Mark Fisher ReBlog
“You won’t be able to stop yourself, you might as well enjoy it”: eXistenZ and noncognitive labour

(Originally published in Film Quarterly)


“Can what is playing you make it to level 2?” asked Nick Land in his landmark 1994 on cyber-theory, “Meltdown” (Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007, Urbanomic, 456). Ominous and playful, Land’s intuition that computer games would provide the best way to understand subjectivity and agency in digital culture was also the gambit of David Cronenberg’s 1999 eXistenZ. eXistenZ takes place in a near-future in which games are capable of generating simulated environments which can barely be distinguished from real life. Instead of computer terminals or game consoles, players use organic “gamepods”, which are connected directly to the players’ bodies via “bioports” in their spines. (Cronenberg conjectures on the DVD commentary that if people choose to have laser eye surgery, they would also be willing to have bioports installed.) The lead characters are Ted Pikul (Jude Law) and Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh). We are first of all led to believe that Pikul is a neophyte gameplayer, being reluctantly initiated into the gameworld by Geller, who at this point seems to be the designer of the game, eXistenZ, which they are playing. The two are pitched into a complex intrigue: a struggle between rival games corporations, and between gameplayers and “realists” – those who believe that the games are corroding the structure of reality itself. This corrosion is performed by the film itself, with what one of the characters memorably describes as “reality bleed-through” effects, so that the reality layers – only very weakly differentiated in any case - become difficult to distinguish. By the end it seems that both eXistenZ the game and what we had taken to be real life are both embedded inside another game, tranCendenZ, but by now we cannot be sure. The last line of dialogue is “tell me the truth, are we still in the game?”

At the time, it seemed like eXistenZ was a late-arriving take on a series of themes and tropes familiar from 80s cyberpunk, and which Cronenberg had himself already explored (and did so much to shape) in Videodrome. In retrospect, however, it is possible to position eXistenZ as part of a rash of late 1990s and early 2000s films, including The Matrix and Vanilla Sky, which mark a transition from what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance” of the 1990s bubble economy into the early twenty-first-century War on Terror moment. There is an abrupt mood shift towards the end of the film, with a military insurrection complete with heavy artillery and explosions. But the dominant feel is more quotidian. By contrast with the hyperconspicuous CGI of The Matrix, with which it was destined to be most compared, eXistenZ was sparing in its use of special effects. As Cronenberg’s DVD commentary makes clear, most of the CGI deployed in the film was used to produce naturalistic effects. The film’s look is subdued, resolutely non-spectacular: brown seems to be the dominant colour. Looked back on now, this brownness looks like a refusal of the gloss that will increasingly come to coat the artifacts of digital culture. With its dreary trout farms, ski lodges, and repurposed churches, the world (or, more properly, worlds) of eXistenZ have a mundane, lived-in quality.Or rather worked-in: much of the film happens in workplaces - workshops, gas stations, factories. This focus on work is what now seems most prophetic about eXistenZ. Labour is never explicitly discussed in the film: it is instead something like an ambient theme, omnipresent but unarticulated. The key to eXistenZ’s self-reflexivity is its preoccupation with the conditions of its own production (and the production of culture in general). It presents us with an uncanny compression, in which the “front end” of late capitalist culture – its cutting edge entertainment systems – fold back into the normally unseen “back end” (the quotidian factories, labs and focus groups in which such systems are produced). The clamour of capitalist semiotics – the frenzy of branding sigils and signals – is curiously muted in eXistenZ. Instead of being part of the background hum of experience, as they are in both everyday life and the typical Hollywood movie, brand names appear only rarely in eXistenZ. The that do appear– most of them the names of games companies – leap out of the screen. The generic naming of space is in fact one of the running jokes in the film – a country gas station is simply called Country Gas Station, a motel is called Motel. This is part of the flat affect, the strange tonelessness, which governs most of the film. On the DVD commentary, Cronenberg says that he made the actors wear unpatterned clothes, because patterns would consume more computer memory.


The digitization of culture which we take for granted now was only in its infancy in 1999; broadband was a few years off, as was the iPod. eXistenZ has little to tell us about the digital communications equipment that will proliferate in the decade after it was released. Communications devices do not play any major role in eXistenZ—the odd glowing phone belonging to Ted is thrown out of a car window by Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh)and, with its longueurs, its lingering in dead time, the film is very far from registering the jittery, attention-dispersing effects of “always-on” mobile technology. The most resonant aspects of eXistenZ do not reside in thebody horror which was then still Cronenberg’s signature—although the scenes of the characters being connected to their organic game pod by bio-ports are typically grisly. Nor are they to be found in the perplexity expressed by characters as to whether they are inside a simulation or not—this is a theme that was already familiar from Videodrome, as well as Verhoeven’s Total Recall, both of which (in the first case indirectly, in the second more directly) took their inspiration from Phillip K. Dick’s fiction. Instead it is the idea—in some ways stranger and more disturbing than the notion that reality is fake—that subjectivity is a simulation which is what is distinctive about eXistenZ. In the first place, this emerges through confronting other automated (or rather partially automated) consciounesses: entities who seem autonomous but in fact can only respond to certain trigger phrases or actions that move the gameplay down a predetermined pathway. Some of the most memorable (and humorous) scenes show encounters with these Read Only Memory entities. At one point, we see one of the characters locked in a “game loop”, silently lolling his head, while waiting to hear the key words that will provoke him back into action. Later, a clerk is seen repeatedly clicking a pen – as a background character he is programmed not to respond until his name is called. More disturbing than the third person (or non-person) encounter with these programmed drones is the experience of having one’s own subjectivity interrupted by an automatic behaviour. At one point, Pikul suddenly finds himself saying, “It’s none of your business who sent us! We’re here and that is all that matters” He is shocked at the expostulation: “God, what happened? I didn’t mean to say that.” “It’s your character who said it,” Geller explains. “It’s kind of a schizophrenic feeling, isn’t it? You’ll get used to it. There are things that have to be said to advance the plot and establish the characters, and those things get said whether you want to say them or not. Don’t fight it.” Pikul later grimly notes that whether he fights these “game urges” or not doesn’t make any difference. The emphasis on the curtailing of free will is one reason that Cronenberg’s claim that the film was “existentialist propaganda” seems odd. Existentialism was a philosophy which claimed that human beings (what Sartre called the “for-itself”) are “condemned to be free”, and that any attempt to avoid responsibility for one’s actions amounted to bad faith. There was an absolute difference between the for-itself and what Sartre called the “in-itself” – the inert world of objects, denuded of consciousness. Yet eXistenZ, in common with much of Cronenberg’s work, troubles the distinction between the for-itself and the in-itself: machines turn out to be anything but inert, just as human subjects end up behaving like passive automata. Like Videodrome before it, the film draws out all the ambiguities of the concept of the player. On the one hand, the player is the one in control, the agent; on the other, the player is the one being played, the passive substance directed by external forces. At first, it seems that Pikul and Geller are for-itself, capable of making choices, albeit within set parameters (unlike in The Matrix, they are constrained by the rules of the world into which they are thrown). The game characters, meanwhile, are the in-itself. But when Pikul experiences “game urges”, he is both in-itself (a merely passive instrument, a slave of drive) and for-itself (a consciousness that recoils in horror from this automatism).


To appreciate eXistenZ’s contemporary resonance it is necessary to connect the manifest theme of artificial and controlled consciousness connects with the latent theme of work. For what do the scenes in which characters are locked in fugues or involuntary behaviour loops resemble if not the call-center world of twenty-first century labour in which quasi-automatism is required of workers, as if the undeclared requirement for employment were to surrender subjectivity and become nothing more than a bio-linguistic appendage tasked with repeating set phrases that make a mockery of anything resembling conversation? The difference between “interacting” with a ROM-construct and being a ROM-construct neatly maps onto the difference between telephoning a call center and working in one.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre famously uses the example of the waiter: someone who overplays the role of waiter to the extent that they (to outside appearances at least) eliminated their own subjectivity:

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too forward. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. (Being and Nothingness: An Essay On Phenomenological Ontology, Routledge, 2000, p59).

The power of Sartre’s example depends upon the tension between the would-be automatism of the waiter’s behaviour and the awareness that, behind the mechanical rituals of the waiter’s over-performance of his role is a consciousness that remains distinct from that role. In eXistenZ, however, we are confronted with the possibility that agency can genuinely be interrupted by the “inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton”. In any case, eXistenZ compels us to re-read Sartre’s description of the waiter in its terms, especially since one of the most horrific scenes of automatism features none other than a waiter. Pikul and Geller are sitting in a Chinese restaurant when Pikul feels himself overcome by a “game urge”.

Pikul: You know, I do feel the urge to kill someone here.
Geller: Who?
Pikul: I need to kill our waiter.
Geller: Oh. Well that makes sense. Um, waiter! Waiter!
[she calls over waiter]
Geller: When he comes over, do it. Don’t hesitate.
Pikul: But… everything in the game is so realistic, I-I don’t think I really could.
Geller: You won’t be able to stop yourself. You might as well enjoy it.
Pikul: Free will… is obviously not a big factor in this little world of ours.
Geller: It’s like real life. There’s just enough to make it interesting.

“You won’t be able to stop yourself, you might as well enjoy it” – this phrase captures all too well the fatalism of those who have given up the hope of having any control over their lives and work. Here, eXistenZ emerges, not as “existentialist propaganda”, as Cronenberg had it, but as decisively anti-existentialist. Free will is not an irreducible fact about human existence: it is merely the unpreprogrammed sequence necessary to stitch together a narrative that is already written. There is no real choice over the most important aspects of our life and work, eXistenZ suggests. Such choice as there are exist one level up: we can choose to accept and enjoy our becoming in-itself, or uselessly reject it. This is a kind of deflation-in-advance of all of the claims about “choice” and “interactivity” that communicative capitalism will trumpet in the decade after eXistenZ was released.

Autonomist theorists have referred to a turn away from factory work towards what they call “cognitive labour”. Yet work can be affective and linguistic without being cognitive – like a waiter, the call center worker can perform attentiveness without having to think. For this noncognitive worker, indeed, thought is a privilege to which they are not entitled. Writing in The Guardian recently, Aditya Chakrabortty ( referred to a study of two of Britain’s biggest supermarkets by the sociologist Irena Grugulis. “A trained butcher revealed that most meats were now sliced and packaged before they arrived in store; bakers in smaller shops now just reheated frozen loaves. In their paper, published this summer, Grugulis and her colleagues note that ‘almost every aspect of work for every kind of employee, from shopfloor worker … to the general store manager, was set out, standardised and occasionally scripted by the experts at head office’. Or, as one senior manager put it: ‘Every little thing is monitored so there is no place to hide.’” According to the labour theorist Phil Brown “permission to think” will be “restricted to a relatively small group of knowledge workers” in countries such as the UK and US. Most work will be routinised and outsourced to places where labour is cheap. Brown calls this “digital Taylorism” – suggesting that, far from being engaged in cognitive work, digital workers will increasingly find their labour as crushingly repetitive as factory workers on a production line. eXistenZ’s muted tones anticipates this digital banality, and it is the banal quality of life in an digitally automated environment - human-sounding voices that announce arrivals and departures at a railway station, voice-recognition software which fails to recognise our voices, call center employees drilled into mechanically repeating a set script – that eXistenZ captures so well.

Dystopia Now

(Originally published in Film Quarterly)

Dystopia has returned to cinema in three recent films - most spectacularly in the blockbuster The Hunger Games but also in two lower profile films, Never Let Me Go, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and In Time, written and directed by Andrew Niccol. In these three films, class and precariousness are forced into the foreground. To be in the dominant class is, in each film, to achieve a certain liberation from precariousness; for the poor, meanwhile, life is harried, fugitive, a perpetual state of anxiety. Yet precariousness here is not a natural state which the rich are fortunate enough to rise above; on the contrary, precariousness is deliberately imposed on the poor as a means of controlling and subduing them. Pre-existing shortages provide the pretext for deliberately depriving the subjugated class: of time, of their organs, or of their lives. In an inversion of Hobbes, the war of all against all emerges as an artificial condition rather than a state of nature. Strategic deprivation and enforced competition (in some cases to the death) make solidarity impossible: each must face death on their own.

The Hunger Games, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins,is aimed at the young adult market, and, as such, it can be seen as the successor of the Harry Potter and the Twilight series. The phenomenal success of the Hunger Games and the two novels which followed it has led to some bookshops now features a ‘Young Adult Dystopian’ section, and it’s tempting to see the shift from wizards and lovelorn vampires to teenagers fighting for their lives in a state-organised spectacle as indicative of general change in the cultural temperature. The Hunger Games was published in 2008, at the very moment that the financial crisis was pitching the world into panic and confusion. The phrase “Young Adult Dystopian” tells us much more than which demographic The Hunger Games is aimed at. The film and the novel have no doubt resonated so powerfully with its young audience because it has engaged feelings of betrayal and resentment rising in a generation asked to accept that its quality of life will be worse than that of its parents.

