Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Beyond the call of wonky...

A lengthy and rather extraordinary musicological account of wonky is available over at Rouge's Foam, who also has some extremely detailed musings on David Stubbs' recent book Fear of Music.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Speculative Reports.

Intrepid reporters on the Second Speculative Realism/Materialism conference at UWE on 24 April 2009: Ben at Speculative Heresy, more notes at Total Assault on Culture, and pictures at Infinite Thought. Thoughts to follow, particularly on Alberto Toscano's paper which placed Meillassoux in a very interesting context, if one which bares further analysis. 

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Invention or Discovery- or, when is a genre not a genre?

This is my paper presented yesterday at the Hardcore Continuum Event at UEL. Big thanks to Jeremy Gilbert and Steve Goodman for inviting me, to the other panelists, and to the audience who generally asked decent questions...

The most contentious claim Simon Reynolds makes regarding the Hardcore Continuum is that it is not simply a theory, a model, but rather that it is real. On Reynolds’ account the Continuum was not invented by him but rather he discovered it as an already existing thing, and merely gave it a name and described the kind of processes of which it consists. The reason why Reynolds is drawn towards defining the continuum as a discrete object is fairly obvious, since to do so is to make it cohere across time in the same way as hip hop or jazz or rock, and in so doing claim a similar space of significance for it. This certainly accords with Reynolds’ talk about a kind of musical patriotism: for him, the continuum is the greatest popular music invention to emerge from the UK, and a coherent name allows its mercurial processes, its constantly shifting genre structure (from Hardcore to jungle to 2-step garage to grime to dubstep) to be conceived as a single evolving art-form. In this sense it is hoped that its canonical and culturally significant role can be firmly asserted. Whilst few would dispute that there is certainly a high degree of interconnectedness between these scenes, the issue of the continuum as real-in-itself presents something of a conundrum. Reynolds’ claims that the continuum is an “empirically verifiable (and abundantly verified) thing-in-the-world” is usually backed up by vague accounts of demographics and technology, although both of these have changed significantly across the course of the purported continuum. A more rigorous musicological analysis has so far been absent, but might seek to demonstrate the connections between sub-genres on the basis of their percussive forms, rhythmical patterns, chordal and melodic devices, the particular textures used (with attention being paid to precise methods of generation, the envelopes, filters and tone generators used to create the sounds). This data could presumably be mathematised and statistically plotted, to be able to chart at the material level of the music itself any coherent patterns. But short of such genuinely realist empirical verification, we are left with a theory which is too open-ended and insufficiently tight in terms of what it includes and excludes. This leaves it liable to being used in a prescriptive fashion, since if there are no hard and fast rules as to what is in or out, and no attempts to demonstrate empirically how we might judge this, the temptation towards personal prejudice (to claim for example that “Grime isn’t in, its too aggressive”, or “Dubstep isn’t in, its too languorous”) remains significant. Whilst this is a problem with most genres too, it becomes particularly egregious when projected onto the scale of the continuum. It also leaves open why we ought to begin with Hardcore, when if we want to talk about Grime, Dubstep, Bassline, Funky, and Wonky it is much more coherent to talk about them in relation to their immediate predecessor sound, UK Garage.

There is a temptation at this point to throw our arms up in despair, and point towards the apparent failure of the Hardcore Continuum to be anything more than a convenient shorthand as a demonstration of the inappropriateness of any and all theorisation of Music or pop culture. I think this is a mistake. Whilst there is certainly a need for a realist theory of dance music, which would be able to precisely map mathematisable musical qualities, there is also another role for theory entirely- one which was described by the Cybernetic Cultural Research Unit as ‘hyperstitional’- a form of fiction which engenders its own realities, or which can intensify our experience of the real. Another way of thinking about this is through what has been termed ‘immaterial labour’ - types of work which produce value which are not directly related to production as we might traditionally conceive it. In the case of dance music, of course there are the producers and DJs who deal directly with the creation and dissemination of the music, but there are also the dancers, the consumers, the theorists and the journalists, each of whom has a significant role in creating the context in which certain musical forms are selected over others. As has been well noted, in the case of the dancer-consumer, it is only with their positive or negative feedback relationship to the DJs and producers that enables certain percussive or affective tropes to emerge as dominant. But the context in which the DJ-Producer-Dancer relationship is forged is one which, to some extent, created by promoters, by music journalists, and by theorists. And it is only when you put together these three sides of the equation- producers, consumers, and media that the processes of dance music can be properly thought about. Because from the perspective of immaterial labour, each of these three groups is in a certain sense actually a producer, though some produce in a less tangible or immediately obvious way than others. Each is creative, and it is not really the case that we can separate out DJs or the actual creators of the music of as a special category to be given priority over the others, since their production is meaningless outside of the broader context, and it is indeed the context itself which the media, in this case music journalists and theorists, produce. Moreover I do not think that it is possible to get away from theorising- we can do so in a more or less academic fashion, certainly, but contra-Mark Fisher, I think we must consider that even the simplest of reviews contain theoretical positions, of a sort. Even the notion that this debate which we are having now is a kind of over-abstraction and that we should all head down to Forward and actually get raving, is itself a theoretical position!

