January 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
I talked to Wire about their new album and the weirdness of being “in a band” for the new issue of The Wire.
December 25, 2019 § Leave a comment
I’ve held off writing anything about the election for fear of falling into fatalism, phraseology or the original sin, which many on Twitter seem to be committing, of deciding “Labour can only save itself by implementing my ideas”. But also because the outcome, at least on the left’s part, is a moving target. A lot of qualitative research is still needed into why Labour lost particular seats and thus seats in aggregate (the metric of overall national vote swing hides innumerable, likely crucial details). What’s emerged in the meantime is a welter of doorstep anecdote, readings of the tea leaves of previous opinion polls, and some mobilisation of more or less valuable pre-existing theories based on only partial evidence. The leap to strategy based on ‘what we got wrong’ assumes – only semi-rightly – that the tools to shape social form according to our will are ready to hand. But reorientation will probably involve first steps of putting those tools in place. I’m hazarding here a few thoughts based on others’ readings and the experience of the election.
1. The election campaign proved that polarisation and the collapse of a consensus for austerity is real. The bleeding away of civil society under austerity, and the rage and pain whose articulation dates back to the first student occupations in 2010, was the stuff of Labour’s campaign, but more so of the current of activism that gave it what ground game it had. The centrist reality principle was forced into ever more baroque and deranged forms from week to week. Millions of people wanted a better, easier life – the margins of freedom that social democracy promises, like an unreliable relative, to provide through the retooling of inequality – and were excited to be offered it. That this promise wasn’t the right one, or made in the right way, is true enough, but becomes the centrist media’s one size fits all explanation. (The right wing press doesn’t even bother to come up with reasons beyond the glory of Brexit as volk.) Meanwhile, that the Tory offer consisted of nothing, hardly even the scraps of pseudo-populist culture warring Johnson has cajoled himself into acting out, denies the centrist claim that a politics of mild adjustment to an existing reality will carry all before it. Toryism’s current form, like Trumpism, is dedicated to preserving the current unbearable reality – even sharpening its existing cruelty through the increased targeting of the most vulnerable – under the guise of transformation. Capitalist realism persists even as its favoured vehicle – the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” technocratic middle classes – disappear as political agents. Austerity won’t cease to act as a source of political discontent, even if the polis itself denies its alternatives.
2. The rush to diagnose that ‘Labour lost because of losing x number of votes to y party’, is, as Tom Gann points out, premature and limited. The two related questions that underlie it are more serious, namely: what is Labour’s electoral constituency now?, and what is its political or social constituency now? The two aren’t identical. The former would be those who can be organised, wooed and bullied into voting for Labour in general and local elections (its electoral coalition, traditionally “between Bethnal Green and Bolsover”); the latter its social power base, the ‘hegemonic bloc’ that was the labour movement, its institutions, culture and lifeworld – trade unions, dissenting chapels, workingmens’ clubs, miners’ institutes, etc. The former, from what’s been gleaned from marginal results and doorstep talk, has been split at the edges in two directions. In leave-voting marginals, votes bled to the Tories or non-voting, while in remain-leaning marginals, feckless EU flag fetishists split anti-Tory votes. (Most of the losses, especially the most bitter ones like Kensington and Durham North West, were slim.) The conclusion of the dimmest productivists that Labour would have at least mitigated the voting collapse in the quote-unquote heartlands by sticking to a pro-Leave stance is only partially true, but more fatally gets the equation of electoral and social power the wrong way round. It reproduces the thinking of New Labour, which wanted the electoral coalition, somehow cohered through signalling and the small panaceas of Sure Start and increased NHS funding tied to “market Stalinism”, without the social base, whose destruction by Thatcherism it was only too happy to further. But you can’t – as some in the movement have, quite rightly, since its early days – turn from the the electoral base back to the social base as something more fundamental. Corbynism’s premise was that the Labour Party, as an electoral vehicle, could give leverage to a heterogeneous set of extraparliamentary groups (housing & anti-war activists, environmentalists, anti-racists, left accelerationists, prison abolitionists etc). The loss of that electoral advantage, and the loss of credibility for the left within the party, obviates that one. (This is one of the reasons why the argument for electoral reform and proportional representation, which would And whilst you can – and should – argue that the latter absolutely needs to be engaged with to get to the former, the left is also against the clock of climate change. The demographic speculations are grim: the votes apparently lost in provincial seats were those of older and better-off whites – petit-bourgeois and former members of the labour aristocracy, the beneficiaries of the welfare state, cheap property prices and full employment taking their ball home when the younger generation want to play. The notion that such class fragments can be ‘won over’ with certain policy fixes is deeply uncertain, particularly when the usual proposals depend on their supposed ‘native patriotism’, as if they wouldn’t get their fix straight from the Brexit Party spigot. If neither Weird Electoral Fixes nor long marches through the social institutions are the one supposed answer – and the immediate rush to seal away one absolute strategy, as if politics didn’t take place in the midst of contingency, should be suspect to begin with – then the question becomes what Labour should do with its decade or more in the wilderness.