What’s certain is that The Hunger Games is irreducibly political in a way that the Potter and the Twilight films could never be. The film’s political charge depends upon the surprising intensity of its brutality. This brutality is affective rather than explicit; the amount of gore is actually quite low, and it is the prospect of pubescents murdering each other, not the sight of their doing it, which shocks. What makes The Hunger Games more than a workaday thriller is its disclosing of a world - a world that, as with all dystopias that connect, is a distorting mirror of our own. The setting is Panem, the name for North America after a catastrophic civil war. Panem is divided into twelve ‘Districts’, all of which are presided over by the Capitol. As a symbolic act of penance for their past rebellions, each District is required to send a young “tribute” to the annual Hunger Games, a televised tournament in which the competitors are required to fight to the death. Katniss comes from District 12, whose main function is coalmining. At 12’s ‘reaping’ festival, where the names of the tributes are selected by a lottery, Katniss’s younger sister, Prim, is picked to enter the arena. Katniss volunteers in her place, and she is joined in the Games by Peeta Mellark. The two tributes are sent to the Capitol, where they are advised by a reluctant mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, made over by professional stylists, and interviewed on television, before they are rated by the organisers of the Games, the ‘Gamesmakers’. When they are pitched into the arena, Katniss and Peeta eventually collaborate with one another, playing up a romance for the television audience (it’s necessary to do this, because ‘sponsors’ in the audience can pay for items to be sent into their favourite tributes, and the two District 12 tributes calculate that a ‘star-crossed lovers’ routine will capture viewers’ attention and sympathy – the extent to which the two characters can accurately second-guess the way in which their narrative will be edited is a canny commentary on the way in which such manipulations are taken for granted by a generation that has grown up on reality TV). The Gamesmakers pick up on the romance by announcing that there will be a change in the rules: this year, there can be two winners of the Hunger Games, provided that the last two surviving tributes come from the same district. Katniss and Peta manage to outlive the other tributes, but just as they think they have won, another announcement is made: the rule change is suspended, and now there can only be one winner. In defiance, Katniss and Peta decide that, rather than accepting this, they will each eat a handful of deadly berries. As they are about to do so, however, a further announcement is made: this year, after all, there can be two winners.

Perhaps because of Collins’ close involvement with the film – she wrote the initial script herself, although her treatment was revised by screenwriter Billy Ray - the adaptation is remarkably faithful to its source. The chief difference between the novel and the film is that the former opts for a first person narrative. This leads to greater suspense - the first person narrative in the novel means that we presuppose that Katniss survives - but also a reduction in claustrophobia. Shifting to third person allows us a few glimpses into the world beyond the arena - we see, for instance, President Snow’s increasingly tense meetings with the chief Games Maker, Seneca Crane, concluding, ultimately, with Crane’s death; Haymitch’s manoeuvrings on behalf of his charges; the operations center where the decisions about what happens in the arena are implemented; and, most significantly, the uprisings in some of the Districts). But, these fleeting asides apart, our perspective is confined to Katniss’s.

The Hunger Games is about the first stirrings of revolutionary consciousness, but its relationship to capitalism is less clear than it might initially appear. Does the Capitol double for capital, or is the form of exploitation in The Hunger Games of a cruder type? Although the Capitol looks at first sight like a metropolitan capitalist society, the mode of power at work in Panem is better described as cyber-feudal. The name “tribute” clues us in to the fact that the Capitol extracts wealth via direct expropriation rather than through the market. Market signifiers are, after all, strangely absent from the Capitol. Commodities are ubiquitous, but there are no corporate logos, shops or brand names in the city. So far as we can see, the state, under the beady gaze of Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, seems to own everything. It exerts its power directly, via an authoritarian police force of white-uniformed Peacekeepers which inflicts punishment summarily, and symbolically, through the Hunger Games and other rituals in which the Districts are required to act out their subordination. In District 12, meanwhile, there is a black market, but little indication of legitimate commercial activity. We know that Peeta works in his parents’ bakery, but the overwhelming impression of District 12 is of a society bent double by manual labour, in which shopping is by no means a leisure activity.

The anachronism reflects the mixture of influences which led Collins to create Panem. If one of Collins’ most frequently quoted remarks is to be believed, the initial sources for the novel were 21st century television. “I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.” ( The Hunger Games owes much of its charge to the way in which it combines the results of this hypnagogic conflation with classical influences. “The world of Panem, particularly the Capitol, is loaded with Roman references,” Collins explained in the same interview . “Panem itself comes from the expression ‘Panem et Circenses’ which translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’” Besides gladiatorial combat, Collins says she was also inspired by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. “The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete, where they were thrown in the Labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur.”

The world of The Hunger Games is rigidly stratified. One of the points of the Games is to underscore the impossibility of any upward movement for most , even as it holds up the remote (and unappealing) chance of a limited escape for the Games’ victors. The victors live as rich celebrities, amongst but apart from the rest of their Districts. They are also required to mentor their District’s tributes in future games – a miserable, purgatorial fate, which more than accounts for Haymitch’s alcoholism. The feudal overtones means that the differences amongst the districts feel more like encastements than class divisions. The lower numbered districts have preferred status, their tributes usually allying in the arena to form a pathetic elite of the downtrodden and the (mostly) doomed. (One notable addition to the novel is the speech given to one of these elite tributes, when, just before his death at the climax of the film, he belatedly becomes aware of his status as someone born to kill, and to die.) The hierarchy between the Capitol and the Districts – and amongst the Districts – is further compounded by class divisions within District 12, between the miners and a merchant class.

The hierarchies in Panem are also organised geographically, and here the difference between Capitol and the districts can be construed as analogous to that between center and periphery in our world. The Districts are responsible for the extraction of raw materials and the manufacture of commodities, leaving the citizens of the Capitol to engage in various kinds of service industry - food preparation, styling and entertainment - not to mention consumption. This fades into the closely related division between urban and rural, where we are invited to contrast the metropolis’s almost entirely artificialised world with the coal mines and woodlands of District 12. Yet we can just as easily understand the differences between Capitol and the Districts in historical terms, so that the Capitol’s decadent (post)modernity, its apparently unlimited consumption and foppish, infantilised spectatorialism can be set against the conspicuous authenticity of older forms of labour, with their dirt poor privations and honest work ethic. When Katniss, the daughter of a dead miner who survives by hunting on the land, is conveyed to the Capitol by high-speed train, it is as if the nineteenth century is brought face to future-shocked face with twenty-first century media culture, a disjunction that is pointed up by the garish appearance of the Capitol’s citizens, with their grotesque cosmetics, lurid hair dye and ornate clothes. But the urban-modern versus rural-archaic opposition makes for the appearance of anomaly. While District 12 is a locality in which everyone knows everybody else, the Capitol is immensely populous, giving the impression that, in Panem, the rich vastly outnumber the working poor, as if the immiserated 1% work for the benefit of the privileged 99% rather than the reverse. (In the novels it is explained that 12 is an exceptionally small district.)

Ultimately, the Capitol’s domination of the Districts is perhaps most obviously read in terms of colonial domination. In the hunger games, the colonised are forced to celebrate their own defeat and to acknowledge the unassailability of their colonisers’ power. But whether we read the film in generational, colonial, geographical, historical, or class terms - or, as seems best, as a combination or condensation of all these modes - it is clear that Panem is world in which there is Empire but no Multitude – or, rather, we see the Multitude flicker into existence only fitfully, in the uprisings which play only a small part in The Hunger Games but which take on a greater significance as Collins’ trilogy develops.

“Suicide is the decisive political act of our times”, claimed Franco Berardi in Precarious Rhapsody: Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-alpha Generation. (London: Minor Compositions, 2009, p55). In a world where domination is total, where power has unquestioned dominion over life and death, then the only recourse for the oppressed is to die on their own terms, to use their deaths as – symbolic as well as literal - weapons. Thus, in The Hunger Games, it is Katniss and Peta’s threat of suicide which checkmates the Capitol. In choosing to die, they not only deny the Capitol the captured life of a victor, they also deny it their deaths. Death in the arena ceases to be a reconfirmation of the Capitol’s power, and becomes instead an act of refusal. Up until this climactic moment, The Hunger Games is striking for the fatalism of its lead characters, something that is all the more remarkable given the personal courage and self-sacrifice that they show. They think like slaves, taking it for granted that the Capitol’s power cannot be broken. Katniss and Peeta have at this stage no ambitions to head a revolution against the Capitol (although this becomes their fate in the later novels). Katniss acquiesces because she believes that confronting the Capitol is hopeless; any challenge to the Capitol’s power could only result in her family being tortured and killed. Poignantly, the only alternative to servitude she can imagine at the start of the film is escape into the woods. (It could be argued that the fantasy of escape into the woods is by no means confined to Katniss Everdeen; so much contemporary anti-capitalism, with its vision of a return to the organic and the local, to a space beyond outside the purview of Empire, amounts to little more than a version of this same hope.)

An even more terrifying fatalism hangs over Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go. Unlike in The Hunger Games, the lead characters in Never Let Me Go are not kept in line by a police force or an army. Here, heartbreakingly, and surprisingly, there are no dreams of escape into the woods (as the threshold to an outside world coded as threatening, the woods in Never Let Me Go are precisely not understood as a place of freedom, but mythologised as a site of terror); there is only a terrible compliance, and a slave’s desperate capacity for self-delusion. In a sense, ideology is not required in The Hunger Games: brute force is enough. Never Let Me Go, by contrast, is about a form of power that does not need to exhibit force. It focuses on an “ideological state apparatus”, an English boarding school, Hailsham, in an alternative twentieth century. The truth of the school is known to all, but, in the typical English way, it cannot be said out loud (one teacher is sacked for explicitly stating what the pupils already know): Hailsham is a training academy for clones, whose role will be to be provide organs for the wider human population. It’s instructive to compare Never Let Me Go with Michael Bay’s The Island (2005); indeed, such a comparison is inevitable. Bay’s film works from a premise that is practically identical – clones whose body parts will be harvested – but its treatment of the concept couldn’t be more different. The Island is a story of escape, full of spectacular Hollywood action sequences. In Never Let Me Go, however, there is nowhere to escape to. Once they leave the school, the clones are not confined in some carceral space; they already share the same world as those to whom they, in a chilling yet appallingly convincing-sounding euphemism, they must “donate” their organs. Nothing could be further from The Island’s adrenal bustle than Never Let Me Go’s atmosphere of lassitude, languor and longing. The fact that the clones’ time is short lends their thwarted love affairs, their lazy afternoons spent on meadows reading and their day trips to the coast a nearly unbearable intensity. If there is nowhere to escape to – the clones are already in the world; the world is their prison – then nor is there any attempt to escape. The hopes and fantasies of the three lead characters, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, are entirely shaped by the bureaucratic organisation of the donation program. For reasons that are never fully clear but which we can surmise are down to the success of the Hailsham ideology, fleeing the program is unthinkable for them. Their hopes rest instead on the kind of collective fantasy that seems to spontaneously grow in institutions like Hailsham, and without which, in a cruel twist, the institution could not do its work. The fantasy is the unofficial supplement which the official ideological program relies upon – and may even cultivate - without explicitly sanctioning. The fantasy is of a reprieve in the form of a “deferral” (Ishiguro’s language here echoes the “indefinite postponement” in Kafka’s The Trial), which is supposedly available to couples who can prove they are really in love. Without this fantasy, the clones would have no hope, and thus no reason not to rebel, or to destroy themselves. But, as Tommy and Kathy discover – and we sense that Kathy never really believed it any way, except as a kind of superstition that the condemned allow consoles themselves with - there is no deferral. Their love, like their bodies, will not survive much longer. Kathy’s concluding voiceover notes that this is the same for everyone, whether they are a clone or not – except that there is nothing natural about the clones’ fate. They die – or, in another wonderfully chilling euphemism, they “complete” – because they belong to an exploited class, and what a harrowingly incisive image of exploitation “organ donation” is.

While the fatalism of the condemned governs the mood of Never Let Me Go, In Time is driven by the desperate panic of those struggling to fend death off. The certainty of early death haunts the clones in Never Let Me Go – most will ‘complete’ after their third donation. In In Time, death is not an imminent certainty but a constant threat – for the poor, at any rate. The currency in this future US is time. At the age of 25, people cease appearing to age. Unfortunately, however, they are only given one more year to live. If they want to survive beyond the age of 26, they must earn more time. Social classes are defined by how much time they have, and, as in The Hunger Games, stratification is organised geographically, with the society divided into “Time Zones”. The poor live in temporal ghettos, while the rich dissolutely party in the enclave of New Greenwich.