The Hardcore Continuum is real, but only as a theory. In other words the theory exists and has certain effects- how it influences other forms of production, how it adds to our own experiences of music. It is certainly related to a reality external to itself (a set of musics, clubs, people) but its role is not passive, but active. The act of naming is not a naturalistic or scientific act of description, but a creative act itself, an invention, not a discovery. It puts the set of musics it collects under its name into a particular configuration, and if we buy into the theory, alters our way of perceiving them. We can indeed still take umbrage at what the Hardcore Continuum does, since though it acclaims innovation on the one hand, perversely its canonisation of the past may well act to inhibit future developments. By codifying the history of these musics and attempting to think them within a grandiose system which now stretches back at least 15 years, there is a kind of drag-effect upon the abilities of future artists (and theorists no doubt) to continue the very arrow of futurism it claims to represent. If the Continuum theory has an effect, it might not be entirely positive! But naming, whether it is of the Hardcore Continuum, of a genre or of a single track, certainly creates a powerful context which shifts the nature of the thing being described.

We might consider that in the formative stage of generic development in dance music, DJs play records in relation to a certain defined body of dancers to select certain tropes over others, largely to please (but sometimes to challenge) the particular tastes of the crowd. In the early days of hip hop, for example, before the genre existed in a pre-defined way, DJs would select music from a variety of genres, playing the tastiest breaks from rock and roll, soul, funk, disco, and even Kraftwerk. This serves to project a kind of constellation of points, between which a genre coalesces. Later dedicated producers come to write music to specifically occupy this defined space, to join the dots between the early cross-genre records. What naming does in all this is to crystallise this loose constellation of sounds, to literally define and enact the genre, to mark the point when it becomes something more than merely an assemblage of pre-existing sounds. In some ways, naming is a gamble or a wager, a bet on the fact that this rough configuration will come to be a genre. And not all genre name’s stick (if we remember the early days of what came to be called ‘Grime’, we might have equally ended up with the somewhat less evocative ‘sub-low’). Naming itself is thematised in a track like Wiley’s “Wot U Call it?”, and the moment when a body of music seemingly demands a defined descriptive label can be thought of as the “Wot U Call It” moment. It is also no coincidence that the time shortly before and after the “Wot u call it moment” is often the one which produces the most fascinating and original music within the genre.

I now want to talk about Wonky, as a paradigmatic example of naming as a creative process of intervention. It was named by Martin Clark aka Blackdown in his April 2008 Pitchfork column, and like Funky, is an adjective appropriated to serve something close to the role of a noun. In his original piece Martin defines wonky as… “A theme not a genre” and a “crossing”. In these senses Wonky is postulated as something more than an adjective, a feel, a vague descriptor, but (unlike funky) something looser than a solid or coherently demarcated genre-noun. This description is both tentative and audacious, necessarily tentative since it lashes together a seemingly disparate group of artists through the notion of a kind of common “spirit” of wonkification operating in all of them, but equally audacious since it refuses the easy option of a singular, fixed generic label. Wonky is not a box, but rather some kind of aesthetic which operates between boxes.

The key word in Martin Clark’s initial definition is very much “crossing”- and though often crossing between genres seems to give rise to a kind of bland eclecticism, a postmodern homogenisation, in this instance the nature of “crossing” seems to have a markedly different quality. Wonky is a kind of process, rather than a fixed endpoint, a liquidation rather than a fusion, a process which occurs to pre-existing genres rather than being a genre itself. It is for this reason that I like to consider how wonky operates through use of the idea of the “transversal”. A transversal is a line of connection operating between otherwise disconnected regions, transforming them and breaking down pre-existing structures, a kind of trans-generic mutational agent. I think this can be reasonably applied to wonky at present, since what it opens up is lines of contact between genres as disparate as Dubstep, post-Dilla Hip hop, Crunk, Grime, Rave, Electro, and IDM. More than simply a new passageway for musical ideas to pass through, wonky-as-process seems to be able to translate ideas, like a sort of synaesthesic wormhole, afflicting any element of a track- sometimes textural, sometimes percussive, sometimes pitch, a fluid shifting of the idea of wonky between these different elements and registers. For example, the “wonkiness” of Flying Lotus comes predominantly through use of non-quantised drum patterns, whereas for Joker it is expressed in maniacally pitch bent and modulated synths. And beyond its lurid synthetics and lopsided mutant free-funk, Wonky is intriguing as perhaps the first sound to properly embody, in a very literal sense, the kind of media-scape which has been wrought by the permutations of internet culture. The lines of communication which the term represents are genuinely transnational, and if Reynolds’ thesis encounters trouble once we reach Grime (in the cult of the MC) or Dubstep (the torpor of the percussion) then it reaches total crisis point with Wonky. Not only is it no longer a “London ‘thing”, its not even a “UK ‘thing” anymore, and yet it clearly originates at least in part within what Simon would want to call the Continuum.

