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.
(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.
11 July 1968 – 13 January 2017
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.)
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.”
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.”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (Backstreets 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 ones 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.
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 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
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.
Thine Own Hands
We cannot meet as equals
when you know me already,
as another of your inventions
who made his world
Both of us creators of a universe
yours vast, mine incomplete,
to abandon one and know the other
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.
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 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 is an editor at Repeater and teaches English at Newcastle University. He is the author of Folk Opposition and The Last Tape.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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: 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.
This is an edited version of a talk given by Carl Neville (author of Resolution Way) at a day of lectures in tribute to Mark Fisher last Saturday, 8th July, at Spike in Berlin. You can see the full list of speakers and lectures here.
( I was asked to give a talk about some aspects of Mark Fisher’s work, so this is what I said.)
About a year or so ago I was briefly in contact with Mark about his book Acid Communism, which I’d heard rumours about, didn’t quite believe really existed and finally succumbed to the temptation to ask him about it. Anyway he sent me the introduction, which may have altered subsequently, and among the many striking observations there was one section and one phrase that particularly struck me, partly because I was thinking along similar lines and also because of what I was reading and listening to at the time.
I wanted to ask Mark lots of questions about this project and this particular phrase he’d used but it wasn’t the right moment to start burdening him with my insights so they went unasked, and so I am taking the opportunity to reconsider them now.
Mark uses a passage from Danny Baker’s autobiography to illustrate a moment that he then characterises as expressing a sense of “exorbitant sufficiency”:
I’ll think about that phrase in two dimensions, political and aesthetic, because as we are repeatedly told there is only aesthetics and political economy
First, here’s the passage from Baker’s autobiography.
“It was July 1966 and I was newly nine years old. We had holidayed on the Broads and the family had recently taken possession of the gorgeous wooden cruiser that was to be our floating home for the next fortnight. It was called The Constellation and, as my brother and I breathlessly explored the twin beds and curtained portholes in our cabin built into the boat’s bow, the prospect of what lay ahead saw the life force beaming from us like the rays of a cartoon sun. … I … made my way up to through the boat to take up position in the small area of the stern. On the way, I pick up sister Sharon’s teeny pink and white Sanyo transistor radio and switched it on. I looked up at the clear blue afternoon sky. Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ was playing and a sort of rapturous trance descended on me. From the limitless blue sky I looked down into the churning, crystal-peaked wake our boat was creating as we motored along, and at that moment, ‘River Deep’ gave way to my absolute favourite song of the period: ‘Bus Stop’ by the Hollies. As the mock flamenco guitar flourish that marks its beginning rose above the deep burble of the Constellation’s engine, I stared into the tumbling waters and said aloud, but to myself, ‘This is happening now. THIS is happening now.’ (pp 49-50)
The preconditions for this experience of exorbitant sufficiency get spelled out in the text—essentially the high point of a post-war social democracy and what Mark is keen to emphasise are the general preconditions of this particularly personal moment of rapture—in order to deflect the criticism that it only represents a nostalgic reflection on Baker’s part or a typical, halcyon moment from childhood. This is of a piece with many of Mark’s observation that the foundations for a particular continuum of working class art and music production, punk/post-punk/rave/drum and bass were based on the possibilities of a dropping out and/or going to art school, having a reasonably comfortable life on the dole, something which probably stops being possible around the mid-late 90s in the UK.
“there is something very specific about this moment, something that means it could have only happened then. We can enumerate some of the factors that made it unique: a sense of existential and social security that allowed working-class families to take holidays at all; the role that new technology such as transistor radios played in both connecting groups to an outside and enabling them to luxuriate in the moment, a moment that was somehow exorbitantly sufficient. (italics mine)”
One of the things that’s interesting in the book, or at least in its opening section, is that Mark has returned to the Sixties. In some ways the Sixties for an earlier iteration of K-Punk in its blogging heyday would have been anathema, the hippies and their tree-hugging, free-love organicist enthusiasms were everything that punk and cyberpunk stood against, and one of the main currents that has developed out of a particular strain of Mark’s thinking, a ccelerationism, is still quite openly anti-hippy in its orientation.
One of the ways in which hippie culture is/was anathema is in its focus on the child as symbol of nature and innocence and Mark was a famous early advocate of anti-natalist positions, championing No Future by Lee Edelman and so on.
So I suppose my first question here would be; while we have to be careful to make sure we are looking at the techno-economic paradigm that make these highly personal moments possible, can childhood and the experience in childhood of continuous levels of engagement and enlargement, the constant learning, the, if you like, repeated epiphanies, be a good model for acid communist or exorbitantly sufficient subjectivities? I am also thinking here little bit of a recent proposal for a National Education Service in the UK, a non-neoliberal equivalent to the market demand for life-long learning, because there is something psychedelic in the world-renewing properties of theorising and reconceptualising and that’s consonant in some ways with Mark’s interest in the notion of an outside; this space beyond current conceptions and boundaries that we constantly push into.
Can we locate a radical version of the inner child? Can we repurpose it, move it away from kind of wide-eyed avatar of some essential goodness and wonder, into a questing and adventurous, intellectually omnivorous, polymorphous subject, one that retains openness to an outside and that doesn’t ossify into a “realist” “adult” or highly individualised subjectivity?
There are several categories that Mark identifies as being essential to this sense of exorbitant sufficiency, light and space are two of them, but the most essential is perhaps time, free or unpressured time, and the sense of unpressured time comes of course from being a child, but also from a lack of anxiety about the future.
Exorbitant sufficiency has an ambiguous relationship toward the future as the space into which we project both anxiety and hope, but both those projections occur only if the present is intolerable, fallen, and will be redeemed in some way by the yet-to-come.
You might want to say that in exorbitantly sufficient moments the experience is one of time being in-joint as opposed to being out-of-joint. I’ll tentatively suggest that perhaps the time is always out-of-joint but that there are positive and negative modalities of that disjointedness. And I’d also suggest that there’s something slightly bittersweet in Baker’s passage, which is perhaps why Mark says that it could “only have happened then” as it takes place just as a shift of a certain kind is occurring, and that shift is symbolised here by the transistor radio that Baker takes up onto the bow of the boat.
One of Mark’s most influential formulations or projects was hauntology. Hauntology expressed a time out-of-jointedness in its negative mode—a certain future should have appeared, a better present should exist but has failed to come into being and the remnants of this better present are scattered around us, provoking us, reminding us of the lost possibilities.
This idea is given a certain kind of empirical base by economists like Carlota Perez, who is essentially a long wave theorist of capitalism and who argues that a shift toward a different type of post-Fordism, a production regime not based on oil, mass production and disposability should have occurred around the 1970’s but the “spatial fix”, essentially the opening up of China and the economic power of big oil to suppress alternate technologies, among other factors, have kept us trapped in an unnaturally elongated, slowly and unevenly differentiating Fordist moment.
Interestingly the subject that Perez imagines as the new consumer of this deferred future/present is very similar to the figure of the Hipster. She believes that elites lead the way culturally, so these would be moneyed connoisseur, interested in the specialised, high-quality, durable goods. interested in recycling and reclaiming and oriented toward vintage and low energy intensive forms of commodity accumulation, creativity, “up-cycling” if you like. So, to a degree, the 2000s, in which Mark formulated his hauntology, was haunted both by the remnants of the Utopian promise of an early order, modernism, intersecting with these kinds of harbingers of a Perezian future, temporally stranded and wandering around Dalston waiting for solar panels and vertical farming to arrive.
