Sunday, 20 July 2008

Against Hauntology (Giving Up The Ghost).

A fashionable current in the territory where critical theory touches pop culture is a renewed, expanded, and re-oriented notion of the Hauntological. This philosophical concept originates in Derrida's Spectres Of Marx, but in its current formulation it is applied to a particular aesthetics of pop music, whilst carrying with it the echoes of its original political context. In a sense Hauntology's ghostly audio is seen as form of good postmodernism, as set against the bad PoMo of a rampaging retroism. Beached as it seems we are at the end of (cultural) history, it is certainly a seductive argument. By foregrounding the processes at the material level (sampling, versioning, deliberately invoking buried/false childhood memories etc) it is contended that such music comes to terms with the deadlock which we face, the inability to properly think the new as such, and makes of this condition something positive.

Set against this we might posit an explicitly nihilist aesthetics of pop music, which whilst in some senses would operate in a similar manner, would be crucially bereft of the quality of mourning. It is this regard that Hauntology links to a mood of melancholic defeatism in Western left wing politics. What is noticeable is that beyond merely foregrounding the processes of recording and thereby demonstrating the nature of our time, hauntological musical works are frequently acts of reverent mourning for some better time, for some golden age forever foreclosed to us (be it the Ghost Box label's pre-Thatcher era of socialist government from 1945-1979, or Burial's rave-necromancy). Some of the stronger pro-hauntology arguments have run along neo-Benjaminian lines, holding that it is not merely an act of mourning for a non-reclaimable past, but rather a way of redeeming time, of reaching across possible universes towards parallel utopias, thereby showing us the possible, rather than just the dead-end intractability of our present socio-cultural situation. If all pop music now is a process of mourning the past, (most commonly seen in the retro-necro indie scene, but clearly observable in dance music, hip hop and metal) then hauntology's emphasis on placing that process centre stage is the obvious logical move.

The problem for me at least, is that this is essentially a position of total defeat, absolutely of a piece with the comfortably melancholic disease which has afflicted the left since the 1990s at least. From this perspective, Hauntology is a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form. In summary, haunology cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose, because of an a priori assumption: that there is nothing else, (at this moment in time at least) that nothing else is possible, and as such we are to make the best of this(and that the best we can do is to hint at the possible which remains forever out of reach- with all the pseudo-messianic dimensions this involves). I would position two strands of argument against this: Firstly (if we believe the hauntologists discursive a priori), as I have hinted at above, we might think a more nihilist aesthetic which seeks not merely to foreground the processes of postmodern audio-necromancy, but rather to accelerate the system to its ultimate demise, to speed up the rate of fashion-flux to a point of irredeemable collapse. Rather than an act of reverence, of mourning, of touching at impossible universes from a distance, this would be a deliberate and gleeful affirmation. Alternatively, we might consider Badiou's analysis of the emergence of the new, which would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Theoretical Explosive Devices in an endless Asymmetrical War.

This piece at Poetix reminded me of something highly intriguing which arose during my Philosophy Masters-- the issue of the misappropriation of (largely post-Marxist) theory by organisations and institutions entirely ideologically contraposed to it. One noteworthy example was the fondness of the Israeli Defence Force for tactics derived from concepts extracted from Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, using their notion of smooth and striated space as inspiration for innovative battle stratagems leading their forces to advance through Palestinian walls rather than accept the pre-existing topology of sniper-laden backstreets (for more information see: More interesting is the incorporation of post-structuralist political theory into modern business/management schools. Even a philosopher as blatantly Marx-influenced as Antonio Negri is capable of utilisation, carefully stripped of revolutionary import and his ideas removed and redeployed in a modular fashion. Zizek touched upon this issue in his rather weak anti-Deleuzean book Organs Without Bodies, but although his point itself (that Deleuzean concepts often come uncomfortably close in certain lights to ideological vectors for capitalism, and that in many ways Deleuze is THE ideologue for late Capital) is not argued very strongly, as a provocation it potentially opens up new directions: Deleuze isn't really an ideologue for late capitalism, of course, but what if he was...?