The question must be raised however, as to whether wonky itself is “real”? Is it not simply a journalistic fabrication? What I would argue is that it is not so much real in the sense of a pre-existing scene which demanded a descriptive name to be given to it, but as a kind of trans-generic zeitgeist aesthetic which was crystallised in Martin Clark’s intervention. To reverse Reynolds’ formulation, this is inventive rather than simply a discovery, since though a name must have something concrete to latch onto, its reality is effectuated in what happens to that reality after it has been named, which is never a neutral process. In the case of wonky, new lines of communication have been opened up between a fairly diverse set of producers, who have now begun to remix each other’s work. Equally, promoters have a theme upon which to construct nights around, meaning that increasingly we might find wonky DJs, sometimes operating out of very different traditions on the same bills (Flying Lotus and Zomby for example). By naming wonky as a transversal form (as a line of connection transversal to genre) it is as flexible as possible, allowing the maximum potential for the unexpected and for the non-genre to be a fertile ground for new music to emerge from. If the most fecund period for a genre is often that immediately preceding and following the “Wot U Call it” moment, it is because producers are still working out the kinds of conventions which will come to define the genre, and dancers are trying to work out how to move their bodies to the new sounds and rhythms, and journalists and theorists are scratching their heads trying to come up with original ways to think this new form. Dubstep became mired in a certain set of characteristics (turgid half-step drums, unimaginative wobble bass and dodgy plastic Rasta samples) because it became too rapidly codified, in spite of the seemingly highly open-ended nature of the form (138bpm with heavy bass) and the strong awareness of the need to avoid the vertiginous collapse which afflicted Jungle in 1997. And of course there remains a danger that wonky may well solidify into “just another genre”. It is still eminently possible that a later generation of producers will emerge who treat artists like Flylo, Rustie, and Joker as a pre-generic constellation of points, and construct a static genre in the space between them, a tired collection of dried-up genre signifiers. Seen in this context, the naming of Wonky as a non-genre, as a process of disruption and liquidation, can be identified as an attempt to disturb the usual processes of genre sedimentation so as to maintain the “Wot U Call It” moment of maximum confusion and creativity even whilst simultaneously producing a term with which to describe it.

Note: Martin Clark and I were talking after the event about who coined the phrase "the wot u call it moment"-- glancing at Dissensus, it originates with Nomos AKA Paul Autonomic of Deeptime.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Darwin: The Greatest Humiliation.

Saturday 25 April 2009 12:00-16:00pm.
Urbanomic Studio, The Old Lemonade Factory, Off Windsor Terrace, Falmouth TR113EX Cornwall, UK.

Freud located Darwin's theory of evolution, which "destroyed man's supposedly privileged place in creation" within a modern history of humiliation that dealt repeated blows to the "naive self-love of men." What is the nature of the Darwinian humiliation, and how can the human negotiate its nihilistic consequences? Philosophers Ray Brassier and Robin Mackay speak on evolution and nihilism. Followed by audience discussion.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Dark energy, cold vitalism: Ostgut Ton.

It is interesting to examine the recent shifts in Germanic post-minimal techno-house, which can only be conceptualised as a kind of battle within minimalism itself, since if anything the Berghain/Ostgut Ton sound is every bit as minimal as the Kompakt art Techno of the last 8 or so years. However what is reasserted is muscularity, harshness, inhumanity, but without necessarily returning to the relentless (and relentlessly boring and energy sapping) hard loop techno of the mid to late 90s. What producers like Ben Klock and Marcel Dettmann maintain from the minimal era are its fetishisation of pure sonic texture for its own sake, and an obsessive approach to filtering elements in order to rinse every last scintilla of variation from synths and outlying percussion. The textures of Klock's debut album (One) and accompanying EP (the logically entitled Before One) are stark and burnished, but we have moved from the metaphorical tasteful minimalist flat (see k-punk’s amusing review of 2562's Aerial last year in FACT) to an industrial kitchen of steel surfaces, exquisitely sharpened blades of scything hi hats, lifestyle music for butchers of obscene humanoid meats perhaps… Detroit iciness, Sähkö reductive brutalism, Basic Channel shimmering archefossilised dub glisten, Burial’s discarded shell case percussion… a resurrection of the goosepimpling shivering dread-flesh of the future, a sort of late 00s Martyn Hannett Techno… music to watch cities in motion to, to watch economies die to…

That such dark music evades dubstep’s dope-fugged torpor is revealing, and not merely by regular deployment of four to the floor basskicks. Instead the atmosphere is lucid, rather than druggy-languid, alien… powerful without becoming thuggish, bleak whilst pulsating with a mechanically efficient, seductive energy…The post Burial jerky hi-hat scissor slicings of Klock’s remix of Kerri Chandler’s “Pong” from 2008 is indicative of the curious relationship between Ostgut Ton and dubstep (one which evades the bland-out fears k-punk outlined before, imbuing the tropes it acquires with a cold-hearted vigour and chiselled assassin attack). The crystalline rhythmical post-2 step track "Gold Rush" on One could almost have been lifted straight from Burial's first record, juddering with a jagged metallic percussive bump-and-grind, spurting forth distant gushes of aqueous sonics (though if anything Klock pushes the sound further into oneiric minimalism with fantastic sound design). There are two vocal tracks on One, an interesting choice for such an ostensibly inhumanoid musical form. The most intelligible lyric appears on “OK” running “ain’t no happiness, ain’t no sadness…” endlessly filtered, backmasked through reverbs, swirling through the chunky snare-clunk, a call-and-response of zero-affectivity, anthemic in its endtimes resoluteness, cycling forever without resolve, a dislocated clarion call. “Napoleon Hill” from the EP swaggers into view on dusty shaker patterns, a shivering synth riff repeating like electrical charges through its neuro-percussive infrastructure. Likewise the first and lengthiest piece from One, "Coney Island", has an insistent synth riff which flickers with inhuman relentlessness, unsettling and ruthless, yet infectiously danceable, its minimalism never pedantic or pretentious. However the album is not content with dancefloor functionalism, the art-ambient house piece "Init Two" resisting a kick drum (riding on the regular chop of a satisfyingly physical hi hat) but again convulses with sound-energy- tiny tinkling glassy bell patterns and undulating shuddering audio-shimmers actually managing to make the often tired ambient form sound refreshing.