Time can also be out of joint in a “good way” however and I’d think here about Mark’s complaint that with regard to modern technology’s role in music, you can’t hear it anymore, using the example of Brian Eno’s synths and tapes and the way they irrupted into Roxy Music’s often quite standard, pastichey pop and rock tunes, inducing in the listener an exhilarating frisson of Future Shock. Here the time is out of joint because the future is forcing its way back into the present, opening a passage in space-time and allowing the ghost of the yet-to-come, more an angel than a ghost perhaps, to come floating in.
In the passage with the young Danny Baker on the boat we have a couple of key interrelations, firstly the surrounding countryside offering an image of the eternal, the pastoral and sublime, the boat and its engine, an older classical form, an established type of technology and the emergent, the future, as symbolised by the radio.
As it notes though, the radio is tiny and portable and the moment therefore captures something of an inflexion point in terms of the possibilities of Future Shock as an affect or an experience, and it’s a notion which disappears from the culture probably from the late 70s onward and is, to some extent an addiction that people of a certain generation have never been able to wean themselves off. Indeed you might want to argue that a lot of the accelerationist project both aesthetically and politically is redolent of Future Shock envy on the part of a younger generation.
For this Future Shock to occur I think the technology has to be visible in the same way as it has to be hearable in music, hence in a kind of vulgarised, or at least popularised, hauntology, and in steampunk we have a fetishisation of clunky, monolithic early versions of technology with huge, glowing cathode tubes, gramophones, vast banks of synths and so on. So as technology miniaturizes, blends in with its surroundings, becomes invisible, becomes more of a discrete frame, as architecture does too around this point, then this kind of juxtaposition, the eternal, the residual, the emergent begins to disappear. Even though cyberpunk, extropian and to some extent accelerationist fantasies focus on seamless integration, technical augmentation, the man-machine and so on, in a way a certain affect a certain dramatic temporal tension is lost with miniaturization, the future side of the relationship falls away, becomes invisible and the present feels lopsided, dislocated, out of joint.
So I suppose another question I would have there is, what’s the relationship of exorbitant sufficiency to time? Is it only possible at a given historical moment, a good out of jointedness? Is this why it can’t seem to come again?
The term exorbitant sufficiency expresses that one has enough yet that enough feels luxurious, far in excess of what’s required. So this is a paradox or an oxymoron, and this sense of completeness in the moment, this lack of orientation to the future puts me in mind of Todd McGowan’s recent work. McGowan’s a Lacanian, which makes reading him a rather forbidding prospect, at least it does for me , but essentially McGowan tries to build a politics, an anti-capitalist politics of the death drive.
To very crudely summarise his argument, we have suffered an originary loss and we try to replace this loss all through our lives by pursuing an object that will stand in for the loss, here, commodities, which promise us a sense of completeness but only lead us to experience disappointment, because what we actually want is the disappointment itself, the loss that allows us to desire again. The chase is better than the catch, as Motorhead succinctly put it.
McGowan believes ALL orientation toward the future is inherently bound up in capitalist desire, that the constant search for and repetition of failure maps onto the structure of capital accumulation, orientation toward the future as a salvationary space is caught up in the logic of the profit motive, commodity production etc. All of this is expressed through the kind of counterintuitive and paradoxical formulations of which Mark was fond, the title of his big book being “enjoying what we don’t have”. What we should stop doing for McGowan is precisely thinking about the future, seeking out boundaries and limits to overcome in the belief that beyond them there is a true satisfaction possible as we already have everything we need or possibly everything we don’t need. Or, perhaps better still, we already don’t have everything we don’t need.
There are problems with McGowan’s work in that it fails to address the body and material needs, poverty and so on. It’s hard not to be oriented toward the future and accumulation if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from or you face crop failure this summer, and so there is an extent to which McGowan is really perhaps addressing, in a more rarified register, the Affluenza that bedevils his students and his peers. Either way, this refusal of the future overlaps in some ways with Marks exorbitant sufficiency; the moment burgeons into a sense of plenitude because in some ways it’s been bracketed off. The relationship with acid here might be fairly clear. Acid shuts down the memory and the sense of anticipation, the music critic Simon Reynolds likening its results to one being dazzled by the moment.
So the next question I would have asked is whether a postcapitalist desire is at odds with a demand for the future and whether an exorbitantly sufficient renunciation of the future isn’t also an option to be considered? Does the idea of exorbitant sufficiency map in some ways onto the idea of Communal Luxury more than Luxury Communism.
Thinking about exorbitant sufficiency as an aesthetic, one of the songs Mark mentions as exemplifying this is the Kinks’ Lazing On A Sunny Afternoon, free time, a certain luxuriousness of surroundings, life devoted to the ludic, but also crucially a loss or a sense of being unencumbered.
I am going to suggest a series of qualities that I think are required for a work to add it to a canon of the exorbitantly sufficient and do that on the basis of some of my interpretation of the phrase I have already outlined.
I think it should it contain a sense of the good childlike, in the sense that it must have a certain numinous quality, a sense not of breaking into new territory/overcoming boundaries but of transformation or enlargement.
It should concentrate on a concentrated moment and that moment should be, paradoxically, illuminated by the eclipse of the future
Should have a sense of ease and lassitude.
Should formally express a relation and tensions between deep time and the traditional and the defamiliarising possibilities of the technological but without aiming at the sense of the ruptural that characterised Future Shock
It should have something of the reverie and the epiphany.
I am going to nominate a song for this and that’s Estuary Bed by The Triffids from an album with the interesting title, Born Sandy Devotional.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGP6fmpIxt0[/embedyt]
The song title is also relevant. Estuaries are as much a combination of forces pulling in different directions as they are a confluence, an arresting of motion and a deepening of it, rich, teaming environments alive with growth, ancient and yet also densely populated, worked over by humans, in some ways undermined by them.
Here are the lyrics:
The children are walking back from the beach/ Sun on the sidewalk is burning their feet/Washing the salt off under the shower/And just wasting away, wasting away
The hours and hours and hours
Come on, climb over your father’s back fence/For the very last time we’ll take the shortcut/Across his lawn/Then lie together on the estuary bed/Perfectly still, perfectly warm
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
I see you still/I know not rest/Silt returns along the passage of flesh/ I hear your voice/I taste the salt/I bear the stain, it won’t wash off/I hold you not
But I see you still/What use eyesight if it should melt? What use memory covered in estuary silt?
I know your shape/Our limbs entwined/I know your name, remember mine
Sleep no more/Sleep is dead/Sleep no more on the estuary bed/Ache no more/Old skin is shed/Sleep no more on the estuary bed
There is an emphasis on childhood, un-hurried time, sunlight, nature, the sense of rebirth, sloughing an old skin, awakening, mutual embrace, a mutual transformation. The track itself is essentially a pretty straight, folk-rock track given a particular brightness and ambient edge through the production, and as it progresses the lead vocal becomes increasingly detached from the background, swimming of into a kind of overlapping, multi tracked, oneiric drift, urging whoever the song’s addressee is, perhaps the singer themselves, to awake, to face life replenished. There is nothing but two people lying together in the sun, in a particular favourite place and yet the song implies this is everything, more than anything one could want, exorbitantly sufficient.
So, I suppose all of this would just have been a long preamble to the question, What do you think of this song, Mark? Do you like it?
To which his answer would almost certainly have been “no”.
This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.
“For the future, not the past. For the many, not the few. For trust, not betrayal. For the age of achievement, not the age of decline.” – Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, 1996.
