Stuck in The Sediment of Suffering (2017, mixed media on paper)
I’m writing this in a world that is a week into the Trump administration. I can’t yet tell if it’s caused the biggest cloud of confusion and panic since the Twin Towers came down (it’s shock certainly eclipses the event that’s stuck in the middle of these – the financial crash of 2008), but it is certainly a ‘Super-massive event’.
I bring this up because it’s also caused a crisis within my creative output. I’ve found myself in doubt not only as to whether my work is relevant in the midst of this ‘mania’, but to whether or not art has validity when panic emitted from all media orifices makes experience so fractured.
The last thing my work aims to do is to generate a sense of hopelessness and hatred of the world, but one largely un-constructive and, I feel, unjustified comment left on here a month back did force me to question whether this is the affect of my work in many eyes.
As dark as the images can be, they are in their essence self-helping rejections of a powerful and pervasive agenda that is itself, I believe, the source of the hopelessness and hatred. They are a ‘fuck you’ to its realism, even if they fall short of aiding the materialisation of a viable alternative.
I started Stuck in The Sediment of Suffering in the month of the presidential election and, at the time of writing, am still working on it a week into the Trump administration.
What is it about? Of course, when a work takes months to make, a myriad of mindsets (or a myriad of me’s? ) have their say, but the decisive meaning is within its conception, hence the title.
It is the sister work of the recently finished Hope of The Nihilized. Both were conceived in the space of two days. Both works not only desire/long for, but demand, an active transition from a capitalist system now condemned to be a wheel spinning furiously in the deep mud of its end point, causing only senseless trauma and decomposition, on the soil and in the soul.
Stuck in the Sediment of Suffering looks at the persistence of class, wage slavery and it’s discontents, in a time when the necessity of material scarcity, and immiserating and humiliating work and social conditions is totally debunked by our technological capabilities. It looks at how these structures are not only persisted with out of convenience but also out of a deeply rooted sense that lifelong suffering and punishment is somehow right (views that can easily make unwarranted appearances out of the mouths of friends as much as they can from perceived foes). I disagree, believing that it creates a cycle of needless social violence.
However, I’m starting to feel like this drawing marks an end point, not only to a body of work that has tried to reflect life from run up to the 2015 UK election to the 2016 US Presidential Election, but to a stage of my life. I’ve been making these large drawings for ten years, and there’s many things I haven’t and want to do in life, regardless of whether the world goes to war tomorrow or the air becomes poisonous. Most my adult life has been stunted by self-esteem and emotional barriers, a path which I’m trying to take pigeon steps away from now. But without going into all of this (as it isn’t largely relevant, and I don’t want to encourage online ‘life advice’ I don’t need – I’m just explaining the facts), it may just mean a large gap, or a point of juncture . It may not – if I’m posting new landscape drawings on here in a few month it may well mean I’ve returned back to the only tools that have thus far worked.
This coming May Radiohead’s 3rd studio album Ok Computer turns 20.
I’ll begin bluntly: its either the greatest record to come into my life, or the most important. If a certain cluster of Pink Floyd albums are normally seen within a similar light, aided by their shared university-town beginnings, then it is with OK Computer’s connection to our 21st century world that the hairs on the back of my neck are raised that little bit higher. I guess this is the loose reason I’m writing about OK Computer and not Oasis’s Be Here Now, for example – which is also 20.
But first of all, back to the future of 1997. The last future…
My first time with OK Computer was on a holiday journey by car taken in a wet July in 1997. Well, I say album; it was one of my sister’s travel tapes, a cassette which featured a mixture of OK Computer and The Prodigy’s The Fat of The Land, released a month after OK Computer. I was 13 at the time. Radiohead’s Karma Police and Lucky, and The Prodigy’s Climatize were truly new things to my ears.
This holiday journey, listening to this tape, and travelling by motorway past the Birmingham sprawl, was my final experience of what I would call a future moment. This was the final of a series of childhood moments where I envisaged a future substantially different from the present tense I was in.
