The Unstable Self

Thomas Hylland Eriksen & Elisabeth Schrober (eds) Identity Destabilised (Pluto, 2016)

This is a powerful book. It moves Cultural Anthropology right out of the Twentieth Century. This thematic, edited collection is already a benchmark classic of its discipline. But like equally great Anthropology collections – Locality and Belonging, edited by Nadia Lovell, for instance, in 1998 – it works equally well as a book for anyone interested in the shape of human meaning in their time.

It is properly politicised. It looks to the global surface, rather than treating fake indigenousnesses with curatorial white gloves. The sub-title of ‘Living in an Overheated World’, as Hylland Eriksen has demonstrated elsewhere, means overheated subjectivities on an overheated planet. Overheated in terms of the ever faster flows of raw materials, goods and labour, processes that produce ‘short-termism’. Processes that uproot families, lives and mental states, all over the world, not just in small pockets of it. The ethnographies collected here include Manchester, Sierra Leone, Montenegro, Australia…

But the subtext of ‘overheated’, of course, is global warming. This is Anthropocene-Anthropology. The Anthropocene posits that mankind’s emergence as a shaper of his environment, right through to his late capitalist phase, his whole voracious transformation of the ecosphere – and I gender this intentionally – is just another stage in the planet’s shifts. Of course, by positing this, right now, The Anthropocene also suggests that we may be on the edge of a seismic shift into another ‘cene’.

I strongly embrace some parts of ‘The Anthropocene’ as a theory, but strongly reject others. Key to this is the fact that The Anthropocene appears only now, and not in, for instance, the nineteenth century. We cannot escape our fundamental species difference as a very particular kind of language animal. The fine details of this will provide a written argument for another time and place, but what is captured unequivocally here is the fact that as the global circuits begin to heat up, glow and blur dangerously, so do the circuits of the psyche.

What we might call ‘identity creep’ is not new, but as Stuart Hall pointed out, the so-called ‘fluidity’ of identity in no way halts the solid political and cultural conflict which contemporary identity fuels. This isn’t just a concealed nod to fundamentalist religion either, as the chapter on Manchester United and its relatively recent, global, fluid nature shows.

This book pulls no punches. It contains what is essentially a second, politicised introductory chapter by Jeremy MacClancy, titled ‘Down With Identity! Long Live Humanity!’ Another big problem I have with The Anthropocene is that it dovetails neatly with Posthumanism. I side with Marcus Morgan, who is laying out a kind of post-foundational humanism for social philosophy. Here, Jeremy MacClancy includes a picture of a piece of Delph pottery in the shape of a bible from the Ashmolean. A book that isn’t a book, bearing a message that he decodes poetically for our era: ‘Earth I am / it is most trew / disdain me not / for soe are you.’ Identities aren’t people and people aren’t identities. But nor are humans dogs and neither do dogs drop bombs or produce television shows.

However, resistance to global capital might be rooted in practices of identity. MacClancy goes so far as to suggest the use of ‘Anon’ as a radical political identity, like a kind of pacifist ‘Spartacus’. Like some sort of identarian Jedi Knights, we might develop a form of Being resistant to our performative subjectivities, meshed into capital through its online manifestations: That’s how good this book is.

But MacClancy is careful to point out that he is not advocating fundamentalist identities. Here, my mind turns back to all that is good in Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man and Uses of Disorder. Because MacClancy is interested to stress the importance of forms of social identity that act as juncture points in the social world, face-to-face. The dialectical otherside to online wigs and masks, anonymous, open, honest and agonistic meetings in the real world.


Night Shifts

Nick Dunn – Dark Matters, a Manifesto for the Nocturnal City (Zero, 2016)

There is a long history to night walking. Dickens did it because he had trouble sleeping, and this is Nick Dunn’s initial motive for walking at night. The nightwalker tradition then extends to, for instance, Sukhdev Sandhu’s great 2007 book Night Haunts (Verso). But that book turns the city night into day, by tracking the cleaners and the airborne police, essentially anytime work that just happens to be done at night. Sandhu’s city is London, Dunn’s is Manchester, well, it is Manchester and Salford.

Unlike London, Manchester empties at night, even right at its heart.

Dunn trained as an architect and this is a crucial part of what is at play here: Out in the dark, walking himself to sleep – he hopes – the architect coincidentally has the buildings removed for him by the lack of light, and then delivered again anew, in flashes. Here, sleepless, the city becomes something else.

Roland Barthes was delighted with life in Japan, because he could no longer read the signs he was so adept at decoding and encoding, but he could still get around. He was liberated from language right in the heart of a language explosion such as Tokyo. Here, Dunn is liberated from the architectural language he knows so well, allowing him to find a place away from its often cloying messages.