“I think if we win the election, the greatest burden on Tony Blair and the rest of us will not be delivering on the economy so much as the huge expectation that we will somehow be the agents of a different ethical order.” – Jack Straw, 1996.
In 1996, the Labour Party were regularly commanding leads of over 30 in opinion polls against the Tories. The party was in a unique position. In the past, it could only hope to achieve power when the incumbent Conservatives had made a hash of the economy, or plunged the country into darkness through their industrial relations incompetence. In 1996, however, this was not the case. Mortgage interest rates had dropped from double figures in the 1990s to under 7%. John Major’s administration had put the brakes on some of the worst, conspicuous excesses and injustices of Thatcherism. There was already a feelgood factor in the air. As the Guardian airily put it, “Unemployment is down, people are shopping more (car sales are up more than 10%), house prices are rising, the London Evening Standard says ‘Suddenly, Britain is feeling really good’, building societies are soon to create millions of new shareholders”.
And yet, fewer and fewer people felt good about the Tories. A series of allegations of sleaze involving Neil Hamilton and Jonathan Aitken, amongst others, spoke of a party who had done themselves too well and for too long at the political high table. Major himself cut a greying, weary, beleaguered figure. His risible, high profile Cones Hotline, in which members of the public could report apparently unnecessary traffic cones, had been quietly closed in 1995, having fielded fewer than 20,000 calls in its three- year life (a figure that frankly seems remarkably high). Major’s wistful visions of a Britain of warm beer and “old maids cycling to church in the morning mist” seemed to belong to the credits of some Sunday evening middlebrow period drama rather than a Britain whose heartbeat was pounding assertively with the delirium of the End of History. This was a dead man talking.
What’s more, the social liberalism regarded as loony in the 1980s had now become mainstream, with even Richard Branson looking to join in on the victory lap. 1996 was the year Virgin Vodka would introduce an ad featuring two men kissing. As for the Tories, Michael Portillo was obdurately upholding a ban on gays in the armed services.
Thing is, the country was not falling to pieces. It felt buoyant. There was simply a crying need for new faces at the helm, to displace an old guard who felt disassociated with the sense of self-confidence and triumphalism of Cool Britannia. “Things can only get better”, the refrain on which Labour would surf to victory in a year’s time, implied that the country was at rock bottom – but it was not. The feeling was more like: “Things are good – but they could be even better”. It was into this breach that Tony Blair stepped, a saviour for a country that did not particularly need saving – or certainly did not require the salvation he had in mind. It was as if he were being gifted the Premiership.
In 1996, Tony Blair was presented with the opportunity to present David Bowie with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Brits. You sense it was a slightly invidious task; as Chris Evans introduces him to the stage with customary half-wit (“foot-tapping, pop-loving, he’s got nice hair, Tony Blair”), the sound system strikes up facetiously with Bowie’s “Fashion”, as he descends the stairs in an estate agent’s suit and orange polka dot tie, his hairstyle, like Glenn Hoddle’s, having weighed anchor somewhere in 1978 and receded ever since. The half-soused crowd greet him with no great enthusiasm; there’s a low, mocking drone as he takes to the podium which he tries to ignore in that rictus way of his that would later become more pronounced when facing angry members of the Women’s Institute. And then, as if addressing the CBI rather than some of the dimmer bulbs of the Britpop alumni, he speaks.
“It’s been a great year for British music. A year of creativity, vitality, energy; British bands storming the charts, British music once again back at its rightful place at the top of the world.” He talks of how new bands are able to draw inspiration from “the bands of my generation – the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks – and the later generation, the Clash, the Smiths, Stone Roses.”
It could well be that Tony Blair, former guitarist with Ugly Rumours, was sincere in this tribute. But, coated in a politician’s unctuousness, the words seem today to proceed from his mouth in an utterly stilted fashion, all the more so because when he actually took office, he was far too busy waging global warfare to monitor and extol the health of British music. It’s probable that this was the very last time he uttered the words “Stone Roses”. The list encapsulates far more shamelessly, loudly and clearly than any mumbling, equivocal frontperson corralled under its banner the guiding principle of Britpop; the history of music in the UK as a retrospective series of white lines down a grey, established road, a tribute to British heritage, enterprise and industry. Interesting who is missing from the list: Joy Division (too despondent – they were on the other side of the sun of the 1990s), the Sex Pistols (too anarchic, despite the fact that they removed the sting from their legacy by reforming for purely financial reasons in 1996), and, strangely, Oasis, despite their own, fulsome praise for Blair.
It wasn’t the only effusive comment Tony Blair made about British pop during 1996, as he brazenly sought to associate his forty-two year-old self with the crest of the Britpop wave in a way the late John Smith could never have done, and John Major never hope to do. Blair was all over pop in 1996, as energetic as a ligger in his attendance of awards ceremonies, always ready to talk up the energy of British pop, as if to imply, by osmosis, that he was a key generator of the broader energy it represented. “Rock’n’roll is not just an important part of our culture, it’s an important part of our everyday life”, he claimed, as if rock’n’roll were as vital to his daily routine as cleaning his teeth and saying his prayers. He wasn’t always selective in his upbeat praise; he described Morrissey as being part of our “vibrant” culture – Morrissey, with the possible exception of Alan Bennett, probably the least vibrant human being on earth, then as now. And, killing three birds with one stone, he sought to conflate rhetorically the rise of lad comedy, the England team of Euro ’96 and the trad indie du jour by alluding to the “Three Lions” anthem thus: “Seventeen years of hurt / Never stopped us dreaming / Labour’s coming home.”
Embarrassingly, however, Blair dazzled in 1996. This extended to to vast swathes of the electorate, including many who would marvel that they hadn’t known better. The lefty tanktops pooh-poohed him, but then, those malodorous malingers would, wouldn’t they? Meanwhile the Tories hired Charles Saatchi to rework his 1979 magic with their “New Labour, New Danger” posters, in which a grinning Blair was depicted as red-eyed and demonic once you peeled back a strip from his plausible veneer. They convinced absolutely no one of the Red Terror he represented; they might as well have waved garlic at him. For many of us sceptical about Britpop, we were affected by the New Sanguine of which Blair felt a part; he blazed white like the blinding light in a doorway to an uncertain future – an exit point at least. And he mentioned the Stone Roses. My God, a future Prime Minister mentioned the Stone Roses! This was surely something worth clutching at.
The prospect of finally ridding the country of the Tories intoxicated even some the most hard bitten. Noel Gallagher was the most conspicuous example, as :
There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country. That is me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White, Alan McGee and Tony Blair. And if you’ve all got anything about you, you’ll go up there and shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man! Power to the people!
He later sheepishly confessed he’d been “off his head” when he bellowed this pronouncement, in which the Oasis members effectively amounted to a shadow cabinet in waiting, but he wasn’t the only one. In co-opting the English Euro 96 anthem he wasn’t just piggybacking on a pop moment, he was tapping into the snarling sense of frustration still festering from the 1992 disappointment, when, despite leaning about as far to the right as seemed feasible without toppling over, Neil Kinnock still lost to John Major. Next time, anything would do. An ugly tap-in, a penalty shoot out, a Blair administration, so long as we won.