Equally of interest is the MDR04 EP from last year by Klock’s slightly better known fellow Berghain resident Marcel Dettmann (on his own MDR label). This is of a piece with Klock’s cold muscular future-art-tech, but traffics in more striated rasping textures, "Lattice" regularly being rent apart by surging blasts of static white noise. Largely eschewing synth sounds for pure percussion and noise, tracks like "Shatter Proof" have an implied musicality, hints of fucked-up swing jazz emerging from the scree of pitched industrial drum sounds. Dettmann's own remixes from the last year or so are equally extraordinary, especially his treatment of dubstep artist Scuba's "From Within", which evades bass-heavy lethargy for a different kind of darkness, a cold sensuality or metallic sexiness. Shed’s album on Ostgut Ton from 2008 (Shedding the Past) is worthy of mention, although it slips the aesthetic slightly by being less forward looking, less texturally rigorous, and warmer. Intriguingly however he continues the crossover with dubstep or two step, with "ITHAW" directly referencing the sound. Even when the tracks seem superficially more obviously techno inspired, often the basskick action is weirdly non-4x4, with odd stuttering patterns and strangely quantised galloping snare/tom work.

What is intriguing is why this sound has become so massive at this particular juncture in time (Berghain/Panoramabar being noted by Resident Advisor as the new centres of global techno). Whilst Simon Reynolds has been keen to disabuse those amongst us who might fancy a naive interrelation between the economy and musical creativity (see his recent FACT piece here) there is certainly something in the marked shift in tone- away from the exuberant teeming Latin-mnml of Villalobos or Luciano, away from the dramatic synth-pop influenced Ellen Allien, away from the ornate mnml trance of Gui Boratto or Stephan Bodzin, towards a bleaker, harder, sound, operating beyond the pleasure principle. The only recent precursor in Germanic minimal techno would be someone like the great and deeply underrated Matias Aguayo, whose Are You Really Lost and Night at the Tilehouse combine a similar chunkiness of percussive texture with a bleak sexuality. But Aguayo’s work has a sleaziness to it which is absent from the Ostgut sound, which frequently opts for heavier harsher sonics and a greater degree of reductionism. Whilst the Ostgut Ton artists are clearly working in a consolidatory fashion rather than a revolutionary leap (integrating past sounds and atmospheres within the space opened up by mnml, just as mnml itself did with microhouse) there is much here which chimes eerily with the spirit of our times. Whilst it would false to claim any kind of political impact from this kind of work (and really asking the wrong kind of questions I think) it is interesting to note the “bellwether” like status of contemporary techno, wired into the zeitgeist in a way which other genres seem to avoid.

Elimination Zone.

I think Graham Harman is right on the money with this post sketching possible future outcomes for Speculative Realism, (the latest issue of Collapse colliding with the brain like a series of brutalising punches, in the best possible way). Really it comes down to a simple issue (I think), of whether emergence between scales of structures is an actual ontological property or not, and the relation or articulation between the ontic and the ontological, between beings (of all different kinds, non-human and human) and being itself (and how far we can push such a distinction before it loses intelligibility). To what extent is emergence an epistemological constraint (we see a structure, formed from a subsidiary structure, the micro-level obeying certain laws, the macro certain other laws, and whilst one is certainly the result of the other, it appears to emerge in a dynamic manner, multiplicative rather than merely additive, but this is simply because our grasp of scientific modelisation is theoretically inadequate...)- or is it an actual ontological property (as Levi and Latour hold). Is this the final gasp of correlationist anthropism (freedom in a scientistic guise?) Can we have an ontic principle of irreduction alongside an essentially eliminativist ontological monism?

