Friday, 13 February 2009

The vicissitudes of the hardcore continuum and the great deceleration.

An extremely interesting debate has been occurring of late as regards the status of Simon Reynolds’ concept of the “hardcore continuum”. Here it would appear there are two chief claims being made by the defenders of the continuum: that the new bass-music (dubstep, funky, wonky, bassline) fits broadly within the remit of the continuum, and that it is demonstrably less innovative than before. The counter claims from those in the generation below run that the model itself is overdetermining their response to the new, and that as such the argument is incoherent (running both that “funky, wonky, dubstep, bassline, etc… can all be safely fitted into the HCC model” AND “but they don’t fit the model, and HENCE are indicative of a generational decline”).

Putting the model to one side, I would want to focus on the most interesting claim made by Simon Reynolds and Mark K-Punk, that of the declining innovatory potentials of UK bass music, one which the younger generation fail to fully address. For whilst I agree in part with those such as Dan Hancox who argue that too little attention is being paid to the ways in which these new forms draw strength precisely from that which escapes the limitations of the continuum, be that G-Funk for Joker or Afro-House for funky, I also firmly contend that the rate and depth of innovations in this field (and indeed every field of musical cultural production) has slowed down. The reasoning for this is historical and material, and in part serves to evade the intergenerational backbiting which forms the libidinal matrix at the core of this particular dispute. For contained in Mark’s assessment is some notion that creative processes, whilst socially and economically conditioned, retain a degree of individual freedom- and hence it is a moral failing on the part of this generation to not have produced innovations comparable with their forefathers. I believe we have good reason to reject this argument, and to take a historical and material view on the processes which have informed the creation of British urban dance music over the last 18 or so years. In part it is the very capitalist realist processes which Mark so often rails against which condition the thinking that what has been always will be so (or could be so, perhaps).

In considering precisely why it is that late capital seems to endlessly reproduce in the cultural field an entropic retrospection and reiterative nostalgia would it be absurd to deem cultural resources as operating in an entirely dissimilar way to energy resources? Oil and natural gas are the products of millions of years of lifeforms absorbing energy from our sun and the actions of the earth’s geology, and hence are strictly finite. In much of the discourse surrounding energy crisis it is a commonplace to consider the thesis that the twentieth century was an absolute rupture or aberration, powered almost entirely by the global tapping of hydrocarbon energy resources to enable an unparalleled technological expansionism. That capitalist ‘realism’ always covers over its intrinsically radical status blinds us to the fact that recent history is borne entirely upon the back of a brief window of opportunity created by an utterly contingent and ultimately meagre resource. I would want to argue that in a similar sense the unbearable necrotic grip of the postmodern exists partly in response to the approach of another looming impasse within the field of cultural resources. In a similar fashion perhaps, the total output of the world’s cultures to date might be considered to equally have a material limit. For much of the history of the world these resources were accumulated, but in a manner which prevented immediate exploitation, either geographically isolated from each other or lost to the passing of history. The twentieth century might indeed be read in cultural terms as an unparalleled exploitation of previously geographically (and chronologically) inaccessible resources. In an oversimplifying model we might consider there to be three kinds of resources which enable rapid development in the cultural field:

1. Geographically remote resources- cf gamelan – made available by ever expanding globalised capitalism;
2. Historically previously forgotten/under-exploited resources- cf: dance punk – made available by ever increasing technologically assisted access to previously out-of print or difficult to obtain back catalogue;
3. Technological developments- cf: timestretching in early 90s Jungle… and which obviously exists in some kind of dynamic relation to (1) and (2).

In terms of the HCC the primary drivers have been (1) and (3), though perhaps of late it has been increasingly (2) (for example in the return to 2-step in the works of Burial, 2562, Martyn etc). Against this we might position a basic endogenous rate of change which is far less rapid, which has received in the last hundred years an unparalleled and ultimately artificial stimulus. From the current perspective it seems as if geographically remote resources are increasingly ‘dry’, the historical pockets of wealth, the exploitation of which have marked the last 20 or so years of pop culture, also looking ever more threadbare. Technology too appears to be in a state of consolidation rather than exponential growth, and hence the rate of change is reverting to a previously slower rate. That this has occurred within a economic and social system which has evolved against the backdrop of a far greater velocity means that even when resources are scarce, the economic and mass-psychological need (or perhaps we might say addiction) to a high velocity of innovation is maintained- leading, we might argue, towards the necrotic grip of retroism and aesthetic consolidation. In a sense capitalism has reached a point where geographical expansion is no longer possible, there is no outside left absorb. Given this, and the limitations of the endogenous cultural growth rate for the forms of capitalism which have evolved in this period, the deterritorialization of time itself is the symptom of an underlying resource poverty. The depressing conclusion of such a hypothesis being that once we have divested ourselves of the seamless dyschronia of capitalist-realist ideology our future appears to hold little but a protracted return to cultural and economic ice-age austerity.

