I couldn't disagree more with this.
Abi Titmuss as ordinary, likeable woman, offering a fascinating insight into the nature of contemporary celebrity? Do me a favour. The sickening, simpering Titmuss is worth singling out for special derision because of the propaganda role she plays as a symbol of how, to get ahead in capitalism, it is necessary to set aside all compunctions.
She operates in consumer capitalism much as the legendary Stakhanov functioned in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Stakhanov was a Ukrainian miner who reputedly dug 102 tons of coal in the course of a six hour shift in 1935. (Needless to say, it turned out that Stakhanov had a whole team of miners working under him). Titmuss' heroic efforts on behalf of the UK ether economy 2005 consist in the example she offers of unremitting self-exploitation . She stands for a shrinking of the possibilities of popular culture down to almost nothing - sending out the message: what more can you expect? - and for a total disclaiming of responsibility - wouldn't you do as I have done, given the chance? Everything she does is implicitly justified as an inevitable effect of global capitalism, not much to do with her at all. As A A Gill memorably put it in the Sunday Times last week, Titmuss speaks 'of her career as the pubescent boy's right-hand companion and of her breasts' inability to remain covered, as if they were a medical condition she had to live with, with as much good humour, and stoicism as she could muster. The outbreaks of exhibitionist sexuality were like eczema attacks: disgusting, unsightly but not her fault.'
This is the way in which we are bullied into seeing our behaviour whenever we go along with the latest moronic initiative at work. It isn't anything to do with us, the structure is already in place, we might as well get as much out of it as we can.... If Abi can degrade and demean herself, why can't we?
UPDATE: Mark Sinker mails - 'one of the intriguing things about abi titmuss in that doc - i watched bcz i had never heard of her till that evening! - was that, when the fly-on-the-wall caught her face obliquely or in repose, when she wasn't "on", you got the impression that what was driving her was tremendous rage, panic and self-loathing - i don't think she sees it as compromise, so much as furious self-multilation
kind of munchausen's syndrome by proxy, except the victim is the "angelic image of the nurse" (haha ok maybe that won't fly)'
lol, though maybe the reason Mark can continue to be so positive about pop culture is that he screens a great deal of it out? Hadn't heard of Abi Titmuss till that evening - that's some achievement...
By contrast with his exoteric presentation at Birkbeck a week ago, Zizek's lecture at Middlesex last night - aimed 'at comrades' - was a much more focused affair. This time, Zizek stuck to his brief - why are so many Lacanians liberals? - to the letter, with no diversions, half-finished arguments, or crowd-pleasing humour.
Zizek began by repeating the attack on Jean-Claude Milner that can be found here. As he reconstructed Milner's position - Israel is now the structural obstacle to European Unity, filling the position that 'the Jew' used to occupy, I thought: if Milner is right why is Israel in the Eurovision song contest then? Zizek pointed out that, far from being reviled by anti-semites, the state of Israel was enthusiastically applauded by many of them. The Final Solution was only arrived at in the early 40s; before that Hitler had fantasized about removing all Jews to Madagascar, and Eichman had supported Jews being deported to Palestine. Besides, Zizek added, the 'structural obstacle' to European unity is not Israel, but Islam; it is the Muslim who in Europe today occupies the 'position of the Jew'. (Ironic that, for neo-con racists like Mark Steyn it should be Europe itself, Steyn's 'Eurabia' - which in their imagination is incubating a rapaciously reproductive muslim 'bacteria' - should occupy 'the position of the Jew' in relation to thier vision of the world united under American-branded global capital.)
Zizek then proceeded to denounce his former mentor Jacques-Alain Miller, who has become a bureaucrat-advocate of capitalist parliamentarianism, 'fully identifying with administrators' and proferring psychoanalysis as a 'mental repair service' for those afflicted by the malaise of contemporary culture. Zizek read Miller's pathetic, cliched diagnoses of moral and social decline and his bid for psychoanalysts to become 'participants' in a (get out the sick bags) 'culture of respect' as a shameless touting for business. Amping up the sense of crisis was in the vested interest of a respectable, professionalized psychoanalysis which could then offer itself as a 'soft cushion' against the 'hard realities' of capitalism.
Zizek then turned to the pseudo-alternative to this arrant conformism: Simon Critchley's by now tediously familiar 'self-postponing messianism'. For all its supposed radicalism, this post-structuralist politics of impossibility, with its advocacy of 'intimate revolt' (Kristeva), its retreat from the 'beautiful fantasy of the withering away of the state' amounts to an accepting of the terms of Kapitalist 'realism'. But this position - whether advanced by Laclau, Butler or Lyotard - is ambiguous, Zizek rightly observed: was compromise the consequence of contingent, temporary conditions or of an a priori deadlock? Zizek's warning of the dangers of 'pseudo-activity' and participation here, his call for a refusal to engage with the current terms of debate, was reminiscent of Baudrillard's invocation of the non-participating, non-reflecting masses as a 'silent majority'.
Almost as a throway point, Zizek highlighted the most crucial failing of melancholic post-structuralist impossibilism, namely, the persistent equivocation it makes between totalitarianism and closure. (We've all seen this nonsense too many times now whereby a pettifogging literary analysis poses as bravely resisting the 'totalitarian' pressures of positions less afflicted with interpretosis.) Zizek rightly showed that this is a nonsense: both Hitler and Stalin - surely the architects of totalitarianism if anyone was - were in fact obsessed with contingency and strategy. Far from being the rigid enactment of a dogmatic theory, Stalinism was , like Blarism, a 'ruthless pragmatism'. But of course this all presupposes that, when they moralisingly warn of totalitarianism, post-structuralists are thinking of Hitler or Stalin, when in fact they are thinking of F. R. Leavis.
The sustaining fantasy of the party of desire is that its values of flux, undecidability and difference need to be agitated for when in fact they are the ruling ideology. Desirevolution posed no challenge at all to Kapital, which cheefully embraced hybridity and hedonism. It won't surprise any k-punk readers that I heartily endorse Zizek's observation that 'there is no inherent emancipatory potential in pleasure.' The 68ers and their progeny are now the enemy. What is required is a completely burying of the 68 beach under forbiddingly dogmatic theoretical edifices.
Which brings us to Zizek's conclusion, wherein he looked for a way out of the false dichotomy (neo-liberal adjustment versus post-structuralist impossiblism) in the work of Badiou and his readers, such as Peter Hallward. Zizek heartily approved of the basic drift of Badiou's thought, but wondered - and stressed that for him this was a real, not a rhetorical, question - whether there was a gap in Badiou's thought where the economy should be. Marx's innovation, after all, was to have insisted upon the inextricability of politics and economy. Is Badiou's separation of the political from the economic, then, effectively a return to a pre-Marxist picture? To some extent, Badiou's refusal to deal with the economy arises from a principled insistence upon prescription above description.
But the major difference between Badiou and Zizek might be that Badiou deliberately omits economy from his philosophy, whereas Zizek continually gestures towards the economic without ever getting specific. One of Zizek's most valuable contribution to political theory today is his revival of Marx's analysis of the commodity form. In many ways, and Zizek is the first to admit this, Zizek's 'quasi-transcendental' account of the commodity is no more than a very literal reading of Marx. But that is the point: too much quasi-Marxism has lost Marx's chief insight by reading Marx sloppily. His point, as Zizek has tirelessly insisted since The Sublime Object of Ideology, was not that we are 'directly' deceived or mystified by the commodity but - quite to the contrary - that we think of the commodity as an 'ordinary' thing. We have the wrong idea of how in reality things are mystified. Our belief in commodities is an 'objectified belief', a little like that of the man in one of Zizek's oft-repeated jokes who has a horseshoe in his house not because he believes in its power to bring good luck, but because he has heard that it works even if you don't believe.
