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'It's not your imagination ... who's there?'

Mark Fisher

Steve Goodman's presentation at the excellent hauntology event last week focused on the phenomenon of 'audio spotlights', which deploy ultrasound to precisely target sonic messages at individuals. Predictably, the use of this Philip K Dick-like 'holosonic' technology - explained in the YouTube clip above - is being pioneered by advertisers to cut through the urban cacophony to reach consumers as they pass billboards.
It's interesting that the 'related videos' on YouTube are predominantly not about technological developments but the paranormal - not surprising when you watch the clip below, which shows how advertisers have insinuated an insistent voice saying 'It's not your imagination ... who's there?' into the heads of passersby. (I'm reminded of Carpenter's Prince Of Darkness , in which technicians transmit a message into the sleeping mind of the receiving subjects, saying 'This is not a dream'.)

It as if the voice flips from being a voice in your head - an invading signal, performatively announcing its own reality (it's not your imagination) - to being thevoice in your head - your 'own' 'inner' voice, asking who's there? On the face of it, this seems to be another vindication of Althusser's theory of subjectivity as an effect of hailing (or interpellation). But, as someone in the audience at the Hauntology event suggested, in projecting itself directly into your head, the holosonic hail almost risks schizophrenically subverting the interpellation process. Instead of the standard (mis)recognition of oneself as the object of a hail, the holosonic projection could invite a recognition that what you thought of as your 'inner voice' does not belong to interiority at all.

The laser-like targeting of sound contrasted fascinatingly with a protest by Unite, the Trade Union, outside a building near to The Wire's offices last week. In pursuit of minimal workers' rights for the building's cleaners - such as paid holiday/ sicknesses - the protest was an exercise in noise generation, using the voice, whistles and improvised percussion in an effort to disrupt the working ambience of City drones. Unfortunately, I don't know how successful it was, either in its aim of distracting the smooth flow of capitalist immaterial labour - maybe the building was too effectively sound-insulated for the noise to penetrate - or in getting the cleaners' demands met. But here are two illustrations of the way in which sound - at least as much as images - is crucial to the management of contemporary social reality. While the role of images has been endlessly discussed, the role of sound remains undertheorised. What, for instance, is the sonic equivalent of the visual Spectacle?

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'Other People Went To University...'

Mark Fisher






I didn't mind being on the dole. I had a lot of time on my hands as a result. Other people went to university, but I read books, smoked cigs and looked around most days. It's good to have a period like that in your life, when you're not being forced to think like others. Don't get me wrong: I had my fair share of dull days and my diet wasn't the most healthy, but I read a lot of good books and wrote a lot, most of which found its way on to our first LP. I didn't think of it like that when I was writing, though. I just felt an urge to write.
If you're a cod-psychologist, I guess you could trace most of the Fall's output back to this period, to the wilderness years, the dole days - back to young Mark laying the hard foundations for the rough and brilliant years that he hasn't yet seen!

Mark E Smith, from a section of his autobiography, which is being serialised in The Guardian this week. Who knows how much culture in postwar, pre-neoliberal Britain depended on the indirect public funding – perhaps the best kind – provided by the dole? Of course, in the wake of Thatcherism and Blairism, today's equivalents of the young MES would find themselves quickly harassed back to work in a cracker factory by a Restart course. (Aptly, one of The Fall's many members was actually an extra in the scenes set in the Restart course in The League of Gentlemen.) The dole might have provided an alternative to university, a time in which proletarian autodidacts could pursue undirected research and engage in rogue reflections, but with the cutting of student grants and the introduction of tuition fees, the pause for thought which existed outside employment and official study is no longer available to many British students either.

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12 hour party people

Mark Fisher



Uber Germanist Owen weighs into the debate on minimal:

It rather pains me to say this, as Berlin - with its healthy contempt for the work ethic, and its still extant left activism - is a far, far saner city than London, and by several leagues more pleasant, more rewarding a place to live. And yet, when - as seems largely to have happened in much of Mitte, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg - an entire chunk of a formerly working city becomes a playground for an international of 'creatives', something odd happens. One often got the sense in Berlin that whatever was happening, it didn't really matter, nothing was at stake: pure pleasure becomes boring after a while, as does the constant low-level tick-tock of a techno designed seemingly for little else than just rolling along. German techno seems fastidious, but not glamorous. An executive music for people who can make a living off DJing or curating here and there is a bizarre phenomenon, as is a futurist cottage industry. The restraint of the music is the effect of a culture with no restraints.