The whole history of the city-as-body is here, in the history of architecture, the city as based on the human form, something stated in Richard Sennett’s aborted work with Foucault, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization, which goes right back to Michaelangelo’s ‘Vitruvian Man’.

Lefebvre restates this history and Dunn quotes it here. But my reading of this – and it is only my reading of it – is that the night makes the body disappear. It drowns the anthropomorphic in darkness. Limbs are lost, as the familiar, corresponding shapes of man-size doorways and head-height windows also vanish. We are swallowed by the night, but in the night we swallow and digest the day. These once-familiar spaces become strange in Dunn’s night time perambulations, as in Eugene Atget’s prints of nineteenth century Paris, as in the anthropological strategy of making the familiar strange, and later, the unfamiliar ordinary.

Another nocturnal Manchester urbanaut, Mark E. Smith, wrote of ‘entrances uncovered’ and ‘street signs you never saw’, all ‘courtesy of winter.’ There is nothing gothic about this book, despite its dark title and cover. In some ways, night time does exactly what snow does to the urban landscape. It makes it strange, it makes you see anew.

Whiteout or blackout, the space is transformed, momentarily, and this impermanence of states is important to its power to ‘other’ your view of it. If it were always daytime there would be no other side to cast this transformed view against. The title implies the night as another dimension, ‘dark matter’ as the invisible glue of the social. It seems academic that what is delivered comes through nightwalking, and in Atget’s case, his views were taken very early in the morning light.

However, what excites me here is that there is a full, proper dialectical reading of night and day: Night time and day completely contain each other. Night time is not the empty space left over after the day, the less useable part, because there is no light from the sun via which we can organise objects: These two binaries are part of a bigger connected reality, and not in some simplistic geographical or existential ‘holism’, but in terms of night being the social and productive afterimage to day, the negative to the print, as for Adorno and Horkheimer, leisure is the afterimage of labour.

However, we must resist, to a certain extent, Adorno and Horkheimer’s totalizing thesis: As Dunn points out elegantly, ‘even in the twenty-first century, our attempts to metricize time and space have not fully converted the nocturnal city into the daytime landscape of production.’ The ‘ambition is there’, but the reality falls seriously short of that. Patrick Keiller, in his little ebook The Robinson Institute, around the turn of the millennium, seemed puzzled that, as the internet and just-in-time production sped up, everyday public space hadn’t become completely emptied out, and that it didn’t look like the space ‘on top of a wardrobe.’

This is because those new ‘invisible’ processes produce the day, what Dunn calls our ‘infinite options of pointless choices.’ The ‘kaleidoscopic wormhole of economics, politics and, for the most part sanitized, culture.’

What Dunn makes clear is how radical the change is when night comes: ‘Spatial conventions and rules are relaxed if not completely abandoned as night falls.’ The ‘appropriation of urban space occurs in the deep pockets of the city away from natural surveillance or the “scanscape” of CCTV cameras.’ He walks, he is ‘just out there’, and here I admire this book for what it refuses to do almost as much as for what it does.

It doesn’t turn walking into some mystical ritual, or a fetish offered up as methodological novelty for a now fully marketised academia. It takes walking for what it is, an everyday practice. But in ‘night mode’ this everyday practice is reduced almost completely to the sole author. Stripped of its confusing, colourful, swirling litter of people, the city spaces speak anew. Again, like Atget’s Paris, cleared of its inhabitants, the streets become ‘just space’.

But these spaces are ‘produced’, in Lefebvre’s term, ‘espace’, space as a verb. We don’t need the inhabitants smiling blurrily back out of the prints to prove that they make and remake the city anew every day. As Lefebvre advises, we can see how the social is coded in urban space. This comes through here, in traces of lock-ups, or a concatenation of warning signs, or in a beautiful three-word coupling, via ‘sodium morse code.’

But that is not all this book does. It ‘makes manifest’ the urban night by shuttling between theory and description. But its subtitle is ‘a Manifesto for the Nocturnal City’. I am a sucker for a manifesto. It takes guts to write one.

So much leftist writing hides what it really thinks in abstraction, or older, tried and tested rhetorics. This book does not make any wincingly worthy cultural capital out of hauntology, the problem seems to be, actually – and chillingly – that in the night city there are no ghosts left and the few that remain are becoming even more fugitive: ‘Far better to embrace the world and its contradictions, difficulties, untidiness and dirtiness, physical and psychic, than to summon long-vanished ghosts.’