The 21st century and ‘the slow cancellation of the future’
Somewhere between July 1997 and January 2000 that future disappeared into an inability to imagine anything but an eversame set of interchangeable circumstances, initially encapsulated by a pre-millennial malaise that seemed most evident in the bland music that saw out the 1990s, reflective of that wide open vulnerability to a reality waiting to arise in the dust of the Twin Towers.
Both an incorporation of the decade’s electronica revolution in their own right, The Fat of the Land and OK Computer were being seen as the major albums of the year by the culture media. In hindsight, ‘major’ is not the word: they were the last ‘landmark’ albums of popular music – or so everybody with who I speculate on this to seems to agree. There’s certainly been great music since, but could you name a truly landmark album post 1997? We are still reaping the outcome of the computer world, but one effect is the demise of cultural shifts.
The album as an artform belongs to the 20th century (walking around the remaining record shops will tell you this). The problem is the networked technology we now have to share and download music doesn’t seem an adequate progression from the CD, when much of the cultural product we share, even if only in musical style, seems to belong to previous century.
The recently late writer Mark Fisher never spoke about Radiohead in his brilliant essays on pop music that simultaneously diagnosed the wider predicament of life under what he called ‘Capitalist Realism’. However, the line “the slow cancellation of the the future” attributed to both him and theorist Franco “Bifo” Berardi, could well explain how despite the process of the ‘waning of historicity’ being well under way by 1997, there was still residual space for the imagining of a world significantly different from the present tense. Whilst we anticipated the millennium with an almost evangelical fervour in a world glad to see the back of the 20th, it has felt that the 21st century, to paraphrase Fisher, never arrived.
OK Computer, even whilst relying on a deeply mid-twentieth century 4/5 piece guitar band formation, seems to be about life in the time after it was made; a world gripped by the logic of “capitalist realism” (a diagnosis by Mark Fisher), which, mediated through a computer world, envelopes us in a ‘liquid anxiety’ (referring to another the recently-late thinker, Zygmunt Bauman), and as a highly atomisating society that doesn’t even believe in itself, persists under an umbrella title of ‘The Control Society’ (Guilles Deleuze).
In (Cyber)space nobody can hear you scream
Deleuze’s 1992 Postscript on Societies of Control describes a structure of “ultrarapid modes of free-floating control” replacing the older social structures of Discipline and Punishment in the late 20th century. Defined by Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punishment societies are territorial and entail “the organisation of vast spaces of enclosure” such as factories, schools, hospitals and prisons. Control societies are the evolution of a later stage of capitalism, enabled by network technology, where the social structures that formed around the old spaces of enclosure disintegrate into the ‘gaseous’ quality of the corporation, where community never existed, and “the brashest rivalry [is] presented as an healthy form of emulation…and runs through each, dividing each within”.
Although the older structure never died but became a substructure to deal those who’s ‘lumpen’ existence denies them access into the networked society, I’d argue that Pink Floyd’s iconic The Wall is the quintessential work of art on a Discipline and Punishment society, whilst Radiohead’s OK Computer is about control. I’d define OK Computer as the struggles of the human animal who’s behavioral patterns are encased in the binary systems of computers – something we can all relate to in 2017.
This is why I want to speak of OK Computer for its emotional reach, and how although it is wrongly defined as being ‘depressing’, is actually is a work of art that encourages us to fight off a pervading sense of hopelessness. And I think this message is so important today.
1999, and the pre-millennial malaise
I had to wait until spring 1999 to come back into contact with Ok Computer, when I bought the album from a retail chain now forgotten in time. I mention above about a pre-millennial malaise: it’s arguable that the buzz of the early to mid 1990’s was built on false promises of a liberal capitalist utopia (which is impossible, if not totalitarian in hindsight), but, comewhatmay it had blatantly been exhausted by the final year of the decade, wearily waiting for something else. It was the first year I can look back and honestly say I was experiencing anxiety and depression. Where that began and a wider cultural mood ends is arguable, but it is true that I bought Ok Computer at roughly the same time.