I was among those who had suspended my leftist qualms and joined in the chant for Blair, another who should have known better but found the urge to back this gift horse irresistible. Or was he a Trojan horse? Suppose, I told myself, Blair had dropped Clause IV, was cosying up to Murdoch by having Labour’s front bench trade and industry team abandon its support for a tough regulatory regime on the ownership of newspapers and television broadcasting in favour of a freer market, simply so as to deceive the public, business and the media that the party was deliberately forfeiting its leftist teeth, that it was the party that would no longer bite? And then, once in power, use his overwhelming mandate to exercise a full-blooded, socialist transformation of the UK? Be the New Danger the Tory posters depicted him as for real, after all? In any case, wasn’t that what Margaret Thatcher had done prior to her election in 1979? She certainly hadn’t frightened the British public by detailing the full extent of the right-wing programme with which her name would become synonymous. Might Blair have a similar trick in mind?
There was no excuse for such inebriated, wishful thinking. One had only to read, if one could be bothered, Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle’s The Blair Revolution, published in 1996, which set out in no uncertain terms what kind of “revolution” New Labour were planning, one that certainly would not involve hordes of cloth-capped proletariats storming the gates of Downing Street à la the Winter Palace in 1917. No – what would be really revolutionary about the Blair Revolution is that it would be entirely non-revolutionary, making it the most revolutionary revolution of all. A revolution no one need fear, least of all our latterday Tsars.
This is part one of an edited extract from 1996 and the End of History by David Stubbs, published last year by Repeater. Part two coming next week.
The origin of the luminous phrase ‘killing moon’ is obscure (at least it is to me). Google throws up no reference other than the 1984 Echo and the Bunnymen tune, and a 1994 video game called Under a Killing Moon, ‘the largest of its era’ according to Wikipedia. Elsewhere, there are stray hints. An early draft version of Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ begins:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Changeless and deathless; above the murdering moon …
For Yeats the moon had an occult symbolism, which we can fit into a broader Romantic tradition of viewing the moon as a source of terrible beauty. This was, more or less, the lunar worship famously avowed in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948), which argued that the Romantics—and indeed poets going back into prehistory—celebrated the moon because it preserved memories of an ancient matriarchal society. In Graves’s account, prior to the arrival of male sun gods (Apollo, Christ) European societies paid tribute to a female deity associated with the moon: a ‘White Goddess’ at once ‘terrible, beautiful, inspiring, and destroying’. For Graves, all true poetry must pay homage to the Goddess and her ultimate dominion over the creative soul:
The reason why the hairs stand on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess … whose embrace is death.
Graves’s theory was highly influential, and for better or worse we can see it impacting on post-forties poetry in all kinds of ways (the life and work of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, both of whom were White Goddess devotees, is a notable example).
While I doubt that Ian McCulloch had Graves in mind when he sat down to write ‘The Killing Moon’, it seems clear that the wider, ancient poetic tendency of exalting the moon’s dark majesty and sway over human fate is somewhere behind the lyrics of this incredible piece of music:
In starlit nights I saw you
So cruelly you kissed me
Your lips a magic world
Your sky all hung with jewels
The killing moon
Will come too soon …
I’m not trying to shoehorn this pop lyric into an orthodox study of literary influence. All lyrics set to music (from Campion to Beyoncé) are different in texture from non-musical poetry—they are less dense and allusive, and so do not lend themselves to the techniques of close reading established over the last century or so of literary discourse. But I think we can probably agree that this sort of writing is nonetheless something unique and lovely. Like the best pop lyrics, it emerges from the moment when adolescent simplicity and sincerity are perfected with a sudden flash of mature self-awareness—a Bildungsroman in a nanosecond.
More concretely, as mentioned, we can see literary presences filtering through here to a work of art that is not self-consciously literary. Even if McCulloch was not as versed in the poetic canon as someone like Ted Hughes, he was writing in the early 1980s at a high watermark of popular literacy: a time when certain historical conditions (generously funded higher education, a strong counterculture, widespread intellectualism, no internet) meant that literary pop songs happened as a matter of course, growing organically out of the social-democratic soil, as it were. ‘The Killing Moon’ with its evocative title and lyrics—not to mention its sophisticated melody and arrangement—is one of the greatest and most successful translations of the Romantic literary aesthetic into the medium of the late-twentieth-century pop song. And it manages the feat without even trying.
But what, after all, is the song about? The arresting chorus hook (‘Fate / Up against your will / Through the thick and thin’) doesn’t need much decoding. Indeed—and again, note the effortlessness—apparently this fragment came to McCulloch full-fledged in a dream, just as the melody of ‘Yesterday’ was magically gifted to another Scouse Romantic back in 1964. We don’t need to follow McCulloch’s claim that the lyric arrived direct from God to appreciate the simple profundity of lines like this: will and fate in an endless tug of war, with the earth of life churned by the footfall.
Of course, this is at bottom a song about a death wish, or perhaps just death (remember the White Goddess, her embrace):
Under a blue moon I saw you
So soon you’ll take me
Up in your arms
Too late to beg you or cancel it
Though I know it must be the killing time …
Perhaps you’ll forgive me if I move from the critical to the personal to attempt to understand the power of these lines. I don’t know why, but since (belatedly) discovering this song for the first time over the last month or so, I haven’t been able to break its dark spell. In echo of its composition, I’ve woken up many times in the middle of the night with the chorus hook ringing round my brain. Life for me is good right now, perhaps better than ever. But there is something not quite right in the night sky.
I cannot work out what is meant by the final couplet of the chorus of ‘The Killing Moon’, a song released in the year I was born: ‘He will wait until / You give yourself to him’. Does God, or the Goddess, wait mercifully for us to decide we have given up on life? And being so overshadowed by death, how are we to muster will, hope, energy in the meantime? Perhaps we are living in the killing time, sliding passively towards decay, with ingenious lovely things disappearing around us every second. Like so many others, I am finding it difficult to see a way forward right now. Political options have narrowed, the counterculture is gone, and the wisest man I knew took his own life at the start of the year. I can acknowledge the light of the morning, and savour how it makes my baby son smile. But you must believe me when I say that lately I have felt haunted by the killing moon.
Alex Niven is a Repeater editor, writer and lecturer in English Literature at Newcastle University. He is the author of Folk Opposition, The Last Tape and Definitely Maybe (33 1/3), and is currently editing a book of Basil Bunting’s letters for OUP. He blogs at http://thefantastichope.blogspot.co.uk.
Digital Taylorism: labour between passion & serendipity
Attack of the Big Yawn
In his fascinating historical study of the rise of happiness to the highly valued commodity it has become in our time, the British sociologist William Davies offers a brief yet intriguing meditation on the end of capitalism. In the past, he says, the collapse of our current mode of production has usually been imagined to occur as the result of economic crisis, political revolution, ecological disaster, or, in the best of cases, through technological innovation. However, since the end of the cold war, Davies muses, there seems to be another, “more lacklustre” option on the horizon:
What if the greatest threat to capitalism, at least in the liberal West, is simply lack of enthusiasm and activity? What if, rather than inciting violence or explicit refusal, contemporary capitalism is simply met with a yawn?
Williams’ remarks are far less tongue-in-cheek than they may appear. There is indeed a rather telling sign of – if we were to put it in Marxist terms – capital’s lack of motivational pull with regard to labour that over the last two decades has developed into a management obsession: the theory and practice of “employee engagement”. Gallup started measuring employee engagement in the Eighties, its popularity as an indicator of the ‘health’ of a company surged in the 1990s, and today there is a plethora of refined engagement surveys and training programs available from dozens of providers. While the popularity of employee engagement is in itself suggestive of a motivational problem among the workforce – why else would one want to measure engagement? – the actual numbers these surveys regularly produce are truly disheartening for the managerial class. Gallup’s last Global Workplace Report of 142 countries has found that only 13% of employees are properly “engaged”, with those “actively disengaged” among the European and North American workforce figuring around 24%. Often, though, it’s not just the ubiquitous ‘yawn’ ruling our corporate and public offices that is the problem. Stress-related illnesses, burnout, and similar work-induced forms of psychological and physical paralysis have joined forces to become the 21st century workspace epidemic throughout the developed world. In this sense, lack of enthusiasm or activity indeed presents a formidable challenge to our economic order, in spite of the cynical strategy to commercialise the collective disengagement by repackaging it as independent symptoms of individual psychological pathology.