3. One of the major underlying problems, which Aditya acknowledges briefly, is the class recomposition in the wake of neoliberalism that forms the real context to the failures of formerly social democratic parties throughout the global north. The most pertinent parts of the process, as I see them, are the breakup of industrial forms of work and the growth of an internally fractured class of precarious and underemployed service workers, students, proletarianised former white collar workers, a rump of unionised public sector workers, and “lumpen” informal labourers and the unemployed; and the destruction of a particular lifeworld of the labour movement. The well-known problems facing the atomised and particularised swathes of those with no means of living other than selling their labour – the current inability of the bureaucratised unions to reach and represent the interests of many sections of this class, the lack of any clear alternative organisational form (the new social movements having a still deeply unclear power and extent of social contestation) – fall again into these two registers, social and electoral. The class is not at present a class-for-itself, and it remains unclear how strong the sense is of itself as a class-in-itself. Electoral math, meanwhile, translates them into the fictional for-itself of an electoral coalition, with only a very partial affinity to the concept of class as for-itself. We can ask a reasonable question about whether an electoral coalition composed of the enormous swathes working poor ground down by austerity (like the NHS nurse described in this great and questionable piece by Dan Evans), downwardly mobile professionals, 18-24 year olds and the black and brown urban groups Labour has long taken for granted, is viable and can beat out the array of billionaires, paedophiles, retired colonels, skinheads and traditionalists the Tories can rely on. But we’d then be obliged to ask in turn, given the collapse of Corbynism’s electoralist premise, whether they could constitute a social power base – a class-for-itself – that can make effective use of the party. This is a far dicier question, and one which Corbynism was in effect an answer to, after the failure of Occupy: we’re back to 2014.
4. Except not quite. The left is in a far better position within the Labour party than it was then. Outside, it’s harder to tell – a lot of the wider left’s energy has been spent defending Corbynism within the party. In retrospect, Corbynism’s theory of the party as a ‘movement of movements’, which was dependent on the party as electoral vector, was an attempt to reconcile the electoral and social constituencies and forms of power. It was to solve the issue of scaleability that the occupations posed, never precisely congealing into ‘institutions’. This could even have happened, had Brexit not intervened, forcing the party back onto the electoral track – and, more fatally, shearing apart the social or everyday life and political imagination. The left in Labour and Labour in the left will have to look back seriously at that equation. I suggested in a piece for New Socialist back in February that the destruction of the labour movement’s lifeworld, which finds itself inscribed into the landscape in big box warehouses and retail parks and the shit jobs people do in them, that the traditions of black power, feminism and left environmentalism had far more thoroughly worked on creating resources of political imagination for alternative forms of life than persist within Labour – this being also one of the implications of Mark Fisher’s late turn back to the 60s in the emphasis on “consciousness raising” in the acid communism essay. The least arcane of these examples would be the survival programs of the Panthers, which create a future link between social reproduction, party organisation and the contestation of institutionalised social death. Giving the support of the Labour party’s apparatus to existing struggles around housing, pay, racialised policing and ecology would be bare minimum of an interface between necessary survival work, the production of new social forms appropriate to atomised labour and what remains of the ‘programmatist’ party form.
