Tony Herrington decodes the covers of two radical political book publishers with musical roots
For the bright young things of the Occupy generation, Zero Books is the radical political book imprint du jour. Meanwhile, Unkant might well be the radical political book imprint that wants to get up the noses of anyone who even cares about the concept of du jour.
Unusually for political book publishers, both have made books about music a priority, though that’s not so surprising when you consider the backgrounds of some of the individuals involved in both operations, which is also a clue as to why their respective statuses might be so polarised.
Zero was set up in 2009 by the novelist and organic farmer Tariq Goddard with the following mission statement: “Contemporary culture has eliminated the concept and public figure of the intellectual. A cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheerled by hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their stupor. Zero Books knows that another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist – is not only possible: it is already flourishing.” The place where this discourse was flourishing was online, and Zero was founded in order to put into print the thoughts of some of the key members of that generation of highly educated but righteously pissed off political philosophers and commentators which came to prominence during the Blogger and Wordpress revolutions of the early 2000s. One of its editors is Mark Fisher, a very prominent online agitator, of course, and the author of Capitalist Realism, one of the first Zero books and still its best selling title. As well as establishing Mark as its flagship author, it announced Zero as a significant new force in the world of political book publishing.
Unkant is the publishing wing of the grandly titled Association of Musical Marxists, or AMM (geddit?), and is co-helmed by Ben Watson and Andy Wilson, two disgruntled former Socialist Workers Party members (are there any other kind?). They formed the AMM partly in order to be able to rave about the kind of stuff they love but which the SWP purged as bourgeois and counter-revolutionary (music, basically), and partly in response to the rise of the new breed of left wing intellectuals championed by Zero. As its opening manifesto put it: “The AMM was founded after being subjected to a 30 minute eternity of Bourdieu-style ‘objective’ sociology of music at the recent Historical Materialism conference. Sick of being treated like party-spoilers, soppy mystics and ‘undertheorised’ unprofitable scum, the devotees of truth in music have decided to stand up and make themselves heard.” (The only thing missing from that statement is the exclamation mark at the end of it – most sentences on the AMM website end with an exclamation mark, or feel like they should.) Unkant’s first title, Ben's Adorno For Revolutionaries, was published in 2011 on May Day, the most significant date in the international Labour calendar, in a move which was no doubt meant to symbolise Unkant's intended solidarity with the workers of the world. Adorno For Revolutionaries, meanwhile, was the latest broadside in Ben's ongoing campaign to convince those workers their true leader is a long dead German intellectual who hated pop culture. Of the two Unkant founders, Ben is the one with the public profile, thanks in part to his trouble making Adornoite biographies of Frank Zappa and Derek Bailey.
No offence to Tariq and Andy, then, but such are the cults of personality that have accrued around Mark and Ben that the fortunes of both Zero and Unkant feel tied inexorably to them.
Mark is in his mid-late forties, Ben a decade older. In both their publishing activities and their own writing they have used music criticism as a vehicle for political polemic because both achieved consciousness in an era (mid-70s to mid-80s) when the UK's mass circulation music press still functioned as a Trojan horse in which to infiltrate both hardline polemic and postmodern theory into the hearts and minds of the kidz. In other words, both politicise music and music criticism because it was those things that helped politicise them in the first place.
Over the years, both have written extensively for The Wire: Mark was once a member of the magazine's staff in fact, and is still a contributor; Ben's 20 year tenure as a contributor finally ended in the mid-2000s when a protracted sequence of disagreements, fallings out and public provocations aimed at the then editorial team eventually became terminal.
Thanks to the way his writing mashes up fashionable tropes, both in terms of the kind of music he favours and via a grandstanding form of theory that functions as a pop cult distillation of recondite au coraunt thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek and Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Mark is the political pundit of choice for the Occupy generation. Thanks to a tone that feels like being hectored from the back of the room, and his insistence on the absolute primacy of certain kinds of modern music and revolutionary politics that are seen by almost everyone else on the left as eccentric and esoteric, Ben is excluded from the parties that sometimes looked like the real reason some folks flocked to Occupy, just as they once flocked to illegal raves (politics as an excuse to party, rather than partying in the name of politics).