This perhaps makes sense of the link between minimal and hedonism that Philip Sherburne often insists upon. On the face of it, minimal is an extremely unlikely candidate to be considered a pleasure seekers' music. It's worth noting at this juncture, that, as Derek pointed out after my last post, there is very little 'tasteful' about a Villalobos, Luciano or Hawtin set – what appears tasteful at normal volume becomes something different when put through a club PA. Nevertheless, even at high volume, there is a certain restraint at work here – or perhaps it is better construed as an avoidance (of hooks, big riffs etc.) It could be that this avoidance of the hedonic spikes, the pleasure peaks, of music is the libidinal cost of distending pleasure over the course of a twelve hour party.

Berlin has in many ways become a capital of deterritorialized culture, a base for DJs and curators whose jetsetting lifestyle is indeed a "bizarre phenomenon". If hauntology depends upon the way that very specific places – Burial's South London Boroughs, for instance – are stained with particular times, then the affect that underlies minimal might be characterised as nomadalgia: a lack of sense of place, a drift through club or salon spaces that, like franchise coffee bars, could be anywhere.

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Return to the fairground

Mark Fisher

"Minimal, of course, was the straw that overflowed the glass of Red Bull," writes Philip Sherburne in his jeremiad on the state of electronic dance music.

Scapegoat or no, in the last 18 months, the ubiquitous and yet strangely ephemeral genre has become a lightning rod for every conceivable critique. It's too soulless. It all sounds the same. It's lost touch with the roots of "real" dance music. It might not be surprising to hear a DJ like Diplo tell Pitchfork, "I go to a club in Berlin and I want to kill myself." But even within the scene, everyone complains about minimal, leveling complaints that often seem indicative of a much wider unease.

But the problem doesn't really lie with minimal itself. (One difficulty, though, is defining what minimal "itself" is; and it's questionable whether everything now labeled 'minimal' can now usefully be defined as belonging to one genre or sensibility.) As Simon Hampson argued in The Wire 293, it is the position that 'minimal' occupies in dance music, rather than any properties of the music itself, that is the issue:

[M]inimalism and austerity in dance music work best as counterpoints to more ebullient fare - a short, salty shock to set the scene for the climax to come, or to open up space for you mind to go wandering. But now minimal Techno rarely plays off against anything else; it is the main event.

There's a direct analogy with dubstep - more than an analogy, actually, since dubstep and the empire of minimal are converging, what with Villalobos and Shackleton remixing each other, the 2562 record, etc. What is needed is the confident reassertion of a dance music mainstream. That's related to Simon Reynolds's comments in Philip's piece:

Whenever, as a producer, you feel yourself flinching a bit from using an idea or a sound or an effect, hesitating on the grounds that it's maybe a wee bit cheesy, then I would say just to push right past that feeling and go for it. Do it twice over, even. There can never be enough monster riffs or cheap tricks in dance music; there can definitely be a surfeit of just-so subtleties.

Could minimal be defined as 'devoid of cheese'? Maybe so - but it would be a mistake to equate cheese with a retreat from innovation, just as it would be an error to align tasteful restraint and austerity with experimentalism. Hearing XL's rerelease of The Prodigy's first LP recently, with its its vertiginous jump cuts and bizarre angles, brought this home with E-flashback ultravividness. The barrel organ-like cartoon euphoria of Experience has always sounded like fairground music, and indeed it was at home pounding out from a fairground as it was at a rave. Wandering around a fairground in Kent recently, I kept being drawn back to the ride that was pumping out Bassline House, the genre whose hectic animatronic ebullience is at home in the fairground environment as rave once was. Is it time to forget the austere appartments that minimalism is so often reminiscent of, and return to the fairground?

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Ridicule Is Nothing To Be Scared Of (Slight Return)

Mark Fisher



Like David Stubbs, I'm of course delighted to have been shopped to the commissars of commonsense who compile Private Eye's Pseud's Corner. It's always bracing to be middlebrow-beaten; a pleasure I can expect to enjoy fairly regularly from now on, since, if the section from the Mark Stewart feature that they selected is considered fair game, then they might as well open up a permanent spot for me.

It's difficult to know what the alleged problem is: the conjoining of politics and music? Well, it's hardly stretching a point to argue that a record such as For How Much Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? might, y'know, have had some connection with geopolitical developments at the end of the 70s. Would the same objection be made to linkages between politics and other areas of culture? But of course what is objected to is as much a question of tone as of content. The default expectation in British media is that writers perform a homely matiness: writing must be light, upbeat and irreverent, never taking itself or anything else too seriously.