5. For these reasons, the unacknowledged crux of the election is race, famously “the modality in which class is lived“. He’s deleted his account for the moment but Joshua Clover did a thread I partially agree with, the gist being that the result, leaning towards affective revanchism of Leave, its ideological cluster of white supremacy, murderous resentment and scarcity thinking, should be seen not as a final verdict on the beliefs of what remains of the Labour base but the option parliamentarianism returns after the collapse of programmatism. This underestimates the spatial contradictions of British development since the end of empire, with swathes of the Labour base distributed in provincial and exurban nodes of non-production (Lisa Nandy’s dreaded ‘towns’) – it isn’t just John Harris who meets racist white retirees in Bolsover or wherever. The question of whether and how the left can contest such widespread and conspicuously unacknowledged racism in the face of a nexus of racialised policy and a media dedicated, at its worst, to outright culture war, is immensely difficult. But the practical relation between the electoral and the social has to proceed from the rejection of any concession to the actually existing fascism of Yarl’s Wood and UKIP. The Commune will only be made by all, if it ever is. The alternative is unthinkable.
December 24, 2019 § Leave a comment
10 large sons
Kali Malone – The Sacrificial Code
Black to Comm – Seven Horses For Seven Kings
Purple Mountains – Purple Mountains
Félicia Atkinson – The Flower And The Vessel
The Caretaker – Everywhere at the End of Time (Stage 6)
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib – Bandana
Levon Vincent – World Order Music
Croation Amor – Isa
People Like Us – The Mirror
Carl Stone – Himalaya
Zaimph – Rhizomatic Gaze / London Sound Survey – Thames / Oren Ambarchi – Simian Angel / Baby Blue – Death of Euphoria / Solange – When I Get Home / Michael Vincent Waller – Moments / Ka Baird – Respires / Sarah Davachi – Pale Bloom / Richard Dawson – 2020 / Bill Orcutt – Odds Against Tomorrow / Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated
Robert Ashley – Private Parts / David Behrman – On the Other Ocean / Luc Ferrari – Music Promenade/Unheimlich Schon / Curtis Mayfield – first four albums box set / Peter Ivers – Becoming Peter Ivers / Peter Gabriel – II & III / White Lion – “Wait” / Oval – Systemisch to Ovalcommers / Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance/Eureka/Bad Timing/Sleep Like It’s Winter/Steamroom series / Ryuichi Sakamoto – Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence OST / Patrick Farmer & David Lacey – Pell Mell The Prolix
October 6, 2019 § Leave a comment
Everyone’s saying it: hellword 2019 baby. Insert Ric Flair woo here. The signifiers leap to the front of every hot take: Trump, Bolsanaro’s happy blaze in the Amazon, Johnson masterminding Brexit, Kashmir, mass shootings seemingly precision-scheduled. (Austerity that continues to kill and maim the lives of thousands in the UK is too slow-moving to make the threads.) That this same diagnosis came, through social media, to be organically applied to the preceding years since, let’s say, 2016 is a neat demonstration of the temporality of late postmodernity: the exceptional eruption of terror, death and political mismanagement becomes a mere repetition that never stabilises. The new and the old, which for Benjamin were linked in fascism – the persistence of what Marx thought of as the ossified “prehistory” of a liberated humanity, in the guise of an endlessly novel production of commodities, fashions and means of death – are conjoined in a different way. Capitalist realism, as a reality endlessly reproduced to which we’re obliged to adjust ourselves (“that’s what it means to die, to not be able to stop looking at whatever’s in front of you. … You can only accept what’s put there as it is”), becomes something to which we can’t be reconciled – horror emerging in ever new and surprising facets – even as nothing about it qualitatively changes. The movement of what appears on social media as history is without time beyond the steady ratcheting of immiseration. This goes, of course, alongside other and messy forms of time: the ambivalent reality of everyday life more than a decade after the financial crisis, where people who were my age when I left university can get the jobs I didn’t get but for salaries that haven’t kept up with inflation; the slowness of procedural frustration in unions, mass parties and the “things” that count for politics in academia.