I was blown away by the album, but it also severely spooked me. It was too close to the bone for somebody young/naive enough to imagine that the future wouldn’t roll out smoothly like an album of Stone Roses riffs. I wasn’t prepared or equipped for what it had to say – I even remember taking the line “spend five minutes in the mirror each morning saying to yourself ‘each day in every way I am getting better and better'” from artist Stanley Donwood’s album sleeve artwork on face value as self-help to cull the first sprouting of anxiety, rather than realising its dark irony about life in a control society.
“I’m amazed that I survived, an Airbag saved my life”
We are awoken to the nightmare with Airbag. “I am born again” sings Thom Yorke as machine saves protagonist from machine – saved by an Airbag as he crashes his “fine East German car”. The words could easily be taken from an headline in a local newspaper; but whilst these words are so everyday, they exist within a science fiction soundscape that evokes a world where computers take over the means of control whilst the corporate zombies just sit back in ‘paradise’, only to be awoken by machine error.
“I am born again”
This existential ‘rebirth’ sounds very much like the heaps of ‘self-help’ language that provided the background noise that naturalised the ‘new’ capitalism in the 1990’s, where history ‘was over’, and all we could improve was our own standing in the world (a world which was, after all, subjective, and defined by what frame of mind we ‘chose’). Yet in a sea of sunshine music, perhaps Ok Computer was one of few popular records that sounded the warning bell in paradise at the end of history. And thus this ‘rebirth’ is possibly double edged: is Thom Yorke singing about finding oneself within this ‘paradise’ of the new capitalism, or has he just stared into its void, and is willing for a rebirth of the human spirit in resistance to its sirens of consumerism and career improvement, that lure us into a perpetually decentred self-hood – a life as a node in a network until the end of time?
This soundscape of distress within a seemingly mundane paradise should leave us rethinking where the future visions of science fiction went – are we within them? Ok Computer could never have imagined the Pandora’s Box effect that internet dependency has brought into everyday experience, but as we lead onto the epic track Paranoid Android, the feel of the album seems sufficiently contemporary to today’s disturbed running of human emotion through the ‘man machine matrix’ (a term used by Will Self).
“The emptiness of feelings, Dissapointed people, clinging onto bottles”
Unofficially the 21st century began not on January 1st 2000, but in September 11 2001. The fall out, for me at least, seemed to bring a regained occupation with the music of Radiohead. By this time they has released 2 more albums: Kid A and Amnesiac. The albums continued the conceptual experimentation with electronica as computer technology slowly became more present in our lives. They were of an even darker nature, yet contained a mood of defiance to a new century that was beginning shape itself into Orwellian ghosts from the past that had plugged themselves into a Brave New World evangelically promised by the 1990s. But perhaps until their 2007 In Rainbows, there was never a hint of acceptance about the ‘way of the world’.
I think this is important because Radiohead are all too often labelled as ‘depressing’. The two songs I want to predominantly focus on to finish this piece are songs that are joyous moments of defiance against despair.
“One day I am gonner grow wings, a chemical reaction, hysterical and useless.”
OK Computer plays out like an undulating journey of emotional breakdown and spirit resistance within a computer generated graph. There are a series of emotional powersurges that threaten to bring down the computer system. The first supermassive climax of emotional willing against the machine is Let Down. Thom Yorke’s words remind us not to get sentimental and be led astray into eternal disappointment by false promises of freedom and salvation. The lyrics seem to encourage deep cynicism, of the likes many of us cling onto like “bottles” after the initial horror of finding ourselves staring into the abyss. Yet why deliver such a message? As in Airbag, the words seem in conflict with the emotions trying to break through; like a forerunner for the struggles for help many of us see, or even act out, within our networked lives, as we become subsumed by the nihilising spirit of the age, feeling locked in painful misunderstandings in the confines of the binary code.
This is why this song is one of the few that can bring water into my normally bone dry eyes; its spirit resistance momentarily threatens to break the code, and to reach out into the lonely cyberspace of node-trapped-souls, creating (for me) one the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. And it is here where we sense the refusal of giving in to the ‘depressed spirit of the times’.