In Time is the first cinematic dystopia of the age of precarity: it captures the ambient dread of a world stripped of (job and social) security, in which the poor are trapped in a perpetual present tense, unable to plan or dream, all their mental and physical resources devoted to the exhausting hardscrabble for bare survival. The lead character is Will Salas (an improbably cast Justin Timberlake), a factory worker living in the ghetto of Dayton. Salas is gifted a century of time by a hyper-jaded plutocrat who has grown tired of living. Salas heads to New Greenwich, but he is unable to adjust to the serene pace of the city. He is habituated to acting quickly, to squeezing as much into every moment as he can, but in New Greenwich, such haste is the very mark of vulgarity. As a restaurant waitress discreetly tells Salas when she sees him wolfing his food, he is easily identifiable as a (class) alien because he does things too quickly. In New Greenwich, time is to be conspicuously squandered – much as space is squandered by the rich in our world.

In Time is not only an attack on the rich; its target is the class system as such. The rich are immiserated in their own way, their lives deprived of direction or significance. Like The Hunger Games, In Time is in part a commentary on the empty allure of the media-leisure elite. As Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried) puts it, “the poor die, and the rich don’t live.” Another way of putting this is that the poor are exhausted, while the rich are worldweary. A banker’s daughter, Sylvia is tired of the sterile hedonistic rituals of New Greenwich, and easily drawn into insurrection when she meets the fugitive Salas. She thus becomes a Pattie Hearst class traitor, plotting the destruction of the class system. But when Sylvia and Salas start to rob “Time Banks” and flood the ghettos with time, they find that the rich respond by simply increasing the cost of living. The film ends equivocally – Salas and Sylvia continue to rob Time Banks, but whether this is futile or a pre-revolutionary act remains unclear.

This hesitation is perhaps characteristic of the current moment, in which fragmented challenges to the dystopia of neoliberalism may presage a moment of radical change. If the bleakness of Never Let Me Go arises from its not even broaching the possibility of collective escape or insurrection, then the margin of hope in The Hunger Games and In Time consists in their groping towards new kinds of collective action. The Hunger Games’ arena, in which the exploited are forced to compete with each other for the entertainment of a bored elite, is as horribly compelling an image of the privation of solidarity in our world as you could wish for. Any alliance in the Hunger Games’ arena is necessarily provisional – since (in the ordinary course of things) there can only be one winner, every member of an alliance knows that they may well face the prospect of eventually having to kill those with whom they are now temporarily allied. The struggle to break out of the arena entails the throwing off of this imposed Hobbesianism, the (re)invention of solidarity. Could it be that Collins’ novels are not only in tune with the (neoliberal) dystopia that is disintegrating, but with the world that will replace it?

Borges for Breakfast

(Originally posted on k-punk, 17.10.04)

Danny Baker’s breakfast shows on BBC Radio London  are delightfully and genuinely anarchic: unscripted, unplanned, interrupted only by the station’s de rigeur  News and Weather slots (which, like the nagging awareness in a dream that you will awake, are irritating emissaries from the Real World which you must  soon re-enter), the show is held together by the charismatic sorcery and joyful force of Baker’s cracker-barrel personality. Baker is the Borges of breakfast, a connoisseur and inventor of unlikely taxonomies: famous Doctors, celebrity teeth, the greatest ad slogans ever, fictional characters who wear three-quarter length trousers, the strange routines of other families (tiny details which suddenly reveal that Other People’s Houses are really Other Worlds), Baker lures you into fixating on these categories that you couldn’t even have dreamt of. His mind tirelessly pursues these non-topics, which have nothing in common with each other apart from the fact that they are all ‘objectively’ of no possible importance.

The carnival king of a world turned upside down, Baker, thankfully, makes you forget what’s really important. He is genuinely Surrealist in a way that the actual Surrealists - too po-faced and programmatic - seldom were, serious about the silly. It’s the seriousness that Nietzsche recommended: the seriousness of the child at play. What you’re suddenly aware of, when you’re cast out of Baker’s wonderland, is the insufferable adult weight of the rest of the culture, with its neurotic faux-sophistication and prurience. There’s not a trace of irony, not a shred of meta-self consciousness, in Baker’s curatorial craziness. This is radio as a Situationist derrive, wandering without premeditated purpose through London’s unconscious. The only guiding thread through this funhouse London labyrinth is Baker’s enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm, enthusiasm: enthusiasm is obsession gone liquid, its calcified, one-eyed fixity transformed into a foaming, teeming froth.

Exactly what you need in a morning.

Terminator vs. Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism

(Presented at the Accelerationism symposium, Goldsmiths: 14:09:2010)

        "Why political intellectuals, do you incline towards the proletariat? In commiseration for what? I realize that a proletarian would hate you, you have no hatred because you are bourgeois, privileged, smooth-skinned types, but also because you dare not say that the only important thing there is to say, that one can enjoy swallowing the shit of capital, its materials, its metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pâtés, swallowing tonnes of it till you burst – and because instead of saying this, which is also what happens in the desires of those who work with their hands, arses and heads, ah, you become a leader of men, what a leader of pimps, you lean forward and divulge: ah, but that’s alienation, it isn’t pretty, hang on, we’ll save you from it, we will work to liberate you from this wicked affection for servitude, we will give you dignity. And in this way you situate yourselves on the most despicable side, the moralistic side where you desire that our capitalized’s desire be totally ignored, brought to a standstill, you are like priests with sinners, our servile intensities frighten you, you have to tell yourselves: how they must suffer to endure that! And of course we suffer, we the capitalized, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy, nor that what you think you can offer us as a remedy – for what? – does not disgust us, even more. We abhor therapeutics and its vaseline, we prefer to burst under the quantitative excesses that you judge the most stupid. And don’t wait for our spontaneity to rise up in revolt either."(LE 116)

In the introduction to his 1993 translation of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, from which the above extraordinary outburst comes, Iain Hamilton Grant refers to a certain “maturity of contemporary wisdom.” According to this “maturity,” Grant observes, Economie Libidinale was “a minor and short-lived explosion of a somewhat naive anti-philosophical expressionism, an aestheticizing trend hung over from a renewed interest in Nietzsche prevalent in the late 1960s.” (LE xvii). Grant groups Lyotard’s book with three others: Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Luce Irigaray’s Speculum: Of the Other Woman and Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death. Libidinal Economy has in general drawn little critical response,” Grant continues, “save losing Lyotard many Marxist friends. Indeed, with a few exceptions it is now only Lyotard himself who occasionally refers to the book, to pour new scorn on it, calling it his ‘evil book, the book that everyone writing and thinking is tempted to do.’” (LE xviii; Lyotard quote Peregrinations, 13) This remained the case until Ben Noys’s The Persistence of the Negative, in which Noys positions Libidinal Economy and Anti-Oedipus as part of what he calls an ‘accelerationist’ moment. A couple of quotes from these two texts immediately give the flavour of the accelerationist gambit.

From Anti-Oedipus:

"But which is the revolutionary path? Is there one? – To withdraw from the world market, as Samir Amin advises Third World Countries to do, in a curious revival of the fascist ‘economic solution’? Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go further still, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization? For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process,’ as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet. (239-40)"

And from Libidinal Economy – the one passage from the text that is remembered, if only in notoriety:

"The English unemployed did not have to become workers to survive, they – hang on tight and spit on me – enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolutions of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening. (LE 111"

Spit on Lyotard they certainly did. But in what does the alleged scandalous nature of this passage reside? Hands up who wants to give up their anonymous suburbs and pubs and return to the organic mud of the peasantry. Hands up, that is to say, all those who really want to return to pre-capitalist territorialities, families and villages. Hands up, furthermore, those who really believe that these desires for a restored organic wholeness are extrinsic to late capitalist culture, rather than in fully incorporated components of the capitalist libidinal infrastructure. Hollywood itself tells us that we may appear to be always-on techno-addicts, hooked on cyberspace, but inside, in our true selves, we are primitives organically linked to the mother/planet, and victimised by the military-industrial complex. James Cameron’s Avatar is significant because it highlights the disavowal that is constitutive of late capitalist subjectivity, even as it shows how this disavowal is undercut. We can only play at being inner primitives by virtue of the very cinematic proto-VR technology whose very existence presupposes the destruction of the organic idyll of Pandora.

And if there is no desire to go back except as a cheap Hollywood holiday in other People’s misery – if, as Lyotard argues, there are no primitive societies, (yes, the Terminator was there from the start, distributing microchips to accelerate its advent); isn’t, then, the only direction forward? Through the shit of capital, metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pâtés, its cyberspace matrix?

I want to make three claims here –

1. Everyone is an accelerationist

2. Accelerationism has never happened.

3. Marxism is nothing if it is not accelerationist

Of the 70s texts that Grant mentions in his round-up, Libidinal Economy was in some respects the most crucial link with the 90s UK cyber-theory. It isn’t just the content, but the intemperate tone of Libidinal Economy that is significant. Here we might recall Zizek’s remarks on Nietzsche: at the level of content, Nietzsche’s philosophy is now eminently assimilable, but it is the style, the invective, of which we cannot imagine a contemporary equivalent, at least not one that is solemnly debated in the academy. Both Iain Grant and Ben Noys follow Lyotard himself in describing Libidinal Economy as a work of affirmation, but, rather like Nietzsche’s texts, Libidinal Economy habitually defers its affirmation, engaging for much of the text in a series of (ostensibly parenthetical) hatreds. While Anti-Oedipus remains in many ways a text of the late 60s, Libidinal Economy anticipates the punk 70s, and draws upon the 60s that punk retrospectively projects. Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again. But it’s now necessary to reverse the Deleuze-Guattari/Libidinal Economy emphasis on politics as a means to greater libidinal intensification: rather, it’s a question of instrumentalising libido for political purposes.

If Libidinal Economy was repudiated, but more often ignored, the 90s theoretical moment to which Grant’s own translation contributed has fared even worse. Despite his current reputation as a founder of speculative realism, Grant’s incendiary 90s texts—sublime cyborg surgeries suturing Blade Runner into Kant, Marx and Freud— have all but disappeared from circulation. The work of Grant’s one-time mentor Nick Land does not even draw derisive comment. Like Libidinal Economy, his work, too, has drawn little critical response – and Land, to say the least, had no Marxist friends to lose. Hatred for the academic left was in fact one of the libidinal motors of Land’s work. Land writes in “Machinic Desire”:

"Machinic revolution must therefore go in the opposite direction to socialistic regulation pressing towards ever more uninhibited marketization of the pro­cesses that are tearing down the social field, “still further” with “the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization” and “one can never go far enough in the direction of deterritori­alization: you haven’t seen anything yet.” (Fanged Noumena, 341-342; embedded quotations from Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 239, 321)

Land was our Nietzsche – with the same baiting of the so-called progressive tendencies, the same bizarre mixture of the reactionary and the futuristic, and a writing style that updates nineteenth century aphorisms into what Kodwo Eshun called “text at sample velocity.” Speed— in the abstract and the chemical sense— was crucial here: telegraphic tech-punk provocations replacing the conspicuous cogitation of so much post-structuralist continentalism, with its implication that the more laborious and agonised the writing, the more thought must be going on.

Whatever the merits of Land’s other theoretical provocations (and I’ll suggest some serious problems with them presently), Land’s withering assaults on the academic left - or the embourgeoisified state-subsidised grumbling that so often calls itself academic Marxism – remain trenchant. The unwritten rule of these “careerist sandbaggers” is that no one seriously expects any renunciation of bourgeois subjectivity to ever happen. Pass the Merlot, I’ve got a career’s worth of quibbling critique to get through. So we see a ruthless protection of petit bourgeois interests dressed up as politics. Papers about antagonism, then all off to the pub afterwards. Instead of this, Land took earnestly—to the point of psychosis and auto-induced schizophrenia—the Spinozist-Nietzschean-Marxist injunction that a theory should not be taken seriously if it remains at the level of representation.

What, then, is Land’s philosophy about?

In a nutshell: Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic desire remorselessly stripped of all Bergsonian vitalism, and made backwards-compatiblewith Freud’s death drive and Schopenhauer’s Will. The Hegelian-Marxist motor of history is then transplanted into this pulsional nihilism: the idiotic autonomic Will no longer circulating idiotically on the spot, but upgraded into a drive, and guided by a quasi-teleological artificial intelligence attractor that draws terrestrial history over a series of intensive thresholds that have no eschatological point of consummation, and that reach empirical termination only contingently if and when its material substrate burns out. This is Hegelian-Marxist historical materialism inverted: Capital will not be ultimately unmasked as exploited labour power; rather, humans are the meat puppet of Capital, their identities and self-understandings are simulations that can and will be ultimately be sloughed off.

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"Is Nick Land the most important British philosopher of the last twenty years?