The equally chilling thesis is that the only way to escape from the ‘intoxicating pathologies’ of the city, is to vanish into ‘night practices beyond consumption’, to an edge zone almost completely drained of light, in order to ‘be’. But this is the manifesto, that in nightwalking the city we might find the black mirror of the everyday, which might teach us more about that everyday than we could have imagined before going out there. ‘Urban areas are pathological’, the ‘nocturnal dowser can summon these neuroses…’

I admire that Dunn has identified that this landscape of permanent amnesia is utterly deracinating. It withers our concentration span, our sense of history and the temporal itself. If anything this thesis is not put strongly enough. We are hypermodern, not postmodern, a very important caveat for me as well. The ‘endless flux of regurgitated ideas that appear novel is seductive’ Dunn states, ‘the process of assemblage has entranced us’, surfaces that are masks whispering to us that what we are seeing is innovative, when behind it is darkness, figuratively and literally. Dunn is clear about the questions and asks them straight on: ‘Can we step outside of this situation?’

I once worked as an ethnographer on a Transport for London research study of illegal taxi touts. Practically this entailed a series of twelve hour shifts, from 8pm to 8am. I have long wondered how to approach those experiences and revisit the data, reflectively, in a piece of writing. I now have a starting point, because Nick Dunn has written it.

This book is useful, it is both open and closed. Closed in that its form as a manifesto really puts its cards on tables. Open in that it advises particular spatial practices in the interests of seeing anew. Open in that it encourages others to develop that way of working further.

Now it’s over to you, on the night shift.

New Stories for the Old City

Manchester has its own Literature Festival, it should have its own Review of Books, but it needs new, fecund myths, the old ones are dried-out husks.

Walking through Manchester city centre the other day, I noticed that a section of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures sleeve hangs in neon over the serving counter of a posh pizza restaurant. Don’t they know ‘Joy Division Oven Gloves’ by Half Man Half Biscuit? Manchester’s tedious afterimage – and it is an afterglow – is largely the fault of the films 24 Hour Party People and Control. The whole reverence for Joy Division, The Smiths and ‘Madchester’ bores me to tears. Walking the city, the little glyph under the ‘Haçienda’ occasionally flashes up in the periphery of your vision, an accent, but an accent as a hook that the city’s mythmakers have hung themselves on.

‘The Haçienda must be built’ was coined by Ivan Chtcheglov the poor, half-mad Situationist, who was arrested en route to the Eiffel Tower with armloads of dynamite, intent on blowing it up because its lights kept him awake at night. Engels urgently needs to return to Manchester to observe the homeless situation, but maybe Chtcheglov needs to return to Manchester to detonate its myths. Blast them into atoms so tiny that the original stories can no longer be read. In 2016, perhaps the Haçienda must be finally demolished. Because these stories, now flattened a millimetre thin by their endless circulation, conceal richer ones.

Bob Dickinson told me that the late, brilliant Alan Wise told him that the force of the blast of the 1996 IRA bomb created a space of physics inside the legendary red post box that was, momentarily, a gateway to another dimension. This ‘fact’ was apparently ‘read somewhere’ – in an article by an Indian physicist which was eventually mislaid. Manchester Area Psychogeography levitated the Corn Exchange only months before the bomb. Just over the way from this post-box-stargate, is the Waterstones where Jeff Noon worked: Totally independent of Alan Wise, The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall posits a portal to another universe in Deansgate Waterstones. Peter Barlow’s Cigarette, a literary event sometimes hosted there, takes place within this zone of Pure Weird. You can go and have a coffee there. The Sober and The Space Cadets are one here, yet Manchester can’t seem to produce a single decent radical independent bookshop at its centre.

Similarly, the Manchester and Salford literary traditions swing between transgressive and straight, great and average: De Quincey, the deeply conservative Mrs Gaskell, Mary Barton, North & South, then the great Shelagh Delaney. But Walter Greenwood, wooden blocks of dead socialist rhetoric dropping to the floor, in contrast with The Classic Slum by Robert Roberts. Then there’s Savoy Books with David Britton and Michael Butterworth. Jeff Noon, Vurt, Pollen and Nymphomation, Alice in Wonderland, via Manchester in the late 1980s. But one big problem is that the old psychogeographical reserves are now very drained and strained. Psychogeography is part of the university curriculum, like Defoe or Dickens, so we cannot fully rely on stories like the one above anymore either.

But this doesn’t really matter, because Good Things Are Happening. The Anthony Burgess Centre, with its highly important ‘International’ status, is a great hub for Manchester writers. But the things that spring up in the cracks of the pavement are just as important: Verbose and The Other Room are amazing particle colliders for new experiments with words and sounds, which have their parallel in nights such as The Noise Upstairs at Fuel in Withington.

