Frozen Warnings: A Playlist

Repeater asked me to create a playlist as a soundtrack for my book Infinite Resignation, published this year. To be honest, I don’t have the energy to write elaborate exegeses for each bespoke selection detailing its rarified nuances and subtleties. So I simply listed music that I’ve been listening to recently— sometimes while writing, other times while reading, thinking, resting, waiting, having a coffee, doing nothing, keeping busy, staring at the slowly-turning day and night. If listened to straight through it should take almost exactly 24 hours.

I refrained from including Yoshi Wada’s hour-long Earth Horns with Electric Drone, Morton Feldman’s 6-hour String Quartet No. 2, all of Francisco López’s Untitled pieces played back-to-back (or simultaneously), pop songs slowed down 4000%, or those 12-hour YouTube ASMR tracks of the starship Nostromo. Not sure what unifies it all. Music that slows and stretches out time; the faintest traces of melody submerged within somber textures; impersonally-sculpted, harrowing, subsonic environments; music with a lyrical, black gravity to it; stray sounds lethargically diving under it all into some other nebulous region; nighttime emptiness and melancholic opacity; bilious, rumbling vastness of dying stars. Doubtless I’ve forgotten to include many things that I’ll remember later on… and then, in assembling such vain lists of “favorites” I realize that in fact all music is simply the dub version of the vast and immanent silence that surrounds and engulfs it, and this suffices.

1. King Woman, “Wrong,” from the EP Doubt (2015)

2. Chihei Hatakeyama, Requiem for Black Night and Earth Spiders (2016)

3. Lustmord, Dark Matter (2017)

4. The Haxan Cloak, Excavation (2013)

5. Joy Division, “Passover” from Closer (1980)

6. Slow Walkers, Slow Walkers (2013)

7. Brian Eno, Music for Prague (1998)

8. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Variation #15, performed by Joanna MacGregor (2010)

9. Thomas Köner, Daikan (2002)

10. Eliane Radigue, Kyema, Intermediate States (1992)

11. How To Disappear Completely, Mer de Revs (2017)

12. Gregorio Allegri, Miserere (c.1630), performed by Tallis Scholars (1980)

13. Christina Vantzou, No. 4 (2018)

14. Celer, “Of My Complaisance,” from An Immensity Merely to Save Life (2012)

15. Lycia, “Antarctica,” from Quiet Moments (2013)

16. Dirk Serries, “Microphonics XXIII: There’s a Light in Vein,” from Microphonics XXI-XXV

17. Deathprod, “Dead People’s Things,” from Morals and Dogma (2004)

18. Grouper, Cover The Windows And The Walls (2007)

19. Nurse With Wound, from Soliloquy for Lilith (1988)

20. Keiji Haino, So, Black is Myself (1997)

21. April Larson, “The Second Throne is the Loneliest,” from The Second Throne (2018)

22. Joy Division, “Autosuggestion,” from Substance 1977-1980 (1988)

23. Celestino, “Rest in Alaya,” from Beyond Enemy (2017)

24. Rafael Anton Irisarri, The North Bend (2010)

25. Federico Durand, “Navidad en el Bosque,” from La Niña Junco (2017)

26. Bach, Goldberg Variations, Variation #21, performed by Joanna MacGregor (2010)

27. Harold Budd, As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night), arr. Akira Rabelais (2004)

28. Sarah Devachi, All My Circles Run (2017)

29. William Basinski, Nocturnes (2013)

30. Saåad, “New Helicon,” from Deep/Float (2017)

31. Nico, “Frozen Warnings,” from The Marble Index (1968)

32. Robert Rich, Perpetual (2014)

“Communist Realism”, by Mark Fisher

 

Today marks nine years since the publication of Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, a concept and work that he would apply and build upon in his analysis of culture and politics thereafter. Summed up briefly as “both a belief and an attitude … that capitalism is the only viable political/economic system, and a simple restatement of the old Thatcherite maxim, ‘There is no alternative’,” Mark was interested in discerning fractures in this logic and, indeed, to really move towards breaking through it. Here, we republish “Communist Realism”, originally published on his k-punk blog and on the Repeater Books blog during the British general election of 2015. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normal capitalist realist service was resumed on Thursday, on the BBC Question Time Leaders Special. With the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens absent, horizons contracted, expectations lowered, we were once again asphyxiating in the Oxbridge-Westminster bubble. This was most obviously signalled by a discursive exclusion: “austerity” was never mentioned, so we were back on the arid terrain of a debate the terms of which were set by England’s austerians in 2010. The question, once more, was: who would cut the deficit quickest?

Miliband further deflated the mood – I think deliberately – by explicitly ruling out a “deal” or a “coalition” with the SNP. Given the right wing press’s scaremongering, Miliband’s denying that a deal will happen might have been necessary in order to make the conditions for such a deal possible. Any equivocation would surely have been seized upon by the right wing media, and relentlessly used to stoke up the fears of voters less likely to vote for Labour because of the prospect of a coalition. The audience members imploring Cameron and Miliband to be honest about possible deals were as ingenuous as those who hailed the programme as a triumph of participatory democracy. Neither leader could “be honest” about how the vote is likely to go on Thursday because that very speculation could change what actually happens. Such is the state of our current “democracy”: everything is distorted by media projections, by politicians’ (second) guesses as to how voters may behave in response to those projections, a whole phantom science of feedback.

Baudrillard: “Polls manipulate the undecidable. Do they affect votes? True of false? Do they yield exact photographs of reality, or of mere tendencies, or a refraction of this reality in a hyperspace of simulation whose curvature we do not know? True or false? Undecidable.”

For most of this campaign, Cameron has given every impression that he far rather be tucking into country supper than demeaning himself hustling on the hustings.

Defending the status quo is not as energising as tearing it down, and comfortable Cameron never had the class resentment-jouissance that drove grocer’s daughter Thatcher to battle trade unionists and old school Tory grandees alike. For him, it’s a career, not a mission. Cameron has never seemed like a man burning with conviction; he comes across more like the captain of some public school cricket team who whose main motivation for winning is to remind uppity comprehensive kids who’s boss. On Thursday, Cameron finally went into bat for his class like he meant it.

He needs to. This election is pivotal. Either the Tories can “finish the job” of looting and pillaging everything working class struggle built, or they themselves could be on the brink of destruction. The Conservative Party haven’t won an overall majority since 1992. It’s difficult enough keeping this party of opportunists, quislings and crazies together at the best of times; if they fail to win again, will even Boris be able to prevent meltdown? And with the Tories in disarray, the right could finally be forced off the centre ground that they won and radically re-defined under Thatcher.

Pumped up, calmed down

In front of the BBC cameras, Cameron’s performance wasn’t quite as slick as his upper lip, but he discovered a poise that he has seldom mustered in the past few weeks. The problem with Cameron getting pumped up last week is not only that it looked pathetically forced (his claim that he was “pumped up because I am” was a transparent deception as well as a tautology. He was “pumped up” because Tory backers demanded that he at least gave the appearance of caring). The more serious issue is that such displays of simulated passion undermine Cameron’s key appeal, which has to do with projecting casual authority: what David Smail, writing before Cameron came onto the scene, called “[t]he confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister.” Cameron’s accent, his posture, his smirk, convey a consistent message: relax, I’m in control, defer to me. When he strays from this “ease and familiarity”, he risks looking angry and/ or uncomfortable, and apparent affability gives way an affronted sense of class superiority, as in the “calm down, dear” incident.

Presenting the Tories as the nasty party has been counterproductive, the fake letter of support from small businesses devolved into yet another Thick of It farce, but Thursday’s flooding of the audience with Tory supporters posing as undecided voters worked. Cameron was back on home territory: the bizarre inverted world of English capitalist realism in which referring to a global banking crisis was desperate reaching for excuses, and austerity was the only possible course of action for any prudent government. (The best thing about New Labour was Alastair Campbell – a skilled operator and a technician, an expert on how to win ground on a hostile media terrain. It’s hard to imagine that, if he were still running things, that Labour would have been ambushed like they were on Thursday.)

A picture of discontented new wealth

Under the questioning of businesswoman Catherine Shuttleworth, Ed started to look like a supply teacher who had earnestly planned an interesting and informative lesson, only to find out that the kids just wanted to humiliate him, whatever he said. The Tory narrative of Labour profligacy was once again established as a self-evident truth that only a fool and/ or a brazen liar would contest. This narrative was all the more convincing when it was re-cycled/ re-cited by a “concerned businesswoman”, “struggling to survive in a tough climate”. The subsequent exposure of Shuttleworth as a probable Tory plant will not erase the impact of her TV encounter with Miliband, if only because complaining about the audience not only implicitly concedes defeat, it makes Labour look like sore losers.

For the moment, let’s believe Shuttleworth’s story that she isn’t a Tory. (Although note that even the DM whitewashing is carefully worded: Shuttleworth only denies that she’s ever been a member of the Tory party, not that she’s a lifelong Tory voter, which is of course impossible to prove or disprove.) The question then would be why she should be so ready to blame hard times not on the government which has been in power in the last five years, but on the government which was in power when she actually built and grew her business? Miliband’s pitch – Labour is all about supporting small business owners – is part of a strategy that could be fruitful in the long run, since it could break the alliance between small business and corporate capital which has been so central to the installation of capitalist realism. But Shuttleworth’s response to these overtures shows that breaking that alliance will be a long and hard struggle. She immediately started bleating on behalf of Tesco – as if Tesco didn’t enjoy its greatest success under New Labour, and as if its downfall wasn’t a direct consequence of the very corporate tyranny that Miliband was moving to attack?

Reflexive cringe

While Miliband was correct not to capitulate to nonsense about Labour overspending, it was clear that Labour has left it far too late to challenge the dominant narrative. On the face of it, Labour’s acquiescence in the austerity myth has been inexplicable. Paul Krugman writes of:

the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009. Why this weakness? In part it may reflect the fact that the crisis occurred on Labour’s watch; American liberals should count themselves fortunate that Lehman Brothers didn’t fall a year later, with Democrats holding the White House. More broadly, the whole European centre-left seems stuck in a kind of reflexive cringe, unable to stand up for its own ideas.

You say “reflexive cringe”, I say “reflexive impotence” … Labour’s slowness to respond to the crisis was not merely some failure of judgement or strategy; it was a consequence of how deeply capitalist realism had saturated the party. There was no question of Labour using the crisis to impose its own programme, because, by 2008, it didn’t have much of programme beyond capitalist realism. Everything had been set up for a corporate appeasement, and there were neither the organisational nor the intellectual infrastructure to come up with anything new. Capitalist realism wasn’t something that Labour was waiting out and planning to overcome, one day; it was embedded as an effectively permanent baseline set of conditions – conditions which receded from visibility even as they imposed strict limits on what could be said and thought.

I’m in a trance, I don’t ask questions

Following Wendy Brown, I argued that capitalist realism can be understood as a kind of dreamwork. In this dreamwork, briefly interrupted in 2008, the banking crisis is some repressed trauma which is known about but never confronted, a Real that the dreamer stays asleep to keep avoiding. Capital is the dreamer here, and, insofar as capitalist realism is sustained, we remain figments in its dream. Yet capital is also our dream, which, Matrix-like, has constructed the virtual reality in which we think we live from our energy, our desires and our fantasies.

You would think that mention of the banking crisis would produce some cognitive dissonance when set against the narrative of Labour profligacy. If there was a global financial crisis, how could Labour also be responsible for the deficit? No doubt, part of the success of the “Labour did it” story is due to the hold of folk politics. A narrative about incompetent politicians maxing out the credit cards is easily digested; it’s far more difficult to assimilate the opaque and abstract mechanics of finance capital. But one of the most valuable insights in Philip Mirowski’s Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown comes from his account of cognitive dissonance itself. Referring to the work of Leon Festinger, the social psychologist who worked extensively on cognitive dissonance, Mirowski reminds us that cognitive dissonance is not a threat to false beliefs. On the contrary, cognitive dissonance is a mechanism by which false beliefs can be maintained when confronted with evidence that directly disproves them. In fact, as Mirowski writes, Festinger’s crucial claim was “that confrontation with contrary evidence may actually augment and sharpen the conviction and enthusiasm of a believer”. Mirowski quotes Festinger:

Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart…suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view.

This points to a relationship between desire and belief that has been posited at least since Hume and Spinoza’s critiques of religion: we believe in part because we want to believe. But we also want to believe because the belief has become core to our subjectivity.

If you get too burnt you can’t come back home

The great mystery of neoliberalism is to what extent its advocates “really” believed it. Was it ever anything more than a ruse to restore ruling class power and wealth? Of course, the answer to this partly depends on which advocates we are talking about. It’s possible that certain key proselytisers for neoliberalism never believed it, and only opportunistically fixed upon it as a way of destroying the “red bases” of working class power. With others, it’s more likely that a belief was aided by the desire to believe. This desire was motivated by economic interest, of course, but also by certain libidinal satisfactions: the pleasures of seeing the working class defeated, of seeing the poor and vulnerable stripped of social security. For a certain English petit-bourgeois sensibility, Thatcherism was the equivalent of a riot: a jubilee of destruction, a temporary autonomous zone for a reactionary desire that feeds off suffering and misery.

And as I was standing by the edge
I could see the faces of those led pissing theirselves laughing
(and the flames grew)
Their mad eyes bulged their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger

The funeral pyre will be re-lit if the Tories win on Thursday (bring some paper and bring some wood/ bring what’s left of all your love for the fire), and after five more years, there won’t be much left … The NHS will have been gutted, sold off by stealth; education will continue to be asset stripped, ripe for yet more corporate plundering … the most vulnerable will be pushed further into destitution, women and children first …

This is why Cameron’s android smoothness, like Boris’s bluster, is so crucial for the Tories. It is a cloaking device, obfuscating the project, keeping the gibbering libido hidden behind a humanoid face and a calming, plummy voice. Imagine if Gove (who’s been pushed back into the attic for trying just too hard to be one of the posh boys – so vulgar, so nouveau) – imagine if Gove, with his defrocked pantomime dame pout, his lickspittle lips smacking with the class hatred that only a class traitor can feel, imagine if he were leader….

By contrast, Cameron’s strength is that it is hard to work up much class hatred for him. People that wealthy and privileged are like rare beasts: something you hear about but rarely encounter. In fact, I’ve seen more pandas in the flesh than old Etonians. You also get the sense that Cameron has no particular animus towards the poor – it’s rather that the experience of poverty is so remote for him that he simply cannot understand it, except as some theoretical possibility. The poor are pixellated background characters in the blearily cheerful steampunk simulation that Dave projects: everything’s fine so long as you don’t look too closely.