Mark Fisher wrote a collection of essays (featured in his 2014 Zero Book ‘Ghosts of My Life’) on one very important band from the late 1970’s in an attempt to look at the pervading nihilism of our times. Joy Division, or specifically the singer (or unfortunate and incidental protagonist) Ian Curtis, was trapped in a world of banal suffering. Fisher wrote “If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listening to JD now, you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channelling our present, their future.”
Joy Division remain the perfect painkiller for the present. Few works of pop music engage with the cloud of the nuclear winter of the soul that harangues the anxious contemporary human like the dead souls in Joy Division’s music still do. Ok Computer arguably never truly reaches the wastelands of Joy Division’s second and final studio album Closer. However, it is more structured on the pivot of existential struggle in a world that can often give one the feeling of drowning, rather than in depths of the oceans themselves.
Let Down is brought down slowly by the rainy singalong of Karma Police – arguably the album’s most radio-friendly. The next ‘build up’ begins with the chilling humanness that slowly oozes out of the computer-generated voice of Fitter Happier, which seems to crack under the strain of endorsing a perfectly balanced lifestyle. In the UK in 1997 such a health-freak, body-perfect, corporate lifestyle still seemed wholly Californian. But in 2017 it is arguable that many here in the UK find our voices being fed into the health-freak-machine as if against our will.
But the stage for the next build up is set by a song I’ve often heard described as the weakest on the album.
Electioneeting tells of the deep cynicism in political campaigns in a ‘post-history’ world where all major decisions have already been made – where politics feels more like a popularity contest. Often referred to as the soft underbelly of OK Computer, I see it as actually laying the foundations for what the human animal ‘born again’ into a ‘post-history’ control society is made to endure. Electioneering is the true point of nihilism in Ok Computer. Surely nothing evokes a dead horizon as much its last few bars, which are in anticipation of the second major powersurge: Climbing up The Walls.
Climbing up the walls is the end point of a seismic nervous breakdown, that conjures visuals of ripping the wires from out of ones flesh in some frenzied attempt at escape. It enacts upon us the catharsis of a moment many of us not only anticipate in some forever-delayed moment but possibly secretly long for.
“I’ll take a quiet life, a handshake with carbon monoxide”
If the album was to end with No Surprises – the deep point of depressive acceptance on OK Computer [brilliantly depicted in the music video that uses analogue technology to depict Thom Yorke slowly drowning in a tank] – then the album could be classed a pessimistic work of art. But, as in the video where Thom Yorke finally emerges for air, OK Computer shows itself to be too intelligent to be led astray by the false comforts of nihilism. The longing for that nervous breakdown, and the ‘quiet life’ with ‘no surprises’ that Climbing up Walls becomes a dark fantasy for, turns out to be an impossible dream.
“This is my final fight, my final bellyache with…”
“it’s gonner be a glorious day. I feel my luck could change”
Lucky – one of the most uplifting tracks ever…
After No Surprises you could think that there was no more horizons. The protagonist has been defeated, and will proceed to his physical death a numb depressive. Yet it doesn’t feel quite over…
An early version of Lucky was released on the 1995 charity compilation record ‘Help’, instigated as a way of raising funds for children caught up in the then-ongoing war in Bosnia. Now, it would be crude to make a direct comparison between depressive humans in a highly advanced capitalist economy and the horrors that went on in that war, yet when Yorke sings about being “pulled out of the plane crash, coz I’m your super hero” it’s connotations couldn’t be closer to Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘answer to the last humans’ caught in the abyss of meaning and morality.
Devon Lougheed relates Radiohead’s music directly to the philosopher most commonly understood (and misunderstood) in relation to the scourge of nihilism in industrial, and specifically post-industrial societies. His essay ‘Nietzsche, Nihilism and “Hail to the Thief”‘ features in ‘Radiohead and Philosophy’ (2009). Here he uses the words of a thinker most unfortunately caught up in the excuses for Nazi and extreme Social Darwinist ideologies in a way that neatly sits with the conditions that prompted Nietzsche to search for such answers in the early industrial times in which he wrote.