As regards Graham's response to my comment regarding object-based ontologies as anthropic biases, I probably should have been a little clearer. My comment on Larval subjects ran that:
"...isn’t there the danger of absolutising the object as realist ontological unit? I’m uncertain that, say, Brassier would want to limit himself in such a way for example, especially given recent critiques of metaphysical schema which rely upon objects as their basic structural component (I’m thinking particularly of Ladyman’s “Who’s Afraid of Scientism” in the latest Collapse). Indeed whilst it makes perfect sense to talk on a folk-metaphysical level about giving objects their proper attention (as you and Graham Harman do), to think at least as much about the interactions between inanimate non-human actants as human ones, does this not remain overly wedded to the very level of correlated folk-knowledge any realist must attempt to escape from? If the crucial component of science for realist philosophies lies in its anti-intuitive findings, leading to a continual disenchantment of the manifest image, why ought we to continue to think in terms divorced from these findings (i.e.- to remain at the level of “objects all the way down…”). Ladyman’s “Ontic Structural Realism” for example strikes up a radically eliminativist approach to objects tout court, in contrast OOP seems to remain overly in hoc to the visualisable structure of the objectal."
To clarify, I am not accusing Graham of being a kind of intentionality obsessed phenomenologist! But there is something in Ladyman's critique of analytic object-based metaphysics which struck me as requiring some degree of response, on the specific issue of objects as ontological paradigm, with the suspicion, or perhaps speculative posit, that this could be an example of notions inherited from human sensual biology continuing to surreptitiously infect our conceptual attempts to evade such determinations. Even given the weird (vicarious) nature of causation between Graham's objects, that distinguishes them from the kind of folk metaphysical mechanics ("tiny objects and microbangings") Ladyman is actually attacking, as Dominic Fox has noted there remains a distinct possibility that our notion of "objects" breaks down at a certain point (extreme macro multiverse or extreme micro-physics, potentially). We don't necessarily have to be eliminativist about this, since OOP is endangered once it encounters a non-objectal form (something which perhaps in Graham's terms really is simply pure relationality, or pure quality perhaps). I don't know enough about Ladyman's Ontic Structural Realism to be able to properly comment on how his "structure, all the way down" approach actually works, or how it evades the pretty obvious objections, but will definitely look forward to Graham's ultimate response to the latest Collapse.

Friday, 27 February 2009

The battle continues...

The Hardcore Continuum? A discussion.
Presented by the Centre for Cultural Studies Research, University of East London
In association with The Wire.
UEL Docklands Campus (Cyprus DLR)
April 29th 2009 2:00pm-6:00pm

Simon Reynolds' commentary on the "hardcore continuum" - the mutating sequence of dancefloor music to have emerged from the breakbeat hardcore matrix of the early 1990s - has recently generated intense debate in the musical blogosphere. What is the value of this concept? Does it still usefully describe the context from which dynamic new beat musics emerge? Can the conditions of creativity in the 1990s be replicated in the era of web 2.0? Should we even want them to be?

Speakers: Mark Fisher (K-Punk), Alex Williams (Splintering Bone Ashes), Steve Goodman (Kode 9), Lisa Blanning (The Wire), Dan Hancox (Guardian, New Statesman), Kodwo Eshun (Author of More Brilliant than the Sun), Joe Muggs (Mixmag, The Wire), Jeremy Gilbert (Co-author of Discographies)

Attendance is free but pre-registration is recommended. For info or to register contact J.Gilbert@uel.ac.uk

Friday, 20 February 2009

Wonky 3: Abstract decay processes.

Simon Reyonlds responds to the HCC imbroglio. I would assert very definitely that my claim towards the materiality of culture (which is never precisely merely a physicalism of course) is not at all metaphorical. Whilst the issue is clearly less simple than petroleum resources, the diagram of both situations: (essentially certain energies are accumulated over very long timeframes, then via integrated globalised capitalism rapidly exploited) bares certain isomorphy. To put it another way the “shock of the new”, the impact of a new cultural idea (in this case some kind of sonic gesture) once absorbed into a different musical tradition, is initially great, then tapers off as the possible forms this encounter is able to generate become rapidly exhausted.

As regards Wonky, Simon’s first claim, that “it does all seem a bit like a poncy way of saying ‘eclectronica’” is clearly inaccurate. Wonky is not a genre, hence its “eclecticism” is not a matter of mashing together disparate sonic fragments into uneasy PoMo assemblages- functionally it seems to operate in a more disparate fashion, transversal to other pre-existing genres. Wonky is a process, not a static endpoint (at least not yet…) and indeed within each artists’ oeuvre there is a consistency which remains firmly anti-eclectic. Simon’s other point, that it seems close in some respects to post-IDM artists in the late ‘90s taking on dance music genres (Squarepusher with jungle being the most infamous example) is a bit closer to what is going on here—and which touches upon some of Mark K-Punk’s musings on “rude energy”. In one sense the IDM-ification of club-based dance music might be seen as a gentrification, in another as a kind of reductio ad absurdum, a parodic (though sometimes loving) acceleration of certain ticks and features to the point where all dance-functionality breaks down (i.e.- the extreme end of breakcore/drill’n’bass). Things are slightly more complicated with Wonky, since its detournement of pre-existing genre templates does not act to necessarily destroy their club potential, it is not so much a bearded sonic terrorism/tiresome juvenile technology abuse/avant-garde translation of the hip new thing, as the finding of a new groove altogether. It is clearly not an accelerationist aesthetic by any means, rather as I have sketched before it is based upon decay (though without any of the gothic/romantic/Black Metal associations the term usually carries- decay as entirely abstract process). Moreover, sociologically many of the players in this umbrella formation, this non-scene, are clearly not outsiders or disinterested observers to the genres which they act upon, Joker, for example, seemingly beginning as any teenage Grime producer might.