Dismantling capitalist realism

But let’s return to Mirowski’s summary of Festinger’s research:

Philosophy of science revels in the ways in which it may be rational to discount contrary evidence, but the social psychology of cognitive dissonance reveals just how elastic the concept of rationality can be in social life. Festinger and his colleagues illustrated these lessons in his first book (1956) by reporting in a neutral manner the vicissitudes of a group of Midwesterners they called “The Seekers,” who developed a belief that they would be rescued by flying saucers on a specific date in 1954, prior to a great flood coming to engulf Lake City (a pseudonym). Festinger documents in great detail the hour-by-hour reactions of the Seekers as the date of their rescue came and passed with no spaceships arriving and no flood welling up to swallow Lake City. At first, the Seekers withdrew from representatives of the press seeking to upbraid them for their failed prophecies, but rapidly reversed their stance, welcoming any and all opportunities to expound and elaborate upon their (revised and expanded) faith. A minority of their group did fall away, but Festinger notes they tended to be lukewarm peripheral members of the group. Predominantly, the Seekers never renounced their challenged doctrines. The ringleaders tended to redouble their proselytizing, so long as they were able to maintain interaction with a coterie of fellow covenanters.

Mirowski makes an analogy with proponents of neoliberal economic doctrine, who – far from abandoning this doctrine after its discrediting in the crisis – held to it even more doggedly. This is what Miliband faced on Thursday. Blank stares of mesmerised true believers seven years after the saucers didn’t arrive. Shuttleworth’s interjection like some Manchurian Candidate trigger, provoking automaton-applause …

This shows how difficult the task of dismantling capitalist realism will be. A whole process of deprogramming, involving new narratives, new libidinal attractors, as well as new ways of sharing knowledge, will have to be undergone. While this is certainly a formidable challenge, it is something that is already underway and which we can intensify quite quickly.

Of particular importance, it seems to me, is a popular demystification of economics and “the economy”. The austerity myth has only seemed credible because of a widespread economic illiteracy – an illiteracy I very much share. Economics functions now much as theology functioned in the medieval world – as an intricate and elaborate system of concepts, objects and reasoning that is closed to non-initiates. We need something like a Reformation in/ and against capitalist economics – the equivalent of the Bible being translated into English. I think this could be done, not by a series of large-scale conferences, televisions, or films – although of course these wouldn’t hurt – but virally. Small groups of people, including at least one individual who is an expert in economics, could get together and talk through some key concepts and principles, major economic events, etc. This could take place in private homes, in universities and colleges, in social clubs … In addition to everything else, this would also serve the function of reviving sociality, of re-building a class consciousness that has been dissipated by the individualising tendencies of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism.

Communist realism

Back to Thursday, here’s “entrepreneur” Chris. “A ban on zero hours contract would prevent me from running my small business …” Well, would it now? We’ve heard many versions of this plaint over the last few months, from businesses big and small. What this amounts to is saying that, these businesses cannot function without super-exploiting workers, and they cannot function without indirect government subsidies (with benefits supplementing low wages). Hold on a minute: didn’t the capitalist realists make their “hard decisions” to close down nationalised industries on the grounds that they weren’t viable and they were draining too much public money?

We need a new, communist, realism, which says that businesses are only viable if they can pay workers a living wage. This communist realism would reverse the capitalist realist demonisation of those on benefits, and target the real parasites: “entrepreneurs” whose enterprises depend on hyper-precarious labour; landlords living it large off housing benefit; bankers getting bonuses effectively or actually out of public money, etc.

But the concept of communist realism also suggests a particular kind of orientation. This isn’t an eventalism, which will wager all its hopes on a sudden and final transformation. It isn’t a utopianism, which concedes anything “realistic” to the enemy. It is about soberly and pragmatically assessing the resources that are available to us here and now, and thinking about how we can best use and increase those resources. It is about moving – perhaps slowly, but certainly purposively – from where we are now to somewhere very different.

Tariq Goddard on Jean Baudrillard and the 1980s

In this quarter’s edition of Spike Art Magazine, Repeater publisher Tariq Goddard discusses why Jean Baudrillard is the key thinker of the 1980s.

By the 80s Jean Baudrillard appeared to want to interpret the world in different ways and not to change it. Having already abandoned the role of philosopher as activist and turned away from the kind of work philosophers were expected to do, in his case integrating Marxism and Freudianism in order to revolutionise our self­-understanding and effect political change, Baudrillard evolved into a radical sceptic. In doing so he embraced the 80s zeitgeist…

Read the full article in Spike Art Magazine #57 here. Buy Tariq’s latest novel, Nature and Necessity, here.

Repeater Books at Unsound Festival

Last month Repeater’s Director of Marketing Tamar attended Unsound Festival in Poland with our authors Paul Rekret and Ryan Diduck.

The main Repeater events were a Mark Fisher reading group organised around the forthcoming collection k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), a panel on the aesthetics of field recordings with Paul Rekret, and a talk by Ryan Diduck on his book Mad Skills.

In his review of the festival for Cult MTL, Ryan Diduck described it as having:

 unimpeachably cool programming, airtight organization and access to some of the most unconventional and remarkable venues, including an ornate synagogue in the Jewish District, a decommissioned salt mine and a sprawling Soviet-era hotel called the Forum.

You can also check out our full range of fantastic music titles below:

Advertising Revolution: The Story of a Song, From Beatles Hit to Nike Slogan
Alan Bradshaw and Linda Scott

“… a fascinating study of a key episode in our recent cultural history.” – Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London.

 

 

 

Red Set: A History of Gang of Four
Jim Dooley

“The definitive history of Gang of Four, along the way explaining why their music meant so much for the embryonic leftwing ideas of their dedicated followers…” – openDemocracy

 

 

 

Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the 20th Century
Ryan Diduck

“Do you like electronic music and Marxism? You’re in luck… great for gearheads and anyone who resents the rise of black-boxed control mechanisms.” – Pitchfork

 

 

 

 

The Turkish Psychedelic Music Explosion: Andalou Psych (1965-1980)
Dan Spicer

“… as a knowledgeable and thoughtful overview to a scene which is now more accessible than ever, this serves as a perfect introduction.” – The Wire

 

 

 

Under My Thumb: The Songs that Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them
Rhian E. Jones and Eli Davies

Vogue Books of the Year 2017

“…a book that arms us with the clarifying arguments we need in this moment.” – Jessica HooperFrieze

 

 

 

Down With Childhood: Pop Music and the Crisis of Innocence
Paul Rekret

“…takes the reader on an exhilarating tour through the recent history of pop music and politics” – The New Inquiry

 

 

 

 

A Memoir: From Oran to Marseilles
Maurice El Medioni

Maurice El Médioni (born on 18 October 1928 in Oran, Algeria) is an Algerian Jewish pianist, composer and interpreter of Andalusian, Rai, Chaabi, Sephardic and Arab music. This book contains his original handwritten memoirs, translated by Jonathan Walton.

 

 

 

The Music of the Future
Robert Barry

“Robert Barry’s excellent, exhilarating, free-ranging study relishes, and invites the reader to bask in, its sea of scholarly research and the idiosyncrasies and connections it yields.” – David StubbsReview 31

 

 

 

Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ Holy Bible
Rhian E. Jones, Daniel Lukes, Larissa Wodtke

“This book rightly asks a lot of the audience and in exchange delivers a lot back to them – just like The Holy Bible.” – Guy Mankowski3am Magazine

 

 

 

Post-Punk Then and Now
Mark Fisher, Gavin Butt and Kodwo Eshun

“… skilfully maps a range of critical perspectives on post-punk, particularly those that fit into the vein of Capitalist Realism.” – Guy Mankowski3am Magazine

 

 

 

Smile If You Dare
Ramzy Alwakeel

“As well as a keen critical edge, it is equipped with an undisguised mad love for the source material, a sense of passionate abandon induced by the tragic/ecstatic synth-pop that pours out of the speakers.” – The Wire

Tariq Goddard and Carl Neville review John Carpenter at Shepherd’s Bush Empire

To celebrate Halloween, Repeater publisher and author of Nature and Necessity Tariq Goddard and Resolution Way author Carl Neville reviewed John Carpenter’s live show for The Quietus!

Everyone will have their favourite John Carpenter movie, ours is Escape From New York. Or perhaps Halloween. Or maybe The Thing. But then we forgot, how could we, about They Live, and yes Prince Of Darkness, let’s be honest, is also a great late film. I have a soft spot for Christine, my fellow reviewer doesn’t do soft spots, and neither of us has ever sat through Starman. We are here for the music of course, but equally like the rest of the audience (last seen together at the old Forbidden Planet on Denmark Street), we are also here to reverence Carpenter and pay tribute.

Read the full review here.

HALLOWEEN FLASH SALE! 50% off selected titles

To celebrate the haunting season we are offering 50% off our selected titles for the next 48 hours. What a better way to get into the Halloween spirit than reading about pessimism in Western philosophy (Infinite Resignation) or discovering the unknown in the most haunting and anomalous fiction of the 20th century (The Weird and the Eerie)?

Check out the titles below:

Splatter Capital
Mark Steven

“… for the fans of these films who’ve always wondered about the ineluctable appeal of visceral, shocking violence on screen, and perhaps why it all feels so strangely familiar.” – We Are the Mutants

 

 

 

 

The Living and the Dead
Toby Austin Locke

What can we know about the unknowable? What can we learn about life through studying death?

“… a challenging and intriguing counterpoint to the modern embrace of the static and the tangible.” – Foreword Magazine

 

 

 

The Weird and the Eerie
Mark Fisher

What exactly are the Weird and the Eerie?

“… a fitting tribute to an author who had the rare capacity to write lucidly about dark and difficult things, to find a lexicon for the interstitial, the underground and overlooked.” – Roger LuckhurstLA Review of Books

 

 

 

“… the wholesale and disastrous marketisation of higher education [is] powerfully described by Sinéad Murphy in her book Zombie University, a right horror show.” – openDemocracy

 

 

 

 

Richard Gilman-Opalsky

If philosophers have failed to understand the revolts of the last twenty years, and political scientists have failed to predict them, then what can these revolts tell us about themselves?

 

 

 

 

 

Eugene Thacker

“Scholarly advice for dark times.” – The New Yorker

“You can count me out… in” — Alan Bradshaw on fifty years of the Beatles’ “Revolution”

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ “Revolution”, Alan Bradshaw, co-author of Advertising Revolution: The Story of a Song, from Beatles Hit to Nike Slogan, recounts the story of one of the most famous and controversial adverts of all time.

 

Fifty years ago, on 26 August 1968, the Beatles released their highest selling 45 rpm — the “Hey Jude”/“Revolution” single. While Paul McCartney’s “Hey Jude” garnered the most attention and is commonly regarded as one of the Beatles’ most perfect songs, John Lennon’s “Revolution” is arguably the song with the most interesting story in terms of its politics, and its afterlife in one of the most seminal and successful advertisements of all time.

“Revolution” was composed by John in Rishikesh in India where the Beatles were meditating with the Maharishi following a tumultuous year which saw their manager, Brian Epstein, commit suicide, and in which they had encountered extraordinary opprobrium from the far-right in the USA, who bitterly resented John’s off-hand statement that the Beatles had become “bigger than Jesus”. While the Beatles meditated, the global politics of 1968 exploded: Martin Luther King was murdered, the violent Prague Spring marked a turning point in Soviet history, the American War in Vietnam raged on, the Cultural Revolution was afoot in China and major riots and protests erupted in London, Mexico City, and, most notably, Paris. John decided that the time had come to explicitly address politics, as he explained, “I wanted to say my piece about revolution. I wanted to tell you or whoever listens and communicate, to say ‘What do you say? This is what I say’”.

At this time the Beatles were transforming from loveable mopheads who toured singing romantic jingles into studio-based psychedelic avant-garde bohemians. They were moving away from boy-girl love songs and towards evangelising about romantic philosophy, as marked by songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Fool on the Hill” and “Nowhere Man”. While each of these songs were intended as interventions into how people should live their lives, none of them were directly political. Indeed within 1968, the very idea of political pop music was a rarity and mostly something edged towards by “underground” bands like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane.

“Loveable mopheads”

“Revolution”, John’s step into direct political expression, takes the form of an imagined dialogue between himself and a would-be revolutionary. However the latter remains silent, and instead we hear John’s numerous rebuttals. Each verse begins with refrains of limited agreement from John such as, “You say you want a revolution, well we wall want to change the world”. In each third refrain, John establishes his critical distance and sings “but if you’re talking about minds that hate, all I can tell you brother is you’ll have to wait” as well as the famous line “But if you carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”. Then follows repetitions of the line “don’t you know it’s gonna be alright?” The song was recorded in London’s Trident Studio in a slow bluesy version with John lying down to sound more meditative. Interestingly, in one line he sings “But when you talk about destruction, don’t you know you can count me out… in”, suggesting that he was ambivalent about his actual political stance. Disagreement followed between the band over the song’s commercial potential and eventually John agreed to re-arrange the song into a more hard rock upbeat version despite his concern that the lyrics would now be more difficult to understand. The faster version was far harder than the norm in the 1960s; as producer George Martin recounted, “We got into distortion on that, which we had a lot of complaints from the technical people about. But that was the idea: it was John’s song and the idea was to push it right to the limit. Well, we went to the limit and beyond”.

The fast version, in which John does not sing “count me out.. in” but simply “count me out”, was released as the single alongside “Hey Jude”, while the original slow version appeared on the White Album, which was released later that year. A third version also appeared on the White Album named “Revolution No. 9”, though it bears little resemblance to the other two versions. It is in fact a scramble of electronic sounds and nonsensical phrases (“take this brother, may it serve you well”, “the twist, the Watusi”). John later told the press that the sounds of “Revolution No. 9” were meant to mimic what actual revolution would sound like.

“Psychedelic avant-garde bohemians”

Upon release, the “Hey Jude”/“Revolution” (featuring the rock version) record rocketed to huge success, selling eight million copies and being their most successful 45rpm ever. Within the media, attention fixated upon “Hey Jude”, which was widely acclaimed. “Revolution”, by contrast, received little attention: for example, the Record Mirror review simply wrote “flipside: pacier, punchy but on a less spectacular scale”, while Record Retailer managed to be even more concise “flip: faster, more compact”. When the White Album was released later that year, “Revolution No. 1”, the original version, also received little commentary (the Melody Maker reviewer wrote “it’s different, softer, with the words clear”). “Revolution No. 9”, however, attracted plenty of criticism, with the same critic declaring: “There is, in fact, no music in this cacophony of sound: the sort of noise you get when you spin the selection along the short wave at two in the morning. Noisy, boring and meaningless, which can only be some private joke for the Beatles’ inner circle.”

