March 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

via Richard King


Notebook (south London diary)

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe”; yes, well south London is an island. He’s not sure what he means by this. Even here he has failed to achieve what he wanted, to be hidden in the folds of the city – although no-one answers his letters, & like fortune herself, he left no forwarding address.

It’s notable, he thinks, that the passage occurs in Donne’s sermons, preached at St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street, rather than in the poems – those searingly intense speakings out of lyric individuation, dialectically tracing the (possible/necessary) interweaving of one in two, the bony embrace of the particular mediated by the universal of the grave – or the penitent ravished by God (Donne, obviously, was a Hegelian avant la lettre). To be nominated as not-island is no comfort: one is automatically, objectively, part of a landmass; to break out of estrangement (“this society reduces geographical distance only to reap internal distance”) means something else.


He remembers London, a year ago, twice in a couple of days: the rage, the wrecked windows, the banners, the stand-offs, the shouts, the public speech in letters ten feet high of March 26th; a week later, Gordon Square in a downpour of hawthorne blossom, the sheer stunning warmth of the air that had, only weeks earlier, seemed deadly to breathe. He had a few drinks w/ A. the day after the protest. His rage & helplessness, hardly meeting her eyes, was an unacknowledged rehearsal for a future he hardly knew he was plotting. He & R. went to the Susan Hiller retrospective, as awkward as he could manage. Having broken his glasses, he peered through an old wire-frame pair. Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, an assemblage of postcards of waves, including, he noted approvingly, a few from his hometown. He watched the point where her hair rested so beautifully on her shoulders, listened to the voices of the dead. A peck on the cheek, the train home.

For some of us it is a life & death situation.


But – this is the point – even the weather repeats itself in south London: the same sequence of days, the same intensity of light, the same motion of cloud dissipating to an aching blue, the same quality of warm breeze. In the park in their adopted hometown, he looked up through the branches to white flowers courted by bees, & they talked about their parents, the one thing – ok not the one thing – he wanted shot of. Months later, he wrote a too-long letter to L. about what he imagined the light in south London – Norwood, Sydenham, Lewisham, Forest Hill – was like, an idea that was less invention than the memory of long, boring childhood afternoons. Even that tinny, washed-out quality he catches as he walks to & fro disappears; the Crystal Palace Transmitting Tower is a figure of awful clarity. “The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on wh/ we map them for our own convenience… remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; & houses, roads, avenues are fugitive, alas, as the years.” Yes, regret.  Peter Szondi’s phrase apropos of Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood Around 1900 – “hope in the past” – takes on a disfiguring irony: he remembers, in the recall of this weather, a happiness that drew upon the memory of future happiness. He lived in every sense beyond his means. He is perhaps now living out the consequences of his debt.

March 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

March 29, 2012 § 3 Comments

Notes on Bass, Pop, etc.

March 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

About a month ago, I took part in a talk at Warwick on ‘The Politics of Contemporary Music’. I did a short bit in response to Neil Kulkarni’s speech analysing the potential political/aesthetic implications of the collapse of the music industry for hip-hop. Melissa Bradshaw also made a response. As the recording of my piece didn’t come out in the wash, below is a fleshed-out version of my notes. I recommend also hearing Adam Harper’s contribution & reading Dan Neofetou’s response.
What I’m going to say in some ways goes against what first Neil & then Melissa have been suggesting. It seems to me that we can’t just choose not to listen to the mainstream when thinking about our response to this music: if we want to think about the political possibilities of electronic music, it can’t be understood on its own, but framed in relation to the mainstream, for the obvious reason of, y’know, capitalism. I wanted to just really make some suggestions regarding the formal implications of the shift that Neil is outlining. It’s interesting, because we’ve seen this, the collapse of a major media industry & hence a whole structure of control, happen once before, in Hollywood, where the studio system, which severely constrained what producers & directors could put out, had effectively collapsed by the end of the 1960s; the result of which was that the movies did not necessarily grow more imaginatively free, & Hollywood’s function as an “ideological state apparatus”, in Althusser’s phrase, was upheld – Joan Didion notes that, throughout the 50s & 60s, screenwriters would say “if it weren’t for Hollywood, I could do the work I really wanted”, but after the collapse of the studios they were, for the most part, putting out the same old unimaginative pap. So this suggests one possibility for pop & hip-hop: we shouldn’t take it as given, as some bloggers & writers have, that liberation will occur automatically, as it were. The conditions of economic decentralisation, mediated by the internet, have already become well advanced in UK bass music, so we can best grasp some of the possibilities & dangers there I think.