What is necessary from my own perspective is a form of theory which is self-sabotaged from within- that already knows and anticipates incorporation and recuperation by late Capital, and in doing so gains part of its very efficacy as praxis via such incorporation. If the problem for Deleuze and Guattari or Antonio Negri was that for the former a tool-box of philosophy is liable to be de-systematised and used in perverse manners, and for the latter that a theory based around the politics of emotion slides too easily into a world of motivational speaking and team-building exercises (the end of Negri's Insurgencies is especially guilty of this, a hallmark card world of undeserved and dangerous optimism...) then a new approach to the problem of our contemporary socio-political times is required, shorn of faux-naive renunciations of responsibility. If "radical" theory is either ignored, constrained to discussion within academic departments, or grotesquely twisted/lifted out of context to be used by capitalism, then the solution must be to think the interaction between the political and the theoretical in a new articulation.

In a certain sense this theoretical paradigm would be entirely terroristic in nature, concepts as improvised explosive devices deployed in an endless asymmetrical conflict, wherein the border between theory and praxis is redefined. In a sense theory-as-weapon has no particular recourse to truth, or indeed to rational coherence, any more so than is required in order for it to become attractive enough to be reabsorbed by the engines of capitalism. If there is no outside left, if integrated globalised consumer-capitalism is as intractable as it appears, then the only position from which to act which remains is perhaps inevitably from the inside, acting on the same plane as Capital.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Falling out of love pt 1: Dubstep.

Some interesting remarks over at The Impostume on the ineffable mediocrity of London Zoo, the latest album by post-dubstep avant-dancehall producer The Bug. I think Carl is right to dismiss the album as rather a disappointment, though the terms in which he phrases it seem to me to ring slightly false(authenticity). Of course he is correct to note the somewhat artificial nature of the interaction between performers and producer, and the way in which it has very definitely been produced with an eye on a third party audience of urban hipsters. Though many of the vocal performances on the record are half-hearted and lyrically unconvincing, I have come to suspect that the chief problem lies fundamentally with Dubstep itself. Of all the records I have heard in the last six months, I have noticed that highly acclaimed dubstep records have frequently begun to leave me cold, totally unengaged, where once I was rapt with excitement at every micro-twist and turn in the developing aesthetic of the genre. The problem with London Zoo is not the inauthenticity surrounding its conception, but rather the stolidly unimaginative nature of the contemporary dubstep demi-monde.

Two years ago or so I very much found myself in the position of a cheerleader for the scene, pointing to its unique centring on bodily affect within the club environment, the open ended nature of the generic category, the potentiality for fertile cross-fertilisations. Curiously, it is only now that certain kinds of genre miscegenation are occuring the genuine flaws in the entire edifice are made visible. Certainly in the crossover point between Germanic minimal techno and dubstep as evinced by the recent 2562 album, the sense of sheer joylessness is palpable, as if it were simply a matter of PoMo mechanistics that this particular combination of pre-existing generic territories ought to be conjugated together- the end result being some of the most numbingly duff music I have ever heard: too tight-arsed to be properly, infectiously danceable, texturally drab (unlike a lot of truly great minimal which has such finely burnished textural prettiness that makes what seems like a dry technique-for-technique's sake perfectionism actually work) and simply purposeless. Who, precisely, is this music for?