If the mainstream music media were largely unmoved by “Revolution”, the reaction within the leftist press was a stark contrast, as they seemingly went into competition with each other in search of harshest condemnation. Ramparts declared “Revolution preaches counter-revolution”, the New Left Review called it a “lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear”, the Village Voice wrote “It is puritanical to expect musicians, or anyone else, to hew the proper line. But it is reasonable to request that they do not go out of their way to oppose it.” The Berkeley Barb sneered “Revolution sounds like the hawk plank adopted in the Chicago convention of the Democratic Death Party”. Black Dwarf dismissed the song as “no more revolutionary than Mrs. Dale’s Diary” (Lennon wrote in response saying “I don’t remember saying Revolution was revolutionary — fuck Mrs Dale”). However some critics attempted more ambiguous interpretations, for instance Greil Marcus wrote, “The music contained a message of its own, a message of its own, a message of its own, a message of excitement and freedom, which works against sterility and repression in the lyrics… The music doesn’t say ‘cool it’ or ‘don’t fight the cops’”. Other notable responses to “Revolution” include Nina Simone’s parody re-writing of the song to insist upon immediate revolution, while Charles Manson’s “Family”, in their build-up to their vicious homicides, parsed over every cut in the White Album with “Revolution No.1”, in particular, apparently telling them that the time for peace and love was over.

So how are we to assess “Revolution” today? In the context of the Beatles’ wider political commitment to love as the ultimate revolutionary force (best exemplified in the song “All You Need is Love”), it might be more astute to regard the song as an instance of what Jeremy Gilbert refers to as “acid communism”; a sort of tactical commitment to the revolutionary potential of yoga, meditation, veganism, sexuality, drug consumption, etc., rather than anti-leftist counter-revolutionary politics, as it was regarded by some at the time. Moreover, the various iterations of “Revolution” might each be regarded as very different types of political statement. As per Greil Marcus’s review, which notes how the hard rock arrangement seems to contradict the “repressed” lyrics, we might ponder the problem of how political content appears in popular music. Popular music theorists like John Scannell, for instance, note the affective capacity of popular music is often most intensively experienced at a physical level (i.e. it might make us want to dance in a particularly sexually charged way) and that this somatic capacity can be more meaningful than the content of the lyrics, leaving us with the possibility of a far more ambiguous reading of the song. Indeed given Lennon’s own ambivalence, most explicitly expressed in “count me out… in” lyrics as well as the alternative renderings of the song, we might best conclude that “Revolution” is a song probably best not read beyond its own ambivalences. Yet the song is often heralded by the right, listed for example, as one of the great conservative rock songs by National Review, and used in the campaign trail by none other than Donald Trump himself. This is partially because the song’s history was only beginning in 1968.

By the 1980s, an era in which the so-called “flower power” of Sixties idealism was being superseded by materialism and yuppy culture, and which began with John Lennon being violently shot to death outside his home, “Revolution” was about to receive a new lease of life when the Oregon-based advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy sought to use the song in an advertisement to launch a new air bubble gimmick for Nike shoes. Wieden+Kennedy had just succeeded in using Miles Davis and Lou Reed songs in their adverts (an ad for Honda scooters using “Walk on the Wild Side” finished with Lou, sitting on a scotter wondering “why bother walking?”) and they clearly relished the challenge of being the first agency to obtain permission to use an original recording by the Beatles. In selecting the song, the agency had departed far from the brief, which was grounded in having a straight-forward product-centred ad, yet when the idea was pitched to Nike, the client’s response was “You’ve given me my Lou Reed!”

Lou Reed, not setting for walking

The process of obtaining permission was complex, unlike other campaigns where it was possible to use Beatles songs in ads in the form of cover versions — for example, “Taxman” was used by H&R Black tax advisers ¾ but obtaining the rights to use a Beatles’ original recording was another matter. In 1985, Michael Jackson had outbid Paul McCartney to buy the performance rights to a whole catalogue of Beatles songs and it was his representatives who contacted Yoko Ono to solicit approval on behalf of Wieden+Kennedy. Ono, it seems, managed to persuade Capitol/EMI to release permission. Janet Champ, who was part of the team that came up with the idea of using “Revolution” for the spot, remembered the matter as follows:

What made me feel really good about having this spot was we wrote Yoko Ono and we went and told her what the idea was — I didn’t get to go, but we sent the idea to her and we asked her what she thought about it — and she loved it… And the Beatles were all behind it, too, so once they said it was all right, we felt pretty good about it”.

Ono later explained to Time magazine that she didn’t “want to see John deified” nor for “John’s songs to be part of a cult of glorified martyrdom” but instead to be enjoyed by a “new generation”, “to make it part of their lives instead of a relic of the distant past”. The deal reportedly amounted to $250,000 for EMI and another $250,000 to SBK Entertainment World for the copyright and entailed a media campaign that cost between $7 and $10 million. The deal complete, Janet Champ recalled the day EMI’s master tape of the Beatles recording arrived at the agency in Portland:

We had the master tape right in our hands of the song and we got to put it on and hear all the mistakes and you know [reverent pause] the actual master right out of the vault from Abbey Road and they played it on separate little speakers so you could hear when Ringo dropped the drumstick or somebody made a mistake and it was so beautiful and clear. And everybody in the recording studio came in, came out of the halls all the way down to this rom to hear this for the first time. That was a great moment.

For Nike, who commissioned the ad, the stakes were enormous, and it was their first step into major scale TV advertising. Their sales were plummeting, largely due to Reebok absorbing market share as part of the 1980s aerobics fad. Reebok’s sales had risen from $3.5 million in 1982 to a staggering $307 million by 1987, leaving Nike reeling. Nike CEO Phil Knight recalled the moment as follows:

Until then, we really didn’t know if we could be a big company and still have people work closely together. Visible Air was a hugely complex product whose components were made in three different countries, and nobody knew if it would come together. Production, marketing, and sales were all fighting with each other, and we were using TV advertising for the first time. There was tension all the way around. We launched the product with the Revolution campaign, using the Beatles song. We wanted to communicate not just the a radical departure in shoes but a revolution in the way Americans felt about fitness, exercise, and wellness.

The ad was edited by Paula Greif and Peter Kagan, who had just been nominated for best editing, best cinematography, and best art direction at the 1987 Video Music Awards. Notes from post-production meetings indicate that an overall theme in “revolution in fitness lifestyle” was being sought but it was about “feeling good”, not “looking good”, and hence a frame with a man combing hair was removed. “Unfortunately , NIKE is a ‘macho’ company,” the notes read, so the original opening frames of three shots of women were eliminated.

Like the original three songs, there are three versions of Nike’s Revolution — two were hard-rock versions, with one softer version with doo-wops. It was the hard rock version that was the major spot and it consisted of very jerky black-and-white hand-held camera film, with a few archival inserts, that shows Nike athletes and ordinary people participating in a variety of sports at various levels of seriousness. There are whites, blacks, men, women, and a toddler. A woman plays air guitar and a huge laughing crowd runs into the ocean. As Scott Bedbury, who later became Nike’s advertising director described it, the most striking image was the toddler

running with his arms raised out in front of him, legs turning as fast as they could to keep pace with his upper body. His torso was tipping forward as only a toddler’s can, when discovering what it’s like to run full out for the first time. These images were not merely evocative and beautiful but meaningful, particularly in juxtaposition to each other. The message behind this medley of images marked a new outlook for Nike: the Nike brand now spoke to old as well as young, to women as well as men, to world-famous champions and obscure street athletes, using different images but the same voice.

The ad can be interpreted as offering a theme of empowerment and transcendence and a personal philosophy of everyday life, and part of the ad’s success is how this philosophy is reinforced by the song. The clip from “Revolution” includes the opening guitar barrage and the closing yelps of “alright”, but only a few lyrics: “you say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world… But if you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.”

The ad was a massive success — Nike orders increased by 30% immediately and sales doubled over the next two years. Moreover, Nike and Wieden+Kennedy had struck marketing gold, and the ad’s philosophy of empowerment and a personal philosophy of everyday life became the basis of their marketing positioning for the coming decade and laid the foundations for Nike to become one of the true giants of branding. As the sociologists Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson argued, from that point onwards, Nike and Wieden+Kennedy started to stand out in what they described as the cultural economy of images. The sheer scale of their domination within this supposed “sign economy” is staggering to behold. By 1991, Nike held 29% of the global athletic shoe market and its sales had exceeded $3 billion. Indeed Wieden+Kennedy, a small rookie agency, had finally established themselves as a major player in global advertising at the vanguard of the creative side of the industry.

Yet the use of “Revolution” by the Beatles attracted controversy too. Time magazine wrote “Mark David Chapman killed him. But to took a couple of record execs, one sneaker company and a soul brother to turn him into a jingle writer”. The Chicago Tribune described the ad as “when rock idealism met cold-eyed greed” and the New Republic commented “The song had a meaning that Nike is destroying”. Yet what meaning Nike was destroying was a puzzle. A rock critic for the LA Reader wrote “When Revolution came out in 1968 I was getting teargassed in the streets of Madison. The song is part of the soundtrack of my political life. It bugs the hell out of me that it has been turned into a shoe ad”. John Doig, a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, remembered anti-Vietnam demonstrations with “bloody police truncheons coming down and Revolution playing in the background. What that song is saying is a damned sight more important than flogging running shoes”. “Revolution”, it seems had apparently morphed considerably for some listeners from a “petty bourgeois cry of fear”, all catalysed by a sneaker spot.

The most significant response was the $15 million lawsuit filed by Apple Records against Nike, Wieden+Kennedy and Capitol Records in an attempt to half the airing of the commercial. Apple claimed that, even though Nike had legally obtained permission for the rights to the music, it had used the Beatles “persona and good will” without permission. This charge is peculiar given how the ad producers had understood that the Beatles themselves had apparently approved the spot. The explanation perhaps lies in the sequence of unsuccessful suits Apple Records had filed against Capitol/EMI, through which the Beatles’ company had attempted to regain control over royalties derived from new formats like CDs. Reportedly the action was settled confidentially and out of court, after the campaign had run its course. Later, Nike and Wieden+Kennedy used “Instant Karma”, a solo song by John Lennon, in an ad, perhaps reflecting its better relationship with Yoko Ono, while Apple, EMI and Capitol agreed that no Beatles version would ever be used again to sell products — truly the Nike Revolution was a one-off.

Despite the massive boost in sales for Nike, the critical attention generated by the ad appears to have festered on Nike with long-term consequences. Negative press coverage on Nike started to accumulate, focussing on its patriarchal culture, its labour abuses, the brand became accused of tempting young black kids into buying athletic shoes they couldn’t afford and even blaming Nike for occasional murders. By today, in anti-globalisation protests, Nike is typically identified as one of the most offending “bad apples” of the corporate world. Dating from the Revolution campaign, Nike emerged as a target: big enough, salient enough, and suspect enough to draw fire across a range of issues. The long-term impact of using John’s song was thus to attract attention from an audience poised for broad-scale critique.

We can recognise the moment of the Nike Revolution ad as having not just launched Nike into the stratosphere of brands, but also helping to concretise the everyday wearing of sports shoes. Writing these words thirty years later in a university library, it is striking to note that the majority of students come to study wearing shoes designed for professional sports activities. The fact that this apparently strikes nobody as even slightly odd speaks to how we are living in the legacy of extraordinary marketing campaigns and market transformations. Indeed, the possibility that so many people are wearing these shoes is because John Lennon, meditating in Rishikesh, decided to address the politics of 1968, reminds us that the collision of culture and politics in the medium of advertising creates the most unpredictable outcomes imaginable.

Alan Bradshaw is the author, with Linda Scott, of Advertising Revolution: The Story of a Song, from Beatles Hit to Nike Slogan.

Listen to Daniel Spicer’s Turkish psych compilation!

In anticipation of the release of Daniel Spicer’s new book The Turkish Psychedelic Music Explosion: Anadolu Psych (1965-1980) next week, have a listen to a Turkish psych compilation Dan compiled for The Wire‘s primer series in 2011.

Listen to it here.

The book is released next Thursday (15th March)!

Read an extract from Mad Skills

Next week we’ll be publishing Ryan Alexander Diduck’s Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the Twentieth Century, a cultural history of MIDI and it’s impact on the ways music is made and consumed.

From today you can read an extract from the fourth chapter, “Synthesizer, Sampler, Mixmaster, Spy”, in The Wire.

In the beginning, there was the word. The word was a voice. The voice had a speaker. And the speaker knew the magic words. Fast-forward thousands of years to a time when humans behave like robots and robots behave like humans. Nobody knows the magic words anymore. Computers don’t distinguish between messages of love or hatred. Microchips make music and war with indifferent equivalence. All word, every voice, is now code. It has been for years.

You can read the rest of the extract here.

Watch Kodwo Eshun’s inaugural Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture

The Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture is hosted annually in January by the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Each time, a speaker will be invited to engage with the themes and ideas written about by Mark with an eye to taking them further or, indeed, somewhere else.

For the 2018 inaugural lecture, Kodwo Eshun (Mark’s colleague and co-editor, with Mark, of Post-Punk Then and Now) spoke about the impact of Mark’s work.

Say hello to Jon, our new US/Canada publicist

All of us at Repeater Books would like to welcome our new US/Canada publicist, Jon Maunder.

As an introduction to Jon, we’d like to share with you this article he wrote last year for the Chicago Review of Books on Chicago’s literary history.

In the words of Nelson Algren, Chicago “forever keeps two faces” — one of joy, and one of pain. This summer, I wanted to see where Chicago literature has grappled with those faces over the last 100 years. I wanted to explore Chicago’s literary past — on foot. The resulting list below isn’t a guide to Chicago’s “best books,” but an attempt to map the diversity of actual locations which lie behind some of the most powerful and noteworthy writing about the city.

You can read the rest of Jon’s article here.

Mark Fisher on The Fall

To commemorate the passing of Mark E Smith, below is Mark Fisher’s analysis of The Fall’s Grotesque (After the Gramme), from The Weird and the Eerie (2016).