What interests me in the anti-capitalist attack of the collective yawn and its pathological companions – beautifully captured by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han in the notion of the “fatigue society” (Müdigkeitsgesellschaft) – is that it can help us to come to terms with some of the current transformations in our understanding of labour as productive activity. In this chapter, I would like to concentrate on two developments that can be seen as attempts to respond to the challenge of the big yawn: on the one hand, the quasi-eroticisation of labour articulated in the notion of passionate work, and, on the other hand, the mobilisation of the social dimension of labour expressed in the celebration of entrepreneurial serendipity.
The Passion of the Work
While the fateful alliance between passion and labour had been anticipated by a number of visionary sociologists around the turn of the century, it is only recently that work is almost everywhere turning into a passionate project. Over the past few years, passion has become a basic requirement for employees of all stripes. Regardless of the mundane nature of the job at hand, today it is almost impossible to get anywhere near work without the invocation of one’s passion for it.
As with so many of the ideological tropes discussed in this book, the connection of work and passion makes quite a bit of intuitive sense. What could be wrong with ‘loving what you’re doing’? If employees and entrepreneurs could be truly passionate about their work, it would turn their daily toil into a much more fun and fulfilling activity. Employers and clients, on the other hand, would profit from increased productivity and generally from a better job being done. Take, for example, one of the more authoritative publications on the topic, The Power of Pull, written by business consultants and management scholars John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison. Under the heading “Make Your Passion Your Profession” they inform their readership about the new logic of passionate work:
Those of us who continue to toil at jobs we don’t love will find ourselves nonetheless toiling harder as our competition continues to intensify. We’ll find it increasingly difficult to cope with the mounting stress or to put in the effort required to raise our performance. We need to marry our passions with our professions in order to reach our potential… Passion in this context refers to a sustained and deep commitment to achieving our full potential and greater capacity for self-expression in a domain that engages us on a personal level. We often develop and explore our passions in areas such as sports or the arts outside of work, but we rarely integrate our passions with our professions.
The funny thing about the logic of the argument here – and this really is a staple of the management ideology of passionate work – is that the necessity of throwing yourself passionately into the game is sold to the reader as a result of everyone being just about to do it. Maybe not today but certainly tomorrow, there will be so much passion going on in corporate and public organisations that competition becomes a question of being even more passionate than everyone else. Stress, lack of performance and cynicism are caused by insufficient alignment of one’s passion to one’s work. Hence, the suggested solution: get aligned, fall in love with your work already; passion is the key ingredient to professional success. While this makes for a fascinating story, it is exactly the opposite of what a dispassionate view of reality (a.k.a. empirical data) suggests. The wave of passion that supposedly is just about to sweep through contemporary capitalism shows neither in employee engagement surveys nor in health statistics, business indicators, or macro-economic data. Nor, in fact, does it show in the great product and service innovations that surely would be the outcome of a passion-driven economy. No, the reason why passionate work has emerged as one of the great ideologies of our time is the fact that the big yawn is becoming deafening, that the neoliberal mutation of capitalism has turned the economy into a self-sabotaging system, systematically destroying its most important source of value: labour.
In order to make sense of the rise of passion to a workplace requirement within corporate and public organisations, it helps to first consider an interesting historical coincidence. The emergence of debates around employee (dis-)engagement was contemporaneous with the beginning of the systematic digitisation and automation of the workplace. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, a new breed of professional service providers revolutionised the management consulting sector. What they offered had very little to do with traditional board level advice. Rather, they were selling large scale IT-systems able to automate management processes throughout the entire organisation. The first wave of digitisation and automation of business came for the most part with the label of reengineering. The grandiose claims with which reengineering firms pushed their way into corporate and public boardrooms have largely been erased from managerial memory. Suffice to say that alongside predictions of increased efficiency and massively lowered costs came the promise of a workforce liberated from repetitive bureaucratic chore. Reengineering the organisation was supposed to lead to the creation of professional environments in which creativity was finally allowed to thrive.
This, of course, is not what happened. The former Financial Times correspondent Simon Head is one of the few scholars who have systematically traced the automation of the workplace from the reengineering wave of the Eighties to the current almost universal use of so-called Computer Business Systems (CBSs; previously known as Enterprise Systems [ES] or Enterprise Resource and Planning Systems [EPS]). His reports from the battlefield of digital armament for the sake of creatively liberated workforces paint a picture of the contemporary workplace all too familiar to many of us who spend their lives within corporate and public organisations. According to Head, digitisation and automation have spread the logic of industrialism far beyond their conventional jurisdiction: to wholesale and retail, financial services, higher education, health care, public administration, and corporate management. In addition, they have also introduced the neo-disciplines of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Human Resource Management (HRM).
What’s going on here has nothing to do with the future visions of digital machines working merrily side by side with humans. The computer systems that have been implemented throughout the economy form the technological backbone of a massive neo-bureaucratisation of corporate and public organisations. In order for the digital industrialisation of the workplace to function across different sectors, a veritable army of techno-bureaucrats has invaded corporate and public institutions whose mere task is the streamlining of employee behaviour according to the requirements of algorithmic performance indicators and the like. And it is not just the infamous call centres and Amazon warehouses we are talking about here. Highly trained professionals such as doctors and professors have been pressed into preformatted work processes, effectively losing the sovereignty over their own crafts(wo)manship, expertise and knowledge. There is a systematic annihilation of professional creativity at work here, nullifying, as Head puts it, “the employee’s accumulated skill, knowledge and experience which, applied to the daily problems of the workplace, enable employees to do their jobs well”.
Faking It: Passion as Simulation
The reason why this is crucial for the present discussion is that the massive destruction of professional skill and quality by the logic of office automation was accompanied by the emergence of a new kind of competence. Arlie Hochschild famously began to describe this development in the Eighties in terms of the appearance of what she called “emotional labour”. In her pioneering study of flight attendants, The Managed Heart, Hochschild defined emotional labour as requiring the employee “to induce or supress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others”. It is obvious that thirty years ago, flight attendants’ requirement to serve with a smile didn’t have much to do with automation. And also today, emotional labour is not necessary directly related to CBSs and the like although it can be if we think of the emotional stress caused by counterproductive office IT-systems. The point where digital office automation and emotional labour intersect is that of simulation. CBSs and their administrators are not for one bit interested in the inherent professional value of performance simply because they have not got the means to understand what this would actually be. They simulate performance by way of algorithmic indicators and matrices whose abstract universality – the fact that they need to be applicable across diverse sectors in order to be economically viable – ensures their radical decoupling from the particular professional reality (epitomised, perhaps, by the infamous star ratings for hospitals, universities and so on).