Wonky applies, in its woozy textures, liquefying day-glow synthetics and dilating anti-quantised beats something surprisingly akin to the process My Bloody Valentine exercised upon indie rock guitar music- from within the tradition itself (not from the cynical perspective of the outsider) a method by which surplus aesthetic value can be extracted from deadened forms, by applying abtract-decay processes of liquefaction, breaking down the rigid sonic matter (be it the hard bone matter of drum patterns or the softer flesh of synth textures or the fibrous masses of bass pressure). In this sense perhaps it intimates a kind of sonic anti-affirmatory dark vitalism, at the level of process, since perversely its immediate affect is bright, crisp, colourful, rather than the dank encrustations we would traditionally associate with decay. This is unlike certain Hauntological artists (The Caretaker, Burial, William Basinski), who foreground the materiality of decaying sound recording media through crackle, in order to intimate and explore the processes of human memory and history, (and hence are spectral in nature, haunted). Hence it is not so much as K-Punk asserts that whereas Hauntology interrogates "the failure of the future; Wonky exemplifies it..." rather that both serve (in very different ways) as non-conventional trans-generic strategies for the extraction of dormant energies within inert sonic forms, though admitedly one is very much more candid in foregrounding its activities than the other. For with Wonky abstract-decay gives rise to new and perverse vitality, a vivid hyper-“now” sound...

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Wonky 2: Kinaesthetic analysis.

A sketch of an even more specific theory of dance music might want to focus in greater detail upon the former part of the term, the “dance” element itself. In a recent thread on the Dissensus message board on Juke music, what was most fascinating was the embedded youtube videos of the dancing itself. One way out of, or complication between perhaps, tyrannical GUT theorising and dull empirical micro-trend spotting would be to think dance music as primarily a kind of programming system, a machine itself, operating upon the bodies of the dancers, and engaged in a kind of dialectical feedback relationality with the music. In speculative realist terms the “object” in question is no longer merely the music, (which as we know is merely a part, an important part but a part nonetheless, of the whole) but its interactions with specific kinaesthetic bodily motion and forms. Some of the best of Simon Reynolds writing has certainly touched upon this approach in the past (thinking of his UK Garage piece with its descriptions of alarming hurky/jerky dance moves). Dance music sets up a series of potentials (within the rhythmic matrix it presents) for dancers to lock into or ignore- which via the DJ as mediator (between producers and dancers) achieves a kind of fluidity of feedback- which tunes excite the dancefloor the most? The true innovation then might be seen to be the range or vocabulary of new moves (in a sense forms of kinetic subjectivation) made possible by the beat structures and textures of the particular music. I’ve yet to attend any wonky raves (sure to bring down the ire of the empiricist branches of the anti HCC contingent no doubt) though I attended many in Dubstep’s golden era- where a lot of the initial excitement was working out how precisely to move to this new music… lock in at 69bpm with a slow head bob shifting from foot to fit in a low skanking motion, or fit into the hi-hat patterns at 138bpm, limbs flailing? Wonky as dancefloor experience intrigues because the more club-bound aspects of the sound seem to be fitting in at a dubstep-like tempo (and hence can be legitimately deemed to be in some senses post-dubstep). Do the de-quantised drums and lurid synthetic lead lines inculcate a new vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of bodily motion?

Wonky as transversal rave.

One point of contention arising from the recent “Hardcore Continuum: Still Relevant?” brouhaha relates to the notion of the applicability of theory to the domain of dance music. As Word The Cat wrote a while ago: “music is music, everything is everything (reductive yes, but liberating in its absolute reduction). we don’t need to map our own binaries onto music (screwface/smiley face — masculine/feminine — skunk/MDMA). music takes you past that.” Whilst I absolutely agree that some of the reductive dualisms in HCC theorising are oversimplifications (and easy anthropomorphisations of the alien actualities of the music in question- especially as regards masculine/feminine codings: why ought bass-pressure to be thought of as masculine at all, its pummelling aggression is matched by a concomitant womb-like embrace, a violent amniosis…) I would maintain that theory is not to be jettisoned full stop, and indeed cannot be. Even in the absence of overt grand-narrative theorizing, low level “folk-theoretical” devices will take their place. In the writings of the critics of the HCC for example there remain certain theoretical tropes (genre, analysis of specific emergent sonic identifying points etc). The question then is not “whether theory?” but “which theory?” and further “what are the limitations of this theory, and how might it enrich our understanding of the object?”

This is certainly of key interest, above and beyond merely the HCC debate, since this is one of the central concerns of a possible speculative realist aesthetics: Whether we can ever evade the subsumption of the object beneath the organon of theory we use to interpret it. This point has been made very clearly by Schoolboyerrors here, exquisitely accurate on the over determination of art objects by their Deleuzean readings. I believe we have all read similar pieces on the internet, especially Lacanian film readings which tell you little more than how Lacanian theory itself operates (useful, true, but often with little regard to the actual object at hand). In a certain sense what the HCC critics get absolutely right is the dangerously slippery slope of theorizing, that in the end the very tool used to grasp a hold of the objective reality might alienate us from it, overdetermine it, and achieve a tyrannical grip. This in itself is a deeply Laruellian point, that in the construction of a philosophy the world is split into a world-theory dyad, the former containing the philosophical re-presentation of the world, the latter the transcendent theory sitting above the world it has created judging it like some kind of God, defeating any claims to radical immanence (as John Mullarkey accurately diagnoses in his book, Post-Continental Philosophy). It is certainly the case that it has become increasingly apparent that the single Grand Unified Theory approach to philosophy (and associated areas such as theoretical criticism) is deeply flawed. As has already been well drawn out in various discussions in the theory blogosphere, the past tendency within recent continental thought to politicise ontology is overly convenient and strictly unbelievable. In a later post I want to discuss how GUT thinking is damaging not just to pre-speculative realist thought, but equally appears to be infecting speculative realism itself, especially in its object-oriented sub-genre. This is especially clear having read the most recent issue of Collapse and Ladyman’s critique of the “small objects and micro-bangings” of analytic metaphysics.