The question is, though: what does Zizek want? That is to say, how are we to stop believing that we don't believe in the commodity? Or: what are the changes in political-economy Zizek wants to bring about? State socialism is dead not merely empirically, but as a utopia; and the latter, the second death, is more significant. Particular contingent failures wouldn't matter if they didn't reveal a priori problems in the utopian model. Beyond all the analyses of capital's inequities, what remains on the 'left' is a utopia-vacuum and a vocabulary crisis: all of the privileged terms (including 'left' itself) have either been evacuated of meaning, or so successfully appropriated and banalised that they have been drained of positive associations (e.g. 'revolutionary', 'radical').
Utopian thinking has concrete and immediate effects. The point is, it is not as if we live in a world stripped of utopian thinking. What is sorely lacking is a political-economic utopia that would challenge the wrecked neo-liberal utopia we are forced to endure now. That means abandoning vague and nostalgic gestures towards the failed utopias of the past, and beginning to think clearly and specifically about what a genuine alternative to capitalism would look like. Banish once and for all the post-structuralist, postmodern bogeyman. The problem for the left is not the temptation of totalitarianism, but compromise without end. What we need are new prescriptions for an age-old malady.
You know, I turned on TV the other day, and I thought for one horrible minute that I saw Hue and Cry making a comeback. But that must have been a nightmare. Mustn't it?
In the flesh - 'the shit behind the text' as he put it - Slavoj Zizek is a frenzy of tourettic-tics and spasms, symptoms of the prodigious energy that is the key both to his appeal and to what is most frustrating about him. Bat observed that Zizek 'writes like a DJ', splicing one theoretical track into another, producing books in the way that DJs produce sets. You become used to seeing familiar material cut and pasted into new books, which often function more like remixes than original texts. His lecture last night - a contribution to the 'Adieu Derrida' series he has convened for Birkbeck - at least started with a 'new track', a 'settling of accounts' with Derrida and Deconstruction.
For the first twenty five minutes or so, Zizek stuck to his brief - but soon lapsed into what has become a frustrating vice, a kind of breathless lateralophiliac jaunting from theme to theme which more often than not leaves the ostensible subject of the theoretical dérive a fading memory.
Zizek has tended to be critical of deconstruction, but his glancing discussion of the merits of the Derridean method last night made more of a case for deconstruction than two of its 'its leading proponents', Jean-Luc Nancy and Hillis Miller, managed in the frankly dreadful opening two lectures of this series. Nancy and Miller exhibited the painfully protracted, predictable ponderousness which has become the hallmark of deconstruction in its senescent phase. Miller wanted us to believe that the 'late Derrida' was a polyphonic linguo-conceptual magician, 'playing' micro-variations of the same phrase in a bid to spin-out mortality. But the examples he cited turned out to be not so much demonstrations of an exorbitant effusion of linguistic excess as tedious permutations of minimally different microvariations. Boredom or death: that really is the opposition deconstruction has foisted upon us in its dying years. (Although, as you listen to one of these lectures, you feel that this particular binary opposition has been deconstructed by your own nervous system as it rigor mortifies into a M.Waldemar-like living death of sheer ennui.).
So it was gratifying to hear Zizek cleaving to the early Derrida and definitively rejecting the late work. The thesis he sketched - and of course, this being Zizek, didn't fill out - was that the late Derrida had retreated from the unsettling negative theology of his early texts into the comforting embrace of a certain Kantianism. The play of differance had given way to a pathos of an unattainable justice and the messianic promise of otherness. This regression was marked, ironically enough, by the turn to the political in something like Spectres of Marx. Here, Derrida begins to write of a 'democracy to come', a democracy that, like God, already contradicts itself. Derrida invites us to embrace both the promise and its inevitable failure. Zizek, by contrast, urged us to 'drop the promise', forget the failure, and occupy a pure in-between.
In Lacanian terms, the late Derrida was in thrall to desire, whereas the early Derrida, the Derrida of differance, was a theorist of drive. Desire fixates upon an object that is impossible, whereas drive circulates around a lost object. In the case of desire, the object remains the ultimate point of reference, the source to which always-raised, always-dashed messianic hopes are consecrated. The object the drive excessively fixates upon, meanwhile, is in no sense an ersatz or secondary substitute for an impossible, unattainable object; for the drive, there is no 'thing-in-itself'.
The figure most responsible for sheperding Derrida into his late tragic pietism was of course Levinas, so it was inevitable that Zizek should then launch into a demolition of Levinas' ethics of 'openness to the other'. In Zizek's account, Levinas' ethics are assymetrical: I am responsible for the other but the other is not responsible for me. The very existence of the subject itself already imposes a terrible ethical burden. How is it possible to be without being a murderer? If, as Spinoza claims, my existence is defined as the will to persist in my own being, then I pose a threat to other beings simply by existing at all.
Zizek rejected this move on Spinozist grounds. Spinoza does not claim, as Levinas maintains, that my existence is achieved at the expense of others (that sounds more like Nietzsche, actually) but that my existence is fully immanent in a network of relations which are externalized. Instead of the question, 'How can I exist without being a murderer?', Zizek posed a more radical one: 'Do I exist in the first place?' Or am I rather a hole in the order of being?
In any case, the true ethical step would involve, not respecting the other, but erasing its face, or at least blurring it back into the 'faceless background' from which it is distinguished. Zizek cited Greene's observation in The Power and the Glory that it is impossible to feel hate if you visualize a 'man or a woman's face'; but if 'hatred is a failure of imagination', then, for Zizek, pity is a failure of abstraction. Justice is cold and abstract, and 'the face is the ultimate ethical trap'.
In many ways the most fascinating aspect of Zizek's lecture was the next section, in which he aimed to definitvely differentiate both Derrida and himself from postmodernism. On what grounds? Well, for Zizek the phrase that sums postmodernity up can be found in the famous line from Yeats' 'The Second Coming': 'the ceremony of innocence is drowned'. The innocent is not the one who lacks knowledge, but the one who believes in spite of knowing. Exemplary of this stance was Anne Frank's heartbreaking conviction that there is a divine spark in all human beings. In 'normal conditions' such an observation would be banal; in the context of Frank's situation, it amounts to a sublime belief. 'I know very well that things are as I see them, but I don't believe it.'
This assertion of the counter-factual is what is is foreclosed by a seamless postmodern epistemology in which there is no discrepancy between belief and knowledge. Fundamentalism is emblematic of this postmodern orientation, since fundamentalists do not 'believe', they 'know'. The fundamentalists' literalism means that - ontologically at least - they are dedicated positivists. For them, the truth of religion is not to be found beyond the worldly, but in a nature that can be examined by a positivistic science - hence the apparently bizarre interest of some fundamentalists in brain science, neurology and cloning. What could be a clearer case, then, of people who have become 'dupes of their own fantasy'?
These reflections brought into focus a few issues I've been preoccupied by a great deal recently, and which came up during the course of the epic anti-pop thread on Dissensus (well, what didn't?) : namely, what is the relationship between commitment and rationalism? Can commitment be conceived of in any other way than as an irrational leap into faith ?