(Originally published in Dazed and Confused)

"Is Nick Land the most important British philosopher of the last twenty years?," asks Kodwo Eshun. On the face of it, the question might seem an odd one - Land only published one book, The Thirst For Annihilation : Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism and a series of short texts, most of which had a limited circulation when they first appeared. Nevertheless, Eshun’s question makes sense because that small canon of texts - which have been collected for the first time in a recently published volume Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007 - have had an enormous but up until now subterranean influence. Their impact was first of all felt beyond philosophy - in music (Steve Goodman aka Kode 9 studied with Land in the 90s), in art (Jake Chapman has long been an admirer of Land’s “technilism”; Eshun, in the 90s one of the most important writers and theorists on music, is now is  now a member of the Turner Prize-nominated Otolith Group), in the rogue media theory of Matthew Fuller, in the inhuman feminism of Luciana Parisi’s Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology and the Mutations of Desire, and in the unclassifiable theory-fiction of the Iranian writer Reza Negarestani, whose astonishing Cyclonopedia  was rated by Artforum as one of the best books of 2009. But Land’s influence is now infesting the philosophy departments which tended to scorn it in the rare cases they were aware of it. Some of the philosophers at the forefront of the most exciting movement in current philosophy, speculative realism - Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant - studied with Land, and their work is still marked by that encounter. The re-propagation of Land’s work via speculative realism  has led younger theorists such as Ben Woodard, author of the forthcoming Slime Dynamics  - which crossbreeds philosophy, science and horror fiction - back to Land. "Land’s work was a welcome respite from much of the philosophy I had been reading at the time," says Woodard, who encountered Land via Reza Negerastani.  "His Thirst for Annihilation is one of the more interesting texts I’ve read in several years as it viciously lampoons the hubris of philosophers and other intellectuals while managing to be a work of theory at the same time. Land demonstrated that one could make rigorous and important theoretical arguments without abandoning style or without being afraid to engage strange and unorthodox materials.”

In the 90s, Land was what the music critic Simon Reynolds once called a “vortical presence”, capable of utterly transforming those with whom he came into contact. Kodwo Eshun: “What struck me, forcibly, upon seeing, and then meeting Nick Land, at an  event in Brighton’s Zap Club, in 1993 or 1994,  where he was seated, on a  stage, next to Sadie Plant, taking turns to read the same paper, one  paragraph after another, and subsequently, at the 2nd Virtual Futures  conference at Warwick University in 1996, was his presence. His manner was immediately open, egalitarian and absolutely unaffected  by academic protocol; his style of speaking was extremely abstract yet  extremely vivid; he dramatised theory as a world geopoliticohistorical  epic and he narrated philosophy in the present tense as a series of  personifications that drew equally upon Asimov, Wiener, Turing, Ridley  Scott and William Gibson, He positioned his thought and his self inside  of a desire for multiple destructions; he identified his thinking with  the death drive in a way that was exhilarating, alarming, thrilling and  painstaking.”

“When you were in Nick’s presence, thinking mattered,” Eshun continues, “it took on a mortal  quality; it became enlivened, libidinised; intensified; it made demands  upon you, it made you impatient with everything else. In the times in which I met Nick, none of these qualities ever changed. Each of the other 20somethings I met during this time recounted similar stories.  Many, if not all of those people that made contact with Nick Land have  since gone onto make names for themselves in literature, in electronic  dance music, in art, in fiction; it is clear to me, now, that those  encounters with Nick Land, then, were intensifying experiences whose  effect was to make one impatient with anything less than a mode of  thinking that operated at a point of speculative magnitude; after Nick, one could not turn back, towards a homeland of thought; there was no homeland left to return to.”

I was one of those who underwent this dislocating encounter.Along with a handful of others, including Steve Goodman, Luciana Parisi and Robin Mackay, the editor of the Collapse journal and the man behind Urbanomic, the publishers of Fanged Noumena, I was a founding member of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (Ccru). The Ccru was convened by Land’s former collaborator, Sadie Plant, but, when Plant departed, the Unit became shaped by Land’s ideas and methodology. Although the Ccru was notionally a part of the Philosophy department, it never had any formal institutional status. As one Warwick academic memorably put it, “The Ccru does not, has not and will never exist.” This institutional non-existence parallels Land’s own strange situation - a philosopher who few professional philosophers acknowledge, Land left the university in the early 2000s to live in Shanghai. 

I still recall very vividly the first time I encountered Land’s cyber-writings. I had read The Thirst For Annihilation but it didn’t really work for me; even though I appreciated its experimental form and the way that it tried to become its subject (the work of the French anti-philosopher Georges Bataille) rather than judge it from some supposedly neutral vantage point, there was still something self-conscious about it. It was the piece “Machinic Desire” that first took hold me. I remember reading it, then immediately re-reading it two or three times. There was a great deal of cyber-theory around in the 1990s - some of Californian cheerleading for new technology, some of it academic writing - but none of it seemed to come from inside the macihines - which is to say, outside us - in the way that Land’s did. The writing didn’t have the distance that one expects from academic theory; it dealt with fiction and film as terrains to be occupied rather than as artefacts to be ‘commented’ upon. It found a “plane of consistency” where the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson connected up with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant; where Blade Runner connected with finance capital. Theory wasn’t being ‘applied’ here; it was being plugged in. The writing felt as if it came from somewhere real, somewhere exterior, rather than from a psychological interiority. All of this depended upon the qualities of the writing, which was generated by certain stylistic features: the use of present tense, the use of the second-person (‘you’) forced a kind of urgency of immersion. And the whole thing was suffused by a reckless integrity: it was entirely lacking in the dampening caution and cynicism which makes so much careerist academic writing dull and delibidinising. There was the unmistakable feeling that you get whenever you encounter an authentic project: the sense that this had to be written, that Land was in a way a puppet being used so that this Thing could get out.   

"I completely share your thoughts about Thirst for Annihilation,” says Steve Goodman, “which read to me to read like a writer trying to liberate themselves from the shackles of being trained in academic theory/philosophy.  Of course most people who are academically trained one way or another, including myself, don’t get past the pain, angst and friction such a quest generates, which is ultimately why much ‘radical’ post-Nietzschean academic theory is so tedious and adolescent, but its certainly a worthwhile quest. But what is interesting about Nick, is that his response to this hyper-rational prison of academic philosophy was not to retreat from it, but to accelerate it to a point where it implodes, perhaps taking him with it. So instead of reactively retreating from theory, he actually seemed to understand it better than the most dutiful academic bureaucrat ever could. And this is what made him, at that time such an amazing teacher/educator or however you want to describe what he was doing.

"Anyway, I remember coming across one of Nick’s articles called ‘Cyberspace Anarchitecture and Jungle warfare’ at some point in the mid-90s. This was a moment at which we were all massively stimulated by jungle not just as a music, but as a theory generating machine. The article had nothing in particular to do with jungle music in a literal sense, but the more I read it, the more this abstract landscape that it seemed to be mapping, was exactly the same one created by the music.  I read it about 10 times and still didn’t completely get it, but the sense of the concreteness of its content, its the lack of distance but also the sense that what it was describing we were all  familiar with already, but perhaps in a non-linguistic, affective mode, was so compelling - often the concepts seeped in by osmosis, through repeated reading. I think Nick’s writing after Thirst for Annihilation reminds you of this psychedelic function of theory, or theory as microscope, where it has this potential to just strip back all the crusted, dead layers of the catastrophe that we usually refer to as the human race to zoom into this exposed and somewhat reptilian, info-material core with a cold indifference but simultaneously an intense excitement. Nick also has this skill of taking philosophy and building it into an theory/fictional environment that, stripped of all academic caution and tentativeness, is actually quite educational, but again in a more osmotic fashion - and all compressed into the space of a few lines, not dragged out into 300 pages of nuance, reservation, argument - as Nick once put it ‘debate is idiot distraction’.”

Land’s texts were never ‘about’ 90s experimental dance music so much as they converged with it. When Steve Goodman and I first played jungle to Land, he immediately saw an affinity between his writing and the tone, themes and style of the music. Partly, it was that Land’s work was in a way a remix of the same set of sources: the films that Land referenced (Blade Runner, the Terminator and the Predator movies) were extensively sampled in jungle tracks.

"Yes," Goodman says, "clearly he was drawing for a shared set of cinematic references that were in the musical air at that moment, but the thing that always got me about the resonance between Nick’s writing and jungle was this theme of turbulence that seemed to recur across his writings, at dynamic, social, mathematical, physical, economic and libidinal scales - i.e. his interest in the productivity of systems on the edge of chaos, for me, basically was a direct and very literal description of what was going on rhythmically in jungle with breakbeat science. It’s one of the key organizing ideas in my own book Sonic Warfare, and I learnt it from Nick, although he clearly wasn’t writing about music directly.

What about the revival of Land’s work now? Is this just a case of nostalgia? Steve Goodman doesn’t think so. "On one level, Nick (and the Ccru / Kodwo etc) was around 15 years ahead of the curve which is why it’s so current now. I think Nick is still doing fascinating stuff which is pretty much off the radar of most of his previous followers, as he seems to broken completely with the platitudes of the so called ‘radical’ academy (about which he was clearly always skeptical) or the current philosophical fashions (without him some of which would not have been possible), and is involved in tracking the strange rise of China from his Shanghai base. I don’t particularly concur with where he is at politically but I think his style of libertarianism is pretty complex and not necessarily inconsistent especially when read in light of his 90s writings. He’s been writing urban guidebooks to Shanghai over the last few years, which in a way is a perfectly natural follow up to his earlier interests, if not particularly at full throttle intensity that we still crave.”

You Remind Me of Gold: Dialogue with Simon Reynolds

(Originally published in Kaleidoscope magazine, 2010)

The first question is linked to my experiencing UK dance music of the 90s as a person living in a different country - via imported records and british music press - and one interesting thing was the idea of “futurism” that seemed to permeate the scenes: in terms of how the press presented the music as an area of advancement because made with “machines”. What are, if any, are the futuristic elements and aspects in UK 90s dance music & culture?

SR: The word “future” does not crop up in contemporary dance music discourse —in either the conversations surrounding the music, or in track titles and artist names—with anything like the frequency it did during the Nineties.  From artists with names like Phuture, The Future Sound of London, Phuture Assassins etc to UK rave/early jungle which teemed with titles like “Futuroid”, “Living for the Future”, “We Are the Future” etc, the whole culture seemed tilted forwards. Everyone was in a mad rush to reach tomorrow’s sound ahead of everyone else. That ethos continued into the early days of dubstep with the club name FWD». But  looking at the last half-decade or so of UK dance music, I really struggle to think of any equivalent examples.  Soul Jazz just put out a compilation of post-dubstep called Future Bass, and then you have the “future garage” sub-genre, although the irony here is that this direction involves going back to the 2step rhythm template circa 1998-2000.  But generally speaking the whole idea of the future seems to have lost its libidinal charge for electronic producers and for fans alike.  This seems to reflect the fact that dance music in the UK, and globally, is no longer organized along an extensional axis (projecting into the unknown, like an arrow fired into the night sky) but is intensive: it makes criss-crossing journeys within the vast terrain that was mapped out during the hyper-speed Nineties.

It seems symptomatic to me that “Gold”, the single off the debut album by Darkstar, is a cover of a Human League B-side from almost thirty years ago.  It’s definitely an interesting move for Darkstar to make, in terms of their previous music and the scene they’re from, dubstep. But as an aesthetic act the creativity involved is curatorial rather than innovation in the traditional-modernist sense:  it’s about finding an obscure, neglected song and resituating it within the historical narratives of British electronic music. The whole idea of doing a cover version, which is totally familiar as an artistic move within rock, is still pretty unusual within electronic music culture.  What also struck me listening to the remake next to the original (which I’d never heard before) is that both versions sound more or less as “futuristic” as each other. Well, the Darkstar reinterpretation obviously is technically more advanced in many ways; there are things done on it sonically that weren’t available to the Human League and their producer Martin Rushent. But in terms of the overall aesthetic sensation generated, neither version seems any further “into the future” than the other. Certainly, it doesn’t feel like there’s thirty years difference between the two. And it’s that precisely that feeling—that the Human League are contemporary with us—that is so mysterious and hard to explain. They ought to sound to us as ancient as early Fifties fare (Johnny Ray, say, or Louis Jordan) would have done in 1981 heard next to the Human League of “Love Action” .

MF: The problem is that the word ‘futuristic’ no longer has a connection with any future that anyone expects to happen.  In the 70s, ‘futuristic’ meant synthesizers. In the 80s, it meant sequencers and cut and paste montage. In the 90s, it meant the abstract digital sounds opened up by the sampler and its function such as timestretching. In each of these cases, there was a sense that, through sound, we were geting a small but powerful taste of a world that would be completely different from anything we had hitherto experienced. That’s why a film like Terminator, with its idea of the future  invading the present, was so crucial for 90s dance music. Now, insofar as ‘futuristic’ has any meaning, it is as a vague but fixed style, a bit like a typographical font. ‘Futuristic’ in music is something like ‘gothic’ in fonts. It points to an already existing set of associations. ‘Futuristic’ means something electronic, just as it did in the 60s and 70s. We’ve entered the flattened out temporality that Simon describes - the 90s ought to be as distant as the 60s felt in 1980, but now the 60s, the 80s and the 90s belong to a kind of postmodern-curatorial simultaneity.