I have admittedly yet to get a full grip on how a non-aesthetics in the Laruellian mould might operate, so I must for now limit my discussion of Wonky to more general terms, rejecting the tendency towards immobile GUTs in favour of a half-way measure, a theory sensitive to the object at hand. What is most interesting about Wonky thus far is its trans-generic nature, its relative looseness and inclusiveness to a proper diversity of disparate aesthetics: stretching between Rave, Dubstep, G-Funk, Instrumental Hip Hop, Crunk, Pop, UK Garage, IDM/Electronica, Techno… etc. Moreover it operates in a number of different tempos, (chiefly dubstep’s 138 bpm and hip hop’s slower 90-110bpm) with producers scattered between different continents, and different regimes of consumption (club and home listening). Even further, the very notion of “wonky” itself is a deeply slippery idea. Sometimes it indicates de-quantised drums (as in Flying Lotus, Lukid, and other post Dilla beat-artisans) sometimes pitch-bent synth and bass work (Joker, Starkey, Rustie), sometimes a maddening rush of 8 Bit arpeggios (Zomby, Ikonika, Rustie again). Wonky is not so much a genre unto itself. Instead it operates as a kind of trans-generic mutational agent, spreading seamlessly between bpm species, liquidating textures, distending rhythmical consistency like so much manipulable sonic sticky toffee: All that is solid melts into a new electronic psychedelia, as fluid and mellifluous as the globalised capitalism which spreads it. Wonky in the sense of off-key, out of place, misshapen, breaking through an electronic music environment increasingly characterised by myopic microgenre developments and parodic stylistic affectations, as a set of strategies to be applied to a pre-existing template. In a sense then Wonky detournes pre-existing genres (instrumental hip hop, grime, rave, dubstep etc) corroding the arid grid-like bass kick / snare matrix into something closer to the handmade asymmetrical anti-rhythms of Burial, pushing the shuffled culminating and accelerating sensual textural play towards a surrealist fair ground of Dali-esque percussive affect. However, unlike Burial it would be difficult to conceive of less hauntological artists operating today than Starkey or Rustie, their lurid neon-surreal synthetic post-dubstep negotiating everything that’s still (barely) alive within electronic dance music. Hence I would resist K-Punk’s embryonic attempts to slot certain aspects of Wonky into a hauntological conceptual schema, as the utilisation of 8-bit electronics is distinct from Ghostbox’s deployment of library music and Radiophonic-tronica in at least two respects: firstly in seeking direct dancefloor engagement, and secondly in not dealing explicitly with manipulations or foregroundings of the past (or the processes of memory). Wonky is far from nostalgic, I believe, in spite of Zomby’s Hardcore tribute record (which isn’t in fact Wonky at all).

What is clear from all this is that the Hardcore Continuum is indeed totally inadequate to describe the realities of this music (though perhaps still appropriate to some extent for Bassline, Dubstep and possibly even Funky—although the latter’s incorporation and communication with a broader range of afro-house musics and soca complicates the issue). The shifts in technology, lines of communication and influence, and geographical centres indicate a major development from prior formations: No longer a “London Thing” (or even particularly a UK thing for that matter) nor indeed quite a “scene”. To hazard a theoretical attempt to describe what might be going on here (ultimately, to my ears, consolidatory in terms of actual music, but absolutely fascinating in its anti-localism, its trans-generic scope, and the avoidance of being merely an incoherent grab bag of postmodern influences) we might turn to Félix Guattari’s concept of transversality. Taken in part from mathematics and Sartre’s Transcendence of the Ego, like Wonky transversality operates in a mercurial and allusive fashion within Guattari’s work: beginning as a way of conceptualising lines of unconscious force/desire within institutional structures, it later becomes the cornerstone of a complex ontology binding material, psychological, linguistic and imaginary components together. We might think of Wonky as operating as a vector transversal to genre, a transversal analysis in-itself operating beyond merely a postmodern genre-game. Rather than a pick and mix approach to generic materials, wonky is strategically applied to pre-existent genres, not as an adhesive but as a liquefying agent... [cf perhaps Negarestani's rotting objects?]... a making strange... not in the sense of hauntology's unheimlich-home, but in the deliquescent informational fluidity and interoperability of late capital, the strangeness of a blooming irridescant corpse, (not a spectre) a sonic embodiement of its distributive ground.

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.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Speculative realism/speculative materialism - second annual report.