Mark is an academic these days, with positions at two London colleges. Many of Zero's books are written by current (or wannabe) academics, many of whom tout their opinions (or MA and PhD theses) on an occult international fringe of obscurely configured political symposiums and conferences. A small number of Zero authors have broken through into the wider public sphere (Mark being one of them), but I suspect the bulk of their books remain locked up inside the reading lists of the kind of fashionably radical humanities colleges which often play host to those symposiums and conferences and whose student bodies think that tweeting their friends’ posts to an Everyday Sexism Tumblr amounts to political engagement. As the members of those bodies are meant to go on to be our future legislators perhaps this is evidence of a subversive reprogramming strategy at work, rather than a sign of their list's redundancy as far as anyone else is concerned.
The AMM believes in both revolutionary art and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and Unkant books are an attempt to fuse these two explosive concepts. History is not on their side in this respect (see the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and also maybe punk rock in the 1970s, not to mention the SWP at all times). But that doesn't stop them from proclaiming themselves the last true men of the left still standing, pouring scorn on everyone else on the left for being uptight cloth-eared Stalinists, members of a self-serving theory-obsessed intelligentsia, or counter-revolutionary cronies of metropolitan art and media elites. Thanks in part to the inevitable alienating consequences of such rhetoric, I suspect Unkant books are mostly read by the friends of the people who write and publish them, rarely making it onto academic reading lists (though at least one of its authors is a London academic), let alone breaking through into the consciousness of the lower classes it wants to radicalise.
But the origins of both Mark and Ben (and maybe Tariq Goddard and Andy Wilson too) in the red heat of 70s and 80s mass pop culture, the ferment stirred up by punk rock and its multiple aftermaths, means they are not satisfied preaching to limited constituencies. Pace that Zero mission statement, they want to be popular (as opposed to populist) radicals, an ambition made most explicit by the eye-catching designs of the book covers Zero and Unkant wrap their hermetic texts in.
Like a more established left wing book list such as Verso's Radical Thinkers series, both Zero and Unkant go for a unity of cover design that suggests each new published book is just one component in an expanding library of complimentary thought experiments. But the similarities end there.
The covers of some of the early titles in that Radical Thinkers series looked very heavy and imposing.
So much so in fact, these looming black obelisks imprinted with orotund typefaces felt like tombstones, and as a consequence seemed to suggest the ideas contained within were now dead, rather than fighting fit for revolution.
Maybe they didn't sell very well, even by the usual modest standards of such books, as for its next set of titles, the Radical Thinkers design aesthetic itself went through a radical rethink, rerooting itself in the International Typographic Style, which was developed in the 1950s by German and Swiss graphic designers in order to establish a neutral visual aesthetic meant to convey objectivity. All Radical Thinkers titles published since then have been packaged in this style.
Except now, these blank white covers with their discreet and beautifully appointed typography and geometric shapes are so unbelievably tasteful I'm not sure whether they are art books or political screeds, or whether I'm supposed to read them or put them on display somewhere as signifiers of my exquisitely refined aesthetic sensibility.
ITS has been the default design style for publishers of conceptual art texts, architectural writings, graphic design treatises and so on for 60 years. In other words, it has become as generic as packaging books on metal using shatter typefaces. As a consequence it targets a readership that's just as cultish and niche as metalheads, which is to say a neo haute bourgeoisie of metropolitan cultural elitists who would regard any attempt to wrap such texts in eye-catching visuals as crass and vulgar playing to the proles, which is also to say, comrades, the kinds of people who will be first up against the wall come the glorious day.