The function of Pseud's Corner – to punish writing that in some way overreaches itself, that gets ideas above its station or gets carried away – has now been taken up by online discussion boards and comments facilities everywhere. The effect on any writer who internalises the critique is to be intimidated into colourless mediocrity. But the problem with most published writing today is not that it is 'pretentious', it is that is unreflective PR hackwork. David Stubbs is right to invoke a certain Orwell as the patron of bluff, plain speaking John Bull prose - but the Orwell of "Politics And The English Language" also attacked the mechanical circulation of dull, dead language. If only that Orwell were more heeded. "Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print," he demanded, optimistically hoping that "if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs." Over sixty years later, such "verbal refuse" continues to circulate with impunity, and is supplemented by a whole inventory of PR commonplaces and consumer-affect babble (journeys, rollercoaster rides). Surely any amount of 'pretentiousness' is preferable to these soporific linguistic screensavers?

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Anti-Epiphany

Mark Fisher

Simon's response to Mark Wastell's Epiphany in Wire 292, fascinating not because it is a Rashômon-like alternative reading of the same event, but because - contrary to certain prevailing hedonic relativist orthodoxies - it demonstrates that there is something more involved in aesthetic judgments than a mere registering of sensations. The difference between Mark's response and Simon's was not at the level of pleasure; it wasn't that Mark found Parker and Braxton any more agreeable than Simon did. But, in Mark's case, the initially disagreeable sensations induced him to take a leap beyond the pleasure principle: a cognitive act, a commitment, a decision to override the 'anger and confusion' that the music first caused him to feel.(Simon of course has taken such leaps in respect of other scenes, other musics.)

The mantra of hedonic relativism has it that 'everything is subjective', where subjectivity is construed as an arbitrary set of preferences. But Mark's Epiphany vindicates the view that certain encounters - events - produce subjectivities, even as they destitute us, deprive us of old worlds.

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Namings As Portals

Mark Fisher

Speaking of postpunk autodidacticism, Owen Hatherley picks up on what I too thought was of the most interesting lines in Mark Sinker's Sight & Sound review of Grant Gee's Joy Division film:

Curtis' own writing was a teen scrapbook of anti-pop titles and sensibilities ('Interzone', 'Atrocity Exhibition', 'Colony', 'Dead Souls', invoke Burroughs, Ballard, Kafka and Gogol respectively, the effect dismissable only if you decide not to see such namings as portals).

Sometimes the names condensed more than one reference: 'Colony' invoked Conrad as much as Kafka's 'Strike Kolony'. Sometimes the references were unintentional misdirections; 'Atrocity Exhibition' is surely one of the least Ballardian tracks that Joy Division produced. In any case, construing these allusions as 'portals' that led somewhere – rather than as citations in a seamless postmodern circuit – is highly suggestive. Such portals could take the listener into formal education, but were also doorways beyond the school and the university, an alternative curriculum.

(Also well worth looking at on Owen's site: this essay on Neu!, published in honour of the recently deceased Klaus Dinger.)

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Designer Despair

Mark Fisher




Rousing praise for Portishead's latest amidst Simon Reynolds's latest bumper pack of reflections on Blissblog. I find Simon's enthusiasm for the LP a little perplexing, although, I must confess, I've never been that enraptured by Portishead. I became quickly fatigued wading through the gloopy designer despair of their debut, and had all but lost interest by the time of the follow up. The combination of kitchen sink torch singing, vinyl crepitation, sweeping film samples and brokeback hiphop beats possessed a certain stylishness, but the appeal quickly palled. It was the 'stylishness' that was the problem, actually. Even though I don't doubt the personal sincerity of either Gibbons or Barrow, formally it all sounded a little pat, a little too cleverly contrived, a little too comfortably at home in This Life 90s Style culture. Gibbons's gloom always struck me as being more like illegible grumbling than the oblique bleakness it wanted to be. As for the new album, it screams out lack of ideas: devoid of the vinyl crackle that might have given it some relation to the 'hauntological now' of Burial or Philip Jeck, I can only hear it as clapped out coffee table miserabilism ten years past its sell-by date.

(Meanwhile, I can't help feeling that Geoff Barrow and arch smugonaut Mark Ronson are right about each other.)

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Weird coincidences...

Mark Fisher



Further to Derek's observations on Villalobos's 'Enfants', below ... Even though the sample is taken from a Christian Vander track, when I first heard 'Enfants' it reminded me of nothing so much as the piano on Nina Simone's 'Sinnerman'. It seems that I'm not the only one to make the association ... If the similarity between the tracks is eerie, then this only adds to the strangeness of Simone's already intensely uncanny song, which acquired even more weirdness last year when it was used by both David Lynch (in INLAND EMPIRE) and Timbaland (on the first track of his Shock Value LP).




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