There were clear echoes of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in Zizek's idea of a 'counterfactual belief'. For Kierkegaard, faith must be maintained, not only when there is no evidence to support it, but also when there is evidence which actually contradicts it. But faith is only possible in conditions where God maintains his 'epistemic distance'; if God made himself completely known to Abraham, then he would no longer be required - nor even able - to have faith. That's why faith involves anxiety (the only emotion that does not deceive, according to Lacan) - as opposed to knowledge, whose correlate affect is certainty. So Kierkegaard's knight of faith would, needless to say, find themselves at odds with Zizek's fundamentalist.
Yet the standard view that Kierkegaard's leap into faith is a rejection of reason is not adequate. In part, that's because faith is about 'attitudinal' belief ('belief-in') rather than 'propositional' belief ('belief-that'). But this doesn't quite cover the radical secession from 'the factual' entailed by Zizek's sublime faith. The type of commitment involved in such a faith is defined by oppostion not to the rational, but to the empirical. In Zizek's example, Anne Frank's belief in the 'divine spark' is not a conviction based upon experience, nor one that can be refuted by experience. One of Badiou's great services is to remind us that the rationalist method is not about verifying a hypothesis with empirical evidence. The reason that mathematics is privileged in his philosophy is that it has nothing to do with the realm of the factual-empirical. The positing of axioms has a direct parallel with Acts of ethical commitment: once made, both result in strict logical entailments, but neither are grounded in anything.
An interview with Mark Stewart will be broadcast next Monday evening (23rd May) on Resonance FM, between 8.30 and 10 p.m.
Fom the Metro a couple of weeks ago: doesn't this sum up so much about contemporary consumerist stupidity and indulgence?
... everyone else who can should take the rare opportunity to see the mighty Maffia in action.
Meanwhile, in other correspondence, Mark Sinker writes:
'i think blairism had two moves:
one re the constituency (invented by thatcher, stolen by blair) (in the act of stealing there was i think an implicit acknowledgment that the constituency ITSELF had "evolved" somewhat, if that's the word - first-time home owners eg had after all crashed violently into their first political betrayal as adults, given the iconic shape of major's Black Monday etc: but thereafter, their temperature was entirely - and patronisingly - taken via the daily mail)
the other is re the party: i think he divorced it from its mass roots and gave it over to a professionalised media nomenklatura, which i'd always (a bit glibly) labelled in my head as "Market Stalinism" (glib bcz old-skool stalinism wz ALREADY market stalinism, for one thing). All the stuff abt targets!! cf five-year plan/command economy etc --- the revolving-door world of fatuous chief executives (of British Airways etc) being handed an even less accountable Quango Overlord role, while nu-labour luvvies; cool britannia etc were early attempts to give this a vibrant face (i think i dissent more than somewhat from the dissensus consensus that pop media - certain ancient post-punk saints excepted - has been co-opted to support this: i think even in its more twattish manifestations it is still the reserve army of inchoate and inarticulate resistance to all this; TV is more than ever a chaos of glimpses)
the strange feeling i have now is that the variation within the major parties - and also some of the minor parties, such as respect, which is a coalition of extreme outsiders - is way greater than the variation BETWEEN the parties: i guess a representative bodies they too have becomes a chaos of glimpses'
The phrase 'market Stalinism' is absolutely right for Blairism, even though the combination of the pretence of marketization with quotas and five-year plans means that Blairism has the none of the benefits of either markets (low bureaucracy) or Stalinism (let's not forget that, unlike Blairism, Stalinism actually did produce things in addition to statistical PRopaganda). Naturally, I'm with the 'Dissensus consensus' here on the question of present popular culture: I don't see how most of it introduces any incongruence or discrepancy into the Blairite simulation.
To reinforce my recent attack on Gordon Brown: on Thursday, in the Evening Standard, Simon Jenkins said that the London Underground now costs the taxpayer 20 (twenty) times more than when it was in public ownership. Remember that it was the glowering chancellor who took legal action to force the PFI 'reforms' on Transport for London.
'Smell the lack of ambition....' said I.T. as we subjected ourselves to shilly-shambling generic indie mumbling on Wednesday night. The occasion was the book launch for Amy Spencer's 'DIY: the Rise of Lo-Fi Culture,' which we had been lured to by the intriguing ad posted by Simon SDS on Dissensus. The positing of a continuum embracing SF zines of the thirties, queercore, riot grrrl and blogs made for a fascinating prospect. Unfortunately, only a very narrow spectrum of that spectrum got much of an airing on Wednesday.
I suppose my suspicions were aroused by the subtitle of Spencer's book. In a post-Akai age, why should DIY be lo-fi? With the rise of the cyberpunk technologies - samplers, PCs, DTP etc - the only explanation for smallness of sound is surely smallness of ambition.
At one point in Rip It Up Simon distinguishes between amateurism and amateurishness. In the period immediately before Morley and Penman turned to New Pop as a respite, messthetics had subsided into mere mess; the Scritti/ Slits/ Raincoats ambition to remake the world in sound had degenerated into comfortable 'squattage industry' the entryist Green would find it so easy to decry and disavow. A certain homespun, unassuming, untidy tininess had become a virtue in itself. The departure from rock spectacle had resulted in a proliferation of the avowedely diminutive, the homely. C86 was already on its way.
Wednesday night felt in many ways like it was C86 Forever. There were women dressed like the members of Talulah Gosh, in children's-style anoraks and flower print dresses. A chap at the front was knitting. Literally.
Interspersed between the lo-fi music (about which, it is kinder to say nothing) were readings, from or inspired by live journals.
A distinction that hadn't been that evident to us bloggaz beforehand was bandied about by the speakers as if it were a comonplace: the distinction between live journals and blogs. Weblogs, we were repeatedly told, make links; live journals, on the other hand, introspect. And the lo-fi continuum being celebrated here did in fact turn out to be a confederacy of introverts, if not to say solipsists. A certain bend-headed shyness seemed obligatory, so much so that it felt affected even if it wasn't. (Perhaps it's no accident that the blissblogmos which k-punk first found its unhome in was organized, however loosely, around the electronic communism of the rave discontinuum; the imaginary community for this lo-fi indie and live journal world, meanwhile, would be a network of bedrooms and bedsits, come, come share in my solitude.)
So, no mention of sf fanzines from the thirties, but oodles of footling about in an anti-rockist rock that, even as it has devolved into a pre-sexual infantilism, nevertheless retains reverence for a solid white male rock canon (Orange Juice, Byrds, Velvet fucking Underground). No change from 86, in other words, and on Wednesday my memories of that grim era came back in a visceral anti-rush. First year at university. Tyranny of indie. Expectations lowering. Subdivisions of passive-agressive Amys and Jemimas proffering sim-primary school doodlings.
What I remember about 86 was just how immensely liberating hip-hop and house felt then - sounds which were black not only ethnically, but also in a more abstract sense: darkly glistening, electrolibidinal, forming as stark a contrast as you like with the garishly dull kidz' crayon pastels of indie's baby teeth-white rock. I think of how hip hop has changed so much since then, but how this type of indie's comfortable little cottage non-industry (artifice and effort being equally beyond indie's very pale pale) has idled around playing pooh-sticks in the same shallow stream in the same suburban summer of the soul, unmoving and inviolate, ever since.