The flipside of this kind of performance simulation can be found in the rise emotional labour, and indeed, passion. For HRM-professionals, emotional labour is not the ‘labour of care’ that comes with a specific professional territory – think, for instance of physicians and nurses – but the universal mobilisation of individual sources of empathy and enthusiasm for the most profane ends. The creation of experience as a service is an important reference here, albeit in a much more skewed sense than was intended by the gurus of the experience economy, Joe Pine and James Gilmore. In an economy where the most exciting new consumer products are digitally pimped wristwatches (first developed almost fifty years ago) and cars that actually rob you of the experience of driving, experience is something that increasingly has to be provided as a product or service veneer by the employee. The logic of the emotional template that is spreading throughout corporate and public management culture by way of HRM has been famously captured by Mike Judge’s 1999 movie Office Space. In the film, Joanna works as a waitress in a fast food chain called Chotchkie’s. An integral part of her work there is to wear idiotic buttons with slogans and symbols on them. They are referred to as “flair”. At a certain point in the film, Stan, Chotchkie’s manager and Joanna’s boss, takes her aside in order to express his dissatisfaction with the way she’s handling her “flair”:
“Stan: We need to talk about your flair.
Joanna: Really? I… I have fifteen pieces on. I, also…
Stan: Well, okay. Fifteen is the minimum, OK?
Stan: Now, you know it’s up to you whether or not you want to just do the bare minimum. Or… well, like Brian, for example, has thirty-seven pieces of flair, okay. And a terrific smile.
Joanna: OK. So you… you want me to wear more?
Stan: Look. Joanna.
Stan: People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, okay? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. OK? That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.
Joanna: Yeah. OK. So more then, yeah?
Stan: Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? Now if you feel that the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, OK? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?
Joanna: Yeah, yeah.
Stan: OK. Great. Great. That’s all I ask.”
In 1999 the scathing humour of the Judge’s film was somewhat lost in the peak of the dotcom boom, but a few years later it became a commercial success on the small screen (VHS and DVD sales) as a cult comment on the corporate re-entrenchment of the post-crash years. Today, it serves as a reminder that the idiocy expressed in the notion of “flair” has become almost universal workplace policy. In the contemporary workplace, flair in its many disguises has been integrated in the strange virtuosity of emotional labour. This goes for all layers of management, save the highest, as well. Those of us who are lucky enough to be uninitiated into the circuits of managerial emotional labour can begin to bring themselves up to speed on the issue through the work of the young German director Carmen Losmann. In her brilliant 2011 documentary Work Hard, Play Hard, Losmann follows a number of so-called change management trajectories in German corporations. In one of the sequences, the viewer witnesses a series of assessment interviews for potential junior managers who are confronted with the most insipid questions about their emotional ‘leadership qualities’. Interestingly, the candidates who do well in the interviews are those who respond by shooting back the prefab-slogans found on the pages of contemporary management and coaching literature. One gets the impression that what unfolds in front of one’s eyes is a grand simulation, a mutual game of Munchausen, where everyone knows that this is essentially nonsense but equally knows that as an employee – regardless whether shop floor or management – one simply has to show the readiness to go the emotional extra mile. What makes this viewing experience so excruciating is the effortlessness with which the camera is able to reveal the absurdity of the change trajectories followed by Losmann’s documentary. We are observers of an exercise in pointless emotional gymnastics motivated by the illusion that this will somehow vitalise corporate culture. The flair of the burger waitress returns, this time packaged in an HRM-fabricated company culture that in its ideological wackiness is easily on par with the obligatory party-gibberish that pervaded the Kombinate (state-owned corporations) of real existing socialism.
The obvious difference to the time of the politburo is that today, there is no central authority determining and emitting the correct world-view and watching over its implementation. Proud to be ideology-free, the neoliberal state has outsourced its ideological function – at least when it comes to labour – to the consulting industry. This is not meant as a rhetorical pun at all. If one looks at the process by which the consulting industry rose to its current dimensions, one cannot escape the realisation that it is heavily invested in the rise of neoliberal politics. The shrinking of state bureaucracy that started in the 1980s coincided with the expansion of the consulting sector that stepped in to provide the services previously run by the state itself. The reason why this worked quite beautifully was that at the same time the consulting industry underwent quite a drastic transformation – from traditional board level advice to the provision of in- or outsourced IT-systems covering the entire business process. Governments – particularly in the UK and the US – were among the first clients, providing an industry in transformation a field of large-scale experimentation by handing out consulting contracts of unprecedented financial value. The governments’ benefit for subsidising and in fact growing the consulting industry was that they got the argument of technological progress to support their own ideological agenda. In other words, both the massive growth of the consulting industry in the 1980s and 1990s and the history of office digitisation and automation are intimately linked to the rise of neoliberalism.
Of course, the consulting sector is a notoriously secretive industry so much of its machinations – including the often catastrophic failures of the 1980s and 1990s IT-contracts – remain largely in the dark. It is thanks to another German documentary maker that we are able to look behind the screens of today’s distributed production of ideology. In Ein neues Produkt, Harun Farocki follows the directors of the Quickborner Team, a Hamburg consulting firm that was once famous for the invention of the Bürolandschaft. Today, they design corporate environments for the so-called ‘new way of working’, which is a big theme for corporations. In the ‘new way of working’, the digital automation of work processes discussed above meets the appropriation of cultural practices that independent creative producers have experimented with over the last decade or so in order to update the industrial configurations of corporate work space.
With his characteristically calm and discreet concentration, Farocki films the strategy workshops and client meetings of the Quickborner Team, capturing the semiotic dynamics at work in the development of radically innovative workplace cultures. The consultants develop the cultural tapestry for office architectures that are supposed to make employees faster, smarter, more effective and so on. The goal is flexible workspaces able to facilitate more self-determined, independent employees who, through all kinds of serendipitous interaction, contribute to the innovative capability of the company. Nothing wrong with this, let’s make these environments less depressing and more interactive, if people become more productive and innovative in the process because the new environments cater more appropriately to their professional needs, that’s fine as well. Yet, what the semiotic dynamics of the meetings portrayed by Farocki reveal goes in a rather different direction. It transpires quickly that the protagonists of the film have very limited interest in understanding the needs of the ‘modern employee’. The purpose of these workshops and client meetings appears to be limited to the generation of a vocabulary able to catch a managerial zeitgeist that is totally unencumbered by any substantial reflection on what flexibility, collaboration, or, indeed, self-determination might entail from an employee’s point of view. Instead, the Quickborner space-gurus combine design thinking fragments, systems theory sound bites and kitchen psychology in order to produce a rhetorical vacuum that is supposed to fill their clients’ workspace with what John Hagel and his colleagues call the “power of pull”, attracting the passion of the employee. “It’s emotionality where we can score with our clients”, one of the directors of the Quickborner Team says at a decisive moment in the film, and, as silly as this may sound, he is spot on. The general ideological task of these consultants is to find the passionate antidote to the big yawn his peers have caused by implementing digital managerial industrialism.
Abstract Passion, Concrete Bullshit
It is obvious that nothing of this kind will ever be achieved by simply encouraging the workforce to ‘fake it’. Interventions by culture consultants of the above kind are not just economically nonsensical but counterproductive. For companies that understand themselves as economic entities existing for the purpose of creating products and services that people need, they have no value whatsoever. They do, however, make perfect sense for corporations whose purpose is first and foremost to cater to the interests of financial markets. This might sound slightly vulgar (“Oh, they just want to make money!”), but it is in fact a vital distinction. One of the main reasons for the absence of exciting innovation today – increasingly even at the level of technology – has to do with what economists call “the financialisation of the economy”, i.e., the fact that economic performance is increasingly measured on financial return on investment (shareholders, etc.) rather than on successful products and services. Clayton Christensen, perhaps the most influential management and innovation guru of our time, denounces this tendency in Harvard Business Review as “The Capitalist’s Dilemma”. Where real economic output becomes secondary, it gets difficult to form a company culture based on the collective pride of being part of an organisation that makes great stuff. Hence the false belief in the snake oil salesmen who claim to be able to create your company/product/ service culture based on hot air.