 

“Body a tentacle mess”: The Grotesque and The Weird: The Fall

The word grotesque derives from a type of Roman ornamental design first discovered in the fifteenth century, during the excavation of Titus’s baths. Named after the ‘grottoes’ in which they were found, the new forms consisted of human and animal shapes intermingled with foliage, flowers, and fruits in fantastic designs which bore no relationship to the logical categories of classical art. For a contemporary account of these forms we can turn to the Latin writer Vitruvius. Vitruvius was an official charged with the rebuilding of Rome under Augustus, to whom his treatise On Architecture is addressed. Not surprisingly, it bears down hard on the “improper taste” for the grotesque: “Such things neither are, nor can be, nor have been,” says the author in his description of the mixed human, animal, and vegetable forms: “For how can a reed actually sustain a roof, or a candelabrum the ornament of a gable? Or a soft and slender stalk, a seated statue? Or how can flowers and half-statues rise alternately from roots and stalks? Yet when people view these falsehoods, they approve rather than condemn, failing to consider whether any of them can really occur or not.”

— Patrick Parrinder, James Joyce

If Wells’ story is an example of a melancholic weird, then we can appreciate another dimension of the weird by thinking about the relationship between the weird and the grotesque. Like the weird, the grotesque evokes something which is out of place. The response to the apparition of a grotesque object will involve laughter as much as revulsion, and, in his study of the grotesque, Philip Thomson argued that the grotesque was often characterised by the co-presence of the laughable and that which is not compatible with the laughable. This capacity to excite laughter means that the grotesque is perhaps best understood as a particular form of the weird. It is difficult to conceive of a grotesque object that cannot also be apprehended as weird, but there are weird phenomena which do not induce laughter — Lovecraft’s stories, for example, the only humour in which is accidental.

The Fall, “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man’ / City Hobgolbins”, 1980

The confluence of the weird and the grotesque is no better exemplified than in the work of the post-punk group The Fall. The Fall’s work — particularly in their period between 1980-82 — is steeped in references to the grotesque and the weird. The group’s methodology at this time is vividly captured in the cover image for the 1980 single, “City Hobgoblins”, in which we see an urban scene invaded by “emigres from old green glades”; a leering, malevolent cobold looms over a dilapidated tenement. But rather than being smoothly integrated into the photographed scene, the crudely rendered hobgoblin has been etched onto the background. This is a war of worlds, an ontological struggle, a struggle over the means of representation. From the point of view of the official bourgeois culture and its categories, a group like The Fall — working class and experimental, popular and modernist — could not and should not exist, and The Fall are remarkable for the way in which they draw out a cultural politics of the weird and the grotesque. The Fall produced what could be called a popular modernist weird, wherein the weird shapes the form as well as the content of the work. The weird tale enters into becoming with the weirdness of modernism — its unfamiliarity, its combination of elements previously held to be incommensurable, its compression, its challenges to standard models of legibility — and with all the difficulties and compulsions of post-punk sound.

Much of this comes together, albeit in an oblique and enigmatic way, on The Fall’s 1980 album Grotesque (After the Gramme). Otherwise incomprehensible references to “huckleberry masks”, “a man with butterflies on his face”, “ostrich headdress” and “light blue plant-heads” begin to make sense when you recognise that, in Parrinder’s description quoted above, the grotesque originally referred to “human and animal shapes intermingled with foliage, flowers, and fruits in fantastic designs which bore no relationship to the logical categories of classical art”.

The songs on Grotesque are tales, but tales half-told. The words are fragmentary, as if they have come to us via an unreliable transmission that keeps cutting out. Viewpoints are garbled; ontological distinctions between author, text and character are confused and fractured. It is impossible to definitively sort out the narrator’s words from direct speech. The tracks are palimpsests, badly recorded in a deliberate refusal of the “coffee table” aesthetic that the group’s leader Mark E. Smith derides on the cryptic sleeve notes. The process of recording is not airbrushed out but foregrounded, surface hiss and illegible cassette noise brandished like improvised stitching on some Hammer Frankenstein monster. The track “Impression of J Temperance” was typical, a story in the Lovecraft style in which a dog breeder’s “hideous replica”, (“brown sockets… purple eyes … fed with rubbish from disposal barges…”) stalks Manchester. This is a weird tale, but one subjected to modernist techniques of compression and collage. The result is so elliptical that it is as if the text — part-obliterated by silt, mildew and algae — has been fished out of the Manchester ship canal which Steve Hanley’s bass sounds like it is dredging.

There is certainly laughter here, a renegade form of parody and mockery that one hesitates to label satire, especially given the pallid and toothless form that satire has assumed in British culture in recent times. With The Fall, however, it is as if satire is returned to its origins in the grotesque. The Fall’s laughter does not issue from the commonsensical mainstream but from a psychotic outside. This is satire in the oneiric mode of Gillray, in which invective and lampoonery becomes delirial, a (psycho)tropological spewing of associations and animosities, the true object of which is not any failing of probity but the delusion that human dignity is possible. It is not surprising to find Smith alluding to Jarry’s Ubu Roi in a barely audible line in “City Hobgoblins”: “Ubu le Roi is a home hobgoblin.” For Jarry, as for Smith, the incoherence and incompleteness of the obscene and the absurd were to be opposed to the false symmetries of good sense. We could go so far as to say that it is the human condition to be grotesque, since the human animal is the one that does not fit in, the freak of nature who has no place in the natural order and is capable of re-combining nature’s products into hideous new forms.

The sound on Grotesque is a seemingly impossible combination of the shambolic and the disciplined, the cerebral-literary and the idiotic-physical. The album is structured around the opposition between the quotidian and the weird-grotesque. It seems as if the whole record has been constructed as a response to a hypothetical conjecture. What if rock and roll had emerged from the industrial heartlands of England rather than the Mississippi Delta? The rockabilly on “Container Drivers” or “Fiery Jack” is slowed by meat pies and gravy, its dreams of escape fatally poisoned by pints of bitter and cups of greasy-spoon tea. It is rock and roll as working men’s club cabaret, performed by a failed Gene Vincent imitator in Prestwich. The what if? speculations fail. Rock and roll needed the endless open highways; it could never have begun in England’s snarled-up ring roads and claustrophobic conurbations.

It is on the track “The N.W.R.A.” (“The North Will Rise Again”) that the conflict between the claustrophobic mundaneness of England and the grotesque-weird is most explicitly played out. All of the album’s themes coalesce in this track, a tale of cultural political intrigue that plays like some improbable mulching of T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Lovecraft and le Carré. It is the story of Roman Totale, a psychic and former cabaret performer whose body is covered in tentacles. It is often said that Roman Totale is one of Smith’s “alter-egos”; in fact, Smith is in the same relationship to Totale as Lovecraft was to someone like Randolph Carter. Totale is a character rather than a persona. Needless to say, he in no way resembles a “well-rounded” character so much as a carrier of mythos, an inter-textual linkage between Pulp fragments:

So R. Totale dwells underground / Away from sickly grind / With ostrich head-dress / Face a mess, covered in feathers / Orange-red with blue-black lines / That draped down to his chest / Body a tentacle mess / And light blue plant-heads.

The form of “The N.W.R.A.” is as alien to organic wholeness as is Totale’s abominable tentacular body. It is a grotesque concoction, a collage of pieces that do not belong together. The model is the novella rather than the tale and the story is told episodically, from multiple points of view, using a heteroglossic riot of styles and tones: comic, journalistic, satirical, novelistic, it is like Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” re-written by the Joyce of Ulysses and compressed into fifteen minutes. From what we can glean, Totale is at the centre of a plot — infiltrated and betrayed from the start — which aims at restoring the North to glory, perhaps to its Victorian moment of economic and industrial supremacy; perhaps to some more ancient pre-eminence, perhaps to a greatness that will eclipse anything that has come before. More than a matter of regional railing against the capital, in Smith’s vision the North comes to stand for everything suppressed by urbane good taste: the esoteric, the anomalous, the vulgar sublime, that is to say, the weird and the grotesque itself. Totale, festooned in the incongruous Grotesque costume of “ostrich head-dress”, “feathers/orange-red with blue-black lines” and “light blue plant-heads”, is the would-be Faery King of this weird revolt who ends up its maimed Fisher King, abandoned like a pulp modernist Miss Havisham amongst the relics of a carnival that will never happen, a drooling totem of a defeated tilt at social realism, the visionary leader reduced, as the psychotropics fade and the fervour cools, to being a washed-up cabaret artiste once again.

The Fall, Hex Enduction Hour, 1982

Smith returns to the weird tale form on The Fall’s 1982 album, Hex Enduction Hour, another record which is saturated with references to the weird. In the track “Jawbone and the Air Rifle”, a poacher accidentally causes damage to a tomb, unearthing a jawbone which “carries the germ of a curse / Of the Broken Brothers Pentacle Church”. The song is a tissue of allusions to texts such as M.R. James’ tales “A Warning to the Curious” and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, to Hammer Horror, and to The Wicker Man — culminating in a psychedelic/psychotic breakdown, complete with a torch-wielding mob of villagers:

 

 

He sees jawbones on the street / advertisements become carnivores / and roadworkers turn into jawbones / and he has visions of islands, heavily covered in slime. / The villagers dance round pre-fabs / and laugh through twisted mouths.

“Jawbone and the Air Rifle” resembles nothing so much as a routine by the British comedy group the League of Gentlemen. The League of Gentlemen’s febrile carnival — with its multiple references to weird tales, and its frequent conjunctions of the laughable with that which is not laughable — is a much more worthy successor to The Fall than most of the musical groups who have attempted to reckon with their influence.

The track “Iceland”, meanwhile, recorded in a lava-lined studio in Reykjavik, is an encounter with the fading myths of North European culture in the frozen territory from which they originated. Here, the grotesque laughter is gone. The song, hypnotic and undulating, meditative and mournful, recalls the bone-white steppes of Nico’s The Marble Index in its arctic atmospherics. A keening wind (on a cassette recording made by Smith) whips through the track as Smith invites us to “cast the runes against your own soul”, another M.R. James reference, this time to his story, “Casting the Runes”. “Iceland” is a Twilight of the Idols for the retreating hobgoblins, cobolds and trolls of Europe’s receding weird culture, a lament for the monstrosities and myths whose dying breaths it captures on tape:

Witness the last of the god men

A Memorex for the Krakens

RIP K-PUNK (PART 2)

In November we will be publishing a collection of Mark’s work – K-punk: The Collected Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds.

This is the second of two blogs, each containing two essays included in the forthcoming collection.

We will all remember Mark Fisher.

———-

 

This Movie Doesn’t Move Me

(13th March 2005)

As I nervously anticipate the new Doctor Who (although after McCoy, after McGann, what more can there be to fear?), it is worth thinking again about the appeal of the series, and also, more generally, about the unique importance of what I will call “uncanny fiction”.

A piece by Rachel Cooke in the Observer two weeks ago brought these questions into sharp relief. Cooke’s article was more than an account of a television series; it was a story about the way broadcasting, family, and the uncanny were webbed together through Doctor Who. Cooke writes powerfully about how her family’s watching of the programme was literally ritualized: she had to be on the sofa, hair washed, before the continuity announcer even said the words, “And now…” She understands that, at its best, Dr Who’s appeal consisted in the charge of the uncanny  – the strangely familiar, the familiar estranged: cybermen on the steps of St Paul’s, yeti at Goodge Street (a place whose name will forever be associated with the Troughton adventure, “The Web of Fear”, for Scanshifts, who saw it whilst living in New Zealand).

Inevitably, however, she ends the piece on a melancholy note. Cooke has been to a screening of the first episode of the new series. She enjoys its expensive production values, its “sinister moments”’, its use of the Millennium Wheel. “But it is not -– how shall I put this? –  Doctor Who’”’ Faced with an “overwhelming sense of loss’”, she turns to a DVD of the Baker story Robots of Death for a taste of the “real’” stuff, the authentic experience that the new series cannot provide. But this proves, if anything, to be even more of a disappointment. “How slow the whole thing seems, and how silly the robots look in their Camilla Parker-Bowles-style green quilted jackets… Good grief.’”

Let’s leave aside, for a moment, all the post-post-structuralist questions about the ontological status of the text “itself”, and consider the glum anecdote with which the article concludes:

Before Christmas, when it became clear that my father’’s cancer was in its final stages, my brother went out and bought a DVD for us all to watch together. Dad was too ill, and box went unopened. At the time, I cried about this; yet another injustice. Now I know better. Some things in life can’’t ever be retrieved -– an enjoyment of green robots in sequins and pedal pushers being one of them.’

This narrative of disillusionment belongs to a genre that has become familiar: the postmodern parable. To look at the old Doctor Who is not only to fail to recover a lost moment; it is to discover, with a deflating quotidian horror, that this moment never existed in the first place. An experience of awe and wonder dissolves into a pile of dressing up clothes and cheap special effects. The postmodernist is then left with two options: disavowal of the enthusiasm, i.e. what is called “growing up”, or else keeping faith with it, i.e. what is called “not growing up”. Two fates, therefore, await the no longer media-mesmerised child: depressive realism or geek fanaticism.

The intensity (with) which Cooke invested in Doctor Who is typical of so many of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies. I, slightly younger than her, remember a time when those twenty-five minutes were indeed the most sacralised of the week. Scanshifts, slightly older than me, remembers a period when he didn’’t have a functioning television at home, so he would watch the new episode furtively at a department store in Christchurch, silently at first, until, delighted, he found the means of increasing the volume.

The most obvious explanation for such fervour – childhood enthusiasm and naïveté – can also be supplemented by thinking of the specific technological and cultural conditions that obtained then. Freud’s analysis of the unheimlich, the “unhomely”, is very well known, but it is worth linking his account of the uncanniness of the domestic to television. Television was itself both familiar and alien, and a series which was about the alien in the familiar was bound to have particularly easy route to the child’s unconscious. In a time of cultural rationing, of modernist broadcasting, a time, that is, in which there were no endless reruns, no VCR’s, the programmes had a precious evanescence. They were translated into memory and dream at the very moment they were being seen for the first time. This is quite different from the instant -– and increasingly pre-emptive – monumentalization of postmodern media productions through ‘makings of’ documentaries and interviews. So many of these productions enjoy the odd fate of being stillborn into perfect archivization, forgotten by the culture while immaculately memorialised by the technology.

But were the conditions for Dr Who’s colonizing presence in the unconscious of a generation merely scarcity and the “innocence”’ of a “less sophisticated’” time? Does its magic, as Cooke implies, crumble like a vampire seducer in bright sunlight when exposed to the unbeguiled, unforgiving eyes of the adult?