To take up the example that Simon uses. When you compare the Darkstar cover of ‘Gold’ to the Human League original, it’s not just that one is no more futuristic than the other. It is that neither are futuristic. The Human League track is clearly a superseded futurism, while the Darkstar track seems to come after the future. I should say at this point that the Darkstar album is my favourite album of the year - I’ve become obsessed with it. (It might be worth noting here that one thing that’s happened since 2000 in dance music is the rise of the album. The 90s was about scenes and singles; there weren’t any great albums. But since 2000, there have been Dizzee Rascal’s debut, the Junior Boys records, the two Burial albums and the Darkstar record. The temporal malaise I’m talking about hasn’t meant there are no good records - that’s not the problem at all.) Partly why I enjoy the Darkstar album is because, like many of the most interesting records of the last six or seven years, it seems to be about the failure of the future. This feeling of mourning lost futures isn’t so explicit as it was with the Burial records, but I believe it’s there at some level with Darkstar. Where with Burial you have a feeling of dereliction and spectrality, the lost future haunting the dead present, with Darkstar it’s a question of electronic rot, digital interference.

What you could hear behind so much 90s dance music was a competitive drive  to sonically rearticulate what ‘futuristic’ meant. The No U Turn track Amtrak features a sample: “Here is a group trying to accomplish one thing, and that is to get into the future.” But I think it’s uncontoversial to say that no-one was aiming to get into the future that actually arrived. If a junglist were pitched straight into now from the mid-90s, it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t be disappointed and bemused.  In the interview that I did with Kodwo Eshun which formed the appendix of Kodwo’s More Brilliant Than The Sun , he contrasts the textual exhaustion of postmodernism with the genetic concept of recombination. I think Kodwo captures very well the recombinatorial euphoria that many of us felt then - the sense that there were infinite possibilities, that new and previously unimaginable genres would keep emerging, keep surprising us. But, sadly, what’s surprising from that 90s perspective is how little has changed in the last ten years. As Simon has said, the changes that you can hear now are not massive rushes of the future, but tiny incremental shifts. That deceleration has brought with it a sense of massively diminished expectations, which no amount of tepid boosterism can cover over. My friend Alex Williams has posited the idea that cultural resources have been depleted in the same way that natural resources were. Perhaps this is a reflection of today’s cultural depression in the same way that the 90s concepts were an expression of that decade’s exhilaration. 

This isn’t just about nostalgia for one decade - the 90s was at the end of a process that began with the rapid development of the recording industry after the second world war. Music became the centre of the culture because it was consistently capable of giving the new a palpable form; it was a kind of lab that focused and intensified the convulsions that culture was undergoing. There’s no sense of the new anywhere now. And that’s a political and a technological issue, not a problem that’s just internal to music.

SR: The Darkstar album could almost have been designed to please me: it’s the convergence of the hardcore continuum, hauntology, and postpunk & New Pop! It’s growing on me, but initially I found it a bit washed-out and listless. Still, Mark’s reading of it is typically suggestive. And I do think it is significant that an outfit operating in the thick of the post-dubstep scene, the FWD» generation, has made a record steeped in echoes of Orchestral Maneuvres (their first LP in particular was apparently listened to heavily during the album’s making), New Order, and other early Eighties synthpop. It also means something that a record coming out of dance culture is all about isolation, regret, withdrawal, mournfulness.

The Darkstar record is an example of a self-conscious turn towards emotionality in UK dance. Most of the album features a human voice and songs, sung by a new member of the group recruited specifically for that role. And just this week I’ve read about two other figures from the same scene—James Blake and Subeena—who are releasing their first tracks to feature their own vocals. But this turn to expressivity seems to me as much rhetorical as it is actually going on in the music. After all hardcore, jungle, UK garage, grime, bassline house, were all bursting with emotion in their different ways. What people mean by “emotional” is introspective and fragile in ways that we’ve rarely seen in hardcore continuum music. (Obviously we’ve seen plenty of that in IDM going back to its start: Global Communications and Casino In Japan actually made records inspired by the death of family members). The idea that artists and commentators are groping towards, without fully articulating, is that dance music no longer provides the kind of emotional release that it once did, through collective catharsis. So there is this turn inwards, and also a fantasy of a kind of publically displayed inwardness: the widely expressed artistic ideal of “I want my tracks to make people cry on the dancefloor”. Because if people were getting their release in the old way (collective euphoria), why would tears be needed

MF: I think part of the reason I like the Darkstar record so much is that I don’t hear it as a dance record. In my view, it’s better heard almost as mainstream pop that has been augmented by some dance textures. “Aidy’s Girl is a Computer” apart, if you heard the record without knowing the history, you wouldn’t assume any connection with dubstep. At the same time, North isn’t straightforwardly a return to a pre-dance sound. Much has been made of the synthpop parallels but - and the cover of the Human League track brings this out - it doesn’t actually sound very much like 80s synthpop at all. It’s more a continuation of a certain mode of electronic pop that got curtailed sometime in the mid-80s.

SR: In the Nineties, drugs—specifically Ecstasy—were absolutely integral to this communal release. One of the reasons hardcore rave was so hyper-emotional was because its audience’s brains were being flooded with artificially stimulated feelings, which could be elation and excitement but also dark or emotionally vulnerable (the comedown from Ecstasy is like having your heart broken). One thing that intrigues me about dance culture in the 2000s is the near-complete disappearance of drugs as a topic in the discourse. People are obviously still doing them, in large amounts, and in a mixed-up polydrug way just like in the Nineties. There have been a few public scares from the authorities and the mainstream media, like the talk about ketamine a few years ago, and more recently with mephedrone. But these failed to catalyse any kind of cultural conversation within the dance scene itself. It is as if the idea that choice of chemicals could have any cultural repercussions or effects on music’s evolution has completely disappeared. Compare that with the Nineties, where one of the main strands of dance discourse concerned the transformative powers of drugs. There was a reason why Matthew Collin called his rave history Altered State and why I called my own book Energy Flash. That was a reference to one of the greatest and most druggy anthems in techno—Beltram’s “Energy Flash” (which features a sample about “acid, ecstasy”— but also to the more general idea of a psychedelics-induced flash of revelation or the “body flash” caused by stimulant drugs.

The turn to emotionality at the moment seems like an echo of a similar moment in the late 90s, when the downsides of drugs were becoming clear and I started to hear from clubbing friends that they’d been listening to Spiritualized or Radiohead. But where that was a flight from E-motionality (from the collective high, now considered false or to have too many negative side effects, towards more introspective, healing music), the new emotionality in the postdubstep scene is emerging in a different context. I’m just speculating here, but I wonder if it has anything to do with a dissatisfaction with Internet culture, the sort of brittle, distracted numbness that comes from being meshed into a state of perpetual connectivity, but without any real connection of the kind that comes from either one-on-one interactions or from being in a crowd. The rise of the podcast and the online DJ mix, which has been hyped as “the new rave” but is profoundly asocial, seems to fit in here.

The concept of futurism also contains the idea that a cultural form can capture the zeitgeist of an era and facilitate/modulate the vision of the one to come and by implication revolt against past cultural practices; this might also in this case translate with the idea of “the sound of now” that was a vastly common mood of UK dance music in the 90s, and the continuous re-organisation of label, clubs, promoters, DJs in new networks and sub-genres that created an inbuilt obsolescence in the micro-scenes themselves. A sort of voluntary short term memory imbalance that is hard to understand in the following decade - the 00s - in which one of the most original and popular artist has been Burial which has been one visible manifestation of a fixation with the past which has previously reached similar levels in indie-rock. Not to speak of the literalist approach of a very interesting artist as Zomby in “Where were you in 92?”.

SR: I was totally caught up in the Nineties rave culture and I can testify that there was a sensation of teleology, a palpable feeling that something was unfolding through the music. It would be easy to say in hindsight that this was an illusion but I’d rather honor the truth of how it felt at the time. On a month by month basis, you witnessed the music changing and there seemed to be a logic to its mutation and intensification. From hardcore to darkcore to jungle to drum’n’bass to techstep, it felt like there was a destination, even a destiny, for the music’s relentless propulsion across the 1991 to 1996 timespan. I entered the scene in late ‘91, when the “journey” was already well underway, so you could say that the trajectory started as far back as 1988, when acid house originally impacted the UK.

Mine is a London-centric viewpoint, but similar trajectories were unfolding in Europe, with the emergence of gabber, and trance, or the evolution of minimal techno’s evolution. There was a linear, extensional development, along an axis of intensification. Each stage of the music superceded the preceding one, like the stages of a rocket being jettisoned as it escapes the Earth’s atmosphere. And you are right that there was a forgetfulness, a lack of concern with the immediate past, because our ears were trained always on the future, the emerging Next Phase.

At a certain point the London-centric hardcore/jungle narrative took a swerve, slowing down in tempo and embracing house music’s sensuality, first with speed garage in 1997 and then with the even slower and sexier 2step. But that just seemed like a canny move to avoid an approaching dead end (one that drum’n’bass would bash its collective head against for… ever since really!) The rhythmic complexification that had developed through drum’n’bass carried on with speed garage and 2step, just in a less punitive way.

In the Noughties, especially in the last five years, the feeling you get from dance culture and the endless micro shifts within it is quite different—whatever the opposite of teleology is, that’s what you got! It is hard to identify centers of energy that could be definitively pinpointed as a vanguard. The closest thing in recent years might well be the populist “wobble” sector within dubstep, if only because there’s a kind of escalation of wobble-ness going on there. There is a full-on, hardcore, take-it-to-extremes spirit to wobblestep. Ironically, the dubstep connoisseurs and scene guardians can’t stand wobble and have veered off into disparate welter of softcore, “musical” directions. Wobble is quite a masculinist sound, it reminds me of gabba. But then it is easy to forget that the Nineties was all about this kind of punishing pursuit of extremes: the beats and the bass were a test to the listener, something you endured as much as enjoyed (or had to take drugs in order to withstand). The evolution of the music was measurable in a experiential, bodily way. Beats got tougher and more convoluted, textures got more scalding to the ear, atmospheres and mood got darker and more paranoid.

Apart from grime and aspects of dubstep, Noughties post-techno music overall seems to have retreated into “musicality” (in the conventional sense of the word) and pleasantness. So instead of that militant-modernist sense of moving forward into the future, the culture’s sense of temporality seems polymorphous and recursive. And this applies on the micro as well as macro level: individual tracks seem to have less “thrust” and drive, to be more about involution and recessive details.

Touching on the question of rave nostalgia, the question “Where Were You in ‘92” posed by Zomby is interesting on a bunch of levels. There is an echo, possibly unintended, of the marketing slogan for American Graffiti (“where were you in ‘62?”, the year the movie is set), George Lucas’s groundbreaking vehicle for mobilising and exploiting generational nostalgia. Then there is also the unexpected biographical fact that Zomby is perfectly capable of saying where he was in ‘92, becuase he was 12 and a precocious fan of hardcore rave (which further suggests he must have just followed the trajectory of the music through jungle and speed garage to dubstep just like me and Mark, only quite a bit younger). Even as the album offers a loving pastiche of old skool hardcore, there seems to be an element of mockery of aging ravers with their “boring stories of glory days” (to quote Springsteen). That would probably appeal to younger dubstep fans who, unlike Zomby, didn’t live through rave as participants and probably find the legacy of the hardcore continuum to be an encumbrance, a burden. Finally, it’s intriguing that Zomby did this pastiche record as a one-off stylistic exercise, in between much more cutting-edge dubstep records such as the Zomby EP on Hyperdub. It suggests that Zomby’s generation can play around with vintage styles without the kind of fanatical identification with a lost era that you generally get with musical revivalism. It’s just a period style, something to revisit.

MF: The point is that the question ‘where were you in 92’ makes sense, whereas the question ‘where were you in 02’ (or indeed ‘08) doesn’t. One of the things that has happened over the last decade or so is the disappearance of very distinctive ‘feels’ for years or eras - not only in music but in culture in general. I’ve got more sense of what 1973 was like than what 2003 was like. This isn’t because I’ve stopped paying attention - on the contrary, I’ve probably paid more close attention to music this decade than at any other time. But there’s very little ‘flavour’ to cultural time in the way there once was, very little to mark out one year from the next. That’s partly a consequence of the decline of the modernist trajectory that Simon describes. (One slight difference I have with Simon is that I prefer the term ‘trajectory’ to ‘teleology’. For me, what was exciting about the 90s - and popular culture between the 60s and the 90s - was that sense of forward movement. But it didn’t feel linear, as if everything was inevitably heading in one direction towards one goal. Instead, there was a sense of teeming, of proliferation.) If time is marked now, it’s by technical upgrades rather than new cultural forms or signatures. But the technical upgrades increasingly seem to be manifested in terms of the distribution and consumption of culture rather than in terms of production. You can’t hear or see dramatic formal innovations - but you get a higher definition picture, or a greater storage capacity on your mp3 player. Adam Harper, one of the most interesting young critics, has made a case for the new culture of micro-innovation, arguing that the kind of music culture Simon and I are talking about here - defined in terms of scenes organised around generic formulas - is an historical relic, replaced by a culture of a thousand tiny deviations, an “infinite music”, in which the temporal recursion that Simon has referred to is not a problem but a resource. Yet, for me, this sounds suspiciously like the Intelligent Dance Music that people were praising before the hardcore continuum came along. It’s easy to forget that disdain for the supposed vulgarity and repetitiveness of scene-music was a critical commonplace until Simon and Kodwo made the case for ‘scenius’ in dance music.