Rather than thinking it is the postmodern issue of “clotted influences”-- a panoply of overly diverse and diffuse influential materials to draw upon leading to an incoherent output, as theorised by Reynolds—instead it is the very exhaustion of these materials which is at the core of cultural deceleration. For example, it is only possible for techno to absorb the hip-hop breakbeat ONCE, which initially gives rise to an immense new field of possible musical forms, but which over time become gradually worn out. So whilst I would defend funky and wonky as noteworthy innovations demanding serious attention (in the last year or so they have occupied 90% of my listening within the field of electronic music) it is indeed correct that if you played a wonky track to someone five years ago they would be unsurprised, whereas a ’97 techstep track to a raver from 1992 would seem like a radical step forward. Part of what Reynolds argues with the HCC was that a certain social, technological, and distributive network was able to synthesise influences in a way which led to emergent genres which were not immediately reducible to a mere additive process upon their influences. In contrast, he identifies much recent bass music from the UK as simply the sum total of their component parts, never reaching the point where something new emerges out of the chemical reaction between influences. But instead of this being a failure of modernist will (or desire for the new) as I detect in some of his and Mark’s arguments, the real problem is the sheer mass of history. This is operative not merely in the sense of a psychological pressure, which I think is insufficient to explain the current processes, but instead as a matter of generic “niches” within the cultural-ecosystem of dancers. I can't help thinking the real problem is percussion: after the hyper-on cut up funk of jungle and the sick alien-suave swing of UKG, there appears nowhere uptempo to go. The question is of how many uptempo stable "attractors" exist within such a limited set up. The hivemind or parallel processing capabilities of “scenius” (a complex meshwork system with certain key "sorting points") is certainly great, but not infinitely productive, especially given the eventual solidification or standardisation of previously fluid dynamics into institutional frameworks (which include the very theory of the continuum itself of course, although this perhaps has only a limited feedback potential back towards the producers/dancers etc). Hence the contemporary status of much UK bass music as being, if not actively retro-necro (which is unfair I think) perhaps simply consolidatory in nature. Whilst consolidation has always been an element of musical creativity, the exhaustion of stable attractors within a given consumption milieu (dancing, listening) means that it is left to simply additively utilise external influence-components, rather than achieving new emergent syntheses, characterised by the “shuffling of a deck” of possibilities already established elsewhere. This does not necessarily make for bad music, per se, and I am much more likely to listen to the latest Joker or Starkey tune than sit mournfully reminiscing over old Omni Trio 12”s. But the libindal investment in The Now, the addictive cultural expectation that what happens in this time is Important, (concurrent with the bad/misread Deleuzo-Guattarean notion of affirmation at all costs, and the injunction to “Enjoy!”) must not be allowed to blot out the all too real state of affairs. Ultimately it is a question of the mindset induced by capital’s de-temporalising hypnosis- in actuality what we have experienced is merely a blip, perhaps never to be again repeated, 150 or so years of extreme resource binging, the equivalent to an epic amphetamine session. What we are already experiencing is little more than the undoubtedly grim “comedown” of the great deceleration.


kvond said...

I love your change to black background. One vote there.


Mitchell said...

Very interesting. I've been enjoying Lukid's Foma, which to me sounds pretty much like a bass-heavy, off-kilter mutation of 90s-style blunted beats. I was struck by the artist's vigorous declaration that despite what the critics say, this is not trip-hop. I'm coming in cold to the debate but I gather this would be an instance of it.

One thought on the natural/cultural resources argument. It seems to be focused on the sonic specificity of the music - ie based on (critical) listening. And I think I'd agree that on that level the "rate of innovation" has slowed down. But maybe (optimistically) the differences between (say) Lukid and Luke Vibert are more to do with the contexts, practices, circuits etc that the music is involved in? Maybe the culture is "innovating" even if we can't hear it in the music? As someone on the old fogey end of this intergenerational debate, I wouldn't know...

Daniel said...

I think that you make some theoretical mistakes in this analysis.

You seem to base your logic upon the logic of diminishing natural resources under capitalism, the apparent implication of which is that our recent history of material excess (well, excess for some) can only happen once in history.

From a Marxist point of view, this is a reductionist and mechanical understanding of human society. The whole point of society is that it is much more than the sum of its parts, i.e. the already existing material world - otherwise it would never develop beyong some basic existence. Human society is built upon the dynamic of the increasing productivity of labour, i.e. that labour produces more than it consumes. This allows for division of labour, new social formations, and cultural development (because some minds are freed from the necessity of backbreaking labour).

So capitalism's reliance upon the diminishing material resources is actually not proof that human society has some sort of absolute limit, but rather that as a social system it is unable to develop our productive forces so that we use energy more efficiently and come up with new kinds of energy.

I think the same applies to culture. Culture is the expression of the totality of the dynamic of social relations. Hence the new culture that sprang up with new technology - this changed human and social existence, gave rise to new experiences and thus new art. Of course, as any social system exhausts its possibilities for expansion, it will stall in its creation of new culture; this is what we are seeing to some extent now.