According to Freud’’s famous arguments in ‘Totem and Taboo’ and ‘The Uncanny’, we moderns recapitulate in our individual psychological development the “progress”’ from narcissistic animism to the reality principle undergone by the species as a whole. Children, like “savages”, remain at the level of narcissistic auto-eroticism, subject to the animistic delusion that their thoughts are “omnipotent’”; that what they think can directly affect the world.

But is it the case that children ever “really believed” in Doctor Who? Žižek has pointed out that when people from “primitive” societies are asked about their myths, their response is actually indirect. They say “some people believe.’..” Belief is always the belief of the other. In any case, what adults and moderns have lost is not the capacity to uncritically believe, but the art of using the series as triggers for producing inhabitable fictional playzones.

The model for such practices is the Perky Pat layouts in Philip K Dick’’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Homesick offworld colonists are able to project themselves into Ken and Barbie-like dolls who inhabit a mock-up of the earthly environment. But in order to occupy this set they need a drug. In effect, all the drug does is restore in the adult what comes easily to a child: the ability not to believe, but to act in spite of the lack of belief.

In a sense, though, to say this is already going too far. It implies that adults really have given up a narcissistic fantasy and adjusted to the harsh banality of the disenchanted-empirical. In fact, all they have done is substituted one fantasy for another. The point is that to be an adult in consumer capitalism IS to occupy the Perky Pat world of drably bright soap opera domesticity. What is eliminated in the mediocre melodrama we are invited to call adult reality is not fantasy, but the uncanny – the sense that all is not as it seems, that the kitchen-sink everyday is a front for the machinations of parasites and alien forces which either possess, control or have designs upon us. In other words, the suppressed wisdom of uncanny fiction is that it is THIS world, the world of liberal-capitalist commonsense, that is a stage set with wobbly walls. As Scanshifts and I hope to demonstrate in our upcoming audiomentary london under london on Resonance FM, the Real of the London Underground is better described by pulp and modernism (which in any case have a suitably uncanny complicity) than by postmodern drearealism. Everyone knows that, once the wafer-thin veneer of “persons” is stripped away, the population on the Tube are zombies under the control of sinister extra-terrestrial corporations.

The rise of Fantasy as a genre over the last twenty-five years can be directly correlative with the collapse of any effective alternative reality structure outside capitalism in the same period. Watching something like Star Wars, you immediately think two things. Its fictional world is BOTH impossibly remote, too far-distant to care about, AND too much like this world, too similar to our own to be fascinated by. If the uncanny is about an irreducible anomalousness in anything that comes to count as the familiar, then Fantasy is about the production of a seamless world in which all the gaps have been monofilled. It is no accident that the rise of Fantasy has gone alongside the development of digital FX. The curious hollowness and depthlessness of CGI arises not from any failure of fidelity, but, quite the opposite, from its photoshopping out of the Discrepant as such.

The Fantasy structure of Family, Nation and Heroism thus functions, not in any sense as a representation, false or otherwise, but as a model to live up to. The inevitable failure of our own lives to match up to the digital Ideal is one of the motors of capitalism’s worker-consumer passivity, the docile pursuit of what will always be elusive, a world free of fissures and discontinuities. And you only have to read one of Mark Steyn’s preppy phallic fables (which need to be ranked alongside the mummy’s boystories of someone like Robert E Howard) to see how Fantasy’s pathetically imbecilic manichean oppositions between Good and Evil, Us and (a foreign, contagious) Them are effective on the largest possible geopolitical stage.

———-

Why K?

(16th April 2005)

Well, I’m still enough of a neophyte to be thrilled by a mention in Village Voice. I suppose it is ironic that Geeta describes k-punk as “cultural studies”, given my notorious antipathy to cult studs. On the other hand, though, k-punk is cultural studies as I’d always thought it should be practised (much of my hostility to cult studs stems from a disappointment when faced with the depressing, guilt-mongering reality of cultural studies in the academy).

Anyway, here is the full text that I sent to Geeta:

1. Why I started the blog? Because it seemed like a space – the only space – in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with what I think are appalling cultural and political consequences . My interest in theory was almost entirely inspired by writers like Ian Penman and Simon, so there has always been an intense connection between theory and pop/ film for me. No sob stories, but for someone from my background it’s difficult to see where else that interest would have come from.

2. Because of that, my relation to the academy has always been uh difficult. The way in which I understood theory – primarily through popular culture – is generally detested in universities. Most dealings with the academy have been literally – clinically – depressing.

3. The Ccru as an entity was developed in hostile conditions as a kind of conduit for continuing trade between popular culture and theory. The whole pulp theory/ theory-fiction thing was/ is a way of doing theory through, not “on”, pop cultural forms. Nick Land was the key figure here, in that it was he who was able to hold, for a while, a position “within” a university philosophy department whilst dedicatedly opening up connections to the outside. Kodwo Eshun is key as someone making connections the other way – from popular culture INTO abstruse theory. But what we all concurred upon was that something like jungle was already intensely theoretical; it didn’t require academics to judge it or pontificate upon it – the role of a theorist was as an intensifier.

4. The term k-punk came out of Ccru. “K” was used as a libidinally preferable substitution for the California/ Wired captured “cyber” (the word cybernetics having its origins in the Greek, Kuber). Ccru understood cyberpunk not as a (once trendy) literary genre, but as a distributive cultural tendency facilitated by new technologies. In the same way, “punk” doesn’t designate a particular musical genre, but a confluence outside legitimate(d) space: fanzines were more significant than the music in that they allowed and produced a whole other mode of contagious activity which destroyed the need for centralized control.

5. The development of cheap and readily available sound production software, the web, blogs means there is an unprecedented punk infrasctructure available. All that is lacking is the will, the belief that what can happen in something that does not have authorisation/ legitimation can be as important – more important – than what comes through official channels.

6. In terms of will, there has been an enormous retrenchment since 1970’s punk. The availability of the means of production has seemed to go alongside a compensatory reassertion of Spectacular power.

7. To return to the academy: universities have either totally excluded or at least marginalized not only anyone connected with Ccru but also many who were at Warwick. Steve “Hyperdub” Goodman and Luciana Parisi are both Ccru agents who have managed, against the odds, to secure a position within universities. But most of us have been forced into positions outside the university. Perhaps as a result of not being incorporated (“bought off”), many in the Warwick rhizome have maintained an intense connection and robust independence. Much of the current theoretical drift on k-punk has been developed via a collaboration with Nina Power, Alberto Toscano and Ray Brassier (co-organizer of the NoiseTheoryNoise conference at Middlesex University last year). The growing popularity of philosophers like Žižek and Badiou means there is now an unexpected if rogue and fugitive line of support within the academy.

8. I teach Philosophy, Religious Studies and Critical Thinking at Orpington College. It is a Further Education college, which means that its primary intake is 16-19 year olds. This is difficult and challenging work, but the students are in the main excellent, and far more willing to enter into discussion than undergraduates. So I don’t at all regard this position as secondary or lesser than a “proper” academic post.

 

RIP K-PUNK (PART 1)

11 July 1968 – 13 January 2017

RIP K-PUNK

 

In November we will be publishing a collection of Mark’s work – K-punk: The Collected Writings of Mark Fisher, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds.

This is the first of two blogs, each containing two essays included in the forthcoming collection.

We will all remember Mark Fisher.

———-

Abandon Hope (Summer is Coming)

(11th May 2015)

So it was to be a re-run of 1992, after all. It seems that even elections are subject to retromania, now. Except, this time, it is 1992 without jungle. It’s Ed Sheeran and Rudimental rather than Rufige Kru. Always ignore the polls, wrote Jeremy Gilbert late on election night. “You get a better sense of what’s going on in the electorate by sniffing the wind, sensing the affective shifts, the molecular currents, the alterations in the structures of feeling. Listen to the music, watch the TV, go to the the pubs and ride the tube. Cultural Studies trumps psephology every time.’”

Contemporary English popular culture, with its superannuated PoMo laddishness, its smirking blokishness (anyone fancy a pint with Nigel?), its poverty porn, its craven cult of big business, has become like some gigantic Poundbury Village simulation, in which nothing new happens, forever… while ubiquitous “Keep Calm” messages, ostensibly quirky-ironic, actually function as They Live commands, containing the panic and the desperation…

England is a country in which every last space where conviviality might flourish has been colonised by a commercial imperative…. supermarket check-out operatives replaced by crap robots… unexpected item in bagging area… every surface plastered with corporate graffiti and haranguing hashtags… no trick missed to screw every last penny out of people… exorbitant parking charges in NHS hospitals (exact amount only, no change given), all the profits going to private providers…

Everything seen through a downer haze… “Mostly you self-medicate”… comfort eating and bitter drinking… What’s your poison?

The suburbs are hallucinating, England is hallucinating. Monster Ripper and Smirnoff, Brandy Boost, oversized glasses of chardonnay at Wetherspoons monday club, valium scored for a few quid in the pub , the stink of weed drifting from portakabins, red eyes and yellow bibs. The pharmaceuticals industry is one of UK Plc’s biggest success stories (along with arms dealing and loans companies) as prescriptions for anti depressants are kept on repeat.(Laura Oldfield Ford)

Time for one more, Nigel?

Time, gentlemen, please…

There is no time… Time is on your side (yes it is)…

In any case, Shaun Lawson is to be congratulated – if that is the word – for what turned out to be an astonishingly accurate prediction of how the election would go. My attempts to refute the parallels with 92 in my last post were as much wishful thinking as anything else. I suppose at some level I knew after the BBC Leaders Debate how things would go – which is why I found watching it so dejecting. (Another rhyme with the past: Ed’s stumble at the end of his interrogation by the petit-bourgeoisie was a minor echo of Kinnock’s tumbling into the sea in 1983.)

Don’t fear…

It seems that the very thing which gave us hope – the possibility of vacillating Labour being pulled to the left by an alliance with the SNP – might have been what motivated Tory voters to come out in such numbers in England. (Another echo of 92: fear as a hyperstitional force.) The truth is what many of us have long suspected: Labour lost this election five years ago, by failing to challenge the Tories’ narrative. Yet this failure wasn’t about the wrong leader, PR strategy or even policies; it is ultimately rooted in Labour’s disconnection from any wider movement, and this is in turn rooted in the wider emergence of capitalist realism. Blairism may have won Labour three elections, but the unfolding of its logic could well lead to the destruction, in the not so far distant future, of the party. As Paul Mason acidly summarises, “Labour no longer knows what it is for, nor how to win power.” With Blairism, Labour knew how to win power, but in acquiring this knowledge, it forgot what it was for.

That existential quandary is bitterly ironic given that there is a large proportion of the population in England – I still believe it is the majority – which feels it has no party which represents it. I maintain that the shift to UKIP is ultimately much more to do with this sense of disenfranchisement and despair than with any intrinsic tendency towards racism or even nationalism in its supporters. Everyone has chauvinistic potentials of one kind or another which can be activated by particular sets of forces. Ultra-nationalism is a symptom of the failure of class politics; or, class politics emerges through the ultra-nationalist lens in a distorted and displaced way.

As Paul Mason also points out, a return to Blairism will certainly not win back those Labour supporters who turned to UKIP. In England, as in Scotland, it was Blairism’s taking for granted and abandonment of its working-class base that produced the sense of betrayal which led to so many former Labour supporters losing patience with the party on Thursday. In Scotland, the response to betrayal took a progressive form; in England, it assumed a reactionary mode. Partly, this is because there was no progressive outlet available in England. Working-class English voters alienated from Labour’s Oxbridge elite were left with a choice between a UKIP that deliberately talked up its appeal to working families, and an array of small left-wing parties to whose message they were not exposed and which had no chance of being elected. UKIP were also practically forced on them to by a political media so decadent, so boring, that it counts Nigel Farage as a charismatic flash of colour. Hence what Tim Burrows calls “the curiously mediated entity of Farage, a man whose direct manner, coloured tweed and pints of ale seem made for meme-politics. UKIP are more popular on Facebook than Labour and the Liberal Democrats put together.”

Don’t despair…

It would be easy to fall into despair about England after Thursday; it would be easy to conclude that the country is full of selfish, mean-spirited and stupid individuals. Yet we have to remember that most people’s engagement with politics is quite minimal; thinking in political terms, framing everyday life in terms of political categories, is now a minority pursuit. This is not a moral or intellectual failing on the part of the electorate: it is a consequence of a neoliberalism which has largely succeeded in its aim of disabling the mechanisms of mass democracy. Overworked and told they need to work harder, busy, but sill feeling that they can’t get everything done, many are too drained to care. (Too knackered to think, just give me time to come round… ) How many Tory voters are committed Conservatives, really? Mostly, they are jaded and detached, maybe voting out of fear as much as self-interest (and self-interest is often experienced as fear).

Capitalist realism is not about people positively identifying with neoliberalism; it is about the naturalisation and therefore the depoliticisation of the neoliberal worldview. The Tories’ pitch is in tune with this ambient neoliberalisation, with its apparently commonsensical emphasis on choice, opportunity and the dignity of labour, and its emotional appeal to negative solidarity. To break out of this, you need a repoliticisation, and this requires a popular mobilisation, just as we saw with the SNP.

The Tory success depended upon a popular de-activation (the days of Thatcher’s rallies are long gone). There was no enthusiasm for either of the two leading parties. The only party that could call on massive popular enthusiasm in the UK was the SNP. That popular enthusiasm – an enthusiasm that capitalist realism is set up to prevent emerging – is the rushing in of something that, for a long time, there hasn’t seemed to be any glimmer of in England: the future.

Don’t be depressed …

What hope for a country where people will camp out for three days to glimpse the Royal Couple? England is like some stricken beast too stupid to know it is dead. Ingloriously foundering in its own waste products, the backlash and bad karma of empire. (William Burroughs)

So we shouldn’t take the Tories’ victory as a sign that we are totally out of sync with the majority of the population in England. As Jeremy remarked to me on Thursday, it is not as if the equivalent of Syriza or Podemos had lost. (Although that was part of what was so devastating – our expectations were low, but reality contrived to go even lower.) Given the serious weakness of Labour’s offer, given the ferocity of the attack on Labour from the right-wing media machine in the UK, given the failure of supposedly neutral popular media such as the BBC to offer the public an adequate account of the banking crisis and its aftermath, it is actually surprising that the Tories’ victory was not even more comprehensive. Those who voted Tory aren’t necessarily indifferent to the suffering of the poor, or to the plight of the vulnerable – most merely accept (why wouldn’t they) the capitalist realist story about there being “no money left” and the need for “difficult choices”. No doubt, their acceptance of this is somewhat self-serving; no doubt, it depends on keeping those who suffer out of sight or in their peripheral vision.