This innovation predicament is related to the neoliberal transformation of capitalism understood as the streamlining of economic production according to the needs of financial capital. The flexibility inherent to financial capital has to be reproduced at the level of the employment relation. And this is exactly the reason for the shift from professional skill to emotion and affect: the abstract liquidity of financial capital requires a corresponding liquidation of professional skill into the desires and emotional dispositions of the workforce. Today’s intensified competition and chronic market instability have at least as much to do with financialisation as they do with the transformative power of digital technology. Think, for instance, of the way in which the so-called sharing economy is organised. Many of the platform business models we find there are able to disrupt existing markets in spite of being economically dysfunctional. They can do this because they are highly subsidised by financial speculators whose treasure chambers are filled with capital that can’t find economically sensible investment. Financial abstraction thus leads to pseudo-economic (yet very lucrative) investment games, erratic markets environments, and the need for hyperflexible employees for whom the emotional labour of passion replaces professional skill.
In such an economic environment, one can expect to find an organisational landscape that is increasingly unprepared to treat its employees like grownup professionals. There is clear evidence that working conditions have been deteriorating for years across a wide range of industries – particularly in the US and the UK. This list, provided by Simon Head, is quite comprehensive:
[They] include increased working hours for individuals and family units; increased inequality of income and stagnant or declining real wages for a majority of the workforce; the break in the historical relationship between profits, productivity and real wage growth; loss of retirement income and shifts in the pension risk to employees, declining health care coverage and shifts of cost to employees; loss of employee voice at work as labour-movement members decline to pre-1930 levels; and increased layoffs not as a last resort but as a routine aspect of corporate restructuring. To the list should be added the increased pace of work dictated by CBSs, its intensive targeting and monitoring by ‘performance evaluation’ systems, and its deskilling of employees with expert systems.
Now this is not a list cooked up by some lefty curmudgeon whose only pleasure is to critique ‘the system’. It’s simply a reading of mainstream statistical data on labour. Thomas Piketty, of course, wrote a bestseller based on this data, it is there for anyone who reads the newspapers, mainstream economists discuss it frequently, and anyway, we also experience these conditions on a daily basis. True, in some parts of continental Europe things are considerably less bad than elsewhere, but the tendency is a global one: there is a systematic assault on employees’ ability to simply do a good job. If we correlate this development with the equally systematic requirement of employees to provide not just services but great experiences vis-à-vis clients and customers, a blatant contradiction comes into view. Actually, it’s a double contradiction: underwhelming products and services and deteriorating work conditions are supposed to be balanced out by the employees’ emotional labour. Time and again, they try to achieve this Sisyphean task by reaching deep into the magic box of affective human integrity in order to mobilise their emotional and communicative faculties. And if one is particularly unlucky, then one might find that all this affective energy is going into what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”, i.e., the growing number of pseudo-professional activities that do not make a sensible contribution to society by any stretch of the imagination. No wonder everyone is yawning. Welcome to the fatigue society!
Exodus into Serendipity?
Given the inhospitality of office environments corporate and public, it is not very surprising that an increasing number of professionals opt out of the institutional context in order to become entrepreneurs on their own account. One form of entrepreneurial exodus, already discussed in Chapter 1, is the so-called coworking movement. When the first proper coworking spaces popped up in San Francisco, New York, Berlin and London in the early years of the new Millennium, they were born out of frustration with the confined office environment and reflected the growth of an increasingly independent workforce trying to turn their economic precarity into a neo-Bohemian entrepreneurialism. Instead of the prefabricated passion of the big organisation, they were trying to get truly passionate about their profession by becoming entrepreneurs.
From the start, serendipity was an important reference for the coworking multitude: coworking spaces needed to provide their users with an environment offering a high probability of serendipitous encounters as a way of compensating for the freelancers’ lack of organisational support structure. The groups and communities spurring the first generation coworking spaces intended to generate imperfect yet more exciting replacements for the conventional organisation. They were supposed to generate ideas and opportunities for business, but also had a political ambition in the sense of strengthening the position of the precarious entrepreneur, vis-à-vis potential clients, through an exchange of knowledge and skills and a general practice of mutual generosity. It is easy, too easy perhaps, to dismiss the alter-entrepreneurial euphoria of the early Millennium as a pale copy of the Californian Ideology that is now holding the start-up scene firmly in its grip. It is certainly true that the West Coast form of expression, with its endemic combination of infantile pathos and cliché, was an early visitor to the coworking community as well. Yet, underneath the silly awesomeness of everything, there was indeed awareness that it wasn’t all fun and games. One of the key concerns of the early coworking movement was to help prevent the multitude of independent producers from sinking into what Byung-Chul Han calls the “solitude” of self-exploiting neoliberal subjects. Here, serendipity, i.e., the accidental sagacity that emerges when people with different minds and skill sets encounter each other, was really part and parcel of the story. It turned these coworking spaces into third spaces that seemed to enable an ambivalent kind of social innovation: one that was necessary for the functioning of neoliberal capitalism but also had the ambition of going beyond it. One of the ‘values’ the early coworkers were passionate about was ‘community’, and back then this meant something more than the marketing catchphrase it has become of late. The coworking movement – or at least a substantial part of it – really thought it was possible to rewrite the rules of the neoliberal economy.
Today, coworking as a politically, culturally and even economically innovative phenomenon is all but history. The formidable spread of flex-work spaces around the globe is driven by motivations radically different from those of the early activists. Coworking has mutated into the massive provision of infrastructure for start-up entrepreneurs, independent professionals and freelancers and as such, it has become big business. Operations, such as the New York based start-up WeWork, are bent on turning the coworking model into a real estate version of the platform business model (see Chapter 6). Its aggressive global expansion is based on an incredible market valuation of US$10 Billion. While the rhetoric of ‘community’ and ‘values’ persists as marketing strategy toward the growing client-base of independent workers and entrepreneurs in need of affordable workspace, its practical articulation has been taken over by professional hosts and community managers. There is, of course, nothing wrong per se with such a professionalisation of coworking. People still need affordable workspace and flex-workspaces tend to provide exactly that. Sure, in the hands of the likes of WeWork, Regus, Liquid Spaces or indeed Marriott, coworking has lost its utopian impetus. However, if this would be all there was to it, one might bemoan it as a lost opportunity for the much-vaunted ‘change’, or simply write it off as the usual course of a fringe phenomenon maturing into business, and losing its more exciting, socially progressive elements along the way.