If capitalism is overthrown, and labour is freed to once again develop the productive forces, and social relations and technology and our way of life change dramatically, then it should follow that new artistic opportunities will come about. For example, I think it is clear that because of the extreme mental/manual division of labour under capitalism, art is reliant upon the individual genius, making the crowd passive observers. This is to some extent stultifying.

Perhaps if socialism can come about, it would socialise music creation (which has to some extent happened anyway under capitalism, with the increasing education of the working class and access to computers and increase in free time etc.) Art would be less reliant upon some isolated genius. I think Lucky Dragons interactive live shows are perhaps an (extremely underdeveloped and one off) example of this possibility. THis would create new sounds and art forms.

Alex said...

Daniel-- I think you ignore the crux of my argument, which in essence is that yes, culture's produce growth endogenously, but crucially that these resources have been exploited in a previously unimaginable fashion. I do not claim that culture will not continue to develop, of course it will, it is simply that the rate of change to which we have become accustomed is not infinitely sustainable, because of the way it draws upon previously remote or chronologically lost resources. Even if globalised communism were to be established, which will for a variety of reasons probably not occur, and more rationalistic systems of cultural production and organisation developed, this still does not avoid the central issue. The impact of cultural resources depletes with time, in its place will be a slower endogenous rate of growth. What is crucial is the parallax between our artificially heightened perceptions of cultural velocity and the exhausted stream of resources our cultural empires have to draw upon, and it is this I believe which leads to the sclerotic nature of contemporary postmodern culture. It is NOT an absolute limit, it is a deceleration. Further under the current modes of production it is not at all clear that artistic production is entirely the business of the individualistic auteur, (though these do exist)-- indeed within underground music especially dance music, it is the collective interactions between complex social assemblages which give rise to change. A dramatic change in social relations may well inculcate new forms of creativity, this is undoubtedly a possibility, (an acceleration of the endogenous rate of cultural change perhaps) but would still I suspect fail to fill the void left by the unparalleled shift in human history, made possible by integrated global capitalism over the last 150 years.

Daniel said...

I don't understand this idea of cultural resources. Where do they come from, what are they, how do they emerge in human society? My whole point is that society does not rely upon some external, once-and-for-all given resource, but creates its own resources out of its own constantly developing existence. Although it is true that you have said it is not an 'absolute' limit, only a deceleration, the implication is still one of an absolute external limitation, since you seem to argue that our culture decelerates since we are constantly feeding off this cultural resource, which you think is limited. Therefore our cultural creativity is, according to this logic, subject to some absolute limitation, even if it never quite gets there.

This is why it is so important, i think, for you to say what creates this cultural resource, and how it interacts with society. Then we can understand whether it is running out or not.

Alex said...

There is no absolute limit- all I am suggesting is that Capitalism in its vampiric need to exploit ever more streams of revenue, and human creativity wedded to this, has for the last 150 or so years received an artificial stimulus. The stimulus takes the form of hidden or occluded forms of cultural information. One example might be Gamelan-- developed in Indonesia and Java over a long period of time, in isolation from the west-- formed by various social interactions and practices, and yes, of course, human productivity. I use the term "resource" to link our thinking of cultural energy to physical energy resources, but the way in which this accumulation takes place is quite distinct. I agree that human society does not "rely upon some external, once-and-for-all given resource, but creates its own resources out of its own constantly developing existence" as you put it. What capital has made possible, in a way which directly recalls its binging on petroleum and natural gas resources, is efficient exploitation of these accumulated reserves, efficiently conjoining and disseminating them. This process means that all of a sudden the resources people have created (in musical terms: textures, chord patterns, tonal/microtonal systems, drum patterns, structures etc) are suddenly made available to other cultures. This creates a heightened period of cultural velocity -- but it is only temporary. I am not suggesting any external agent gifting these resources, or a materially bounded upper limit to cultural production. But simple question: between the music of 300 years ago and now (thought in folk/pop or classical/academic terms) what has happened? Why the sudden shift? And why the marked down-shifting in the last 30 years or so in an ever-increasing fashion…?

Daniel said...

ok well i agree with all of that, the only thing i would add is that i think the stifling of musical creativity, or the deceleration of cultural developments, has much more to do with the stagnation of bourgeois society than a using up of global cultural resources.

anodynelite said...

"Immaterial Labor" seems relevant here. Perhaps this would clear things up a little for Daniel?

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Rosendo said...

¿Isn't dubstep tactic virological? So if it is virological it operates in a diferent time of that of "linear time" (I'm thinking in cyclonopedia and sonic warfare for example). No acceleration or decelariton here: urstaat, war. Even more, if we think about acceleration-decceleration, ¿aren't we thinking in modern (modality of) time or, maybe, in imperial (modality of) time (with his agendas and clocks)? time wars

Technics such flood (that accompany "less innovation" but signs emergence politics) may be very interesting in this political sense (Delanda or Deleuze). Saturate.

But, maybe capital can manage (different modalities of) "times" (anarcocapitalist dreams and his pop culture think so -example: firefly series). I'm not sure of this (sic). State -sure- not.

Don't sow, grow offshots!

[no english speaker ;P]

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