On the one hand, there’s the UK bass scene that’s grown out of dubstep & grime: aesthetically adventurous, with a sense of looseness & experimentation being viable, a sense that any kind of material can be interpolated into the interstices of tracks, a strong interconnection between its ‘intellectual’ & less intellectual sections (compare w/ techstep: the equivalent of Ben UFO having a show on Rinse could never have happened in the late d’n’b scene*); an immense sense of possibility not only from a critical but a production point of view, & from the point of view of the lived experience of raves, wh/ constitute the living-ground of the music. On the other hand, a transatlantic pop sound that’s becoming increasingly self-parodic, insane, crumpling up from inside distended rhythmic structures, overcompressed dynamics (in both senses), its source material increasingly coming not from hip-hop (a form at least w/ the possibility of a critical edge), but from the worlds of entertainment, rock, commercial European dance music; a sound that is so visibly complicit with the logic of the culture industry that it becomes difficult even to scorn: Jessie J’s ‘Price Tag’, with its fungible celebration of the non-fungible, Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’, with its weird riot/shoplifting video in the weeks after the real riots of last year, as backdrop to a painfully bad trance chorus; a pop whose characteristics are obviously forged by the siege mentality of a pop industry collapsing from within. Pop’s neoliberal vow of political silence is matched & masked by an aesthetic muting of political possibilities, by its eager assimilation to and affirmation of the world as it currently exists, a world whose unimpeded course is the sole necessity for the deformation & destruction of all of our lives.

What is reproduced socially in the music’s reception is in part a divergence in what marketing language calls the ‘demographic’: on the one hand, a ubiquitous pop sound co-extensive with the spectacle, inescapable in the social world & the internet (promised in the 90s as a healthy refuge from the social, a world of choice), which nonetheless doesn’t have the same kind of libidinal investment as pop in its modernist or even early post-modernist phase. On the other hand, exquisite aesthetic forms that exist primarily in a culture of connosieurship, rumour, geographically specific raves, a torrent of releases one has to have heard of & keep up w/, blog mixes from wh/ one has to sort the wheat from the chaff, expensive small-edition vinyl. You don’t hear these sorts of sounds in even the most esoteric clubs in Coventry, & you wouldn’t in Leam either except for the interest of a few people who run a couple of club nights (in venues that anyway scared me off attending). (Incidentally, this is the case too w/ a lot of decent hip-hop, whose existence I know of only from Neil’s columns. From this end of the 2000s, early 00s hip-hop (& grime & garage & early dubstep, as the continuation of electronic dance music’s form as an avant-garde art-form in the 90s) looks increasingly utopian in its convergence of aesthetic futurism & all-conquering reach – a strange situation given that so many of the most exquisite UK bass productions of recent years have an evident sympathy with the form. The current situation is isn’t what we wanted, & it’s not what the early 00s promised; as an outcome it’s intensely unsatisfying, & if we are going to have a future where, as advocates of the Web 2.0 model suggest, people will be judged according to what they do, not what they earn, any such future cannot be predicated on a minority model of listening. What do we do w/ the spectacle: seize its machineries? Probably not: the difficulty in rerouting the direction of movement of the train that is capitalism was evident already to the anti-Stalinist tendencies of the mid-20th century; but then the new models of funding, distribution etc. – wh/ depend, as with Cashmusic or Kickstarter, or the resurgence in vinyl, upon middle-class generosity, turning music into a charity concern – don’t look like satisfactory solutions either. We need to start asking why it’s the case, when it is undoubtedly only a perception that things have to be this unsatisfying way, things aren’t really moving in this direction, & why the aesthetics of the music have proved as limited as they have.