But the old, bloated corpses still weigh heavily on the city: ‘Manchester, So Much To Answer For’ was a line that originally diagnosed the Brady and Hindley murders, but has since swollen to designate anything and everything that originated in the city region, brilliant, bad or plain evil. We cannot allow our city to pivot on six words that once fell out of Morrisey’s mouth, that would clearly be foolish.

This piece of writing is not meant as an exhaustive account of textual production in Manchester, or its many literary scenes, that would also be foolish, but it is a proposal that we drop the old stories and make new ones. We need to make very particular, politicised new myths. The Haçienda and Madchester myths must go precisely because they sit on the highest curve of the Neoconservative rollercoaster.

But surely, two things that also need to be brought lower in Britain are the tumescent and still ballooning influence of Iain Sinclair on literature and Patrick Keiller on film. Every other gallery show I see or piece of ‘writing on place’ I read is struggling to escape from under the flabby buttocks of Sinclair and Keiller. Their work is great, but all writing emerges from ‘place’. ‘How must it be recalibrated now?’ is the burning question.

Demolition Polka was a popular Strauss waltz, as cities exploded in the nineteenth century. We see again how the risk and hedging of capital have turned our public spaces into Demolition Poker, with Pomona seceded to banality and Rogue Studios sold off to developers. The city is being ripped up and re-laid under our feet again, and so perhaps we need to re-enter this game with rigged cards, or new strategies. What are the literary equivalents of Set-Mining, The Reverse Tell, The Soul Read, The Stop and Go or The Triple-Barrel Bluff? Manchester needs new Magic. But it needs new myths that the capitalists cannot swallow. In fact, it needs stories that will make them choke and turn bluer than they already are.

One of the Best Poets Working in Manchester Today, Part 2

Adrian Slatcher – Playing Solitaire For Money (Salt, 2010)

This poetry collection has been out since 2010, but it has not really aged and that is part of its greatness. Salt are a fine poetry publisher and Adrian Slatcher is One of the Best Poets Working in Manchester Today.

This book exemplifies what a poetry monograph should be, a collection that extends out thematically and rythmically, allowing the reader to take the measure of the author’s overall concerns, music and metaphysic. The music of Slatcher’s poems is particularly great, but he has immersed himself in music all his life, not just poetry.

Slatcher shares with Richard Barrett, also One of the Best Poets Working in Manchester Today, a keen sense of the sweaty, disturbing, disconnected qualities of contemporary everday life. We always seem to be waking from a dream, for instance the one in which ‘I was the only white man in a stadium of Sunnis’, or ending the day by entering, out of sheer necessity, into a dreamlike state. These poems try hard not to avoid the un-PC, they present the hidden moments the psyche experiences, the ones that flash up before being driven down, only to return transformed into some other shape.

These poems really get to the qualities of everyday life as it is lived, in that other space generated between the quotidian, trams, buses, weather, work. This other space sometimes arrives unbidden, precisely through the quotidian breaking down. The day you get up and just know that from the transport jamming to the work chaos, the whole future twelve hours is a complete write-off. The title of this poem, ‘Is it just me or is everything’, contains the space of a day going down the tubes, but serves as a much bigger philosophical figure, as do most of the lines in this book.

Here is the future imperfect, to misquote Lacan, ‘my history is neither the past as what was, since it is no more’, nor ‘what has been in what I am’, but ‘what I will have been, given what I am in the process of becoming…’ That a dead fox serves as the albatross in this piece is a measure of Slatcher’s craft.

There is an open dignity to these poems that is rarely found in any kind of contemporary writing. Slatcher’s later Brexit poetry underscores this dignity. He returned to a much earlier crisis moment for the British Isles, to speak about our contemporary sovereign malaise, bypassing the emotive but in doing so giving a more powerful analysis.

Slatcher understands the private troubles that rarely become public issues, but has the sensitivity and wit to catch them and encode them honestly and subtly: All of our ‘monsters are in the lounge’, in the middle of the night, ‘playing solitaire for money’, not just his.

One of the Best Poets Working in Manchester Today, Part 1

Richard Barrett – Love Life! (Stranger Press, 2016)

‘Love Life!’ follows the equally brilliant ‘Hugz’, which cited Dosteovsky alongside The Fall and Pavement. In this new volume, Richard Barrett also blends a keen understanding of the blinding haze of pop culture with what that culture buffers, the often exhausting, unbearable conditions of life in the 2010s.

