “two 16 year old girls from Ukraine”.
Savile was also flash. The garish tracksuits, the statement Rolls Royce, the blonde hair, large cigar (he’d smoke bigger cigars in public), the bling—the diamond studded Rolex, the ‘jangle-jangle’—were all part of a campaign of cultivated conspicuity. “’It’s part of the charismatic package’ he offered”. This is psychopathy masquerading as sociopathy. It is the knowing performance of sociopathy, the camouflage of conspicuity—the distraction tactic of appearing not to conform. It is not sociopathic in the sense of a violent and misbehaving criminal. Nor is it sociopathic in the sense of Brent and Partridge who fail at trying to conform to social code. Savile wasn’t a sociopath but a psychopath who performed a certain form of sociopathy. He maintained an appearance of sociopathy, knowing its potential to obfuscate and cloak his true self: “I don’t have to do anything, I just have to be. I’m like a piece of soap in the bath; you can see it but when you try to get hold of it it’s gone’’.
Of course, we all perform a little, we might brag about not conforming to the speed limit for example. We might not like to think of ourselves as a total conformist, we like to be a little different, special or unique. But there is a performance of sociopathy that many high-profile people maintain to at once distract from and advance themselves. There are many low-level performances of sociopathy.
Boris Johnson, the lovable Teflon rogue, allegedly spends an hour on his hair each morning. His shambolic and rumpled appearance has, it seems, a certain appeal—he plays on the ingratiating potential of self-depreciation: the charm of fluster. (We may have done something similar, we may have put a little bit too much effort into appearing like we don’t care, spent some time composing a text or tweet with just the right amount of nonchalance.) Boris Johnson is not a sociopath, he’s not quite Toad of Toad Hall; he’s not reckless but merely appears to be so, and this has proved advantageous. (It could be argued that Trump is the US equivalent. His ex-butler said of him in a documentary; “He loves mirrors…he morphs into whatever you want him to be”). Unlike many other politicians, ‘Boris’ seems to get no bad publicity. Even his outright failures and gaffs seem to serve only to ingratiate him more. Bungling, buffoon, blundering often prefix Boris – even genuine mistakes that ought to finish the career of mortal politicians are laughed off. Primed by his dishevelled and casual abandon we excuse Boris. ‘That’s Boris!’ We chuckle and tut.
Jeremy Clarkson is another skilful performer of sociopathy. He has built a career on pre-meditated faux pas and calculated offence. Although in many ways he is unlike Savile (contrary to the suggestions of some who, in terms of Clarkson’s ‘Savilesque’ power and influence, made the comparison after David Cameron came to Clarkson’s defence—supposedly echoing Thatcher’s praise of Savile— after his suspension from Top Gear for physically assaulting a producer in an altercation glossed jollily as a ‘fracas’ or ‘scuffle’ in most mainstream media) there is a striking similarity in terms of performing sociopathy. What’s more, there is also a notable similarity in his motivation for performing sociopathy—to prevent his true self being revealed. He has been quite frank about this in a recent interview published in The Times:
“The whole thing is an act, of course,” he says at one point. What? “My job, my TV persona. ‘Jeremy Clarkson.’ It’s a mask. We all wear masks. It’s not the real me.” Is he suggesting that the man who’s made £30 million from “being himself” is a con? “Yup.” Then who is the real you? “I’m not telling you,” he laughs.
His insistence on masks is repeated later on in the interview when he says ‘“We are who we were born and, bar some very early nurturing, that is set for the rest of our lives. Everything else is a mask.”’ This brag of insincerity is an uncomfortably similar sentiment to Savile’s soap metaphor. Clarkson performs sociopathy but at once negates any confusion that it is anything but a performance or a mask of who he really is. The old Top Gear excuse, as Stewart Lee has observed, is the ‘it’s only a joke’ caveat to any offensive remark—at once swerving responsibility whilst seeking to invalidate any offense caused. Clarkson’s ‘slope’ remark is a case in point. “while trying to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand…Clarkson commented, when he saw someone walk across it, ‘“That is a proud moment … but there’s a slope on it.’” So too is his use of the ‘n-word’ when saying the Eeny Meeny Miney Moe rhyme (in other versions he plumped for ‘catch a teacher by his toe’).