That requires a more totalising critique than the press or even most of the voices outside print have been willing to do. The truth is that UK bass & transatlantic pop are, as Adorno & Horkheimer said of low & high culture, two halves of a broken truth that don’t add up to a whole. As with their observation, we must say that neither holds the high ground; “the gap between them is the truth”, the registration of the rift in the life of a society damaged at every level by the division of labour & the dominance of the law of exchange. Early 00s hip-hop made clear that their division was as unnecessary as the division of labour itself in an economy in wh/ the levels of the forces of production were sufficient for all to live a free & decent existence. It’s difficult not to think that this problem is related to the underlying conditions, the more general crisis, just as the most recent mutations in both these forms are: the collapse of late capitalist time since the beginning of the economic crisis, & the undead state of neoliberalism. In pop, we find in its structures the helter-skelter time of an immaterial production robbed of any teleological object, any reason to keep going, now run amok; a symptom rather than an aesthetic action of mastering the possibility of the decay of the old world unleashes. In UK bass, James Blake’s early records come to mind as works that articulate the intense historical disorientation of our period, in their tense, fuzzy sensuality, past-midnight ambience, blurred echoes of past pop, as do Burial’s and Actress’s productions, but the former are inadequate in turn; Blake’s shift to whiny white-boy fumblings were prefigured in the somnambulant motion of his early language.

The possibilities for aesthetics of the present moment will depend upon us having a grasp of the juncture we find ourselves in – not only the collapse of the forms of production, distribution, commercial models of the pop industry, but the internal collapse of the forms of time native to the now-harried spectacle, the forms of time native to a neoliberalism now collapsing from within. That this is beyond a music press still dominated by class power is obvious. But for the rest of thosprojecting towards the glorious future promised to electronic music by web 2.0, the present situation of chartered flows should perhaps be seen as only a moment in the dialectic, something to be overcome.

*The comparison w/ drum-&-bass is probably wrong: dubstep didn’t calcify in quite the same way as jungle did in the late 90s. (tbc)


One of the issues that came up in the Q & A afterwards concerned the question of what the real political valences of the shift in the music industry were. I remember chipping in w/ one of my usual unhelpful affirmations of “the necessity of smashing capitalism”. R. asked me in the pub later whether I was “pessimistic” about contemporary music. I don’t think I gave a very helpful reply, but I could try & give one now. I’ll quite happily reiterate that I don’t think the emerging model – in wh/ everything is accessible & everyone is connected via the internet, w/ people essentially financing their own work for it to become another part of a torrent of ones and zeroes, a few MB on an iPod – is ideal or utopian, or even admits of utopian possibilities, no matter how much I like the idea of living, as K-Punk once speculated, in a rural idyll & getting all my music & sociality free through the laptop. Perhaps the continuing affection for physical formats is, as Jameson speculated of modernism in general, the result of ongoing uneven development, & in the wholly digital future, with music passing nowhere near a record company, there’ll be no discomfort w/compressed digital sound, or laptop speakers, or strained eyes from staring at laptop screens; but it comes too close to the frictionless, dematerialised motion of capital for my liking. It should be using the weapons of capital against itself – the Technik of artworks outstripping capitalist development in general – but when I listen to Spotify or look on the Independent‘s website, with every spare inch covered in adverts, it feels like the opposite. There’s a more fundamental problem, wh/ is the limited nature of the claims being made by those involved in the present conflict. What’s clear is that people do recognise the nature of the conflict – between a ‘we’ who listen to & make music, & a ‘they’, a pop industry whose operations to shore up a relentlessly crumbling infrastructure amount to little more than enclosure of the commons. These are, needless to point out, economic positions, & recognised as such. But to wrest & then control our own little corner of the market in wh/ to play isn’t enough: the struggles need to be pushed to their limit, to the point where the . The conduct of the struggle at present, then, is liberal: a wish to allow everyone their own little bit of property, away from the power of monopoly, a demand nicely congruent w/ the conversion of pop music into a middle-class hobby. It’s those without power, without property, who will make the difference.

March 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m an L.O.N. kid / I got the hood snakes hissing

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