A perfect example of this is the title of Barrett’s poem ‘Unkanye’, which mirrors the word ‘uncanny’ or ‘unhomely.’ What could be unhomelier than the nuclear half life afterimage of Kanye West to the average, passive consumer of Kanye, the shuffling people, myself included, who fart and admit they do, who switch the alarm off and have another half hour, who do not have a current gymnasium membership. What could be more attractive, but also utterly unattainable than Kanye? Here lies a psychological friction that is more perverse than perversity itself. Barrett has a natural feeling for these frictions.

The thing about contemporary R’n’B, the Flight of the Conchords asserted, is that it is completely sincere, which is intrinsically funny, in an era where sincerity has been partially defused. Barrett understands and explores all of this, but expands his consciousness as far as he can into the vast uranium affect cloud that is Kanye West. Martin Amis once described a cornflakes packet, in London Fields, as an ‘imminently dawning reality’. Similarly, Barrett has a philosophical eye and ear for contemporary mirages: ‘The true meaning of Christmas is Kanye West / Who has left his materiality behind and entered the realm of ideas / Every single positive thought in the universe is Kanye.’

Kanye is the internet and ‘substitutes his brain for the internet when the internet is recharging.’ Kanye’s kiss is the greatest kiss on earth, as it is in heaven, but ‘Kanye kissing Kanye’ is the origin of all creation, the unmoved mover, the heat of the big bang at all our backs, transformed into a love so big that it cannot be gotten over, stepped around or ducked underneath.

Barrett is the phenomenologist of Samsung user gripe forums, the catcher of thoughts so banal they appear to not even happen. But this stuff is the dark matter of all our lives, the impossible to fathom glue that ensures the social world does not simply fall apart like badly assembled IKEA furniture. Barrett is the particle collider that speeds them up and crash tests them until they confess their real function in a larger universe. Barrett knows that the rarer particles are to be found in Burnley, or Warrington, and that once smashed into their constitutive nano-chatter, they will provide what Henri Lefebvre called, enigmatically, ‘Moments’.

But this is just one aspect of his work. Do not misread me and think there is something flippant and postmodern going on here. Barrett’s poem on The Death of Love is more sincere than sincerity itself. Richard Barrett is an author and speaker, I have read his poems and heard him read them. He is a fine reader of them. He inhabits himself fully and reads from that place, he is not trying to impress or persuade, to create novelty or kudos.

He is not the internationally recognised leader on the evolution of human values in business and society. He is not the creator of cultural transformation tools which have been used to support more than 6,000 organisations on their transformational journeys. He has not trained more than 5,000 change agents, nor is he the author of An Exploration of the Influence of Ego-Soul Dynamics, The Metrics of Human Consciousness, or Liberating the Corporate Soul.

Much more impressive than all of this, he is One of the Best Poets Working in Manchester Today.

The Karoshi Complex

Alfie Bown – Enjoying It, Candy Crush and Capitalism (Zero, 2015).

I will state up front that everyone should read and enjoy this book. I did. I enjoyed Bown’s use of the word ‘unarable’ immensely, and his use of language generally. I enjoyed his words in the sense that I have written equally enjoyably myself.

I have since enjoyed reviewing this book and look forward to filing a paper copy in the little section of Zero Books on my shelf. The author may have a shelf that is similar to mine, but also different. A Candy Crush range of colours, one of which may even be my own book. Enjoying, sharing, sharing, enjoying.

But I know full well, as Bown points out here, that enjoyment reinforces cultural divides, at the same time as it turns pleasure into production, creaming surplus value by ‘grouping people’ according to ‘what they enjoy’ and simultaneously ‘preventing communication across these enjoyment-divides’.

We are both in a micro universe, Bown and I, as writers and readers. Inside an expanded circuit of authorship, with a depleted subject at its centre. But this is definitely not a circuit which has expanded far enough to assimilate a very diverse mix of readers.

Put more straightforwardly, Gilles Deleuze used to enjoy watching episodes of The Benny Hill Show, but there are big gaps, as the author points out, ‘between enjoying philosophy’, watching TV, and ‘enjoying a tabloid newspaper’. This is something Bown’s book ‘hopes to work against.’ My own writing has tried to militate against this tendency in a different way.

I am a sucker for anyone who can write about ubiquitous ‘ephemeral’ phenomena as an anthropologist might. Bown does this with charisma and insight.

He describes the shift from desire as ‘natural’ in the nineteenth century, with social orders policing the limits of those desires. These processes were then inscribed in what Bourdieu called ‘habitus’, the structured subject, which might best be illustrated in our fading Victorian hangover, which as Foucault described it, allowed people to discourse about all kinds of ‘pleasures’, but via a patriarchal ‘largesse’ that permitted and limited at the same time.