It strikes me that what is wrong with pop culture now is the poverty of its concepts of what success can be. Whereas this lo-fi culture has no concept of failure (middle-class kids who had piano lessons from the age of 4 pretending that they can only just about manage to blow into a kazoo just about covers it, I reckon), hip-hop's Darwinian brutality is conditioned by a model of success that comes ready-made by Kapital. (It occurs me that what hip-hop needs is an immanent critique of those aspirations, which would function in the same way that punk operated in relation to glam. Mooching about in the existential desolation of their mansions on MTV cribs, who do today's hip-hoppers resemble if not the Ferry of the 70s, trapped by the trappings of a success that, achieved too quickly, became a prison of conspicuous consumption?)
For all my problems with Grime, it is, of course, infinitely preferable to this lo-fi jingle-jangling about. The discrepancy between the Grimestaz sky's-the-limit ambition and the ruff and readiness of what they produce makes for a drama, perhaps tragicomic but always noble, but such a possibility is a priori eliminated by indie's tea-and-biscuits timorous mildness.
What's powerful about DIY is its stiffening of punk will: the thought, especially thrilling to those not born into a cultural privilege, that what we can produce CAN matter. Or: we too can sublimate. That is a challenge, not a blank cheque. As opposed to: anything anyone does is good, especially if it sounds like no effort has been put into it whatsoever.
UPDATE: check out I.T.'s report of the same event. (It's like blog Roshomon....)
Well, even though some say that the 'sledgehammer critique of media and managerialism' in last Saturday's Doctor Who might have been 'written by k-punk for k-kids', I'm actually quite ambivalent about Rupert Murdoch (the clear object of the episode's satire). Murdoch at least shook up the militantly complacent British media. The Times is infinitely preferable to the loathsome Guardian (the Guardian, like filter coffee, is a test of class affiliation: if you encounter it without feeling faintly nauseous, you must have at least some sympathy for middle mass values) and Sky, for all its crassness, is better than ITV and doesn't, unlike the BBC, have the ability to raise a ludicrous tax simply for existing.
Belying his image as a 'Jagrafess' (the voracious monster which hung from the ceiling of the top floor in Saturday's episode), Murdoch recently told the American Society of Newspaper Editors that young readers 'don't want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what's important.' Murdoch warned that 'as an industry, many of us have been remarkably, unaccountably, complacent' with too many media professional thinking (get this) 'that their readers are stupid'. News provision has to evolve, Murdoch claimed, into a place of 'conversation' in which bloggers, 'podcasters' and 'readers' can participate.
In its follow-up piece on Murdoch's speech, The Economist claimed that 44% of online Americans aged 18-29 read blogs 'often'. The Economist was keen to refute two 'myths' about this kind of development: first, the idea that weblogs are necessarily inferior to mainstream media. On the contrary. It cited the research of Matthew Hindman, a political scientist at Arizona Sate University, who 'found that the top bloggers are more likely than top newspaper columnists to have gone to a top university [whatever that is - k-p], and far more likely to have an advanced degree, such as a doctorate.' The second myth The Economist wanted do dispel was the misapprehension that blogs are essentially parasitic on other media. Many of the more established current affairs blogs do original reporting, with many having 'correspondents' in the original sense of the term, who file reports from all over the world.
All of which is the beginnings of an answer posed by Matt Woebot on this thread on Dissensus. 'Is the internet good enough?' Well, certainly. The web removes gatekeepers in a way that is unprecedented for any other mass cultural development on the planet thus far.
Some might say that gatekeepers such as editors guarantee a certain level of quality among print publications that is lacking on the web. Reading the print media now, you quickly come to doubt this - it seems overcrowded and predictable, with writers barely having the space to explore any ideas, let alone ideas that might be unpalatable to their demographic. More importantly, though, the web DOES have quality control, but it operates subtly, distributively and immanently, via the NETWORK, not the whims of an individual subject. The network is very precisely not a demographic (the idea that there was a pre-existing k-punk 'demographic' waiting to have its needs met by the site is preposterous, for instance); nor is it a community (there are no strictly defined boundaries delimiting either what membership would entail or even how it might be defined). At the same time, it is ruthless if only by omission; sites of limited interest are unlikely to be linked to much.
It is imperative that we lose what McLuhan called our tendency to 'rear view mirrorism', that is, to see new technocultural developments in the light of existing paradigms. One of the reasons that 1978-84 was better than now (in terms of Pop, if nothing else) was that it believed it was. Postpunk was about the execution of punk will: the conviction that the importance of what you are doing does not await ratification by authorities of any kind. When I asked the panel at Simon's book event, how it was that expectations had been lowered so spectacularly in the two decades after 1984, Jon King's answer was simple: money. 'It was like bands had an extra member, the accountant.' We are all familiar with the way in which money and 'success' (in that crass post-Pop Idol celebreality sense) operate now as ends-in-themselves: not merely as symbols of worth, but as the only possible measure of value. The supposed 'democraticization' of celebrity brought about by celebreality actually still leaves people dependent upon the gatekeepers of Spectacle; the technology in their own house, meanwhile, would allow them to produce blogs, films, music, and as yet unforetold combinations of all of these things. 'The way out is through the door, how come nobody uses it?,' as Mark Stewart sang on 'Where There's a Will'.
The answer is that one of capitalism's most pernicious effects is the insidious way in which it imposes its mediocrity on our fantasies and desires.
Which is why my favourite exchange from last Saturday's Dr Who was, 'Can people be enslaved if they don't know they're enslaved?'
It isn't impossible for them, but the task is much more difficult than many are recognising.
The extent to which the formerly self-proclaimed 'natural party of government' has sunk can be gleaned by the fact that they are treating their results on Thursday - when they scored less seats than Michael Foot managed for Labour in the legendarily catastrophic 1983 election - as a partial recovery. In fact, the Conservative vote increased hardly at all. The few 'triumphs' they scraped can be attributed to Labour supporters going AWOL, not to an increase in their vote.
Perhaps for his own reasons, Michael Portillo was withering in the Sunday Times today about the Tories' chances in 2009. Portillo has identified reasons for Tory failure that are structural, not merely contingent. The party is caught in some terrible compulsion to repeat. 'On past form the party will eventually elect a rightwinger. He will flirt briefly with moving the party to the centre before getting scared that he might lose core voters and reverting to Daily Mail-style issues.' The lessons will not be learned: 'since the party’s vote haul is still flatlining from one election to the next, there are good grounds for modernisers to argue that fighting on right-wing issues such as immigration has been tried repeatedly and fails every time... Once more, electoral disaster will not shock the party into change. Party spokesmen’s initial reactions to the Tories’ third electoral humiliation were highly complacent.' Portillo's disillusioned column today is perhaps his most clear and succinct statement of why he is waving goodbye to the conversative party. The party as he sees it is structurally set on a long, slow, course towards death at its own hand, destined to perish, quietly and unmourned, amongst the cucumber sandwiches when the last arhritic 'activist' drifts into the grave. As long as it panders to its core vote - the aged and the ageing privet hedge nazis of the shires - it will remain unattractive to the young and the urban. But Portillo clearly realised four years ago that the Conservatives do not see this as enough of a problem to ever elect a moderniser like himself.