It is therefore curious to see K-Punk, the great dubstep-doubter for many years, finally coming around to the genre in a review for this album. K-Punk is correct to point towards the essential interpretation of dub-as-process rather than plastic rasta signifier, and to the primacy of the art of space-sculpting in any dub inspired music, but it is strange that he would choose a review of the 2562 record to make such a point- an album as flat and de-spacialized as any in recent memory. In his concluding remarks K-Punk points to the danger of minimal, like dubstep, becoming merely a connoisseur’s music, "tastefully uncluttered in the way that minimalist flats are". It is a great line, but what makes minimal techno of the 00s variety so great is precisely the manner in which it is exactly this, a matter of supremely refined taste, textures chosen like exquisite wood finishes or burnished steel, beautiful machines for living in, emblematic of an aesthetic of late-consumerist luxury, the distinction between a mediocre track and a great one being mainly an issue of these gorgeous surfaces. In the manner of high-end interior design (or an artfully chosen font indeed) this is not art which sets itself up in opposition to the current socio-economic situation- instead it delivers finely wrought pleasure within an ultimately limited format. The problem with dubstep is that whilst being similarly limited and similarly unchallenging to the status quo its pleasures are minatory in comparison.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Functional Brokenness: Post-metal, grime, and naming the unnameable.

Kicking off this blog I would like to talk about the debut album by the Denton, Texas post-metal quartet Pyramids. This album certainly appears to have attracted an unnecessary (though perhaps understandable) degree of opprobrium. The first thing which needs to be said is that Pyramids approach the current metal fixation of breeding shoegazing sounds into the genre from a totally different angle from say Jesu or Nadja, the latter two bands taking a doom metal approach, Pyramids attacking the problem from what initially seems to be a black metal one. But then again that doesn't seem to tell the whole story either, as whilst there are indeed furiously pummelling (and yet characteristically puny) blast beats on the majority of tracks, it is also pretty readily apparent that Pyramids are not themselves from a straight up black metal background (the preponderance of decisively beautiful, indie-ish vocals puts firmly payed to that idea). What is most appealing about this album is that unlike Jesu or Nadja the components are never totally successfully integrated, each element (the blastbeats, the effeminately indie vocals, the skyscraping psychedelic guitar histrionics) standing slightly disjunct from the others (sometimes literally so as others have commented as drum machines appear to enter from a completely different song, tempo and all). In this way Pyramids totally reinvigorate the now somewhat shopworn concept of shoegaze metal, rendering it genuinely alien and surprising, foregrounding everything that is wrong about the concept in the first place. In so doing the album has an avant feel quite unlike anything else out there, and for all its obviously derivative parts, smacks gleefully of the new.

I have heard Pyramids described (in a pejorative sense) as "self-conscious metal". What is most interesting is that this is absolutely the case, not only that but it is self-doubting metal, which functions precisely by dint of its brokenness. In many ways this reminds me of listening to the first wave of Grime records- working in virgin territory still yet to be properly charted, the beats seemed to be falling apart in front of your eyes, snares striking up startling new positions far from the second and fourth beats of the bar, akin to the garage which bore it, and yet working to deconstruct the beat even further. A kind of cubism of the drum line was occurring, all the more thrilling for what it implied. And herein lies the chief issue with the avant-accidental, that it functions partly because the creators have yet to fix it. In certain respects this is a matter of technical facility and expertise, but I think a much more important factor is that the creators have yet to actually work out precisely what it is that they are heading towards. Hanging undecided, the music sits liminally in a position of pure potential. However as soon as the music is fixed, it loses its avant-materiality (the actual sound of the tracks shifts towards a genre conventionality) as well as the feel of potentiality (we now know what Grime is, it has been decisively fixed, and hence in some regards, ossified).

All this immediately brings the contemporary continental philosopher Alain Badiou to mind. Badiou attempts to think the emergence of the new and in so doing establish an ethics of truths, expressed as open ended generic procedures. For him the evil which might befall such procedures is threefold: slavishly reifying the event which initiated the sequence, (back to '88 hip hop being a paradigmatic example) betraying the event (the thermidorean moment where the entryist new pop of the early 80s shifts into the "adult", "tasteful" MOR of the Eurythmics and the event of punk is disowned) and forcing the naming the unnameable. It is the latter which appears most apposite here, the "unnameable" being to decide once and for all what the procedure was heading towards, which inevitably halts the process.