“The protagonist of “Lucky” foreshadows Nietzsche’s answer to the Last Humans… The ubermensch or ‘Over human’ stands on the edge of conventional morality, ready to pull the Last Humans out of the aircraft and refashion them into free beings with a new moral code”
Like Nietzsche’s answer, Lucky is about overcoming the despair that seeps in through the social conditions of this super-industrialised age. It easy to see how history has made such ideas dangerous, used in Nazi and Randian philosophies etc, but his ‘answer’ is only to find a new moral code, and that remains a crucial task as the codes that bound our civilisation get chewn into smaller and smaller bits in the mouth of the money machine.
I class Lucky as one of the all-time most important songs for my punch drunk idealism. For a soul weighed down by nightfall’s foul smell of depression-remedy-seeking, the morning bell of Lucky is not the beginnings of another dead day in the rat race but a potential ‘glorious day’ of new horizons, no matter how I succumb to the day in hand.
In 1992 Deleuze told us not to hope nor fear, “But only to look for new weapons”. However, the latent sentiment in the writings of Marxists (in the loosest use of the term Marxist) in the face of what then seemed like a terminal defeat to capitalism, was hopelessness – in fact many succumbed to the nihilist endgame. OK Computer is this ‘undulating journey of emotional breakdown and spirit resistance’ before it is anything else, but within the scream of the human trapped within the machine is an unwillingness to give up and allow oneself to be nihilized. Even in the computer-generated voice of Fitter Happier is an emotional rejection of the death of the human in a world ruled by computers, corporatism, and consumerism. To will against this is a small, but nonetheless real, resistance to the ‘ways of the world’. Only in Radiohead’s more recent albums do you get a sense that there’s ‘nothing you can do’.
Radiohead were perhaps the very end of the line of a succession of Postwar pop groups who were given time to experiment and develop. Around the time of the unofficial start of the 21st century (9/11) a band from apt-origin came to the fore with their debut Album Is This It? But The Strokes’ debut was almost their end point. They began as the final product, and like many bands that followed, simply fed back into the machine as a prepackaged musical style. I mean, this is why I liked the album so much at the time; the hits were already there, there was no need (or maybe even patience, from consumer and producer alike) to go through the trials and errors of finding something new. OK Computer, as one a few final landmark albums, was probably part of the end point of such a notion of musical development.
Perhaps this strand of lineage to the Postwar age is why the band’s critical response to our late capitalist world shouldn’t be dismissed from a classist perspective. Ok Computer is absent of the atrocious inequalities and injustices that have proven to accompany the reality of the nightmare world it depicts, but can we reasonably demand a pop group from a leafy upbringing in a university town to deal with class injuries? Is it not more reasonable to argue that in the Dystopian imaginaries of Radiohead rests the Utopian impulses of much post war art? Perhaps there was a benevolent pedagogy laced into the dreamings of Postwar bands, even as they actively rejected all pedagogy?
There’s a huge difference between a band such as Radiohead and much of the music made by the middle class in the past 30 years, even whilst Radiohead’s reaches into this period. Many bands since this point have existed in an environmental vacuum, where politics is seen as merely another career choice – thus the plight of the world has become irrelevant to there music.
The emphasis on environmental is perhaps more important than we think – or it at least deserves much appreciation: a university town band like Radiohead could’ve never recorded an album the likes of Joy Division’s brilliant Unknown Pleasures; but likewise, Ok Computer could never have been conceived within the confines of ‘Cottonopolis’.
But right now it is irrelevant whether this connection of sound to surface has died off in the 21st century: I finish this blog in arms of the record that makes me believe in the good in the ‘human animal’.
“…Show me the world as I love to see it”
This week’s edition of the Newstatesman features Brexit on Bicycle, a piece by JD Taylor reflecting on both his 4 month cycle journey around the British Isles in 2014 (which became the book: Island Story: Journeys around Unfamiliar Britain), and his shorter cycle journey around the Midlands and North in the wake of Britain’s decision to leave the EU. The first journey was the reason I asked if he’d like to speak at our exhibition/event Fighting For Crumbs (Art in the Shadow of Neoliberal Britain) which was incorporated into his second journey. The magazine is well worth a read this week.