But it is also a fundamentally depressing and depressive outlook. There is a connection between capitalist realism and depressive realism. The idea that life is essentially drudgery (and that therefore no one should get a free ride) is a depressive conception of fairness (if I have to be miserable, so should everyone else), which has a particular traction in a burnt-out post-protestant culture like England’s… (England is the oldest capitalist country, don’t forget…)

All Cameron offered was more of this depression: a vision of a man chipping ice off his windscreen and going to a job he hates, forever. Yet Labour not only failed to offer a narrative about how the economy had gone wrong, it also failed to offer any positive vision of what society would look like if it had its way. I’m convinced that even the most minimal sense of this might have been enough to have inspired people to reject the Tories. Yet the fact that Labour couldn’t offer it was not some mistake (a few more focus groups and meetings with advertising people, and they’d have been there!). It was one more symptom of the way in which the party has been completely colonised by capitalist realism.

The Tories quickly abandoned the “Big Society” after the 2010 campaign, but the concept did actually point to what neoliberal culture has corroded: the space between “individuals and their families” and the state. In addition to its clunky and uncommunicative name – it was a kind of anti-meme – the problem with the “Big Society” was that, in the Tories’ hands, it was a transparent ruse to dismantle the welfare state. To resocialise a culture that has been individualised to the extent that England has demands massive resources – it requires time and energy, the very things that capital (especially the contemporary neoliberal, English version of capital) strips us of most thoroughly.

Real wealth is the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy. This is Red Plenty. We, and they, have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops, its teargas, all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block Red Plenty. The attack on capital has to be fundamentally based on the simple insight that, far from being about “wealth creation”, capital necessarily and always blocks our access to this common wealth. Everything for everyone. All of us first.

Labour has allowed election after election to be fought not on the Red terrain of resocialisation, but on the Blue territory of identitarian community, with its border guards (we’ll have as many as you!) and barbed wire fences (they will be as high as yours!). The genius of the progressive forces which have seized the SNP, meanwhile, was to have moved from the Blue of identitarian community – and the nationalism of colonised peoples is of course very different to the nationalism of the colonisers – to the Red of internationalist cosmopolitan conviviality.

Red belonging offers something different to traditional forms of belonging (faith, flag, family – so many corrupted forms of the commons, as Hardt and Negri have it). Jodi Dean has movingly described how the Communist Party in the US

gave some Americans the feeling that the world was of one piece, their work meaningful as the work of a class, their struggles significant as part of a global struggle to liberate collective work from those claiming it for their own private profit. For desperately poor and barely literate immigrants, communism is a source of knowledge and power – the knowledge of how the world works and the power to change it.

The sense of belonging here could not be reduced to the chauvinistic pleasures that come from being an insider in any group whatsoever; it was a special sense of involvement that promised to transfigure all aspects of everyday life in a way that, previously, only religion had promised to, so that even the dreariest task could be imbued with high significance.

Even those engaged in the boring, repetitive work of distributing leaflets or trying to recruit new members as the official line changed, or chafing against the smugness of higher ups, experience their life in the party as intensely meaningful.

As opposed to the essentially spatial imaginary of Blue belonging – which posits a bounded area, with those inside hostile and suspicious towards those who are excluded – Red belonging is temporal and dynamic. It is about belonging to a movement: a movement that abolishes the present state of things, a movement that offers unconditional care without community (it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, we will care for you any way).

But don’t hope either …

“There’s no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons”, Deleuze writes in “Postscript on Societies of Control”. He was no doubt thinking of Spinoza’s account of hope and fear in the Ethics. “There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope”, Spinoza claimed. He defines hope and fear as follows:

Hope is a joy not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.

 

Fear is a sorrow not constant, arising from the idea of something future or past about the issue of which we sometimes doubt.

Hope and fear are essentially interchangeable; they are passive affects, which arise from our incapacity to actually act. Like all superstitions, hope is something we call upon when we have nothing else. This is why Obama’s “politics of hope” ended up so deflating – not only because, inevitably, the Obama administration quickly became mired in capitalist realism, but also because the condition of hope is passivity. The Obama administration didn’t want to activate the population (except at election time).

We don’t need hope; what we need is confidence and the capacity to act. “Confidence”, Spinoza argues, “is a joy arising from the idea of a past or future object from which cause for doubting is removed”. Yet it is very difficult, even at the best of times, for subordinated groups to have confidence, because for them/ us there are few if any “future objects from which cause for doubting is removed”.

“Class disadvantage is a form of injury inflicted on the person at birth”, David Smail explains.

The confident slouch of the hands-in-pocket, old Etonian cabinet minister speaks not so much as a current possession of power (on some measures the union boss might possess as much) as of a confidence which was sucked in with his mother’s milk.

(Even if the milk he fed on was unlikely to have come from his mother.) The welfare state was supposed to be a structure which removed some of this doubt, while the imposition of precarity is a political project designed to remove the confidence that the working class had attained after years of struggle. (See Jennifer M Silva’s heartbreaking Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty – a book to which I shall certainly return in future posts – for an account of the devastating impact of precarity on the emotional lives of young working-class men and women in the US.)

Whereas hope and fear are superstitious (although they may have some hyperstitional effects), confidence is essentially hyperstitional: it immediately increases the capacity to act, the capacity to act increases confidence, and so on – a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous spiral.

So how are we to rebuild our confidence? While the conditions are difficult – and in England, they are about to get much more difficult – we can still act, and act imminently and immanently. How?

Socialisation beyond social media

The answer of course is that many groups are already doing what is necessary. But these processes will become more powerful when they are logistically coordinated (which is not to say “unified” – unity is a strategic weakness, not a strength) and bound together by stronger common narratives and fictions. Jason Read’s essay “The Order and Connection of Ideology Is the Same as the Order and Connection of Exploitation: Or, Towards a Bestiary of the Capitalist Imagination” explains why narrativisation is so important. In his account of two neo-Spinozist thinkers, Frédéric Lordon and Yves Citton, Read reminds us that “our desire, our loves and hates, are already shaped by narratives, by scripts inherited through television and books. We enter into a world already scripted, and, as Spinoza argues in his definition of the first kind of knowledge, our life is defined as much by signs and images as things experienced.”

This means

that the scenarios that we imagine, the stories and narratives that we consume, inform our understanding of reality, not in the sense that we confuse fiction with reality, but that the basic relations that underlie our fictions shape our understanding of reality. It is not that we confuse fiction with reality, believing everything that we see, but that the fundamental elements of every narrative, events, actions, and transformations, become the very way that we make sense of reality. Fiction exists in a permanent relation of metalepsis with reality, as figures and relations from one constantly inform the other.

This is why the intensification and proliferation of the capitalist technologies of reality management and libidinal engineering in the 1980s was not merely some happy coincidence for neoliberalism; neoliberalism’s success was inconceivable without these technologies. It is also the reason that direct action, while of course crucial, will never be sufficient: we also need to act indirectly, by generating new narratives, figures and conceptual frames.

By first of all imposing a particular set of narratives, figures and frames which it then naturalised, capitalist realism hobbled what Jason Read identifies as the “particular power of humanity (and the linchpin of our emancipation)”: “our faculty to reorder differently the images, the thoughts, the affects, the desires and the beliefs that are associated in our mind, the phrases that come out of our mouths, and the movements that emanate from our bodies.” Cultural Studies was also based on this account of the capacity for reordering (which it derived partly from Spinoza, via Althusser). The reordering of images thoughts, affects, desires, beliefs and languages plainly cannot be achieved by “politics” alone – it is a matter for culture, in the widest sense.

Seen from this point of view, the locking of popular culture into repetition that I describe in Ghosts Of My Life – and which Simon Reynolds also describes in Retromania – is therefore a very serious problem. Popular culture’s incapacity to produce innovation is a persistent ambient signal that nothing can ever change. Sometimes, it can seem fiendishly difficult to account for what has happened to popular culture, but the explanation for its sterility and stasis is ultimately quite simple. Innovation in popular culture has overwhelmingly come from the working class. Neoliberalism has been a systematic and sustained attack on working-class life – the results are now all around us.

Furthermore, the incursion of capitalist cyberspace into every area of life and the psyche has intensified the processes of de-socialisation. This is not to say that there are no progressive potentials in the web, but these have almost certainly been overrated, while the impact of cyberspace in de-socialising culture and subjectivity has been massively underestimated. Here I merely rehearse Bifo’s account of semiocapitalism and Jodi Dean’s critique of communicative capitalism, but it is important to operationalise this critique.

Blogs and social media have allowed us to talk to ourselves (but not to reach out beyond the left bubbles); they have also generated pathological behaviours and forms of subjectivity which not only generate misery and anger – they waste time and energy, our most crucial resources. Email and handhelds, meanwhile, have produced new forms of isolation and loneliness: the fact that we can receive communications from work anywhere and anytime means we are exposed to work’s order-words when we are alone, without the possibility of support from fellow workers.

In sum, the obsession with the web, its monopolisation of any idea of the new, has served capitalist realism rather than undermined it. Which does not mean, naturally, that we should abandon the web, only that we should find out how to develop a more instrumental relationship with it. Put simply, we should use it – as a means of dissemination, communication and distribution – but not live inside it. The problem is that this goes against the tendencies of handhelds. We all recognise the by now cliched image of a train carriage full of people pecking at their tiny screens, but have we really registered how miserable this really is, and how much it suits capital for these pockets of socialisation to be closed down?

Knowing someone in this life feels as desperate as me

Some folk in Plan C have been talking about consciousness raising, and for many reasons, I believe that it is a crucially important to revive and proliferate this practice (or range of practices) now. Consciousness raising is partly about the discovery and production of subjugated knowledges, but it is also about the immediate production of socialisation, of forms of subjectivity antithetical to the always/on-always lonely mode of contemporary capitalist individuality.

Consciousness raising opens up the possibility of living, not merely theorising about, a collective perspective. It can give us the resources to behave, think and act differently at work (if it makes any sense to talk about being “at” work any more), where capitalist realism has become second nature. The roots of any successful struggle will come from people sharing their feelings, especially their feelings of misery and desperation, and together attributing the sources of these feelings to impersonal structures, albeit impersonal structures mediated by particular figures to which we must attach populist loathing.

In the harsh conditions of cyberspatialised capitalism – conditions that, as Jennifer M Silva demonstrates, have produced a “hardening” of the self, especially in the young – consciousness raising can produce a new compassion, for others and for ourselves. Neurotic-Oedipalising capitalism responsibilises, harshly blaming us, while – in its therapeutic mode – telling us that we have the power as individuals to change anything and everything: if we’re unhappy, it’s up to us to fix it. Consciousness raising, meanwhile, is about positive depersonalisation: it’s not your fault, it’s capitalism. No individuals can change anything, not even themselves; but collective activation is already, immanently, overcoming individualised immiseration.

So I present below a number of strategies, practices and orientations, starting from the most immediate (something groups can do right now) and moving towards the more remotes. The list is of course not exhaustive; and I can’t claim credit for coming up with any of the strategies myself. The point is to share them, add to them, elaborate them.

The chief obstruction to all of these steps is what, in a trenchant and clear-eyed analysis, Ewa Jasiewicz calls “time poverty”:

Our time is under attack. Work will be intensified, worse paid, and more casualised – if we don’t have it, we’ll be working to have it; mandatory and supervised job searches and workfare will see people forced to spend their time locked into coerced, computerised distraction. A real, diverse, working class self-representative movement needs to include people facing and living these experiences, but how will that happen when we’re too tied up working?

 

Access to time and our own labour is key and will determine participation and the ability to organise. If we can’t have our own time to organise, we can’t organise, we can’t meet each other, we cannot find each other. Work and the benefits regime – which is work under different conditions and profit margins – are key sites of struggle. Solidarity will need to step up if we are to win workplace disputes and strikes, refusals of workfare and support for people getting sanctioned, so that people have more control over their time and labour.

 

All our commons are under attack. The condition of time poverty and its roots – intensification of labour, welfare repression, criminalisation and incarceration – have to be recognised as major obstacles to movement, diversity and power. These obstacles need to be tackled if we want to overcome the ideology of wage labour as a determinant of human value on a popular level.

The problem is that, in order to struggle against time poverty, the main resource we require is time – a nasty vicious circle that capital, with its malevolent genius, now has… This problem is absolutely immanent – writing this and the other posts I have completed this week has meant that I have fallen enormously behind on my work, which is storing up stress for the next week or so.

The first thing we must do in response to all this is to put into practice what I outlined above: try not to blame ourselves. #Itsnotyourfault We must try to do everything we can to politicise time poverty rather than accept blame as individuals for failing to complete our work on time. The reason we feel overwhelmed is that we are overwhelmed – it isn’t an individual failing of ours; it isn’t because we haven’t “managed our time” properly. However, we can use the scarce resources we already have more effectively if we work together to codify practices of collective re-habituation (setting new rules for our engagement with social media and capitalist cyberspace in general for example).

Anyway, here goes:

  1. Talk to fellow workers about how we feel This will re-introduce care and affectioninto spaces where we are supposed to be competitive and isolated. It will also start to break down the difference between (paid) work and social reproduction on which capitalism depends.
  2. Talk to opponents Most people who vote Tory and UKIP are not monsters, much as we might like to think they are. It’s important that we understand why they voted as they did. Also, they may not have been exposed to an alternative view. Remember that people are more likely to be persuaded if defensive character armour is not triggered.
  3. Create knowledge exchange labs This follows from what I argued a few days ago. Lack of knowledge about economics seems to me an especially pressing problem to address, but we could also do with more of us knowing about law, I suspect.
  4. Create social spaces Create times and spaces specifically dedicated to attending to one another: not (yet more) conferences, but sessions where people can share their feelings and ideas. I would suggest restricting use of handhelds in these spaces: not everything has to be live tweeted or archived! Those with access to educational or art spaces could open these up for this purpose.
  5. Use social media pro-actively, not reactively Use social media to publicise, to spread memes, and to constitute a counter-media. Social media can provide emotional support during miserable events like Thursday. But we should try to use social media as resource rather than living inside it at all times. Facebook can be useful for discussions and trying out new ideas, but attempting to debate on Twitter is absurd and makes us feel more stressed. (He says, thinking of the time when, sitting on a National Express coach, perched over his handheld, he tried to intervene in an intricate discussion about Spinoza’s philosophy – all conducted in 140 characters.)
  6. Generate new figures of loathing in our propaganda Again, this follows up from what I argued in the Communist Realismpost. Capitalist realism was established by constituting the figure of the lazy, feckless scrounger as a populist scapegoat. We must float a new figure of the parasite: landlords milking the state through housing benefit, ‘entrepreneurs’ exploring cheap labour, etc.
  7. Engage in forms of activism aimed at logistical disruption Capital has to be seriously inconvenienced and to fear before it yields any territory or resources. It can just wait out most protests,but it will take notice when its logistical operations are threatened. We must be prepared for them cutting up veryrough once we start doing this – using anti-terrorist legislation to justify practically any form of repression. They won’t play fair, but it’s not a game of cricket – they know it’s class war, and we should never forget it either.
  8. Develop Hub struggles Some struggles will be more strategically and symbolically significant than others – for instance, the Miners’ Strike was a hub struggle for capitalist realism. We might not be able to identify in advance what these struggles are, but we must be ready to swarm in and intensify them when they do occur.