The lesson that Labour learned after 1983 - that it must move 'beyond the pleasure principle', give up on what provides it easy satisfactions - will, it seems, be much harder for the Tories to assimilate. That's partly because the level of complacency in the Party is much greater; or, to put it another way, the level of urgency is much lesser. For all its intransigent conservatism, the Labour Party of 1983 was enmeshed in a mass movement fired by a monstrous energy, albeit an energy that was too often prone to self-immolation. Blair has made the parliamentary party less dependent upon those unpredictable energies by detaching it from its traditional core support, and, more importantly, being seen to have done it. As the Economist put it on Friday, 'His mission was to steal the party from its previous owners, and have it understood that that was what he had done.' This ought to have been the beginnings of a process of renewal. Instead, it became the be-all and end-all of the New Labour project. Which is why the notion of an 'unremittingly New Labour' third term floated in the media this weekend - albeit only to dismiss the possibility of it happening - is senseless. What would that amount to? As the Economist rightly observed, 'There is no such thing as Blairism—and if there were, the term would far more likely denote spin and other dark political arts than policy.'
Was there ever was an opportunity for New Labour to be genuinely 'new' (rather than, as it turned out, 'Not Old')? The question is now moot, since the one-eyed will-to-win of Blair's inner circle was so hostile to all aspects of the old party that it proved unable to evolve beyond a paranoid pragmatism that was initially understandable but ultimately corrosively destructive - not only to the party, but to parliamentary democracy in Britain, and to the nation's political and intellectual culture more generally. Old Labour's entrenchment in commitments that were plainly in no-one's interests - such as the attachment to corrupt Unions whose bloody-mindlessness led to in-fighting amongst the working class and a raging inflation that meant workers' wages became worth less and less and the quasi-fascist rooting in 'organic communities' with ossified labour and gender relations frozen somewhere around 1903 - had to be abandoned, left to rot with the unburied bodies and uncollected trash of 1978. On the other hand, the party's commitment to the concept of class, never mind the working class and to the concept of the public (as opposed to the private) had to be retained if the party were to be anything but another sign that global capital's moronic domination of not only our working lives, but our dreams too, was total. Yet retaining, defending and revivifying these concepts would have required intellectual vigour, but this was another of the old Party's virtues sacrificed early on to Powerpoint pragmatism.
Part of the Tories' problem is that they have failed to identify the real nature of the discontent with New Labour. What the country has wearied of is not only what the Economist called the 'party's remorseless, pathological, high-pressure salesmanship'. It is the extension of this 'salesmanship' to all areas of life. Blairite initiatives force managers and workers into becoming Little Blairs, hustling and huckstering, working to gerrymander statistics in a bid to 'meet targets', not out of any commitment or sense of the innate value of what you are doing. That's because, once again, New Labour is an expression of global capital, which is destructive not only of specific values, but of the very concept of anything possessing a value that is not ephemeral or micro-specific.
The stupid 'internal market' reforms due to be foisted upon the NHS - but which, the Economist worries, may have to be put on ice due to the reduced Labour majority - are typical of New Labour's blundering ideological indebtedness to Capital. These 'reforms', which will mean that hospitals are funded by number of patients rather than by 'block', would make the NHS the same sort of mess that Further Education now is. Old Labour's blanket hostility to markets was misguided and misplaced - markets long preceded capital, and as Manuel De Landa and Braudel have argued, capitalism is best defined as an anti-market - but New Labour's enthusiasm for quasi-marketization is one more example of its
commitment to worst of all worlds non-solutions. In public education and health, there is no pricing, therefore no market mechanism can apply. What you are left with, then, is not the public acting directly on their public services through their 'pattern of consumption', as ideologues like the Economist's nameless writers would have us believe, but a complex, centralized bureaucracy which allocates funding on the basis of spurious measurables, and deprofessionalizes and infantilises the people who work on the front-line, making them increasingly subservient to statistical machineries that are constitutively insensitive to local priorities and variations.
The irony of New Labour's managerialism is that it has led to the destruction of effective management. The Labour way - top-down management by memo in the service of idiot PR initiatives in which no-one, not the people producing them, nor those at whom they are aimed, believes; elevating the anti-ethical principle of putting the defence of your own position to the status of the only axiom by which you act - is increasingly the only way, in public services at least. The idea that management should be about the development of impersonal systems that allow workers to work more effectively has withered away with the supposedly outdated concept of the public as an ontological entity that cannot be reduced to an aggregation of individuals (or individuals and their famileeeeeees). That's why New Labour's investment in public services has, and will never, yield any positive results.
New Labour's legacy is a country in which most teenagers are engaging in one form of nihilism or another - if they haven't already given up and sold out their future to the empty dreams of capitalist careerism, they are cutting or starving themselves, or else terrorising others; and where those who are older are coralled into a ceaseless busy-ness without worthwhile object, after which they slink back to burrows that are increasingly well-provided with all manner of consumer diversions, but in which they feel like tourists; where the only thing likely to be found in public space is vomit.
For any remotely competent opposition, Labour ought, then, to have been an easy target this election. And the only wrong note Portillo struck in his Sunday Times piece was his claim that New Labour would be an even more formidable proposition under Brown. If Blair's best days are now definitely behind him, so are Brown's. The day of greatest triumph for an instinctively resentful man like Brown will almost certainly turn out to be last Thursday. Once his alleged 'enemy' and rival is removed from power and Brown assumes it, all his current appeal - which consists solely in 'not being Blair' - will evaporate, and the man will be seen for what he is, an apparition memorably summoned by Simon Jenkins a few months back. 'On any blink test, Brown's face, clothes, office, lifestyle and friends suggest a man temperamentally unsuited to public politics. He is averse to man-management, foreigners, the countryside, Londoners, the arts and good living, not to mention compromise, forgiveness and hail-fellow-well-met.' Brown is to Blair what Heseltine was to Thatcher: attractive to bad-faith party sympathisers hostile to the leadership, but without any broader appeal. Anyone who has fallen for the Brownite spin that he is to the left of Blair should remember that it was Brown, not Blair, who intransigently insisted on pushing through the predictably catastrophic Private Finance Initiative for the London Underground.
The Tories will not be able to exploit this weakness if they don't move away from their core support. The usual term for such a detachment from the party faithful is 'embracing the middle ground'. But this implies that there is blandly invariant space that parties simply have to occupy in order to be successful. In fact, successful parties produce such spaces rather than simply pander to them. Blair bought in his middle ground readymade for him, by Thatcherism. That is yet another reason for the peculiarly sterile quality of Blair's regime; it is 'political' only in the venal, derogatory sense of Machieavelian intrigue, not in the sense of producing any sort of systematic philosophy. Its so-called 'radicalism' is Thatcher's radicalism. But it must be remembered that this radicalism was won by risking alienating old school Tory supporters in the shires, who only countenanced Maggie because she won them elections.
If the standard view about New Labour is that it has triumphed by stealing Thatcherite clothes from the Tories, then the most effective strategy the Conservative party could adopt is to steal 'progressivist' (I HATE that term) clothes from Labour. It ought to be easy to argue that egalitarian social goals are best pursued by crushing bureaucracy, by taking power away from know-all Islington lawyers and restoring control of people's working lives to them.
But don't hold your breath.
For a few moments, just a few, on Thursday night, something like the Real seemed to creep into the seamless postmodern simulation of Toneeeland.