My article on cycling around the North of England in the aftermath of Brexit has been published this week in the New Statesman.
Based on conversations during my book tour of Island Story, I set out to explain why many working class people voted Brexit. The horizons of political possibility have been hemmed in by economic hardship, I argue, and I look at the roles of work, welfare and insecure housing on how political choices are imagined.
The piece is a little late in its publication! I wrote separately about my journey and its findings for Fair Observer back in October, where I focused on the effects of poverty, debt, and the formation of a new kind of working class, unrepresented by any political party.
While Island Story certainly hasn’t transformed the zeitgeist of the nation, it has had a warm reception. It was reviewed by the Financial…
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This gallery contains 7 photos.
Originally posted on The Retro Bar at The End of The Universe:
January 2017 Giving up The Ghost “I nearly didn’t make this train, becoming 33 was so lonely it became messy, and I’m so lacklustre I fail to leave the slow train at Wakefield that connects all the nodes along this longing line that can’t…
I finished The Planet’s Mental Illness 4 years and 1 month ago. It was completed during a period of minor personal breakdown and slow recomposition. Although the breakdown was minor, the conception of the work in early 2012 was informed by something a friend said to me in the wake of the mere sparks of an uprising that galvanised a sense of immanency to social change in the summer and autumn of 2011. He told me how a number of people close to him were all somewhat simultaneously experiencing migraines. A physic pressure was building, but the confines of the prevailing ideology held on too strongly in interior and exterior structures. This physical pain, I would argue, if as widespread as I was sensing at the time, dutifully subsided into malaise and numbness in the years up to 2015.
I’d argue that from 2016 it has returned, especially during the past month.
The 21st century has been dogged by a ‘bug’ that has spread like wildfire throughout the highways of the millennial technological revolution: aka the Internet. The Internet is a tool, as in a means to an end. But the last 17 years have seen it rapidly become an end in itself, under the imperatives of capitalism.
This superhighway scarcity has brought the competitive element into our lives at a speed and quantity previously unknown, at an intensity totally unrelational to the general material conditions of the age; from the way we anxiously binge on information to the way people fight with words like Hunger Games contestants over small indifferences in the WorldWide One-upmanship of social media. It is slowly bringing more and more of us to the point of illness, fearful of not knowing or being as much as the next person, and generally just not being able to carry weight of a unravelling world in loneliness. The ‘bug’, as it has done in the past, mutates into extremism, into reactionary primal screams that are manipulated by the biggest and loudest in the competition.
We may well now face Fascism in the form we did in the 1930’s, but I’d speculate that it’s more than that, that, for good, for worse, or for both, we may actually be in the midst of some huge tectonic conflict – a shift in emerging collective psyches, that is pushing against the bricks and mortar of the established ones. But the sensation is being experienced in anxious, panic-stricken loneliness. It is pushing and pushing, and it feels like hammers smashing against the inside of our skulls, as we try to break through our competitive and fearful systemised loneliness and reach for the New.
My confines mean that whilst I have an urgency to act, anxiety, fear of conflict and fear of unsettling those upon which I depend, have made art-making my main tool with which to scream. The Planet’s Mental Illness was an illustration of the aforementioned. It’s not a blueprint for what is expected to come; the claustrophobia of the present, the stuckness of thought within white noise of information binging meant such future predictions would’ve been insincere. They still are insincere, even whilst it is becoming clear that new horizons, whether terrifying or darkly optimistic, are upon us.
…oh, also, before it is pointed out that want I really meant in the title is ‘world’ not ‘planet’, the usage intentionally points towards my deepest idealism: that human beings, in evolutionary terms, are the eyes of all that has preceded it. A desire for us to recognise consciousness as the universe’s ability to look at itself. If we choose to, that is.
PS, I’m writing a lot at the moment, I’ll hopefully be sharing it asap.