But like I said, Zero and Unkant are not happy being niche publishers; they want to (p)reach (to) the huddled masses, and their design aesthetics echo earlier attempts to package hard-hitting polemic in seductive modern garb, most notably the celebrated Constructivist covers designed by Aleksandr Rodchenko in the 1920s for the Soviet political-cultural journal Novyi Lef.
Like Novyi Lef, both Zero and Unkant covers broadcast their revolutionary political designs by combining a transparent grid-based formalism with the dyed in the wool colour scheme of revolutionary politics: blood red and pitch black.
Unkant use this colour scheme exclusively, tightly constrained in horizontal stacked text boxes.
Zero deploys it intermittently in flat blocks that run to the edges of the book jacket.
The latter suggests a less doctrinal form of political philosophy, one that can accommodate ideas from such obscure hinterlands as speculative realism and salvagepunk. In this, Zero apes the approach of one of its editorial models, the left wing US imprint Semiotext(e), which for more than three decades now has been publishing texts by a volatile international coalition of critical theorists, maverick philosophers, underground activists, libertarians and nihilists. Unlike Zero’s books, however, Semiotext(e) covers are all over the place design-wise (possibly to signal its self-proclaimed unclubbable status), as evidenced by its most recent batch of titles, published in association with New York’s Whitney Biennial, one of the international contemporary art market's most prestigious events (so maybe Semiotext(e) isn't so unclubbable after all).
Unkant's covers use full bleed illustrations, rendered in vivid or lurid colours, that look like details from archetypal outsider art, socialist art, graphic novels – working class vernacular stuff. Those red and black text boxes sit on top of these illustrations, always positioned in the same place on the grid, in the upper left quadrant. The message could be: the politics stays the same, a hardline constant, anchoring but also allowing to happen the messy vicissitudes of lived experience. In other words, Unkant's covers visualise the synthesis of customised Marxist philosophy and street-level avant garde art proposed by their heroes in the Situationist International (the AMM claim, without any apparent irony, that they represent “the first bid to change the world since the Situationists”), who in turn adapted it partly from those original Soviet Constructivists.
Here’s one Novyi Lef cover that looks like a prototype for both a Situationist poster and an Unkant jacket:
In keeping with their claim to be the new intellectuals on the bloc, Zero’s covers use a more high faluting range of photographic or found images or art illustrations – or sometimes no images at all, just those flat plains of colour – whose accumulative tone is incoherent rather than messy, moving around according to the subject matter but with no obvious connecting logic, and indeed for many titles it drops the revolutionary colour scheme entirely.
These various colour schemes may be coded to denote different strands of the Zero list, but if they are, they remain relatively opaque (or maybe I'm just colourblind).
Either way, this approach likewise echoes the variations Rodchenko brought to Novyi Lef's covers, which often departed from the revolutionary colour scheme (maybe that's one reason it was eventually shut down by Stalin).
Again, all this suggests a less didactic library than Unkant's unbending dialectical materialism, though the one constant, the typography, an oversized chiseled upper case font, feels like a rhetorical flourish. Weirdly, Unkant's typography is more ITS than SI, utilising classic sans serif upper and lower case fonts in more conventional point sizes and ratios.
Whatever the intentions of these design schemes, what matters is their affect. The mutability of Zero's covers tells me I don't have to read all their titles, that I can dip in and out of their list as the mood takes me; the changing same of Unkant's covers demands my total commitment to their list, insisting that I need to read every title on it (mercifully, Unkant have published just 11 titles to date, compared to Zero's rather daunting 100 plus).
As far as left wing archetypes go, it might be a case of the flaneur versus the Stakhanovite. Those archetypes might feel a bit atavistic these days, but fused together they define our contemporary condition: at home, we click randomly through the net, searching for occult connections that might just bring illumination; at work, we are urged on to ever greater levels of productivity and efficiency.
Maybe Zero and Unkant should combine to publish a joint critical response to this soul-sapping duality. But even assuming they got that far, they'd probably fall out over the design of the cover.