Too much emphasis has been put upon Blair's lying. A propensity for mendacity would hardly be unique in Blair's profession, yet there is something quite distinctive about Blair's mode of dissimulation. It is this that is the defining signature of Blairism; quite obviously, the reasons that Blair is in danger of becoming 'the politician of the age' have nothing to do with policy. Yes, we are all familiar with the hedge-the-bets worst-of-all-worlds Third way administratomania, but these are symptoms of the Blairite pathology, not its substance. Blair's messiah complex has combined with postmodern lawyer plague to produce an innocynicism that is insidiously corrosive at all levels of the social.
As a messiah-lawyer, Blair has little concept of what it is do anything. His lack of concern about the decline of manufacturing industry in Britain arises as much from his postmodern bewilderment about material production as it does from any 'modernizing' affinity with the deterritorialized etherization of postmodern capital. As a failed lawyer turned politician, Blair thinks of work as essentially to do with the production of appearances. Labour is semiotic or not at all. Manufacturing labour is far too materially recalcitrant to be smoothly inducted into New Labour's power- and bullet-pointed empire of signs. Lawyer plague means that it is no longer a question of corporate responsibility (old skool left), nor individual responsibility (Thatcherism) but corporate irresponsibility. Blair, like Clinton before him, has turned lawyerly-evasion into a political art.
The concrete effects of Blarism innocyncism are a generalized demoralization. We're all encouraged, subtly and not so subtly, to give up any convictions. The result is a nation that, following its leaders, is far more concerned with 'being seen to do things' than it is with actually doing them.
What has fueled the rage against Blair is the discrepancy - undetectable to him, because he really is the 'first victim of Videodrome', the puppet-slave-ideologue of Kapital, necessarily unaware of the idiot mechanism that speaks through his mouth - between the clean and bright, if increasingly facile, appearances and the rotting real. Iraq is only one dimension of this. Everywhere you look, the semiotic pollution of Capital - the consultancy detritus clogging up every available surface with mindless Chris Morrisesque-slogans of spectacular vacuity that surely have never, never persuaded anyone of anything - is collapsing uncomfortably into the material pollution of disintegrating social structures and depleting natural resources.
On Thursday, in Sedgefield, Blair looked genuinely shaken. Not 'shaken', i.e. not pulling one of his off-the-shelf boil-in-the-bag cheap actor routines, but genuinely taken aback. I like to imagine that, for a few moments, the bad AI running his brain had broken down, and he was forced to contemplate the sheer waste his life has been: all those compromises, all those strained smiles, all those mission statements, all those ends-justify-means cover-ups, the Kelly 'suicide', the Iraq dead, the public services decaying.... What had it all been for?
Of course, within half an hour, the Artificial Stupditity programme was up and running again, the promises being reeled off, tomorrow, tomorrow, you and your families, always a day away....
Speaking of cheap actors and the flotsam and jetsam of Cruel Britannia, I hope you've all read Morley's savaging of the Gallagher bros (interior decorators for hire). 'Oasis seemed designed by a mid-1990s rockist committee desperate to conceive a simple-minded rock'n'roll band with a tidy messiah complex, faking faded psychedelia, and daintily echoing the appealing cuddly-druggy lines of the Beatles: a rock group out of a world where the Cavern opened up onto Carnaby Street and the guys wore Union Jack jackets and the girls wore pretty little things because they were pretty little things who made you go all lovey-dovey. John Steed would be their manager, David Bailey snap them, and Harold Wilson give them gongs. All would be well with the world, and the 21st century would be as conservatively fab as the 1960s.' Yessssssss!
There was a time when elections at least seemed to mean something. I still recall, viscerally, the hollow, bitter sense of total existential defeat the day after Foot's tragically bound-for-disaster hard left succumbed to the storm troopers of SF Kapital under Thatcher, and I, only fifteen years old, contemplated 'Five More Years' of Tory rule. I didn't hear it at the time, but the song that always brings that feeling, that moment, is Mark Stewart's 'Liberty City': 'I'll give a wave to the management mercenaries... Don't their clean clothes look so pretty/ Try to awaken then from the comforts of slavery....'
There are still those who would like to pretend that a Tory administration would be so much worse than New Labour, so that deigning to vote for anyone else would be an 'indulgence'. Choosing 'the least worst' is not making this particular choice, it is also choosing a system which forces you to accept the least worst as the best you can hope for. Naturally, the defenders of the dictatorship of the elite pretend - perhaps they even deceive themselves - that the particular slew of lies, compromise and smarm they are hawking is 'only temporary'; that, at some unspecified time in the future, things will improve if only we support the 'progressive' wing of the status quo. But Hobson's choice is no choice, and the delusion of progressivism is not a psychological quirk, it is the structural delusion upon which liberal democracy is based.
Johan Hari tries to make the case for reluctantly voting New Labour today, on the grounds that the Tories are the only realistic alternative and they are manifestly worse than NL. But just what is the threat that Howard's Tories pose? Will they suspend habeas corpus? Can't, Toneeeeee's already done it. Will they shamelessly and shamefully play to the Right wing gallery on immigration? Well, yes, but that's only what the Joker Hysterical Face is already doing. (It's not the war that made me lose any vestigial sentimental attachment to New Labour, it was their disgusting and despicable pandering to the Right on immigration.)
Let's dispense with this idea, once and for all, that New Labour has 'improved' anything. New Labour is the worst of all worlds: Thatcherist managerialism without the Thatcherite attack on vested interests. In the pre-Thatcher 1970s, it took six carworkers to do the job of one; in the post-Thatcher 00s, it takes six consultants to do the job of none (since the mission statement wasn't worth writing in the first place). Same decadence, different beneficiaries.
New Labour and its supporters scoff at the Tories' idea that you could cut £35 billion in public spending and yet improve public services. As someone who works in public services, it strikes me as eminently plausible (not that I believe that the Tories would do it, or do it right, if they came to power, naturally). Cutting back on red tape, bureaucrats, paperwork would have two immediately positive effects: it would get rid of the managers and administrators whose wages are a disproportionate drain on the budget, and it would improve the performance of those who actually do the jobs, simply by dint of the fact that they wouldn't have to deal with nannying memos and those who send them all the time.
Blair isn't just contingently a liar, he is, like the new breed of career politician he heads, a professional liar. As a lawyer turned politician, it's no surprise that Blair treats reality as a distraction from PR. He has been complicit in producing a situation in which there is no more at stake in parliamentary democracy than 'beating the other side', as in a 'debate' at the Oxford Union. His I-am-innately-good moral righteousness is as much a testament to his public school and Oxbridge education as anything else: you see, glinting in the eyes, the unwavering certainty of the truly imbecilic. Blair likes to see himself as a conviction politician, but apart from his imperialist intransigence (itself a symptom of his belief in his own innate superiority), what else IS he actually committed to? It's telling that the only thing he was prepared to defy public opinion on was the war.
Blair's slogan 'education, education, education' is the sickest joke of all (and not only because he has presided over the dumbest front bench in recorded history, another testament to the wonder of Oxbridge). Maybe he has 'pumped more money' into education, but that is useless if the extra funds are going on quangos, incompetent administrators and facile 'initiatives' that were doomed to fail and pointless even if they succeeded.