But it seems to me that the phenomenon we’re talking about here - temporal flavourlessness - is a symptom of a broader postmodern malaise. Every time I go back to read Fredric Jameson’s texts from the 80s and early 90s, I’m astonished by their prescience. Jameson was quick to grasp the way in which modernist time was being flattened out into the pastiche-time of postmodernity. When I read some of those texts in the 90s, I thought that they described certain tendencies in culture, but that this was far from being the only story. Now, there’s only a very weak sense of there being any alternative to the postmodern end of history. The question is, is this all temporary or terminal?

SR: I should have also noted that one of the main reasons a sense of linear progress was physically felt during the Nineties was that between 1990 and 1997, techno got faster: there was an exponential rise in beats-per-minute, that accompanied all the other ways in which the music got harder, more rhythmically dense, and so forth. So as a dancer you felt like your were hurtling.

Mark mentions the idea of technical upgrades as the metric for a sense of progression in the last decade. This reminded me of a conversation I had with the Italian DJ and journalist Gabriele Sacchi. In the space of about fifteen minutes, Sacchi went from complaining that there had been no really significant formal advances in dance music since drum’n’bass (he discounted dubstep, as I recall) to then commenting with approval of how advanced sounding records were now compared with ten years ago. What he meant is that they sounded better in terms of production quality: what’s available today in terms of technology, digital software, etc, to someone making, say, a house track, enables them to make much better-sounding records (in terms of drum sounds, the textures, the placement of sounds and layers in the mix). That sounded totally plausible to me and it may well be the defining quality of electronic dance music in the 2000s. You might say that the basic structural features of the various genres were established in the Nineties but what has improved is the level of detailing, refinement, and a general kind of production sheen to the music. An analogy might be a shift from architectural innovation (the 90s) to interior décor (the 2000s).Mark also mentions Fredric Jameson. His work— the big Postmodernism book from 1991 but also, especially, A Singular Modernity—helped me see that rave in general and the UK hardcore continuum in particular had been a kind of enclave of modernism within a pop culture that was gradually succumbing to postmodernism. Coming out of street beats culture, without hardly any input from art schools and only the most vague, filtered-down notion of musical progress, it nonetheless constituted a kind of self-generated flashback to the modernist adventure of the early 20th Century. The hardcore continuum especially propelled itself forward thanks to an internal temporal scheme of continual rupturing: it kept breaking with itself, jettisoning earlier superceded stages. One small aside in A Singular Modernity struck me as both true and funny, when Jameson talks about the modernists being obsessed with measurement, “how do we determine what is really new?”. That struck me as the characteristic mindset of those who came up through the Nineties as critics. But the new generation of electronic music writers (and probably musicians too) don’t seem to respond to music in this way. It’s no longer about the lust for the unprecedented, about linear evolution and the rush into the unknown. It’s about tracking these endless involutionary pathways through the terra cognita of dance music history, the tinkering with inherited forms.

Another topic I find very interesting is the fact that the dance music referred as Hardcore Continuum, even if had an international resonance through the media has maintained a strong local connotation and a somehow insular development (in other close genres as techno or house the localisation seemed to be less prominent even if, for example, the first ground breaking LP from the band Basement Jaxx resonates with a milieu of influences not too dissimilar to some other post-rave productions). Somehow some of the music in the continuum feel like a sonic cartographies of London (or other cities in the UK), responding and being connected to very specific contexts. Is the geographical aspect something you use in the reception of this genres?

SR: Music from the hardcore continuum has obviously found audiences all over the world. The early breakbeat hardcore was universal rave music for a few years in the early Nineties. Jungle established scenes in cities from Toronto to New York to Sao Paolo and in its later incarnation as drum’n’bass became a truly international subculture. The same applies to dubstep. And even the more London-centric styles like 2step and grime had really dedicated fans in countries all over the globe and small offshoot scenes in particular cities outside the U.K. That said it is incontrovertible that the engine of musical creativity for hardcore continuum genres has always been centered in London, with outposts in other urban areas of the U.K. that have a strong multiracial composition, particularly Bristol, the Midlands, and certain Northern cities like Sheffield, Leeds, and Leicester. The next stage of the music has always hatched in London.

That is related to pirate radio, the competition between DJ and MC crews both within a particular station and between stations. And the sheer number of pirate radio stations owes a lot to the urban landscape of London, the number of tower blocks to broadcast from, and the density of the population, and the existence of a sizeable minority (in both the racial and aesthetic sense) whose musical taste is not catered for by state-run radio or by the commercial radio stations (including the commercial dance station Kiss FM). This competition— expressed through the pirates striving to increase their audience share but also through raves and clubs competing for dancers —is partly economic and partly purely about prestige, aesthetic eminience. And it has stoked the furnace of innovation.

That London-centric system focused around illegal radio stations seems to be gradually disintegrating. It is still what fuels the funky house scene, its primary audience is still “locked on” to the pirate signal. In fact I’m told that there aren’t many funky raves or clubs at all, and hardly any vinyl releases or compilations, so the only way to hear funky is through the pirate transmissions. But dubstep, like drum’n’bass before it, is much more of U.K. national scene, and also an international scene. Martin Clark, a leading journalist on the scene and also a DJ and recording artist using the name Blackdown, told me something interesting. The Rinse FM show that he and Dusk do, which is eclectic post-dubstep in orientation, gets a high proportion of its audience responses, message and requests, through the internet, from as far afield as Finland or New Zealand (the Rinse FM signal goes out on the internet as well as broadcast through the air). But the pure funky house shows get most of their requests and calls as texts from cellphone users who live within the terrestrial broadcast range of the pirate stations. So funky is still a local scene in the traditional hardcore continuum sense, it is very much East London.

But I think that London-centric orientation is on the decline. Dubstep is fully integrated with the web, it’s all about podcasts and DJ mixes circulating on the web, about message board discussions. I think of funky as the “dwarf star” stage of the hardcore continuum: it has shrunk in size, still emits some heat in the sense of vibe and musical creativity, but it hasn’t been able to command attention beyond the pre-converted diehards, in the way that jungle or grime once did. If you look at funky, it’s the first hardcore continuum sound not to have any UK chart hits at all. It’s not spawned any offshoot scenes in foreign countries. It hasn’t achieved critical mass in the sense of non-dance specialist journalists giving it the time of day. Jungle and grime got mainstream coverage because they simply couldn’t be ignored, they were so aggressively new and extreme. But funky, to people who don’t follow the minutiae of the hardcore continuum, just sounds like “tracky” house music with slightly odd-angled beats and a London flavor. It’s not anthemic enough to make it as pop like 2step garage did, but it doesn’t have the vanguard credentials of jungle.The interesting thing about the hardcore continuum is the way that during its prime it refuted all that Nineties internet and info-culture rhetoric about deterritorialisation. This was a music culture that derived its strength and fertility from its local nature, precisely from being territorialized. Indeed during the early days of jungle and of grime, it had a kind of fortress mentality. That seems to connect with its vanguardism, this military-modernist mindset.

Another thing is that the hardcore continuum genres were very slow to get integrated with the web. When I did early pieces on 2step garage and grime, the labels and artists had hardly any web presence. Nearly all the interviews I had to do calling mobile phone numbers or speak in person, rather than do email interviews. It was only about 2005 that you started to get grime figures with MySpaces. It was only around then that you started to get tons of DJ sets being uploaded to the web. Before that the music was really hard to get hold of if you didn’t live in London, you had to mail order expensive 12 inches and CD mixtapes. Now it is totally easy to stay on top of the music no matter where you live. But some of the romance and mystique of the scene has gone as a result.

MF: It’s not only UK dance music of the 90s that is associated with cities; the whole history of popular music is about urban scenes. It’s no accident that Motown started in Detroit, House in Chicago, hip-hop in New York … Cities are pressure cookers which can synthesize influences quickly and in a way that is both collective and idiosyncratic. Scenes in city depend on a certain organisation of space and time that cyberspace threatens. For example, the hardcore continuum depended on an ecology of interrelated infrastructural and cultural elements - pirate radio, dub plates, clubs, etc - but it also relied on these elements being somewhat discrete. For instance, dub plates acted as probe heads, which would be tested out in clubs. But cyberspace has collapsed the differences between making a track at home, releasing it and distributing it. Now it’s possible to upload a track into cyberspace immediately, there’s less sense of occasion about a record release. So there’s a collapsing of time. But alongside this is a collapsing of the importance of spaces. Club spaces were important because of that ‘evental’ time: you would be hearing a track for the first time …. But now new tracks in DJs’ sets are immediately made available on YouTube. It goes without saying that the club experience is a collective experience - it gains much of its power from people experiencing the same thing in the same space. Cyberspace is much more individuated. Because it isn’t a ‘space’ in the way that physical space is, you don’t get that sense of coming together. it’s more like being involved in a conversation than being in a crowd. Even with instant messaging, there’s a delay.

Clearly, there’s something potentially positive about people being able to make and release music without worrying about the costs of recording studios, about how it will be distributed and such like. But while this might remove certain obstacles for individuals making music, it’s not clear that cyberspace is good for music culture. Urban scenes compressed and concentrated things; cyberspace and digitality are in danger both of making culture too immediate (you can upload a track right now) and too deferred (nothing is ever really finished). The city-based music scene is perhaps one of the things you can hear being mourned on Burial’s records, with their many references to London. The ‘sonic cartography’ of London you pick up from Burial’s records is in many ways a pirate radio cartography.

The international reception of some of the sounds in the continuum was the one of a music alternative to what some perceived as the pure recreational hedonism of house music, for example in Italy jungle was embraced by “Centri Sociali” (squats), maybe they were some of the musical genres that help dissolving resistances towards dance music within non clubbers. Maybe this was because of with the persisting connections Jamaican music, maybe because of the dystopian mood / control society references. But apart from this I’d like to know what is, in your opinion, the most significant political significance of these genres?

SR: The major political significance of the hardcore continuum is the role it’s played in the emergence of a post-racial Britain. Which has not fully arrived, obviously there is still a lot of racism in Britain, but you could talk about jungle and UK garage especially as having created a post-racial “people” within the U.K — it’s most obviously a force in the major cities like London and Birmingham and Coventry, but this tribe has members scattered all across the country.. It’s not just the mix of black and white, it’s all sorts. I’m always amazed at the range of ethnicities involved, there’s people whosr parents are from the Indian sub-continent, or who are Cypriot or Maltese, and you also get every imaginable mix-race combination. Even talking just about ” black Britain”, it’s not just people of Jamaican descent, there’s all the other islands in the Caribbean that have their own distinct musical traditions like soca and so forth, and there’s also been more recently African immigrants, whose influence is really felt in the Afro flavours you can hear in funky house.

So it’s a really rich mix, but I guess the predominant musical flavours that run through the whole span of the continuum involve the collision of British artpop traditions (postpunk, industrial, synthpop) with Jamaica (reggae, dub, dancehall) and also black America (hip hop, house, Detroit techno). And it’s very much a two-way street: it’s not just white British youth turning on to bass pressure and speaking in Jamaican patois, it’s about second-generation Caribbean-British youth freaking out to harsh Euro techno, having their minds blown by all that early Nineties music out of Belgium. Or someone like Goldie growing up on reggae and jazz-funk but also on groups like PiL and The Stranglers.

You might say that the music of the hardcore continuum reflects the emergence of this post-racial “people” within the U.K. more than it has created it. But I think it has sped up the process, by being so attractive and so obviously the cutting edge in British popular culture. People have been actively drawn into joining this tribe, it’s been an identity manyhave wanted to embrace, because it’s been the coolest music of its era and it’s been something to be proud of: a post-racial way of affirming Britishness.