But, as Slavoj Zizek famously pointed out, the social world has turned upside down since then, via consumer capital’s tyrannical demand on the superego, over an assemblage of decentred drives, to instruct us to ‘enjoy’. Bown figures this as a ‘second wave’ of essentially Neo-Victorian limits to pleasure. A refiguring of the circuit, that also makes us think we are free, something always detectable in naive liberalism.

Desiring-assemblages, fleeing lack, ski down a slalom of jouissance, brushing a series of little objects as they go, flagpoles pointing to ‘satisfaction’. But this slalom is endless, and the flags point nowhere, they flap in the wind and maps are pointless.

This is the libidinal course. You remember the way and its landmarks, you expect to ‘arrive’, but never do. More importantly, you never remember that you don’t arrive: This is the most scandalous and secret fact about pleasure there is.

These symbolic skiers can perhaps be best observed in exaggerated form via that derided contemporary tribe, The Hipsters. Hipsters are colonisers of meaning, but the very declaration of that meaning is seemingly enough: ‘Look, beards!’ ‘Look, barber chairs!’ ‘Look, excavated 1950s stuff!’

Look! Old but new! Mixed-up! This fort-da game with cultural objects – you throw it away, they pick it right back up again – is irritating precisely because it is infantile. It betrays the function of remaining adolescent well into years previously designated by older forms of culture for adulthood, as all generational bandwidths spectre out into one.

Here is where it gets disturbing, as we see young people in old people’s clothes, and old people in trainers and hoodies, all trying to find a Big Other which no ski slope, road or train line ever leads to.

Well, it could be worse, you might argue. What about Rem Koolhaas’s idea, you might say, that shopping is better than tearing each other limb from limb? But Black Friday shows us how thin the line is between the two.

Reviews about books called ‘Enjoying It’ should probably never be ‘spoilers’, barriers to enjoyment. So I want to employ another game to conclude here, one which best explores Black Friday’s ‘line between’.

Mr. Karoshi is an assault course game in which you have to make a chronically depressed 8-bit Japanese Salaryman repeatedly kill himself. You splatter this digital, oriental Suicidal Sid against spikes and burn him into floating ash.

In Mr. Karoshi’s repeated deaths, we find the inverse logic of most computer games. The usual assualt course game is derived from military survivalism, you have to ‘live’ to get to the next level. Here, the logic of capital itself has been inverted. To ‘get on’, you must commit suicide, again and again.

The famous shift from pleasure principle to death drive is here. A suicide of the subject that might also be, in Deleuze-Guattari’s sense of ‘the self’, exactly what one needs to ‘get on’: Mr. Karoshi repeats his ‘self-sacrifice’ of a pleasure without an object, in a kind of eternal return of corporate capitalism, every day.

By getting up and putting his tie on, he ritually murders the possibility of anything but the life he already has.

The potential for objectless ‘pleasure delerium’ is killed in a difference and repetition of sheer conformity, represented in the Mr. Karoshi game as a permanently failing suicide mission. Mr Karoshi’s condition is ‘chronic’ in this sense, temporal, in that his return is quite literally eternal, like all those seen on trains at strange hours, still tapping away at the indexical face of information capital, next to their oddly similar neighbours, pecking like birds at Candy Crush and other treasures. Bown explores all of these tensions.

Karoshi is not ‘enjoyment’ as Deleuze-Guattari posited it, desire without a subject. Karoshi still entails chasing gaudy baubles down the infinite slalom, a la Candy Crush. Its symbolic flip does not create a different or new kind of desiring-machine.

No, Karoshi inverts the usual gaming logic, only in order to simply replace survival with death, enjoyment with pain.

However, I do offer Mr. Karoshi, and this book, as modern day Leavisite examples of the best that can be thought, said – and enjoyed – in our age.

Real Sci-Fi Songs

Joanna Demers – Drone and the Apocalypse (Zero, 2015)

When I saw that this book existed, I had one of those moments that writers sometimes have. Someone had ticked one off, on the list of things I had hoped to do before I exit the world.

I have long thought that someone needs to write a serious book on drone. That Joanna Demers has now done it, and in such an exemplificatory spirit, is delightful. This is so very far from a dry academic autopsy. There are roots to drone, but Demers doesn’t give us a tedious timeline or teleology.

With music that never begins or ends, where time is irrelevant, why would you? Of course, drone has roots, and I have sketchily covered them as a music writer, over many years, hence my urge to collect my thoughts in a more systematic way. This book review had better do.

You cannot approach this topic straight on. If writing about music is like dancing to architecture, writing about drone is like trying to recreate Malevich’s black square using only the discarded bits that collect under your hole punch. So I am not going to directly restate what you can read in Demers’ book here, though I am urging you to read it.