Summer is coming

The Lannisters won on Thursday, but their gold has already run out, and summer is coming. What we saw in the debates dominated by Nicola Sturgeon was not a mirage – it is a rising tide, an international movement, a movement of history, which has not yet reached an England sandbagged in misery and mediocrity. Comrades, I hope (ha!) for the sake of your mental health and your blood pressures that you didn’t see the right-wing tabloids over the weekend (tw for class hatred): middle England crowing over its “humiliation” of ‘”ed” Ed. Well if they think Ed was Red, wait until they see the coming Red Swarm. Outer England has been sedated, but it is waking from its long slumber, carrying new weapons ….

———-

Choose Your Weapons

(12th August 2007)

People are often telling me that I ought to read Frank Kogan’’s work, but I’ve never got around it. (Partly that’’s because, Greil Marcus apart, I’ve never really tuned into much American pop criticism at all, which in my no doubt far too hasty judgement has seemed to be bogged down in a hyper-stylized faux-naif gonzoid mode that has never really appealed to me.) The -– again, perhaps unfair -– impression I have is that, in Britain, the battles that Kogan keeps on fighting were won, long ago, by working-class autodidact intellectuals. No doubt the two recent pieces by Kogan that Simon has linked to are grotesquely unrepresentative of his work as a whole (I certainly hope so, since it is difficult to see why so many intelligent people would take his work seriously if they weren’’t), but it’’s hard not to read them as symptomatic, not only of an impasse and a malaise within what I now hesitate to call “Popism”, but of a far more pervasive, deeply-entrenched cultural conservatism in which so-called Popism is intrinsically implicated.

Remember, in the immediate wake of 9/11, all those po-faced Adornoite proclamations that there would be “no more triviality” in American popular culture after the Twin Towers fell? There can be few who, even when the remains of the Twin Towers were smouldering, really believed that US pop culture would enter a new thoughtful, solemn and serious phase after September 11th -– and it’’s surely superfluous to remember, at this point, that what ensued was a newly vicious cynicism soft-focused by a piety that only a wounded Leviathan assuming the role of aggrieved victim can muster -– but would anyone, then, have believed that, only six years later, a supposedly serious critic would write a piece called “Paris [Hilton] is our Vietnam“…’ especially, when, in those years, there has, like, been another Vietnam. What we are dealing with in a phrase like “Paris is our Vietnam”’ is not trivia – this isn’’t the collective narcissism of a leisure class ignorant of geopolitics – but a self conscious trivialization, an act of passive nihilistic transvaluation. Debating the merits or otherwise of a boring heiress have been elevated to the status of a political struggle; and not even by preening aesthetes in some Wildean/ Warholian celebration of superficiality, but by middle-aged men in sweat pants, sitting on the spectator’’s armchair at the end of History and dissolutely flicking through the channels.

The end of history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

At least the “Paris is Vietnam”’ piece laid bare the resentment of resentment that I have previously argued is the real libidinal motor of “popism’” -– “we love Paris all the more because others hate her (but luckily we loved her any way, honest!)’” But this latest piece Simon has linked to is, if anything, even more oddly pointless and indicative. Unlike the pleasantly mediocre Paris Hilton LP, the ostensible object of the piece, Backstreet Boys’’ single “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”’ is actually rather good. Practically everyone I know liked it. The problem is the idea that saying this is in some way news in 2007. No word of a lie, I had to check the date on that post, assuming, at first, that it must have been written a decade ago.

The article makes me think that, if the motivating factor with British popists is, overwhelmingly, class, with Americans it might be age. Perhaps those a little deeper into middle age than I am were still subject to the proscriptions and prescriptions of a Leavisite high culture. But it seems to me that popists now are like Mick Jagger confronted with punk in 1976: they don’’t seem to realise that, if there is an establishment, it is them. Even if the “Nathan”’ with whom Kogan debates exists – and I’’ll be honest with you, I’’m finding it hard to believe that he does – his function is a fantasmatic one (in the same way that Lacan argued that, if a pathologically jealous husband is proved right about his wife’’s infidelities, his jealousy remains pathological): for popists to believe that their position is in any way challenging or novel, they have to keep digging up “Nathans”’ who contest it. But, in 2007, Nathan’’s hoary old belief that only groups who write their own songs can be valid has been refuted so many times that it is rather like someone mounting a defence of slavery today -– sure, there are such people who sold such a view, but the position is so irrelevant to the current conjuncture that it is quaintly antiquated rather than a political threat. There may be a small minority of pop fans who claim to hold Nathan’’s views; but, given the success of Sinatra, the Supremes, Elvis Presley and the very boybands that popists think it is so transgressive to re-evaluate, those views would in most cases be performatively contradicted by the fans’ actual tastes. (Kogan does grant that the problem is not so much fans’ tastes as their accounts of them – but the unspoken assumption is that it is alright, indeed mandatory, to contest male rock fans’ accounts of their own tastes, but that the aesthetic judgements of the figure with which the popist creepily identifies, the teenage girl, ought never to be gainsaid.) (The other irony is that, if you talk to an actual teenager today, they are far more likely to both like and have heard of Nirvana than they are the Backstreet Boys.)

The once-challenging claim that for certain listeners, the (likes of) Backstreet Boys could have been as potent as (the likes of) Nirvana has been passive-nihilistically reversed –- now, the message disseminated by the wider culture – if not necessarily by the popists themselves – is that nothing was ever better than the Backstreet Boys. The old high-culture disdain for pop cultural objects is retained; what is destroyed is the notion that there is anything more valuable than those objects. If pop is no more than a question of hedonic stim, then so are Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Reading Milton, or listening to Joy Division, have been re-branded as just another consumer choice, of no more significance than which brand of sweets you happen to like. Part of the reason that I find the term “Popism”’ unhelpful now is that implies some connection between what I would prefer to call Deflationary Hedonic Relativism and what Morley and Penman were doing in the early Eighties. But their project was the exact inverse of this: their claim was that, as much sophistication, intelligence and affect could be found in the pop song as anywhere else. Importantly, the music, and the popular culture of the time, made the argument for them. The evaluation was not some fits-all-eras a priori position, but an intervention at a particular time designed to have certain effects. Morley and Penman were still critics, who expected to influence production, not consumer guides marking commodities out of five stars, or executives spending their spare time ranking every song with the word “sugar”’ in it on live journal communities that are the cyberspace equivalent of public school dorms.

Whereas Morley and Penman (self-taught working-class intellectuals both) complicated the relationship between theory and popular culture with writing that –- in its formal properties, its style and its erudition, as well as in its content – contested commonsense, Deflationary Hedonic Relativism merely ratifies the empiricist dogmas that underpin consumerism. More than that. Owen Hatherley has astutely observed that, in addition to reiterating the standard Anglo-American bluff dismissal of metaphysics, the Deflationary Hedonistic Relativist disclaiming of theory (“‘we just like what we like, we don’’t have a theory’”) uncannily echoes the dreary mantras of the average NME indie band: “we just do what we do, anything else is a bonus’”, ‘the music is the only important thing”. In the UK, the rhetorical fight between “Popists’” and indie is as much a phoney war as the parliamentary political punch and judy show between Cameron’’s Tories and Brown’’s New Labour: a storm in a ruling class tea-cup. In both cases, the social reality is that of ex-public schoolkids carrying on their inter-House rivalries by other means. In the case of both indie and Popism, there is a strangely inverted relationship to populism and the popular. While the “Popists” claim to be populist but actually support music that is increasingly marginal in terms of sales figures, the indie types claim to celebrate an alternative while their preferred music of choice (Trad skiffle) has Full Spectrum Dominance (you can’’t listen to Radio 2 for fifteen minutes without hearing a Kaiser Chiefs song). In many ways, because it was attempting to analyse a genuinely popular phenomenon, Simon’’s defence of the Arctic Monkeys was more genuinely popist than all of the popist screeds on Paris Hilton’’s barely-bought LP -– but of course much of the impulse behind them was the ultra-rockist desire to be seen thumbing one’s nose at critical consensus. Witness the genuinely pathetic -– it certainly provokes pathos in me -– attempt to whip up controversy about the workmanlike plod of Kelly Clarkson, on a blog which, in its combination of hysterical overheating and dreary earnestness, is as boring as it is symptomatic –- though, I have to confess I have never managed to get to the end of a single post, a problem I have with a great many “‘popist’” writings, including the magnum opus of popism, Morley’’s Words and Music.

Much as he occasionally flails and rails against popist commonplaces (see, for instance, his recent –- I would argue unwarranted –- attack on Girls Aloud), Morley is as deeply integrated into Deflationary Hedonic Relativist commonsense as Penman is excluded from it. What was the strangely affectless Words and Music if not a description of the OedIpod from inside? All those friction-free freeways, those inconsequent consumer options standing in for existential choices… Yet Morley is still a theorist of the ends of History and of Music, still too obviously in love with intelligence to be fully plugged into the anti-theoretical OedIpod circuitry. Even so, Ian’’s silence speaks far louder than Morley’’s chatter, and, after my very few dealings with Old Media, I’’m increasingly seeing Ian’’s withdrawal, not as a tragic failure, but as a noble retreat.

All of UK culture tends to the condition of the clip show, in which talking heads -– including, of course, Morley – are paid to say what dimwit posh producers have decided that the audience already thinks over footage of what everyone has already seen. I recently had dealings with an apparatchik of Very Old Media. What you get from representatives of VOM is always the same litany of requirements: writing must be “light’”, “upbeat” and “‘irreverent’”. This last word is perhaps the key one, since it indicates that the sustaining fantasy to which the young agents of Very Old Media are subject is exactly the same as the one in which popists indulge: that they are refusing to show ‘reverence’ to some stuffy censorious big Other. But where, in the dreary-bright, dressed-down sarky snarky arcades of postmodern culture, is this “reverence’”? What is the postmodern big Other if it is not this “irreverence’” itself? (Only people who have not been in a university humanities dept for a quarter-of-century -– i.e. not at all your bogstandard Oxbdridge grad Meeja employee/leisure-time popist –- could really believe that there is some ruthlessly-policed high culture canon. When Harold Bloom wrote The Western Canon it was as a challenge to the relativism that is hegemonically dominant in English Studies.) I’’ve quickly learned that “light”, “‘upbeat’” and “irreverent”’ are all codes for “thoughtless” and “mundanist’”. Confronted with these values and their representatives -– who, as you would expect, are much posher than me – I often encounter a cognitive dissonance, or rather a dissonance between affect and cognition. Faced with the Thick Posh People who staff so much of the media, I feel inferiority –- their accents and even their names are enough to induce such feelings -– but think that they must be wrong. It is this kind of dissonance that can produce serious mental illness; or –- if the conditions are right -– rage.

Anti-intellectualism is a ruling-class reflex, whereby ruling-class stupidity is attributed to the masses (I think we’’ve discussed here before the ruse of the Thick Posh Person whereby make a show of pretending to be thick in order to conceal that they are, in fact, thick.) It’’s scarcely surprising that inherited privilege tends to produce stupidity, since, if you do not need intelligence, why would you take the trouble to acquire it? Media dumbing down is the most banal kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Simon Frith and Jon Savage long ago noted in their NLR essay, “The Intellectuals and the Mass Media’”, which Owen Hatherley recently brought to my attention again, the plain common-man pose of the typical public school and Oxbridge-educated media commentator trades on the assumption that these commentators are far more in touch with “reality”’ than anyone involved in Theory. The implicit opposition is between Media (as transparent window-on-the-world transmitter of good, solid commonsense) and Education (as out-of-touch disseminator of useless, elitist arcanery). Once, Media was a contested ground, in which the impulse to educate was in tension with the injunction to entertain. Now –- and the indispensable Lawrence Miles is incisive on this, as on so many other things, in his latest compendium of insights -– Old Media is almost totally given over to a vapid notion of Entertainment -– and so, increasingly, is education.

In my teenage years, I certainly benefited far more from reading Morley and Penman and their progeny than from the middlebrow dreariness of much of my formal education. It’’s because of them, and later Simon and Kodwo et al, that I became interested in Theory and bothered to pursue it in postgraduate study. It is essential to note that Morley and Penman were not just an “application”’ of High Theory to Low Culture; the hierarchical structure was scrambled, not just inverted, and the use of Theory in this context was as much a challenge to the middle-class assumptions of Continental Philosophy as it was to the anti-theoretical empiricism of mainstream British popular culture. But now that teaching is itself being pressed into becoming a service industry (delivering measurable outputs in the form of exam results) and teachers are required to be both child minders and entertainers, those working in the education system who still want to induce students into the complicated enjoyments that can be derived from going beyond the pleasure principle, from encountering something difficult, something that runs counter to one’’s received assumptions, find themselves in an embattled minority. Here we are now entertain us.

The credos of ruling class anti-intellectualism that most Old Media professionals are forced to internalise are far more effective than the Stasi ever was in generating a popular culture that is unprecedentedly monotonous. Put it this way: a situation in which Lawrence Miles languishes, at the limits of mental health, barely able to leave his house, while the likes of Rod Liddle swagger around the mediascape is not only aesthetically abhorrent, it is fundamentally unjust. Contrary to the “‘it’’s only hedonic stim” deflationary move that both Stekelmanites and Popists share, popular culture remains immensely important, even if it only serves an essential ideological function as the background noise of a capitalist realism which naturalises environmental depredation, mental health plague and sclerotic social conditions in which mobility between classes is lessening towards zero.

A class war is being waged, but only one side is fighting.

Choose your side. Choose your weapons.