So this I think is a major political achievement for the hardcore continuum. Some commentators like the music theorist Jeremy Gilbert have asked why that never translated into politicization per se. At various point, particularly with jungle and with grime, there has been a sense that the music has been telling us things about society and what life is like for the British underclass. The darkness and paranoia of jungle (also carried on to an extent with dubstep), and the aggression and self-assertion of grime, reflect the gritty side of urban existence. But there is also a feeling, on my part certainly, that at a certain point simply reflecting Reality isn’t enough. Jungle and grime never really managed to get beyond being “gangster rave”, which is to say the British equivalent to gangster rap. So across its historical span it has oscillated between darkness (reflecting ghetto life) and brightness (dressing up and looking expensive, partying, dancing to sexy groovy music, chasing the opposite sex—that’s the side of the continuum that produced speed garage, 2step, funky house). Apart from the post-racial aspect, the other major achievement of the hardcore continuum is the creation of an autonomous cultural space based around its own media (pirate radio) and its own economic infrastructure (independent labels and record stores). Pirate radio seems particularly significant: the fact that it is community radio, offering the music for free, and that it is amateur, with DJs and MCs actually paying to play (they have to cough up a subscription fee for their air time, to pay for equipment that is lost when the authorities seize transmitters and so forth). Pirate radio is important also because it is public: the culture is underground, but this is an audible underground, it is broadcast terrestrially, blasting out onto the airwaves of London or the other big U.K. cities. It’s a community asserting its existence on the FM radio spectrum. This means that people who don’t like the music or the social groups it represents will stumble on it, but also that people who don’t know about the music will encounter it — potential converts to the movement. If the pirates went completely online, it would cease to be an underground, it would become much more just a niche market of marginal music going out almost entirely to the pre-converted. The paradox of music undergrounds is that the idea is not really to be totally underground, invisible to the mainstream and the cultural establishment. You don’t want to be ignored, you want to be a nuisance! And there is also an interaction between the undergrounds and the mainstream, where ideas from below force their way up into the mainstream and enrich and enliven it. Which then forces the underground to come up with new ideas. That process worked for a really long time with the hardcore continuum: it would develop new ideas that were so obviously advanced and compelling that the major labels would sign artists and big radio stations like BBC and Kiss FM would recruit DJs to host regular shows. It seems to have broken down with funky house, though, it’s the first hardcore continuum genre to just stay in its ghetto.

MF: In my book Capitalist Realism, I quote an article that Simon wrote on Jungle for The Wire magazine. Simon put his finger there on how crucial  the concept of ‘reality’, of ‘keeping it real’ was for both Jungle and US rap. Simon writes of an implied political position in jungle: how it was anti-capitalist but not socialist. That always struck me as very suggestive - but these politics were never developed. I would tend to agree with Jeremy Gilbert - that the encounter between jungle and politics never really happened. But this wasn’t only a failure of the music; it was also a failure of politics. During the 90s, the British Labour Party courted the reactionary rockers of Britpop. But where was the politics that could synchronise with the science fictional textures that Jungle invoked?
So yes, Simon is right, if the hardcore continuum had any impact on politics it was in playing a part in establishing a post-racial Britain. It was impossible to fit Jungle into a pre-existing racial narrative - it didn’t sound like ‘white’ or ‘black’ music. And the extent to which the hardcore continuum has helped to consolidate this sense of the post-racial was made clear by an hilarious recent piece in Vice magazine called ‘Babes of the BNP’, in which female supporters of the far right British National Party were interviewed. One question was:
"In terms of the BNP’s repatriation policy on immigration, if you had to choose, who would you repatriate first, Dizzee Rascal or Tinchy Stryder?"

Autonomy in the UK

(Reflections on music and politics at the end of 2011 for The Wire magazine)

When the Real rushes in, everything feels like a film: not a film you’re watching, but a film you’re in. Suddenly, the screens insulating we late capitalist spectators from the Real of antagonism and violence fell away. Since the student revolts in late 2010, helicopters, sirens and loudhailers have intermittently broken the phony peace of post-crash London. To locate the unrest spreading across the capital, you just had to follow the Walter Murch-chunter of chopper blades… So many times during 2011, you found yourself hooked to news reports that resembled the scene-setting ambience in an apocalyptic flick: dictators falling, economies crashing, fascist serial killers murdering teenagers. The news was now more compelling than most fiction, and also more implausible: the plot was moving too quickly to be believable. But the sheen of unreality it generated was nothing more than the signature of the unscreened Real itself.

Sound was at the core of one of the year’s momentous stories, the still unravelling ‘hackgate’ narrative of national newspaper journalists caught out cracking the mobile phone messages of public figures and the grieving relatives of crime victims for story leads. After Hackgate, the UK power elite looked like something out of David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet or The Wire television series (which itself turned on the moral issues of secretly recording phone conversations). The complicities of interest and mutual fear exposed by the phone hacking story brought to mind the party scene in the 1974 episode of Channel 4’s TV adaptation of Peace’s novels, where the illicit hedonism and skulduggery of cops, hacks, corporate plutocrats, private investigators - friends and ostensible adversaries – illustrated the true meaning of David Cameron’s notorious phrase “we’re all in this together”. In 2011, we were living the film; all that was missing was the soundtrack.

At the end of 2010, the BBC’s economics editor Paul Mason wrote a blog post called “Dubstep Rebellion”, which described a pivotal moment he witnessed in the 9 December student protests: when the “crucial jack plug” of a sound system playing “political right-on reggae”, was pulled by a “new crowd – in which the oldest person is maybe 17”, and replaced it with what he mistakenly believed to be dubstep. He was corrected by Guardian contributor and author of Kettled Youth, Dan Hancox, whose own blog posted a playlist of the tracks he heard at the protest. They turned out to be mostly Grime and Dancehall (Lethal B, Elephant Man, Vybz Kartel), alongside chart rap and R&B such as Rihanna and Nikki Minaj. What’s striking is the lack of explicit political content in any of this music. Yet Grime, Dancehall and R&B have a grip on the present in the way that older forms of self-consciously political music don’t, and here is the impasse. It’s as if we’re left with a choice between the increasingly played out feel of ‘politically engaged’ music and the sound of the present. In the past year alone, The Guardian has run numerous articles bemoaning the lack of ‘protest’ music, but for many of us, ‘protest’ has always been a rather pallid model of what political music could be. Besides, it’s not protest music that has disappeared: go to the Occupy camp outside St Pauls and you won’t find a shortage of acoustic guitars. What’s missing is a specifically 21st century form of political music. While there are some Grime tracks that can be understood as having a political message, for the most part the genre’s political significance lies in the affects – of rage, frustration and resentment – to which it gives voice. By contrast with US hip-hop, Grime remains a form that is bound up with the failure to make it. The situation of Grime is an allegory of class destiny. Just as it’s possible for some to rise from the working class but not with it, so it’s possible to rise out of Grime (as artists such as Professor Green and Tinie Tempah have proven with their many crossover hits), but it’s not yet been possible for anyone to succeed as a Grime artist.

Paul Mason acknowledges his mistake to correctly identify what was played at the 2010 protests in his new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. Notwithstanding his inability to correctly track the changes in urban dance music, however his original blog post was prophetic. After 9 December, the student protests lost momentum. The major moments of dissent in 2011 – which would also be the most powerful explosion of working class rage in the UK since the riots of the early 1980s – would come from the group that Mason identified as “banlieue-style youth from places like Croydon and Peckham, or the council estates of Camden, Islington and Hackney”. As with some of the 1980s riots, the immediate cause for the UK’s first major uprising of 2011 was the death of a black person, Mark Duggan, shot by the police in Tottenham. “25 years ago police killed my grandma in her house in Tottenham and the whole ends rioted, 25 years on and they’re still keepin up fuckry,” tweeted Tottenham MC, Scorcher. His grandmother was Cynthia Jarrett, whose death prompted the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985. Dan Hancox mentioned this tweet in a piece about British urban music and the riots for The Guardian, a crucial journalistic intervention at a vertiginously scary moment when the authoritarian and racist right were using the unrest as the pretext for reheating discourse that would have been deemed unacceptable only a week before. In an extraordinary but typically incoherent rant on the BBC’s Newsnight, TV historian David Starkey astonishingly blamed the riots on “black culture” – collapsing the whole of black culture into music, and all black music into a poorly understood version of gangster rap. Like much of what happened in 2011, Starkey’s delirious diatribe is best understood as a symptom: in this case of ruling class panic and ignorance. Starkey dismissed the idea that the riots were political on the grounds that no public buildings were attacked – but what meaning do public buildings have for youth who were born into a social landscape in which the very concept of the public has all but disappeared under sustained ideological attack? The fact that the rioters targeted chain retail outlets was blamed on their ‘consumerism’; as if such ‘consumerism’ were some kind of collective moral failing rather than the inevitable consequence of immersion in late capitalism’s media culture.

As Owen Jones pointed out in his book Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Class, work, not some lost moral sensibility, was once the source of working class discipline. But what happens to people with no expectation of work, or of any kind of meaningful future? “When the punks cried ‘No Future’, at the turning point of 1977, it seemed like a paradox that couldn’t be taken too seriously,” Italian theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes in his most recent book After The Future. “Actually, it was the announcement of something quite important: the perception of the future was changing … Moderns are those who live time as the sphere of a progress towards perfection, or at least towards improvement, enrichment and rightness. Since the turning point of the century – which I like to place in 1977 – humankind has abandoned this illusion.”

From decrying the failure of the future, music has increasingly become part of this inertial temporality. Nothing symbolises mainstream music’s relationship to politics better than the BBC’s coverage of U2’s set at Glastonbury. The significance here was not the music – predictably moribund and lacklustre, no longer even capable of mustering the totalitarian pomp of yore – but the way in which the TV coverage ignored the protest by Art Uncut. U2 were treated like dignitaries from the Chinese government: dissenters threatening to disrupt the empty rituals of the rock emperors wouldn’t be tolerated. Where once even the most incorporated rock registered something about the tensions and temperature of the times, now you go to rock to be insulated from the present. Both U2 and their fellow headliner Beyonce made gestures to ‘politics’ in their sets – past struggles now reduced to an advertiser-friendly hopey-changey sentimentalism covering over a deeper, more pervasive sense that nothing of any consequence can ever change. Yet if mainstream pop has become a bubble impermeable to the new times, it’s not as if experimental culture has yet come up with forms capable of articulating the present either. The art world’s political mobilisations – via groups such as Art Against Cuts – have been more impressive than much of the actual engaged art itself, which has too often remained caught in a mode of pious inconsequence and textural poverty.

What has been lost is the transit between experimental and popular culture which characterised earlier eras. But what the student movement has been trying to prevent is the nothing less than the dismantling of the last elements of the infrastructure which made this exchange possible; free higher education, after all, was one of the means by which British music culture was indirectly funded. Perhaps that is why Gang Of Four’s “He’d Send In The Army”, Mark Stewart And The Maffia’s As The Veneer Of Democracy Starts To Fade or Test Department’s The Unacceptable Face Of Freedom – records made more than a quarter of a century ago – still have more purchase on the traumatic and tumultuous events of the year in the UK than anything produced by a white musician in 2011. Recalling a conversation with Green Gartside at The Wire’s Off The Page festival of writing about music in February, it’s telling that today has no equivalent to Green’s postpunk anxieties about articulating new relationships between music and politics. Yet if this disconnection is bad for culture, it might be good for politics. For if music and subculture no longer act as effective mechanisms for controlled desublimation, converting disaffection into culture which can in turn be transformed into entertainment – feeding what Jean-Francois Lyotard memorably called the “Tungsten-Carbide stomach” of Capital, which omnivirously consumes anything, and excretes it as commodities – then discontent can appear in a rawer form. This might be the reason that uber-reactionary Jeremy Clarkson has urged those at St Pauls to stop camping and start writing protest songs.

It could be, however, that our thinking about the problem is wrong-headed. It isn’t that music is lagging behind politics; the politics itself is missing. The major political event of the year in the UK was the riots, but they were political in a negative sense. Reactionary commentators attempted to evacuate the riots of any political content by classifying them as an outburst of criminality. But even if we reject this for the absurdity it plainly is, it’s possible to regard the riots as symptomatic – a symptom, precisely, of the failure of politics. “Harming one’s own community is entirely mindless, but why would someone care for a community that doesn’t care for him?” Professor Green asked Dan Hancox. “They might think of this as an uprising, but the anger is misdirected and conveyed in such a way will not have any kind of positive effect.” Wiley also saw the riots as a sign of impotence: “They’re saying ‘We’re going to do what we want!’ – and I’m thinking ‘No you’re not, because when the police get a grip on it, you’re going to be either banged up, or dead’.” With the Draconian prison sentences imposed on many of those who played even a minor role in the riots, Wiley’s prediction has been vindicated. Ceasing to be a symptom is one definition of achieving political agency, and – in a world where professional politicians look like inert mannequins incapable of preventing multiple impending catastrophes – nothing could be more urgent than this.

It’s clear that this agency will not in the first instance be achieved through the hollowed out, decadent spaces of parliamentary politics. The political movement with which Franco Berardi is most associated, autonomism, has assumed a central importance amongst the political struggles that are coalescing in the UK and elsewhere. Consider, for example, the autonomist-influenced ‘ultra-leftist propaganda machine’ called Deterritorial Support Group, whose blog became a crucial hub for new political thinking in the UK. Steeped in electronic music culture, DSG are as significant for their political aesthetics as for any substantive political position they present: what they offer is a new form of political antagonism far beyond the folksiness of ‘protest music’, capable of operating across the cyberspatial, mediamatic and designer terrains of contemporary culture. This is politics as Underground Resistance’s Electronic Warfare. In the era of hacking collectives such as Lulzsec, Anonymous and Wikileaks, DSG recognise that cyber-insurgency can open up a new kind of political insurgency. With the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, not to mention Mayan prophecies of apocalypse, 2012 is shaping up to be the most symbolically charged year in the UK since 1977. Is this the year when No Future will finally come to an end?