When explaining drone to students – I am currently supervising a dissertation on noise in art – I usually look back to Yves Klein’s Monotone Symphony. Then to Tony Conrad, a member of La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music in the 60’s, The Dream Syndicate, who was way ahead of the pack. So were Faust, with the ur-industrial drone, and they came together with Conrad, providing that metronomic pulse defined by a Neu! one-beat, now globally franchised as ‘Krautrock’, as Conrad relentlessly droned his violin over the top. Pure music, it makes the hairs on your arms stand up.

So how does all this make meaning? That dangerous word, ‘pure’, means only that it is relatively untainted by genre. Here, in brief, is how I approach drone, particularly its flattened aesthetic. Its very particular temporality and duration. Drone often unfolds over time and does not, at the same time. It is one big moment. Movement and no movement in one. Listen to the last tracks on Eno’s Discreet Music for an example of this. Of course, some drone moves, some slightly, some drastically. But drone often invokes the constantly collapsing present moment of Heidegger, or buddhism. I could go into Bergson here, but this is a book review.

Drone can be utopian, the blank space we need to move to, mirroring Attali’s concern that sound travels before other mediums. It is literally avant-garde in form, as it is unburdened with the demands of, say, sculpture making. That said, you can make a work with the equivalent impact of a large bronze, with the same presence, in a space, with sound, using drone. You can fill a vast aircraft hangar with something as brutalising and permanent as concrete and metal, using only noise.

But still, how does it make meaning? There is a great deal to be gained here from writing about abstract painting. Drone often ‘hangs there’ like a painting. If you put a title on a very abstract, open piece, it tends to ground its meaning more, to narrow its range of possible significances. The same, for me, applies to drone. Adorno suggested that an effective modern piece will contain its own language. It will teach you how to read it as you take it in. They are monads, sealed units containing their own logic. But an effective modern piece will also contain a seed that can burst out and rupture itself, and all that lies around it. It is Revolutionary. Drone often teaches you how to read it. And drone can rupture. This is how I judge drone, qualitatively. It is how I read it.

But Demers also presents us with a fiction to read. A science fiction. Her book is in that tradition, in the best examples of Ballard, and… well, Ballard. Just as Robinson’s film cans appear in a caravan, in Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins, and the fictional academic Gang Lion, in Vertical Features Remake, by Peter Greenaway, Demers’ book comes to us via fictional, rediscovered academic notes.

For me, drone is both utopian and apocalyptic all at once. That requires you to look awry and take some deep breaths before writing. Demers does this and judges drone, through her fictional muse, on the apocalyptic side. She has written a dystopian sci-fi of noise.

Again, I have personal touchstones here. Godspeed You Black Emperor’s 1997 debut ‘f#a#∞’ asked if the end of the world was coming. To me, at the time, it was. I listened to this record on my way to work. Couldn’t stop. My job in a bank was turning me to drink. The tech people there, at that point, didn’t know if the mythical ‘Millenium Bug’ would wipe everything away. I watched the Seattle protests and Genoa. 9/11 wasn’t far away, which I watched live, in the HBOS headquarters. I watched a massive financial institution destroyed from within one, on a screen used to show banking adverts to marketing staff. A delegation from the Twin Towers had been in that very room, only a month before.

Godspeed were a scab I couldn’t stop picking, it hurt me. It bled more than it should, but it satisfied. The drone sections could go either way. They were blank spaces that flickered between the end of the world and the beginning of a new one. Between hope and its opposite. All that remains of them now is the Wagnerian apocalypse of Godspeed’s Yanqui U.X.O. The funeral drum and Orleans horns of ‘rocket falls on Rocket Falls’. Yanqui U.X.O is an elegy, a grand political wake. The cover artwork is typical of their approach, bombs fall on the front, we’re not sure who is dropping them or where, which gives the image great tension.

These bombs are all bombs as much as they are American bombs. On the back, the words ‘Yanqui U.X.O’ sit in the centre of a spider diagram. ‘Yanqui’, they say, is corporate imperialism, ‘U.X.O’ is unexploded ordnance, landmines. These words are then linked to Sony, British Aerospace and AOL Time Warner.

This is how drone and noise is apocalyptic, it goes back to Hendrix and The Star Spangled Banner, a national anthem painted in napalm, with its roots in Chicago bar room amplification. Pure pragmatism, but those roots in turn reach further down, to slavery and Empire. So many records come on like easy listening versions of Klauz Schulze, Edgar Froese or Cluster. The ‘ambient compilation’, but there was little that was reassuringly cosy about the German pioneers. In this sense, I am wary of the zen comparisons to drone, although they can legitimately be made.

