May 28, 2009

Energy flashbacks (and flashforwards)

Image via Gutterbreakz

1. Now a dead battery "I used to go raves when I was younger, I went through that whole explosion in electronic music from 1987 to around 1992-93 when it seemed like there was new genre every single week. It was an amazing time in music to hear so many things happening and so many new possibilities opening up and to see and feel the energy of new music exploding on dancefloors and in clubs. I think The Death Of Rave is about the loss in that spirit and a total loss of energy in most electronic musics across the board. I feel sorry these days for people when I go to clubs as that energy isn't there any more, it's different energy now ..." - James Kirby aka The Caretaker in The Wire this month.

2. Impenetrably arcane Gutterbreakz on Sapphire And Steel: "How anything as impenetrably arcane as this could ever have been considered mainstream family viewing remains one of the great cherished mysteries of what we might call the 'Ghost Box era'."

3. Nostalgia for modernism, again The discussion about nostalgia is really becoming tiresome. As has already been argued here, here and here, simply comparing the present unfavourably with the past is not nostalgic in any culpable way. It is the tendency to falsely overestimate the past that makes nostalgia egregious: but, one of the lessons of Andy Beckett's superb When The Lights Went Out is that, in many ways, we falsely underestimate a period like the 70s (Beckett in effect shows that capitalist realism was built on a myth-monstering of the decade). Conversely, we are induced - by ubiquitous PR, whose blank, joyless positivity has a crushingly depressing effect, even though (or rather precisely because) no-one believes it at the level of content - into falsely overestimating the present. The Caretaker's Theoretically Pure Anterograde Amnesia echoes Jameson's remarks on postmodernity : it is precisely the failure of historical awareness - under pressure from a cyberblitzing blip time that has no long term memory - that leads to the rise of nostalgia. Those who can't remember the past are condemned to have it resold to them forever.

But I say with total confidence that the decade we've just lived through will be recognised - and not in the far distant future, but very soon - as the worst period for (popular) culture since the 1950s: a decadent, despondent dead zone in which conformity was rebranded - in the media's lickspittle jester prattle - as 'light, upbeat, irreverent'.

To reiterate (because the point is germane not only to the architectural/ gatekeeper furore, but also to the hardcore continuum and Sonic Youth discussions), and to state what ought to be obvious : we are in a culure that is formally nostalgic to an astonishing degree. In this present which is so given over to pastiche, pointing to previous historical moments can act as a resistance to pervasive, normalised nostalgia. The present is not necessarily the modern; that is the postmodern condition reduced to a formula. The correct perspective on the past in this respect can only be got at by considering it as a rival (to the) present. Imagine the two moments as competing presents, as it were laid out side by side: which one would you choose? Which one contains the most possibilities? And the past moment is not grasped if it is flattened out to the collection of dead museum artefacts that the distorting lens of retrospection reduces it to ("one day all that will be left of it will be…records"): no, to grasp that moment properly involves considering the futures that it projected. Hauntology has always been about those projected futures; and it is by comparison with those lost virtual futures that the present must be judged harshly. But soon we will no longer need the spectral guides any more.

4. SYmptoms. I said I wouldn't write about Sonic Youth again, and I will try not to say much more. But I can refer you to what others have written. And this, from someone formerly of this parish: "I mean, sure, if you hit your guitar with a drum stick once, or twice, it might be irruption/uproar, formal sur-prize, but if you do it for 25 years ...? isn't it just 'avant garde' Status Quo-ism?"

I can also clarify my objections. It is not SY's being mainstream that irks me - it is a perfectly honourable aim to be "an explosion in the heart of the commodity", as the Pop Group wanted to be - it is their occupying a comfortable position of hegemonic domination while disavowing it which seems to me definitional of avant-conservatism (a phrase that I have taken from Frieze's Dan Fox). Could Sonic Youth's rockist devotees enjoy their records in the same way without the belief that they are 'alternative'?

Avant-conservatism rests on an equivocation between structural position and formal invention. Being 'alternative' in the way that Sonic Youth now are is a structural position, essentially a marketing category; it bears no relation to formal inventiveness. For if SY's ye olde formal inventions qualify them as avant-garde in 2009, then what is to disallow anything on the rock nostalgia circuit from making the same claim - it, too, was new once. (cf Joe Stannard's - sympathetic but seemingly deeply dissatisfied - review of The Eternal in The Wire this month, which practically sighs with frustration at SY's enervation.)

5. Hate's not your enemy, love's your enemy Zone is quite right that Lydon's scrawling of "I Hate" onto a Pink Floyd t-shirt was "the definitive punk gesture in the way it hijacks a readymade, defacing and desecrating a complacently commodified consensus." But it was the desecration of the consensus within the counterculture that was crucial. Avant-conservatism, not the mainstream, is always the proper object of any countercultural revolt. What has to be continually incinerated is precisely this space of comfortable opposition to the mainstream. Rotten's gesture was all the powerful if Lydon the biographical individual actually at some point liked and respected Pink Floyd. To desecrate something not in spite of the fact that it is 'good' but precisely because it is 'good', to destroy the settled consensus about how value is assigned, to scorch all earths, this was punk's nihilative impetus, its traumatic opening up of a space beyond good evil - something that is far more alien to our restoration world ("would you like a Sonic Youth CD with your frappucino, sir?") than it was to 1976.

6. Hurry up please, it's time. But the restoration world is finished - even though, like the father in the dream recounted by Freud, it does not yet know it is dead. Ladies and gentlemen, can't you see that the restoration scenery around you is just dust and pasteboard? It's coming apart in clumps. The OedIPod, once the supremely secure means by which all outsides were transformed into the inside, is cracked open. And we who have been guided across the desert by ghosts crouch like commandos amidst the ideological rubble of the new Year Zero...

Posted by mark at May 28, 2009 10:45 AM | TrackBack