The 'Third Way' 'solution' to Further Education is a typical Blairite catastrophe. Colleges are now funded per student, with the result that students now treat themselves as 'consumers' - i.e. the canny ones quickly realise that even the most abusive or violent behaviour is unlikely to result in their being removed from the college, since it means a signficant cut in the college's revenue. Students with behavioural problems shouldn't simply be turned away, but neither can they be allowed to continue attending college as if nothing has happened. That is a dereliction of duty towards the student, and towards the other students, whose education and learning environment is damaged while such behaviour is left unchecked. But 'Third Way' funding means that the only result will be institutional cynicism. Imposing 'targets' and assigning funds on the basis of meeting them - what the Economist calls 'reform', i.e. ideology dressed up as realism - will only ever lead to a situation in which bureaucrats and the bureaucratically-minded prosper. The way to improve education, and all other public services, is to accept the obvious truth (though such truth is contrary to ideology): most people working in these services are not, in fact, venal, are not motivated solely by what is in the interests of 'them and their famileeee'. So it would be better to hand more control back over to them; by all means intervene if it is going wrong, but don't assume that things work better if they are run by bureaucrats (the whole of reality is a counter-example to this ludicrous thesis).
I admit that, emotionally and unthinkingly, I will find myself supporting the 'left' parties when the results come in tomorrow night. Yes, I want to see Galloway give Oona King a kicking, yes I would love to see Letwin lose his seat. But only in exactly the same way that I want to see X contestant beat Y contestant in Big Brother; it really is only sentimentality to pretend that this spectacle has much consequence. This will always be the case in liberal democracy at the best of times, but especially so in a country which has an electoral system so fundamentally corrupt and unjust. Hari is right that, in the Eighties, 56% of the electorate voted for left parties, but because the vote was split between Labour and Lib Dems, the Tories were allowed to maintain their reign of terror. But that is an argument for urgent reform of the electoral system, not for voting New Labour.
... this is the fact that the idiots were a further burden on the NHS. I hope they were made to wait, at the back of the queue, for a very, very, long time.
Still, the whole incident is more proof, like the intellectual firepower on display from the Labour front bench, that Oxbridge types are soooooo much more intelligent than the rest of us.....
A week dominated in every way by Rip It Up and Start Again, and rightly so.
Perhaps the best tribute you can pay to the book is that it makes you positively look forward to train and bus delays, to any moment when you can return to feed the hunger, scratch the itch ....
The size of the crowd at the Boogaloo event on Wednesday, but, more than that, a certain sense of ferment in the atmosphere, testified to the fact that this is something more than a book. Stirring up the ghost of postpunk cannot but be an act, an intervention in cultural politics - since postpunk not only judges contemporary pop culture (harshly), it brings back the legitimacy, the necessity of being judgemental, of having some criteria (non-musical criteria, non-hedonic criteria) for enjoyment. Such a position is not repressed by contemporary pop culture (=the cultural logic of late capitalism), it is made unthinkable by it.
Something in Paul Morley certainly seemed to wake up on Wednesday. (And something in us?....)
A certain Morley was knowingly complicit in the termination of postpunk - as Simon wryly reminded him when, after Morley had fulminated against the facile notion that the worth of a pop record is determined by its popularity, he asked him: 'but didn't that idea come from you?' It's not accidental that, grotesquely but inevitably, Morley's early eighties Pop(ul)ist stance should have inspired some NME readers to turn towards neo-conservatism. In retrospect, it's possible to see the turn to Popism as the beginning of a giving voice to a creeping disappointment which spread slowly, insidiously yet incrementally during the period until almost everything of postpunk - even the traces - was disappeared (in the way that political prisoners are). The disappearing trick was almost complete when the Pod-Zombie duplicates started to arrive a few years ago, formally perfect copies mass-produced by kapital.
It's easier to see now than it was at the time the extent to which the cultural artifiacts - and the discourse surrounding them - produced in the wake of postpunk were being programmed by resurgent Kapital. A certain notion of realism began not only to prescribe what could now happen, but to airbrush out what had actually happened. The idea that pop could be more than a pleasant divertissement in the form of an easily consumable commodity, the idea that popular culture could play host to concepts that were difficult and demanding: it wasn't sufficient to disavow these possibilities, they must also be denied. Operation Amnesia, Pacification Program: it never happened did it, it was a delusion, a folly of youth, and we're all grown up now....
Naturally, Morley's railing against amateurism, his advocacy of ambition and lushness, play rather differently in 2005 than they did in the early 80, but that's only fitting, since his manifestos-as-works-of-art-in-themselves were produced as strategic provocations rather than timeless aesthetic philosophies. Even though the Morley of the disappointing Words and Music claimed 00s web Popists as his offspring, it's hard to imagine the Morley and Penman of 1981 being gratified by the thought that their legacy would be the de-conceptualization and de-politicizing - i.e. the consumerization - of Pop. They could scarcely have imagined, then, the way in which Pop would de-speed over the next twenty years, that their embrace of Entryism would prove to be the last word in rough-and-tumble theoretical dialogue that seemed, then, as if it could go on forever.
Reading Rip it Up is like re-living my early Pop life - but now at a distance, like Spider in Cronenberg's film, an adult at the corner of the screen watching himself as a child. With Simon as my Virgil through that Paradiso lost, I can now recognize that Pop for me was postpunk - Kings of the Wild Frontier was the first LP I bought and ABC were the first group I saw live. But Rip It Up makes me cognizant of what I, growing up absurd into postpunk, couldn't have appreciated at the time: that the richness of Pop then - not only sonically, but also in terms of concepts, clothes, images - lasted only a relatively short period, made possible by specific historical contingencies.
Nevertheless, expectations were raised in me, and more or less everything I've written or participated in has been in some sense an attempt to keep fidelity with the postpunk event. Cyberpunk - both in its restricted literary generic sense and in the broader sense we have given to it in ccru - was up to its neck in postpunk. Gibson's debt to Steely Dan and the Velvet Underground has long been acknowledged, but the dominant tone of Neuromancer was an overhang from postpunk. Gibson named his high-tech prostitutes after the Meat Puppets, but Neuromancer's technihilistic ambience, dub apocalypticism, amphetamine-burned-out Cases and hectic, twitching finger-on-fastforward and comatone-cut-out narrative, seem to be transposed straight out of the British postpunk scene.
One of the things that is most remarkable about postpunk, actually, is its near total erasure of America and Americanness. When I was in my early teens, the only American pop you'd hear that wasn't disco would be encountered while trudging round the shops on Saturday afternoon, as Paul Gambacini's Hot 100 was broadcast over the store PAs, and it was a window into a horrifyingly deprived world of barely imaginable banality.
Of the few American groups of any significance in this period, perhaps only Devo and the Meat Puppets took much inspiration from the American landscape (in Devo's case of course, the US was processed as a thoroughly aritificial PKD-US-trash heap of post-industrial detritus). No Wave emerged from the rootless cosmopolitanism and transnational nihilism of New York, while in many ways the most interesting American groups - Tuxedomoon and the Residents - were Europhiles. In postpunk, America increasingly featured as a series of ethnographic traces - as in the ecstatic, hysterical and authoritarian ghost chatter of Amerikkkan TV and media flittering through Cabaret Voltaire's Voice of America or Byrne and Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
It's hard to remember now, but in the period after Vietnam and before the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, America was a paranoid and enfeebled nation, Nixon-sickened and introspective, scared of its own shadows. Postpunk was there to witness - and mock - the seeming absurdity of the idiot actor Reagan being wheeled on to give America's confidence a shot-in-the-arm, although initially, even Reagan's rise to power seemed to be a kind of sinister postpunk prank, since it made eerily real what had been predicted by one of perhaps postpunk's most important influence, Ballard. (In the States, Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition was re-titled Love and Napalm: Export USA, and that novel - so omnipresent in postpunk production - was a kind of simultaneous observation of the way in which Britain was being turned into an LA of ubiquitous advertising hoardings as well as a British view of the US.) By the time that postpunk went out in a neon-blaze of irony-tainted glory on MTV, the joke had, to say the least, worn thin. Pop had gone Blue-Gene American rock, again (I still remember the barely comprending horror I felt when the NME started to give covers to the t-shirt and jean-clad Springsteen; worse was to follow, with the likes of The Long Ryders). Boredom was back, but this time, without the punks to denounce it. The arid shopping mall at the end of history opened up as the only possible future. Worse than the career opportunities that never knocked were the ones that did: jobs for everyone in the striplit wall-to-wall mart of 'Time Out of Joint' America in which it is 1955, forever.... No shadows to hide in.... No room to move, no room to doubt....