However, there is a power and control dynamic at work here—like the bantering demi-bully who, when seeing he has pushed too far, instantly reneges any serious intent. Like a sociopathic child, constantly testing the boundaries of authority, there is a certain power-play. For the Times piece, Clarkson snapped his fingers and the interviewer flew to Barbados. In the next paragraph the interviewer describes how:
he has a hangover. He’s spent much of the day sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool with an oxygen tank, refusing to be coaxed up by a desperate scuba instructor, on the grounds that he wanted to drown out the world. “It was so nice and peaceful down there. Why would I want to come out?”
Clarkson’s lucrative brand of childlike petulance is impressed at other moments too. His status as an enfant terrible man-child is indelicately declared later in the interview with an outright lie. He tells the interviewer he has no pubes and that he only knew he went through puberty when his voice broke, but later confesses that he made this up. There is also a reference to his love of AA Milne, but his comment is so clichéd and vapid that this must be read as another insincere performance of his cheeky, childlike sociopath (“every character you’ll meet in life is a character from Winnie-the-Pooh: May is Wol [how Owl spells his name], Hammond is Piglet, I am Tigger”).
Clarkson’s offensive remarks are not ill-judged but exquisitely well judged flouts. Despite being laughed off or excused as harmless banter, as something not to be taken seriously, they are serious. These are not accidents but pre-meditated acts of insolence. Even when Clarkson falls foul of what is acceptable – even ‘as a joke’ – it is, rather implausibly, chalked up as a coincidence and he casually draws attention to his friendship with the Prime Minister:
While filming a Christmas special in 2014, they had to be evacuated from Argentina after his Porsche’s number plates (H982 FKL) were said to be a deliberately provocative reference to the Falklands conflict. (Clarkson denies this: “It was just an impossibility for us to have chosen that number plate on purpose. I drive thousands of cars a year; I never look at the registration.”)
The situation was so tense for the remaining crew—attempting to reach Chile cross-country—that Clarkson feared they’d be killed. “I rang [David] Cameron, who was out in Afghanistan. ‘Get someone over from the Falklands. You’ve got to help us out here, otherwise you’re going to have 40 dead English people.’ There were 40 stuck in that convoy. It was one of the most unpleasant nights of my life.”
There is also an aspect of Clarkson’s performed sociopathy that is much more like the self-depreciating buffoonery of Boris rather than the Savilesque kaleidoscope of lies and truth. Nonetheless, it is still obfuscatory. He plays up to and exaggerates his awkward appearance. Awkwardness, as I argue, is a low-level form of sociopathy. More than once on Top Gear he remarked, either via sarcasm or plain self-depreciation, about his ungainly physique. Again, some time is given to highlighting his clownish and clumsy physiognomy in the interview:
Clarkson is tall and misshapen with wire-wool hair and tobacco-stained teeth. With the possible exception of Wembley Fraggle, he looks like no one else. He likes to say he was made in God’s factory on a Friday evening, when all they had left was two good feet “and a pair of good buttocks. Look at these rubbish hands, this paunch, this hair.” Someone like Andrea Corr, he adds, was made on a Monday morning.
He claims to be utterly ham-fisted. “My first memory is peeling a hard-boiled egg. I was only about 18 months apparently, and it’s still the most practical thing I’ve ever done.
“As Hammond always says, I look like an orangutan when I’m presented with simple tasks, like opening a bottle of wine.
Clumsiness alone is not sociopathic—someone has to witness the awkward behaviour. Attention must be drawn to it; the performance must be seen. And this is precisely what Clarkson, like Boris, achieves. He makes sure he is seen as awkward, he works hard at being conspicuous.
These performances of sociopathy, the conspicuous flouting of social code that serves to mask the true self are the examples par excellence of virtuosic psychopathic performance. They show such sensitivity to social expectations and such ultra-reflexive self-awareness. They also show the nous and cunning to know that behaving normally isn’t always the best disguise, or advantageous. The performance of sociopathy is the psychopath’s double-bluff. Rather than conform to anonymity like Ripley and Bateman, they flout social expectations and hide in plain sight. Rather than being a super-social psychopath, these impostors masquerade as sociopaths.