“The Art of Menschlichkeit…Some works from the Treadwell Collection and Related Art. Opening Sunday 29th January from 2 till 6 pm
Two of my older works ‘People Factory’ (2008), and ‘We are Watching Ourselves Sink’ (2009) will be on show as part of The Art of Menschlichkeit (‘the human condition’ – English)…Some works from the Treadwell Collection and Related Art. Opening Sunday 29th January from 2 till 6 pm
Kirchengasse 4; A – 4160 AIGEN; AUSTRIA; Tel: +43 (0) 7281 20000 or Mobile: +43 (0)664 3449543
I’ll begin as humbly as I can. I’m a anxious character, who hasn’t quite yet figured out how to deal with criticism from others and the shame that often follows. This makes me uncomfortable paying respects to a writer who has inspired me as much as any other, aware of the gaping discrepancies in my academic knowledge of the subjects that have preoccupied me for nearly a decade.
I always felt slightly silly quoting Mark Fisher in my own blogs and spoken works. My thoughts always felt vastly inadequate in contrast to the value I placed on their source. I always felt that I’d probably misrepresented what he was saying. Nonetheless, I have referred to his writings many times, maybe as a need to celebrate the emotional connection they gave me.
It was indeed something of an emotional enlightening coming across both Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism and his blog Kpunk in 2010. I cannot think of another writer before him who better helped me construct a vocabulary to articulate how life felt under Capitalism in the 21st century. As soon as I read the first chapter of Capitalist Realism I almost clairvoyantly read the Kpunk texts on mental illness, the music of Joy Division, and the shortcomings of ‘starvationist’ leftwing and environmental perspectives before I’d even found them. His words made my own much stronger.
The news obviously broke on social media, and after seeing the words of a few who are more than half a decade younger than I saying how Capitalist Realism was instrumental in shaping their current political ideas and activism, I would speculate that it was the accessibility of the text, in contrast with Jameson, Zizek, and Lacan, that could, in retrospect, be seen as a building block in a 21st century social movement we cannot currently see because we amidst the formation of it. Hopeful thinking, but necessary thinking.
Below I have listed both books I read by him and a list of blogs that meant so much to me:
December 30 2016. I sit in The Retro Bar at The End of The Universe, this time in Sheffield.- it’s focal point the kind of jukebox that gives you performance anxiety (nobody dare choose the ‘wrong song’ at the end of known world). Iconic rave-era track Voodoo Ray plays out, followed by The Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen in Love. Apparitions of a sunshine, of a world alive, in the deep autumn of our social reality, our civilisation…our world.
2017 looms like a year that threatens to make us remember it. After all, the consistency of 2016 has been akin to a pea soup (a liquid mush aided by smart-tech dependency) with no taste left to it at all. Yet it was the only meal left on the menu.
2017 will be the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, and who could argue that this moment hasn’t shaped and scarred all imagine futures more than any other? If you can still dream whilst a 20th century deja vu affect haunts every move you make, then you may well be able to help us out of this mess.”
“For if it’s the end of history. It’s frozen and still. There is no other pill to take……”.
After the slow unravelling of the symbolic structure in 2016, will 2017 see a violent regurgitation of the pill ‘….that made us ill’?
I actually smirked when George Michael died. Not a ‘lol’, but a wankerish and smug ‘I told you so’ kind of grin. And before an emotional cyber-lynch mob hunt me down, let me stress that the smirk over his Xmas day death wasn’t because a human being had died, but was due to the fact that this day is usually one for ignoring the pain of the present and indulging in a day that is supposed to remain immune from history – acting out of time. Yet this year there was too much to remind us of the permanent ebb of the present.
And it’s not coming back…
As harsh as this will sound, maybe what is really upsetting us isn’t that too many celebrities have died in 2016, but that too few celebrities died? We want to end this terminal illness that defines these times, and maybe that can only happen when all the remaining figureheads of our 100 year old love affair with the consumer spectacle die? Perhaps we subconsciously want queen Elizabeth to pop her cloggs before the year is out; for Ringo and Paul to go, leaving no more heartbeats in the Beatles?