The only certainties are death and capital

(Originally published in Visual Arts News Sheet, Dublin)

“This isn’t just art that exists in the market, or is ‘about’ the market. This is art that is the market – a series of gestures that are made wholly or primarily to capture and embody financial value, and only secondarily have any other function or virtue.” So wrote Hari Kunzru of Damien Hirst’s work in The Guardian. I’m not interested in rehearsing here discussions of Hirst’s merit as an artist; what interests me instead is his symptomatic status as a figure who embodies capital’s penetration into all areas of culture. As Kunzru points out, Hirst’s own relationship to capital is more than close. He is a “house artist to the 1%”, and the way that value is generated out of his work – a mixture of hype and the exploitation of the poorly remunerated “assistants” who actually produce many of the pieces – is a model of how exchange value is created in late capitalism. Hirst’s notorious auction, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, took place at the very moment that Lehman Brothers was collapsing. But while the banks failed, Hirst remains a powerful brand. In fact, some of Hirst’s pieces were among the works that were auctioned off when Lehman Brothers’ art collection was sold off in order to recoup something for the bank’s creditors. The way that the prices of Hirst’s pieces became not just part of the story of the works, but practically their sole interest, reminds me of nothing so much as Michael Jackson after Thriller. Yet, while Jackson was tragically maddened and destroyed by the colossal scale of his success, Hirst gives every impression of being perfectly at home at the heart of a vast capital-generating factory.  

The current Hirst retrospective at the Tate should now look like a reliquary of bygone world, but it merely highlights that art and culture have yet to come to terms with the traumatic events of 2008. Our imaginations are still dominated (or stultified) by work which emerged from the cocaine-buzzy mixture of hedonism, cynicism and piety which governed art and politics in the 1990s and 2000s.  Hirst is the Warhol of capitalist realism, but he has none of Warhol’s blank charisma. In place of Warhol’s android awkwardness, Hirst offers a blokish bonhomie. Warhol’s studied banality has become the genuinely ultrabanal. Or, rather, the Hirst phenomenon typifies the way in which, in late capitalist art and entertainment culture, the ultrabanal and the super-spectacular have become (con)fused.  Watching Hirst half-heartedly reiterate half-baked clichés – death as the antithesis of life; art as religion – while he was being interviewed in the television coverage that surrounded his current retrospective at the Tate, I was struck by the guilelessness of his thinking. But, then again, what is there to say about this work that it doesn’t already say itself? For all its fixation on death, this is work that, in its bleak immanence, repudiates negativity, and leaves no space for commentary.

It is this obdurate refusal to be more than what it is that makes Hirst’s work flat with what I have called capitalist realism. Capitalist realism refers to a set of political beliefs and positions, but also a set of aesthetic impasses. “Realism” here does not connote a realist style so much as the inability to see, think or imagine beyond capitalist categories.   It’s no accident that “reality” entertainment came to the fore in the unprecedented period of neoliberal domination before the bank crises of 2008. Hirst’s work belongs to a corresponding development that we might call reality art. The dead animals in the formaldehyde really are dead animals. The skull really is a skull. This inertial tautology may the real “point” of Hirst’s work, and also the reason it emptily but emphatically resonated in a neoliberal era characterised by political fatalism and the corrosion of social imagination. Things are as they are; they cannot be re-imagined, transfigured, or changed.  Is there any art object which better captures this than the diamond-encrusted skull of Hirst’s For The Love Of God, the object which, more than any other, may come to stand for the decadence and vanity of the pre-2008 neoliberal world? For The Love Of God makes explicit the guiding logic of much of Hirst’s work: the only certainties are death and capital. But it can tell us nothing about this. It is a mute symptom which exemplifies a condition it can neither describe nor transcend. 

‘there’s no ruler to measure that inch.’

Miles Davis

On The Corner boxset

(Director’s cut of review originally published in The Wire)

During 1972, Miles Davis began to play Stockhausen’s Hymnen on the cassette machine in his Lamborghini. On October 21st, 1972, he crashed the sports car. The Complete On the Corner Sessions is a record of an era in which speed, technology, modernism popular culture shared the same crash site. The six-CD box set, which includes twelve previously unreleased tracks, and several not before heard in their complete form, invites us to re-visit that era.

Although it was scorned and misunderstood when it was released, no record better captures the flavour of New York in 1972 – post-Sixties paranoia, Vietnam, black political militancy - than On the Corner. As the LP’s blaxploitation-syle cartoon cover art and the track titles indicate, Miles’ rendition of Blackness is now centred on NYC. Long gone are the bright skies and cool ocean of Mati Klarwein’s Afrodelic Bitches Brew cover. With On the Corner, you can practically feel the heat coming off the summer sidewalk, smell the garbage fermenting in the June sun, see the light glinting off the sleazy X-rated cinemas.  The passing of time often neutralises and naturalises sounds that were once experimental, but retrospection has not made On the Corner’s roiling, febrile, bilious stew any easier to digest. No formula – Miles’ own, in his autobiography, was Stockhausen plus funk plus Ornette Coleman – can mitigate the unearthliness of the sound, which made the electric shock of Bitches Brew three years earlier seem mild.

Even critics who had celebrated Bitches Brew recoiled from On the Corner. Some accused Miles of selling out in pursuit of a younger audience – and Davis said in his autobiography that he had turned to funk so that he would be remembered after he died - but On the Corner is so far from being an act of populism that it is hard to imagine how Miles expected any audience for it at all. Initially, it failed to find one - it was one of Davis’ poorest selling records - and for the next three years, until ill-health and addiction forced him into a five year retirement, Miles would no longer be the Alchemist who would repeatedly transform modernist experimentalism into commercial gold, but a brooding Dark Magus, presiding over a weird realm that was now exiled from the mainstream. Miles had turned his back on his audience, literally, but according to bassist Michael Henderson, he only did this on stage so that he could luxuriate in his band’s sound.

 Up until On the Corner, Miles’ electric phase from In a Silent Way to Bitches Brew could still be heard in terms of lyricism, albeit a lyricism that had passed from Cool to junkie-shiver Cold. But On the Corner can no longer be contained within a lyrical register: it belongs to Groove rather than Mood. (A couple of the previously unreleased tracks, the aptly-titled ‘Peace’ and the gentle funk of ‘Mr Foster’, still seem to substantially belong to that earlier form of lyricism; while the lovely ‘Minnie’, the latest-recorded track on the box set, a riff on Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’, anticipates lyricism’s return in Miles’ 80s work.) If Miles had left jazz behind, it was evidently not because he had dispensed with improvisation. The unedited versions on the first two CDs confirm that the raw material from which Miles and producer/ remixer Teo Macero assembled On the Corner were extended improvisational jams. Listening to the unedited tracks, one is made aware both of what Macero added (most obviously, the whistles and handclaps and the woozy psychedelic crossfade intro/ outro on ‘Black Satin’) and of what is already there. The box set establishes that, more than anything else, it was the involvement of the then 21-year old Michael Henderson on electric bass that enabled and precipitated Miles’ shift into Groove. Henderson was a constant in every sense. He plays on every track across the six CDs, and his repetitive bass lines were the supple synthetic engines which allowed a hyper-percussive unquiet storm of acid guitar, teeming electronics and screaming wah-wah to build around them. In an interview with Tom Terrell included in the box set, Henderson says that Miles wanted ‘an extended breakdown, like you get in R&B after you finish the song. Except forget the song and start with the breakdown.’ In an anticipation of hip hop and jungle, Miles and his collaborators realised that the locked-in funk bass would allow all manner of dissonant material to be montaged into a seething mulch. This is what makes On the Corner such a peculiar listen: it is both cubistically disjunctive, a constantly mutating, infinitely compelling sound tapestry whose detail it is impossible to fully register, and a propulsive dance music that induces a physical response. 

 Listening to the un-edited tracks, we learn that what Macero and Miles suppressed in post-production was often soloing – by guitarist John McLaughlin, the electric pianists and Miles himself. The aim was to produce a new collective sound (when On the Corner was originally issued, it came without a line-up of musicians) in which the individual ego would be blissfully subsumed. As some of the wonderful photos in the box set illustrate, Miles himself, always an economical presence on his own records, now disappears behind insectoid shades, making himself a component of an inhuman polyrhythmic machine in which the alien calls of his wah-wah trumpet function more as a modulator of effects than a deliverer of affect.

 The problem with the CD is not the music, but whether the concept of bringing it all together in one box set is sound. Miles scholar Paul Tingen acerbically noted that lumping together material that Miles recorded between 1972 and 1975 under the name The Complete On the Corner Sessions is ‘a bit like calling everything The Beatles recorded from Sgt Pepper’ onwards The Complete Sgt Pepper’s Sessions.’ Some of the tracks were already released on Miles’ Get Up With It and Big Fun LPs. This material retains its weird charge, no matter how often it is heard. The vertiginous ‘Rated X’ resembles some anachronistic melding of The Pop Group and Public Enemy while the magisterial, maudlin masterpiece ‘He Loved Him Madly’, assembled by Macero from five different takes, sounds like a Messaien dirge made of vapour trails. The latter in particular feels very different to the material released as On the Corner, an indication that Miles is beginning to move away from one-chord jamming. Although most of the material on this box set audibly comes after a massive break with what Miles had been doing before, it is highly questionable as to whether it makes sense to hear it as all belonging to one moment. What is certain is that the music contained here is indispensable: not so much ahead of time as out of time, Miles’ viscous jungle funk is a liquefaction of the very the historical conditions that made it possible, a sound that created the standards by which it would be judged. As percussionist Mtume put it, ‘there’s no ruler to measure that inch.

King of Limbs


King of Limbs

(Originally published in The Wire)

“Wake me up…“ slurs Thom Yorke on The King Of Limbs’s final track, “Separator“. Ever since Radiohead repositioned  themselves (as an ‘experimental’ group), there’s been something very somnolent - heavy-lidded, cotton-headed - about their music. I have to admit I’ve sometimes found it (literally) soporific, and I confess I’ve never made it through Kid A without falling asleep. Radiohead come off like dream music, but it’s as  if we are outside the dream, watching the dreamer thrash about, listening for clues in all the babble, nonsense and non-sequiturs. Isn’t this what Yorke’s mewls and mumbles most resemble: sleeptalk?  On “Morning Mr Magpie”, Yorke sounds like he’s rehearsing or remembering some fight (physical and/ or emotional) -  “you’ve got some nerve”, he sings - and I’m reminded of the solemn comedy of watching a dreaming man wrestle with his bedclothes.

So, for a long time, I’ve been unable to resolve feelings of ambivalence towards Radiohead. The case for dismissal was that, far from being a risk, there was something too easy, too tasteful, about Radiohead’s move from stadium angst into a sound that often felt like  Experimental ™. The suspicion was that this whole reinvention could be little than a millionaire’s leisure pursuit, and that Radiohead  are symptomatic of a situation in which ’another postpunk’ is now impossible: because rather than establishing a circuit between the mainstream and the underground, Radiohead  operate as a gigantic niche commodity that reassures its consumers but does nothing to perturb the high street.

The case for surrender, however, is that Radiohead - nowhere more than on  The King of Limbs - achieve one of Eno’s ambitions for rock: that it would become a vague music. The sound here - shimmery acoustic guitars, multi-tracked vocal, drums that palpitate like an amphetamine heartbeat - is both disciplined-lean and smeary-impressionist, a kind of post-kraut white funk. It’s the edgy drums that, above all else here, keep the music from ever resolving into either bliss or misery.  This is music defined by negative capability, made out of anxieties so disabling , or mystic revelations so fugitive, that they can’t articulate themselves, can‘t be made intelligible. Yorke’s voice - that invertebrate whine which ought to be divisive (and decisive), which ought to either seduce or repel in some definitive way, but which had up until now tended only to reinforce my equivocal feelings towards the group - is always on the edge of signification, as if he has just recovered the power of speech, or  is in the process of losing it. On “Feral”, in fact, words are entirely absent, and Yorke’s vocals  (sighs, slips, hiccups) are transformed into a series of hall of mirror doppelgangers - as cartoon bulbous and translucent as the Pac-Man-like ghosts on the record’s cover -  which flit around and under each other, the track  coming off like a distant cousin of Darkstar’s “Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer”. 

 It‘s “Feral“, “Codex” and “Giving Up The Ghost” that finally win me over. “Codex” is a  post-traumatic ballad, its lushly decaying piano chords, disconsolate horns and aphasic vocals resonating with cryptic affect. “Give Up The Ghost”, meanwhile, quivers and havers on the edge of non-existence, an acoustic ballad as tremulous as Durutti Column at their most  hesitant, Yorke whimpering and whispering against a loop of his own voice, which might be repeating one phrase - “don’t hurt me” - or permutating near-variations of it: “don’t love me” … or “don’t haunt me”.  That’s it: I’m converted.