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.