Or if that is an overly audacious expectation/wish (a wish for all to be longing for an end point to this decaying culture), I wonder whether we at some level are surprised that the figureheads we lost in 2016 were still actually bloody alive in this body-wastage-stage of late capitalism! As we seem to have noted their passing in the way we would note the dying out of a family lineage, surprised that some old relative is still alive. And this is for good reason.
A recent article by George Monbiot talks about how celebrity serves as the familiar human face to an impersonal and rapacious machine. These familiar famous faces both distract us from our deep-seated alienation, and lessen the pain it causes. Now, these postwar icons may have been a challenge to the paradigms of the status quo’s of yesteryear, but they were still always components of the ideological superstructure. This isn’t to discredit their art, and the shimmers of potential futures that may have laid within it, but is to basically say that you can’t be both famous and remain outside the consumer spectacle.
But they are not being replaced!
Monbiot, I sense, had in mind more the present day figureheads. All the ‘new’ celebrities are not new at all; they are so flat that they may as well be holograms of those from the 20th century. Perhaps the dying off of the iconic figurehads is so sore because we are losing any trace of the familiar beyond our own online avitars, and nothing to alleviate the effects of deep-seated alienation.
Left with nothing but our own reflections
“We lost our MEMES this year!” reads a text message, sent from John Wright, jestfully summing up the year that’s been.
Sat in the pub, I am joined by friends Bek and Ben. We discuss MEMES. Partly because we ask ourselves what is funny in 2016? Ben talks of how comedy has actually been replaced by the MEMES that crop up on feeds we access in loneliness. Their focus on the situational, Ben suggests, give us a connection point with other people seeing them in loneliness. We ‘lol’ due to thinking others are ‘lolling’ at the same time – as MEMES aren’t really that funny at all.
The meme quotes are so 21st-century-everyday that we can all relate to them. They largely use imagery from film and TV from another time. Most important is that memes are dead objects – all we have for comedy and icons is dead objects. The evident break up of global political certainty, and the continuation of dreadful situations around the Middle East and the Mediterranean, is felt more sorely because all we have is the past. Perhaps within the passing of these figureheads, we feel the anguish of lacking the tools to act on the present.
I repeat that, within the symbolic power of the death of icons that represented a century, there may appear the space for something new. But although we have nothing to lose from the dead world, the potential nightmares that may well be unfolding onto it threaten to make life unbearable.
But when the figureheads abandon us to a godless barbarism of a capitalism doing its best to survive by any means, how much longer can we inhale the air of a zeitgeist of disbelief (a term I came up with to describe a present day that was brilliantly pieced tougether in Adam Curtis’s recent documentary Hypernormalisation)? My depressed idealism scours the landscape for signs that a social spirit, so dejected and broken up, reacts violently against that process.
Violence being the important word, as I don’t want to imagine that a major revolt can only occur when the economic and political circumstances become that desperate for the majority they no longer have a choice but for violent revolt – as history has shown us that such circumstances usually create oppressors our of the liberators.
But history is now the important word. As the sheer bulk of historical awareness, even if in soundbite form, that rests on today’s hyperconnected generations, does sometimes appear to be not only what is making us feel so “stuck”, but is also making us unwilling to undertake acts that could ape the acts of historical violence that many of us are reminded of daily on our news feeds.
Enough people are already suffering (the army of homeless is proliferating on the streets of the cities of this so-called ‘developed’ country). enough people lack any clear idea of a future, and, although all are connected, enough people are mentally sick of the state of affairs that there is surely still room for optimism for imminent forces for change? Maybe there is room for optimism, even under Trump’s cock waving nuclear threats, that a transition can be made to something beyond the capitalist scarcity model, without a decimated global population? History in the 21st century has locked us in a depressive view of ‘human nature’ but it has also made us acutely aware of that which we should never let happen again. But what we still lack is what to do next…
After The Sugar Rush (2016, mixed media on paper)
My last drawing of 2016. Literally finished at 11:20pm on December 31st.