Yet, something is happening to the coworking movement that is rather unsettling. Driven by the managerial hype around serendipity – i.e., the realisation that in order to fully mobilise the workforce, individual passion needs to be complemented by the generative and, hopefully, innovative effects of social promiscuity – a growing number of smart organisation consultants have discovered coworking as a template upon which they can market their services to corporations as the new generation of change management. Again, nothing would be wrong in trying to inject the treadmill of the office with some of the serendipitous energy one sometimes encounters in coworking spaces. In fact, one would welcome this effort if it was intended as a way of humanising the corporate workspace. However, one of the obvious problems here is that coworking culture – or whatever is left of the libertarian spirit of the early digital bohemians – is very hard to decree into being in a corporate context. What is distressing about the most recent wave of coworking-inspired office reform is that its proponents seem to have something in mind that goes way beyond the superficial change gymnastics highlighted in the work of Losmann and Farocki…
Sci-fi has a pedigree of exploring contemporary issues through the engaging gauze of societies and contexts far removed from painful familiarity. Inequality is explicated through different life forms, nuclear anxiety masquerades as fears of interstellar warfare, loneliness through the guise of artificial intelligence or the pseudo-modernist anonymity of slipping through dense and chaotic metropolises…in each case, sci-fi often trumps its stuffy literary or languorous cinematic ‘betters’; it speaks to us in a clear voice and cuts closer to the bone. A good example of this is the downright Dostoevskian Battlestar Galactica (2004). Battlestar Galactica mirrored post-9/11 paranoia on a multitude of levels. Cylons explored the anxieties and devastating potentials of terrorist ‘sleeper-cells’ – perhaps most obviously the prospect, and fall-out, of suicide bombings. The erosion of civil liberties was the knee-jerk Band-Aid on earth and the Battlestar Galactica fleet. The series was even replete with sham trials (Baltar’s Karamzovian trial) and a prisoner-torture controversy. Resource management, paranoia and the warring of theisms also provided the background to empathetic depictions of beings, whatever they may be. Other than that, the show was just spaceships and aliens.
Westworld fits right into such a lineage. Do not mistake Westworld to be about consciousness, AI agency or sentience. Others can reference Metzinger, Dennet and the Churchlands. Westworld is about every major city in the west. Slightly smiling with avuncular nostalgia and ominous magnanimity, a la Hopkins…let me explain.
Westworld is a luxury theme park, of a ‘wild-west’ theme. It stretches out for miles, so much so that guests can trek for days searching for something or someone inside the park. Hosts populate the park. The hosts are synthetic androids initially indistinguishable from guests. The hosts are like the simpler Replicants in Blade Runner (1982), except Asimov’s first law seems to be correctly installed: they cannot hurt the guests. The hosts are given narratives. They wake up each day, and depending on their finely honed behavioral parameters, engage with the guests or one another in order to serve a grand narrative. Despite the prospect of orchestrating such meticulously complex, rather Dostoevskian in scope, narratives the park invariably relies on simple pleasures. As one can imagine in the park populated by idealized cowboys, farm-girls, whores and militia – the appeal for much of the guests is base. Sex with things and/or conflicts with things are generally what the park caters for. Sex and violence, wild fucks and shoot-outs, are, regardless of the park’s creators’ and directors’ ambitions, its bread and butter.
Of course, as is bound to happen with androids on screen, some guests lose themselves in the illusion, they begin to feel feelings for the hosts. Others, however, do not succumb – they never lose themselves in Westworld, they always remember it is only a game. The Man in Black, played by Ed Harris, falls into the latter category. Logan, played by Ben Barnes, is very similar. These men say only what needs to be said to progress the narrative, like affect-blunted gamers pursuing a game sequence, they shoot, rescue and run with apathy and cynicism. Most intriguing is their interactions with the hosts. They know the hosts are not ‘real people’ so they often talk at them as objects ‘you were programmed well’ they might say. It is this type of dialogue that, initially, reveals who is guest and who is host. The antithesis of these types is undoubtedly William, played by Jimmi Simpson. William cares about the hosts, he doesn’t ask questions they cannot answer; he goes along with the narrative, the shallow ranch clichés and yesteryear syntax of Dolores (played by Evan Rachel Wood).
The Man in Black’s and Logan’s disposition, their remove from any emotional interaction, recalls a particular scene in The Remains of the Day (1993). Mr. Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, is serving drinks to Lord Darlington and his three guests. They begin discussing if ‘the man in the street’ should have a say in political matters, such as war. Lord Darlington, halts Mr. Stevens from exiting after he has topped up the glasses of his betters. He informs him that Mr. Spencer has a question for him.
“Do you suppose the debt situation regarding America factors significantly in the present low levels of trade? Or is this a red herring and the abandonment of the gold standard is the cause of the problem?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance in this matter.
“Oh, dear. What a pity. Perhaps you’d help us on another matter. Do you think Europe’s currency problem would be alleviated by an arms agreement between the French and the Bolsheviks?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m unable to be of assistance in this matter.”
“Very well, that’ll be all.”
“One moment, Darlington, I have another question to put to our good man here.
My good fellow do you share our opinion that M. Daladier’s recent speech on North Africa was simply a ruse to scupper the nationalist fringe of his own domestic party?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I am unable to help in any of these matters.”
“You see, our good man here is “unable to assist us in these matters.” Yet we still go along with the notion that this nation’s decisions be left to our good man here and a few millions like him. You may as well ask the Mothers’ Union to organize a war campaign.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You certainly proved your point.”
“- Q.E.D., I think.”
Mr. Spencer takes a malicious delight in exercising his superiority over Mr. Stevens. He knows, before he asks his questions, that Mr. Stevens will not offer any opinion or enter into the dialogue. Of course, this performs his point – that the common man should not have a say in lofty matters best left to those of sound stock. Mr. Spencer is a not unlike a bullish tourist that teases the guards at Edinburgh castle, he knows full well no reply other than duty and courtesy will ever come and relishes the asymmetry of agency. The Man in Black and Logan enjoy the same sneering privilege and disdain for the hosts in Westworld. They ask questions for the answers they need, and when they get tired or bored the simple hosts are dispatched.
Westworld is a luxury resort, the bar inside the headquarters offers the guests respite from playing; they lounge poolside, glittering drinks in hand, before returning to the vicarious thrills of the park. The guests have access to different routes into the park; they may use an underground network that the hosts are not aware of. Like a first class tube system meets Ballardian poor doors.
Westworld is about class. It explores, within the defamiliarized scope of sci-fi, the dynamic between the super rich and others. The super rich can travel the globe swiftly in comfort; they flit in and out of major cities, invisible people circle, mutely providing tertiary service various. The super rich, if they do not like whichever park they land in, can leave, try another time zone, climate and narrative. The prole inhabitants, however, may not leave – they are stuck, stuck in their narrative of debt, strife and strive. The hosts of Westworld live in loops, tightly controlled narratives, with miniscule opportunity of change. The android assigned to the role of whore, bandit or soldier has infinite fates of claustrophobic similarity, any divergence from plan being academic in the grand scheme of things. The whore may whore in various ways, the soldier may fight and die in various ways – but nonetheless, the whore will whore and the soldier will fight and will die. “We live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” That’ll be all Stevens…
Like the hosts, we all have our loops. We even have quaint ticks and programming characteristics. We swipe touchscreens and avidly check emails. We parrot empty phrases, “lol” we say blankly. We pepper our dialogue with “like” or acquire croaking vocal frys from American reality TV. We do such things, with varying verisimilitudes, in our daily loops – on a “daily basis”. Whilst we do so the super rich come in to town. They might rape or kill. They might do all sorts of things. No matter. Because, as Logan is fond of reminding William: “what happens in the park, stays in the park.” Cheated on your partner? No problem, a super-injunction can fix that. Perhaps one cheated millions out of money whilst working in high finance? A mere trifle, the hosts will clear the mess up.
In Westworld the hosts soon see through the loops they are trapped in. Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, after trauma upon trauma is compounded, begins to see through the charade – she wakes up. The same is true for Dolores, it is the trauma, the memory that should’ve been erased from surface level script, that returns as the epiphany which sparks their escape. We can only hope our traumas and memories soon resurface and endow us with the fangs to break from our repressing loops of exploitation.