I’ve been thinking about this because I finished a PhD thesis recently that ended up revolving, largely, around issues of narrative time in contemporary fiction. It also took a little under four years to write, enough time for other people to file plenty of cultural ‘state of the nation’ thinkpieces. In the midst of all that my own sense of time has been very weird: bogged down in daily time management and word counts, day job grind, always trying to repair sleep patterns. Not on any worthwhile journalistic mailing lists, no regular events to get out to in Birmingham, few friends to see, no weekly TV. A change to all that involves trying to figure where you want your time to go, if it isn’t just dictated, by default, by the hellworld of posting. This isn’t very different from the questions that govern writing about culture (determined in turn by hellworld cycles of commissioning). What temporal frame do things matter in, how do the shifting temporal contexts of our lives align or not to allow a vantage on things? For better or worse I’ve never been someone with a grand critical project, except in the narrow scope of academia (casting the money lenders out of the temple of contemporary fiction studies as an “original contribution to knowledge”). Things don’t just pass through a screen of predetermined responses or slot into the niches of a philosophical system – something that poses a professional problem, as the most palatable stance for editors angling for clicks is empty celebration or denunciation – but it means that when I’ve written something intended as a response to a larger trend or a moment in the culture, it comes from a need to understand things myself, rather than just to restate a trademarked position. In particular I’ve been thinking of an odd piece I wrote for The Wire in December 2014. Every end-of-year essay usually turns out to be writ in water by the next fiscal quarter. But this piece sticks in my head, in part because I think I was wrong in a more interesting way than a lot of similar effusions.
I don’t even seem to have a copy anymore, so I have to go from the heavily edited published version. The original draft wasn’t quite as calibrated in its sense of despair: I noted that there were some bright spots to the pop market, in Beyoncé, Miley’s Bangerz and even the frigid efficiency of 1989. But the sense of a frozen political situation still remains vivid: 4 years into austerity, 2-3 years since the student movement had dispersed into housing and union campaigns, real wages still flat, no fall in unemployment or London rents, 6 months before the next, especially embarrassing general election. The fact I’d been deeply depressed for 6 months – in a horrible housing situation and a shaky relationship, disgusted by my lack of progress as a writer, barely coping outside my day job, giving up on my life in London – probably coloured it. But I was surprised that the only reaction it got, in a twitter thread I won’t look up but you can probably find, from Mat Dryhurst, was a diss for what he took to be a kind of political quietism, a counselled retreat from the travesty of the ‘public sphere’ into a kind of musical hermeticism. I was surprised to learn I’d become what would later be known as a Pepe by noting that music, with no productive traffic between politics and art or between underground and mainstream, might turn its attention to the rich resources of the aesthetic. (The admittedly sad and sweaty prince turned into a frog.) This is, after all, a move repeated across the history of modern art, from Symbolism to the maximalism of much post-internet art: gilt blooms on surfaces, ornamentation ivies across structure, the body goes languid and sinks into softness. I was more surprised that no-one seemed to share the sense of a broken and deeply alienating cultural situation, in which all the ‘public’ situations of culture froze out any actual sense of what used, in the bourgeois era, to be civil freedom. This may have been my real target: a situation where, from the Tate to Barbican to Zabludowicz, the ‘public’ spaces of culture were owned by large, nominally not-for-profit corporations; where arts organisations and the culture press were so weighted towards middle-class people of means in their hiring and commissioning practices that their professional culture remains deeply alien even to someone who went to a Russell Group university; that paying £10-20 for a gig (plus bus fare plus drinks) every other week is an intolerable drain on the resources of someone in precarious and low-paying work. I do still think that institutional structure for presenting and supporting culture – revolving around grants, commissions, residencies, ‘networking’ and ‘small but close’ organisations – has a huge negative effect on the work it ‘makes possible’, and the fact it’s just accepted or, at best, ‘reflected on’ by the work itself, is an instance of capitalist realism at its finest. In a later, less indignant thread, Mat pointed out to me that the kind of public space where culture could still work out its own aesthetic terms was part of DIY culture, one that, after all, was in some ways easier than ever to establish with digital tools. And whilst that only goes so far – DIY doesn’t equal politically radical aesthetics – it starts to go to what’s incorrect about the take, but also what I think has turned out over the longer term to be right (if absent here).
What I find most puzzling on rereading is the spatial metaphor of interior/exterior. The interior is private life, the studio, the internal logic of the songform parsed from ‘content’; the exterior is top 40 radio, political protest, the culture industry, the instrumentalisation of form towards a putatively shared end – form’s movement outwards a set of signifiers, readymade templates of how to ‘do’ protest music, a set of codes of political radicalism (causes, aesthetics, accounts of the political ‘function’ of art). Needless to say, I’m thinking of Adorno’s account of, say, Schoenberg or Stefan George in Aesthetic Theory: art, disengaging itself from the culture industry’s reduction of the aesthetic to the serial and exchangeable form of the commodity, maintains a negative fealty to the ends of liberation the commodity extinguishes etc etc. Read, it has to be said, very crudely! But what this binary actually describes is a dialectical imbrication of the two terms: street life, economics, the suffering and exhaustion that seem to be the whole substance of ‘political’ life, find their fullest expression in form’s hermetic and self-reflexive movement, their being broken up into fragments and rearranged according to a logic that takes an aesthetic of experimental iteration as its end. What governs the metaphor – overdetermines it and forms its real content – is the disappeared horizon of a meaningful cultural and political collectivity.