Friday 24th April 2009 University of West England, Bristol, St Matthias Campus UK.
  • Ray Brassier
  • Iain Hamilton Grant
  • Graham Harman
  • Quentin Meillassoux
From Daily Humiliation. More information to follow no doubt, but interesting name change indicative perhaps (given some of Graham Harman's comments on the "umbrella term" that isn't a movement) of some clarifications of positions. Meillassoux himself of course seems happier with materialism rather than realism, in his case a materialism based upon the "meaningless symbols" of mathematics. Brassier and Harman we might consider to be definite realists (though the former definitively more eliminitavist than the latter).

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Values as objects – A quick conjectural reply to Larval Subjects.

Levi responds with an extremely well-thought out post on object-oriented philosophy and nihilism here. Whilst I am not fully signed up to the definition of objects-as-difference, it seems apparent that it is indeed the case that norms (and even fictions) exist as objects/actors etc. Levi continues by stating that norms or values must always be produced, rather than emerging from some transcendent operation (no God delivering stone tablets on mountains for example). The question then resolves to the production of these particular objects, and that as produced (by biological, linguistic, social and historical processes) the kinds of relations they enter into and the processes of change they engender (including the forms of subjectivity they might be capable of conferring). That fictions are adopted as objects (providing, for Levi at least, if they make a difference, have an effect, which appears to be a crucial distinction between his own position and that of Reid Kotlas of Planemonology’s or Graham Harman’s) can be squared with the CCRU concept of the hyperstitional narrative, and indeed Badiou’s under-theorised idea of “the powerful fiction of a completed truth” (that rests at the core of the tricky notion of forcing within the transformative truth procedure).

Not all belief-objects or norm-objects are the same in terms of their machinic effects or diagrammatical workings, but none is more fundamental than any other (no matter their relative truth values). In this category we can certainly place ideological-objects, (which as Zizek frequently jokes, work even if you don’t believe in them). However, I am uncertain that Levi has banished the threat of nihilism yet- for whilst the teeming network or assemblage universe is filled with all kinds of components or actors, amongst them norms and values, just as there are planets, nematode worms, jokes and computer operating systems, our only recourse in terms of a selection principle seems to be the contingent set of normative assemblages acting upon us, enunciating us. Descriptively this is certainly highly satisfactory, and a useful way to think sociology perhaps. But equally it dissolves everything to the level of a cold-vitalism, or an amoral machinism (or perhaps even an a-political politics) wherein even life itself or machinic efficiency cannot be preferred over inert death or stasis or sclerosis (because the very norm of life or efficiency has been reduced to the ontological status of merely another actor within the network). I would be perfectly happy to agree to this outcome, a purely descriptive naturalism bereft of prejudice. What is capable of domination predominates over that which is incapable, and it is neither good nor bad (or possibly it is either/both, dependant on the point of view invested in the judging subject as side-effect of pre-personalising norm-objects). Though effectiveness itself is not ‘good’ it will lead to predominance within a system, (though even the claim that to be is better than to not be is unsupportable) and one implication of this is that the very status of ‘fiction’ and ‘truth’ become dislodged from their usual significations- is there not also the considerable danger of a rampaging relativism here?

A short note on Harman and Hallward.

In one of his many excellent posts Graham Harman (here) seemed to argue that Peter Hallward’s repeated calls for a more relational ontology were based upon the idea that it would be innately more leftist in orientation. I think that Hallward (in his recent reviews of Meillassoux’s After Finitude and Badiou’s Logics of Worlds) is pointing towards the more practical issues of praxis. It is not so much that Hallward identifies relational ontologies as necessarily being leftist in orientation, rather that his critique of Deleuze Meillassoux and Badiou rests upon the lack of concrete and strategic support their political ontologies offer for praxis. If we are thinking of Hallward’s recent criticisms of Badiou (and his pupil Meillassoux) it is above all paralysis and quietude, passivity in other words, that is his chief target. For Hallward relational ontology offers a better tool for a leftist politics to analyse problematical practical situations and derive new ways of actually acting within them. Badiou’s hyper anti-relational politics (if in doubt check out his thoughts on political organisation in Metapolitics- “the most unbound place of all” etc) offers little beyond its analysis of evental sites and marginality as the zone from which revolutionary activities spring from. Even in terms of the relational update Logiques des Mondes Badiou remains pretty primitive (cf: his analysis of Mao’s red army thought in terms of the adaptations of a body of a truth to various ‘points’ which confront it). However I am also aware that the kind of relational ontology Hallward has in mind is going to be far from a De Landian or Latourian form (in conversation Hallward has stated that De Landa’s A New Philosophy of Society is “slick” but ultimately with little concrete to offer a politics of emancipation). I myself think De Landa is quite a bit more worthy of comment, specifically in the way that his post Deleuzo-Guattarian account of assemblages is able to challenge the more traditional “folk-political” concept of the political field.

Moreover the prospective Hallwardian project (aka “Relational Reality”) will consist of a relational ontology combined with a kind of post-Sartrean (or neo-Sartrean) subject equipped with a political will, against the crucial backdrop of history. The latter entails some kind of resurrection of the “resources of the dialectic”, though so far Hallward has yet to reveal what form this might take. My own hunch might be a thoroughly re-equipped version of something resembling Sartre’s own Critique of Dialectical Reason, with a more thoroughly integrated relational component, a fascinating if dangerous approach!