‘Bayreuth Return’ by Klauz Schulze signifies, it makes meaning. Think about it. Think about post-WW2 German culture. Think about how the word ‘Bayreuth’ inevitably resignifies after the holocaust.

But that’s an old recording to bring up. So let’s examine the subject through a more recent one. Angel’s ‘Terra Null’, for Editions Mego. Get the CD. Examine it. The initial signs seemed to indicate a record about 17th and 18th century emerging imperialism, with track titles such as ‘Naked Land’ and ’Colonialists’. Put the CD on.

‘Naked Land’, betrays an almost spaghetti western sound, which seems to further underline the frontiersmanship. A guitar twangs, detuning and retuning, but the electronic side of the drones betray the time we’re in, and via this, Angel collapse ancient into modern, as Marx did when he talked about ‘primitive’ accumulation and the commodity as a kind of anthropological fetish.

Somehow, this album by Angel puts us into that space, ‘Quake’ particularly, via slow drones, cello, oscillators, guitar and scree, it unfolds into what Dan Latimer called ‘a sublime appropriate for individual subjects fixed in some vast network of international business, blinking, clicking, whirring incessantly to transmit, like transistorized Jedi Knights, the power of the Force.’

The buzzing, low tones simultaneously describe this evil landscape, at the same time as they try to open a crack in it, and of course speed is important here, temporality is crucial to capitalism, and to drone. To slow it right down is to resist. To speed up is to acquiesce.

The antique etchings on the CD sleeve may be of ‘the new world’ of colonialism, but they become, simultaneously, dialectically, about the ‘new world’ we may be forced into, the place, as Jameson once told us, that we have no alternative but to go to. The past as the future. The two cancelled out by each other. This is ‘utopia’, terra null, a no-place, at least not yet. The last cut though, ‘Quake’, gets bible-apocalyptic, roaring like Sunn O))), or Merzbow. This is utopia and apocalypse as one. Hegel’s dialectic as two opposites in one whole, never combining, but bursting, absolutely seething with historical tension.

Oval, for me, are so important to this topic. Oval are drone as the End of History. They are the sound of vacuous mall music glitched out endlessly to swallow all of time. They are a formal translation of the flattening of our cultural landscapes into a substance so thin that it now covers everything. Their titles are also crucial to this, ‘Lens-Flared Capital’, for instance.

Faust hinted at what was to come when opening their first album. The radio sweeps over the scree of interference, as All You Need Is Love flashes up, and is then smashed to pieces by noise. That, they say, is what happened to all of that, as Baader-Meinhof rose. Their spectre has just returned. Here is the logical extension of Revolution 9 by The Beatles, with its reference to Beethoven’s last symphony. Gesamtkustwerk as smashed fragments. Noise as historical symphony, that ensures another Historical Symphony can never be written.

Beethoven was nearly deaf when the Ninth was premiered, and recording equipment did not exist. Since then, hundreds of recordings of it have been made. We have heard the Ninth more times, and better, than its writer. In this, Demers is absolutely correct to approach the topic through science fiction: Leif Inge’s Beet 9 Stretch slowed down Beethoven’s Ninth until it lasted for 24 hours, with no pitch distortions. This piece does many things, but one thing it has to do, before all the others, is flatten the Ninth into a millimetre thin surface, in order to squeeze the excess of signification out of it. This is one thing that drone can do well. Beethoven’s Ninth has become so overloaded with signification and connotation that it has imploded, in the way Faust made All You Need Is Love collapse. The Ode To Joy has a hundred meanings, the european anthem, film music, adverts.

This is the same thing as Demers’ opening reflections on ancient music that has been transcribed in detail and left to us, yet we will never know for certain how it sounded. The first performance of the Ninth was perhaps the last time this would be the case. With drone, transcription is often pointless, the space, medium and document is the music.

But once the Ninth has been flattened by Leif Inge, and the piece is being played on an endless loop, in a huge space, it becomes a new site of radical potential, which doesn’t completely erase its own suturing join with the historical, something the philosopher Catherine Malabou is very concerned about.

Drone gives you the space where utopia and dystopia, the tabula rasa and apocalypse are one. Where they fold into each other. Demers gives us this, in the form of a musicology as dystopian sci-fi. She explores what I have outlined here through Tim Hecker and Celer, via Boethius. She has taken risks, and they pay off. She was the right person to open a serious debate about drone in book form, not me.

Now it is up to us to carry on the conversation in the spirit of her annunciation. Here is my offering as an invocation. Snow, snow, snow come on snow, blast it all blind into a wiped, white VHS crackle. Lose the landscape and this sadness, in drifts no gritter can pass.

Your instructions. Get this book, put Oval on repeat. Think, reflect, think, write. Repeat.