Merry Christmas from Repeater Books

We are marking our third year and the holiday season with, quaintly enough, poetry. Here is a selection from our authors and editors.

Thank you for reading our books, coming to support us at our events, and generally allowing us to persist in the belief that we are doing something of some consequence.

Happy Christmas and we’ll see you next year.

—-

Siouxzi Connor

Siouxzi Connor is an Australian writer and experimental filmmaker, and the author of Little Houses, Big Forests (Desire Is No Light Thing), from which the following extract is taken.

The forest’s darkness
had become a trusted friend:
A worn-in coat resting its sun-warmed hands
on the shoulders,
then wrapping the entire body in an unhurried could-be-the-last embrace.

It had not always been this way.

The first plunges of darkness,
here in the forest,
were like drowning.

As each day made itself scarce,
and the moon made its eternal decisions
whether or not to show its face that night,
the darkness would raise up,
crest for a moment,
then come crashing down
and pull all beneath its rip.

All was consumed by the feeling
that nothing would ever emerge alive from this.

Nights silent with the expectation of a predator; nights thick,
caught in the back of the throat;
nights of chasing the sense of being chased through the undergrowth,
vines becoming entrails,
spilling bloody with this chase,
further tempting the darkness creatures.
Heaving breaths from dew-wet lungs.

But night after night,
as dawn quickly became impassioned by day
and blushed,
morning broke the darkness every time
and revealed aloneness.
The light brought warmth and searing beauty
but it also brought inevitability.
By day, the inevitable loneliness was clear.
By night, any number of stalking creatures
could be near,
watching and wanting.

Tariq Goddard

Tariq Goddard is the author of six novels, most recently Nature and Necessity, and is the Publisher at Repeater.

Thine Own Hands

We cannot meet as equals
when you know me already,
as another of your inventions
who made his world
after yours.

Both of us creators of a universe
yours vast, mine incomplete,
to abandon one and know the other
impossible
when I am still your unfinished work.

Rhian E Jones

Rhian E Jones is co-author of Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible and co-editor of Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them.

The Rat

It died, at length, a sugary death, beside the blocked-up sink,
sunken in self-indulgence and in sync
with our great love turned sloth and wrath. A fearful stink
rose from the bin. Stale smoke, spilled milk, and vomit streaked the walls.
The ashtrays overflowed. The mildest touch
of anything left stains that lasted weeks, but this –
unbidden interloper – seemed to us a bit too much.

Fattened on slops, on scraps, it fed like us
on opportunist crusts, on crumbs that lasted instants,
trust betrayed, all sustenance gone pinched and blackened,
sweetness left to rot and rust.

Life’s too much effort to keep clean. Too cowed to scram,
knowing my own dirt, squalor, filth,
I thought I’d learn to love the rat. I spent my nights supine,
tracing its imagined skittering in the shadows and
waiting to feel its claws along my spine.

There wasn’t much we hadn’t tried: it had
evaded all attempts at killing, maiming, capture.
Then one night, with us drink-dumb, it fell, without an intervention,
plunging greedily on, nose deep into disastrous rapture.

As morning bloomed, it lay discovered in the jar of sugar,
passed out, upended, gorged and smug. White crystals caked its snout.
Itchy, one hand around its tail, I watched its whiskers twitch. Perhaps it dreamt.
I picked it up and slung it out.

I split a few days later, coming down,
and on the garden path he’d led me up rested the rat.

Alien under daylight, there it lay: a splat
of curtained shadow edged with red, spread flat.
I nudged it with my shoe, checking its death
was death, not sleep or smoke-stunned torpor. Then,
I put my foot down and I left. No scratch
or scrabble rent the air to shreds behind me. That was that.

Phil Jourdan

Phil Jourdan is an editor at Repeater and Angry Robot, and the author of What Precision, Such Restraint and Praise of Motherhood.

You’re a monkish fellow, really.
You see the blaze no matter what,
And care about the lineage.
How nice in a world like this.
Love without beloved,
And, even worse, no lover —
No doubt it is the root of all this stuff,
These flowerings and sloughings off of life.
But take no credit, little man.
This work is not for glory or appeasement of some god.
The longing for return does not ennoble you,
Transcendence is no goal.
Dip into and bathe in whatever source you find,
But there’s nothing to be monkish about.

Alex Niven

Alex Niven is an editor at Repeater and teaches English at Newcastle University. He is the author of Folk Opposition and The Last Tape.

Millennium Pastoral

When the new century finally dawned we were
in Allendale for the Tar Barrels. Mortal men
in fancy dress or faded
Umbro sweaters moving through crowds
with platters of fire on their heads. Earlier, morning

wandering in Hexham, trying
to avoid getting chinned on the Sele, buying
peev and tabs and catching the bus up and out
to the edge of the Pennines, the long walk out of Allendale
to Bobo’s, then a longer period waiting in a small windowless

attic room for something to happen. I wore: one zipperless
grey Topman fleece with a round collar, white Etnies
trainers and a reddish beanie bought
a few days earlier from the surf shop at Tynemouth
emblazoned ‘BONG’. Also combats. We smoked

Regal and drank Red Stripe, fumbling
lecherously my Numark DJ-in-a-Box set, fingering
DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin vinyl,
anonymous drum’n’bass and an old BBC
soundtrack record found in Battle Hill Oxfam.

In this suffocating space removed from the world
the Regal and Red Stripe swirled in my head and a tack
joint tipped me over the edge. Vomit
in the gutter of the barn outside, by which point
the party had begun. A set of decks wedged

in the corner of a shed played
Goan trance, happy hardcore,
jump-up jungle, fluorescent motifs on banners
tied to the beams, stoned bewilderment,
no actual dancing. I tried to get

it together sitting on a stone plinth by a
feeding trough. 303 squalls and bass drum
wormholes plagued me, then I rallied and walked
into the village for the midnight procession, wedging
the block of tack into one of my Etnies, just in case.

Drew managed to get served in one of the four
pubs in the village square. The rest of us stood about
watching the barrel men, just trying to maintain
balance, as so often in this phase
of our lives. We’d all taken way too many magic

mushrooms that autumn and it fucked us
up — The Blair Witch Project and Campag Velocet
eliding with the hallucinatory disquiet
of those weeks. Bleak, harrowing nights I lay
awake convinced I was on the edge of a moorland

nowhere from which I would never escape
while Dracula waited at the window. We returned
to the rave and after an interval began to think
about sleep. Bobo’s parents wouldn’t let
us back into the house, so we found a spot

in another barn and bedded down there exposed
to the winter night, sleeping bags just about
saving us. It was a year of animal fear but
as I listened to the blend of wind and softly juddering
techno I felt a corner had been turned.

Christiana Spens

Christiana Spens is the author of Shooting Hipsters, and is an editor at The New Strategist.

Father

We watched him die for eighteen years
and still he would laugh back.
The doctors got it wrong again,
our grief was now bankrupt.
Feel that relief, they said, of debts removed
(or kidney). Of illness tempered for
a little while, by drugs and luck and cheating.

And yet there’d be another fall,
a new prognosis and another
knock – a debt collector or a doctor.
And I wondered if I’d forget our address again
as I did when I was ten,
on the phone to the paramedics
or whoever they were.

I wondered if I’d forget the necessary numbers—
a phone or a postcode
as if I don’t want them to find us, really.
Trained from an early age for avoidance,
for running away, for delaying death
and bankruptcy for a little more time
together.

I thought of what it buys, this expensive delay:
a game to play, and some evenings in. A little
whiskey, but not too much, “You know my liver
Isn’t what it was.”
In spite of it all—those forgotten numbers, dramatic
near-ends, falls and sickness, I couldn’t help but find
my father’s smile just charming.

For a moment, an evening, we had evaded them again,
we had lost the debt collectors and the doctors
and one drink is almost enough,
one evening is everything.

Eugene Thacker

Eugene Thacker is the author of several books, including In The Dust Of This Planet. He is Professor at The New School in New York City.

The following extract is taken from Infinite Resignation, which will be published by Repeater in July 2018.

The luminous point
at which logic becomes contemplation.
Lost in thought.
Adrift in deep space.
Dreamless sleep.

In winter mornings,
doubtful, viridescent shapes
hover noiselessly on the slightest sound.
Subterranean, precipitous creepers ignore our pleas.
Entire forests levitate.

World-weary chrysalids hurl themselves upon us at a depth no human eye can see,
and around us this night a thousand million firefly anatomies
breathe in and out in their slow-burning liturgical glow.

A nocturnal robe of obsidian draped over
our most precious, most anonymous thoughts.

The mortality of even the most opulent ideas, patiently withering
with all the indifference of our dissipating flesh and nerve and bone.

Lyricism and laughter, sorrow and spite, the bittersweet smile of futility,
all intermingled in the sullen suspicion of
all life (and above all human life) as a weary cosmic joke.
The same effect is gained by tripping on a flat sidewalk,
or missing the last step on the stairs.

We sing to the subterranean, precipitous creepers
and ask them which path to take.
Rosary of stars, seaweed skin,
the once-hushed sleep that begins to form our shadow.

It is we who suffer, it is we who suffer each other,
it is we who suffer the world into which we are thrown.
That the world is against us is incidental.

Mark Fisher Anthology Announcement

We will be publishing an anthology of Mark Fisher’s writing, edited by Darren Ambrose and with a foreword by Simon Reynolds, in the second half of 2018. More details soon.

RIP kpunk ❤️

Down With Childhood — a mix by Paul Rekret

Down With Childhood: Pop Music and the Crisis of Innocence is out today! Check out this excellent mix by author Paul Rekret showcasing the multitude of ways in which children’s voices are used in music.  And for more of this kind of thing, come along to Cafe Oto in London on 7th October for a launch party with talks, DJ sets and specially commissioned live performances. More details/tickets here.

For more info/links to buy the book, go here.

Carl Neville on Mark Fisher, exorbitant sufficiency and the radical inner child

This is an edited version of a talk given by Carl Neville (author of Resolution Wayat 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.

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”.

Only got better? David Stubbs on the Blair “revolution” of 1997

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. 

Yeats, Graves & the Bunnymen — Alex Niven


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

Read an excerpt from Seb Olma’s new book on the great digital swindle

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?
Joanna: 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.
Joanna: Yeah.
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…

 

“We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do”—Tristam Vivian Adams on Westworld

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.”
“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.

A lot of libido, but no women — Eli Davies reviews Supersonic, the new Oasis documentary

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 and erotic fascism — the meaning of Donald Trump

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.

Cruel optimism of the will in Bay Area punk production

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.

Regulating capitalism in Marvel’s Civil War

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”.

The camouflage of conspicuity — Tristam Vivian Adams on psychopathy and sociopathy

 

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.

 

In a stink about a pink St George Cross

Professional controversialist Toby Young has got himself all in a froth about a pink St George Cross at England’s international this week

Oh dear. Toby Young is all in a lather, a victim once more of the ‘PC brigade’.

Writing in the Daily Mail, he describes the scene he seems to have witnessed at Tuesday night’s England international versus the Netherlands. “It was fitting that Tuesday’s England match was awash with pink shirts, pink ribbons and pink flags. After all, football — along with rugby, cricket and every other traditionally male sport — has been forced to undergo what you might call, to borrow a fashionable phrase, gender re-assignment surgery in the past few years. An area of life that used to be associated with men has been colonised by women determined to prove a point about gender equality, regardless of whether they have any genuine interest in the sports in question.”

Oh dear, the thinking-bloke’s Jeremy Clarkson really has his boxer shorts in a twist hasn’t he? I have a confession to make to Toby. I’d spent most of Tuesday afternoon laying out thousands of cards across the England home end in the stadium. It’s a fan-led initiative called ‘Raise the Flag’, and when God Save the Queen strikes up they’re held up to form a huge St George Cross flag, mosaic-style. Except this time, when the anthem came to an end, the red cross was flipped to form a pink one, honouring the victims and survivors of this most deadly of diseases, breast cancer. I’m not sure where Toby was sitting in the stands but where I was there wasn’t one murmur of discontent but, rather, a ‘wow moment’ and widespread approval. Then the game kicked off; what Toby fails entirely to mention was what happened at the 14th minute, the entire crowd – English and Dutch – standing to honour the memory of Johan Cruyff. The cancer that killed Johan attacked his lungs, not his breasts – same disease, different body parts.

Toby sees political correctness almost everywhere, a phantom stalking this most illiberal of lands. Now, in his view, its got a grip on sport, or more particularly, Toby’s very particular version of a masculinity epitomised by football . When I lay out a St George Cross before each and every England game, be it red, pink or any other colour under the rainbow I don’t see a symbol of nationalism or politics, correct or otherwise. Rather I see a flag made up of thousands of individual fans holding up a huge vision of human solidarity. A fans’ flag, it belongs to all of us, not Toby, not me, all of us. I’m not sure if Toby was at Wembley last November, I certainly don’t remember him writing about the huge flag we held up that night. Not St George, but the French Tricolour, solidarity once more, this time with the victims of the terror attack on Paris , including the Stade de France, a few days earlier. Was that ‘political correctness gone mad’ Toby? Or was it simply a symbol of borders not meaning very much when as fans we are all united against the bloody terrorism of ISIS and their off-shoots?

Toby’s main point seems to be that he thinks breast cancer has nothing to do with football. A game increasingly played by women, in which the England women’s team beat Germany a year ago  – not in a meaningless friendly but in a World Cup. This seems to have gone unnoticed by Toby. Nor does he seem much bothered that many of us blokes will have mums, grannies, aunties, sisters, nieces, girlfriends, daughters, neighbours, friends and workmates who suffer from this most gendered of diseases (although, its worth noting that 330 men a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK too). It’s called caring about others, Toby. Isn’t that something we should all stand, cheer, have some pride in, whatever our team?

Football is never going to change the world. That’s not its place, an England team that can stick it out at the Euros to the quarters or beyond is about as much as most of us can hope for. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a space, on the pitch and in the stands, where ideas aren’t offered and contested. Toby would prefer a world of football unchanged from that golden 1966 summer 50 years ago, where men were men and women knew their place. I prefer instead a football that at least tries to keep up with, if not always change with, the times. An England for all, whatever our colour, gender or sexuality; faith or none; whatever the country we or our parents originally came from. This – the single biggest change in what an England team looks like, is supported by Tuesday night’s team on the pitch: once more – Sturridge, Alli, Rose, Smalling, Clyne and more. Gender diversity on the pitch is is perhaps a bit further off. But male fans standing up to show they care about breast cancer – that’s the kind of England crowd I want to be part of, even if Toby doesn’t, thank you very much.