There are a few points to raise here. Firstly, such collectivities do in fact exist, even in hellworld UK. Friends form bands, put out other people’s records, meet others, have a sense of some shared values (even if it’s just about what are the good or bad guitar sounds now) and experiences. People meet at protests, start small campaigns, make a few rooms into a social centre. Culture, as Raymond Williams endlessly pointed out, is ordinary. They constitute, at one level, DIY culture itself and help form what gets called “survival work”. That doesn’t mean they’re significant by themselves. Evidently (you can tell my thinking about these things is still very imprecise) I was thinking of collectivity at a bigger scale – I never really shared k-punk’s distaste for “neo-anarchism” or “horizontalism”, which seemed to require too much parody of people’s actual positions to work (and I’ve certainly made fun enough of the document in which that position was made most famous) but it did stick in parts. Secondly, if the key is the dialectical tension between the terms, does it much matter ‘where’ things are? Even in Adorno, the grumpy scourge of good adjustment, the aesthetic isn’t identified with psychic interiority. Aesthetic form is already an exteriorisation, the forcing into a hard and specific surface of what would otherwise be raw, undetermined and unlocatable. In Minima Moralia, he explicitly rejects Freud’s notion that the impulses of art emerge from egoic sublimation of the pleasure principle, claiming instead that they’re right on the surface of psychic life, acting as a form of “minimal mediation” in solving the problem that artistic material presents. The right comparison for this move isn’t, in fact, Symbolism but Baudelaire. In Baudelaire’s work, as Benjamin reads it, streets and interior interpenetrate each other, meeting in the threshold zone of the arcade. Psychic life consists of nothing more than the shocks it endures as it meets urban reality. The poem is a cryptogram of this reality that is no longer representable in the inherited and grand terms of lyric. The fragmentation of Laurel Halo or whoever else in the 21st century has a deep affinity with the arbitrary and unstable meaning of correspondances.
This dichotomy of inside/outside is, as it turns out, precisely the “axiomatic” discourse of contemporary art as Suhail Malik sees it. He describes contemporary art’s content as nothing but a “placeholder” for the movement of power in the art world, which takes as its operating fiction the notion that good art would be a politically effective, public art, rather than an internalised, aesthetically self-concerned art. I remain extremely sceptical about Malik’s solutions to this problem, not least for the wholesale voiding of aesthetics from criticism it requires, but it’s easy to see how the piece’s premises wilfully invert a tired and sickening discourse without making it dialectical. More fool me! But I think the way the music I wrote on spoke to, and still speaks to, parts of late-neoliberal life points to a different axis on which to think about it, namely that of time. What I was really asking is: is it possible for contemporary music to register the historical texture of the present, to feel as an “afterimage” (to use Benjamin’s description of the superstructure’s relationship to the base) the place of the synchronic present in the trajectory of late neoliberalism? My answer was, in fact, yes, and the proper point of reference for this wouldn’t have been David Toop but k-punk’s writings on hauntology, in which the impasse of historical thought becomes texture and time-sense. This absolutely doesn’t mean that the music itself thinks the movement of history, properly speaking. Synchronic closure and aporia are the very stuff of social time now (hellworld!), something that the absolutely real openings in politics, of thinkable futures different from the iterative novelty of PR, doesn’t do much to change. The difference and continuity of the last five years* suggests what the music itself did: that a properly critical relationship to the present wouldn’t be one of wished-for apocalyptic transformation, nor of the connoiseurial and professionalised star-rating of culture month on month and year on year, but a time-sense that, as immanent critique, turns the loop into a dérive, a quest for a Northwest Passage that can sit – not without difficulties but neither as a negation – alongside the limited forms of properly political speech and practice the present allows.
*I was thinking of writing something here about how pop music itself has registered this extremely odd episode of time, in relation to which what’s nostalgically called the “underground” defines itself, but I’ll leave that for another post.
September 22, 2019 § Leave a comment
September 3, 2019 § Leave a comment
May 25, 2019 § Leave a comment