Ironic in some ways that Rip it Up should be named after an Orange Juice song, since Orange Juice and Postcard were responsible for what was in many ways a British equivalent of Springsteen's US return-to-roots. If the comparison seems strained, think about the way in which both Springsteen and Orange Juice self-consciously advocated a kind of locally-rooted authenticity defined by its rejection of artificiality. For Springsteen's reich and roll uniform of denim, substitute OJ's Brideshead Revisited sweaters. Like the Smiths, the Postcard-era Orange Juice retrospectively imagined a British Pop-that-never-was. The Brit equivalent of American open-throated stridency was a kind of floppy-fringed, tongue-tied dithering that was just as much of a self-conscious reclaiming of signifiers of national identity as Springsteen's passional working stiff poses were. (Is it too fanciful to hear in the early Orange Juice an anticipation of Hugh Grant's unbearable foppery and faffing?)
By the time I got to University in 1986, Orange Juice, and the Smiths, had achieved hegemonic control of the undergraduate 'imagination'. It was perfect Pop for young men who were destined to go on to careers in marketing but who liked to think of themselves as 'sensitive'.
Orange Juice also played in a major part in rehabilitating the love song. If romance featured in postpunk at all, it was as something to be derided and demystified (as in the Slits' 'Love Und Romance' or Gang of 4's 'Love Like Anthrax') or as something to be politically and theoretically interrogated a la Scritti or Devoto. The renewed preoccupation with love was a re-occupation of 'the ordinary', a re-statement of a revivified humanist confidence in a dehistoricised continuity of 'things that go on the same'.
It's often said that punk was what Britain had instead of '68, but that in many ways fails to process how punk had surpassed the events in Paris. '68 was as much a rejection of certain theoretical positions as it was of the institutions of modern liberal society so that, in the conflagration of the Sixties 'Desirevolution', the cold Spinozism of Althusser's structural analysis was burned down with the buildings. Punk and postpunk, however, were profoundly suspicious of the Dionysisan triumvurate of leisure, pleasure and intoxication, so that the required attitude was one of vigilant hyper-rationalism, a kind of popularized Althusserianism in which interiority was exposed as an ideological bluff, and emotions were understood not as 'real expressions of authentic subjectivity' but as structurally engineered reactive circuitries. The stance such a perception demanded - and this was a culture that was deliberately and unashamedly demanding - was one of 'proletarian discipline' rather than slack indulgence, its puritanism recalling the egalitarian social ambitions of the original Puritans. In this respect, Scritti's move from pleasure-repudiating Marxism to 'playful' deconstruction is enblematic of the way in which the decade would develop, in universitities as much as in the charts. The exorbitant surfaces of Cupid and Psyche's might have eschewed interiority but at the same time their simulations of interiority were no less authentic, no less soulful, than other versions of interiority purveyed by more credulous, non-ironic sources in the mainstream. The person being duped now was the Green who imagined that his intelligence would prevent full incorporation.
But the triumphant capitalism Green was already working for had no trouble at all in consuming those who sought entry into it. In the 70s, in an effort to dispel the notion that there were 'subversive regions' that would be inherently indigestible for capital, Lyotard compared capitalism to a 'Tungsten-carbide stomach' that could consume anything in its path. By the 80s, as Jameson has observed, Kapital had become a gigantic interiority without any outside: a kind of jaded pleasuredome reminiscent of the all-encompassing bubble environments imagined in 70s SF. Except it looked, for all the world, just like a familiar domestic environment: the nice house, nice family set-up ridiculed by Jamie Reid, now refurbished with added ironic distantiation and hooked up to 24 hour MTV. What had been lost was the 'glam knowledge' that first entered Pop through Pop Art: that the social scene is a stage set populated by puppets cornfed cheap dreams and sedated by narcotics of every kind. The punks knew they were replicants; that everything that seemed to be inside was bio-psycho-social machinery that should be re-programmed or stripped out. The end of punk was the forgetting that the memories were false, that the domestic scene was so much pasteboard and image virus.
At the time of postpunk, Pop could still be a counter-cultural lab (endlessly raided by, but never subordinated to the diktats of, Kapital). It really is not clear whether Pop could be that again. Someone asked the panel on Wednesday if dredging postpunk up was an exercise in nostalgia. But this is entirely to miss the point of Jameson's critique of the nostalgia mode. For Jameson, the nostalgia mode is exemplified by cultural artifiacts which deny, or more radically, are unaware of their own total debt to the past. In other words, being contemporary does not guarantee being modern, especially not in a postmodern culture whose temporality is obsessively citational and commemorational. One of the most idiotic tics in cultural gatekeeping today is its need to justify the past in terms of the present: as if Gang of 4 were only significant because they 'influenced' no-mark, here today-boot sale tomorrow clones like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand. As if simply being here, now, meant that something New and Important is happening...
Pop could function differently in postpunk because, at that time, it was the space which most readily leant itself to the production of a counter-consensual collectivity. Postpunk was an awakening from Kapital's 'consensual hallucination', a means of channeling, externalizing and propagating disquiet and discrepancy. It provided a crack in the way the social represented itself; or rather, exposed that crack. What the social would have us believe is dysfunction, grumbling, failure suddenly became the sound of the 'outside of everything'. Records, interviews, the music press, were the means by which contact could be made between affects, concepts, commitments that would previously have been locked into private space.
Some of the panel last Wednesday were unsure if they had really done anything, if their dreams of doing something more than simply entertaining were anything more than youthful naivete, understandable then, an embarrassment now. But the achievements of postpunk can be appreciated, negatively, in what culture now lacks. Go into a roomful of teenagers and look at their self-scarred arms, the anti-depressants that sedate them, the quiet desperation in their eyes. They literally do not know what it is they are missing. What they don't have is what postpunk provided... A way out... and a reason to get out....
So is this a counsel of despair?
Not at all.
There are new means for producing counter-consensual collectivity.
The web has a distributional reach, a global instaneity, whose unprecedented scale is easy to take for granted. But its vast potential far outstrips anything that fanzines or records could have achieved in the 70s. What needs to happen is a kind of 'existential reframing': to see what happens here not as Kapital wants us to see it, as 'failed' writers resentfully carving out some insignificant niche because they can't 'make it' in the overlit interior. The logic of Kapital insists that anything that is not reproducing it, or serving such a reproduction, is a waste of time. But to reframe what is happening would be to radically reverse these idiotic priorities. And the continuing relevance of postpunk is to remind us that such reversals are possible, to provide the impetus for the development of a (punk) will to retake the present....