Daft Punk, Discovery: late dreams of a capitalist hyperreal utopia

About half a year ago I wrote about how two different albums by the band Primal Scream ‘are actually the same record, just flip-sides’ (or more like the contents of the first album had been brutally emptied out creating a nightmarish inversion that guided the second album). However, when it was written the first album was 20 years old and the second was 11 years old. Despite making it clear that my objective wasn’t merely to review the albums/or to say how much I liked them, I still felt wary that an initial sloth-like pace could be attributed to me (accredited the usual reaction of “where have you been for the past 20 years?”). I felt that the more sober message in the latter had been staggered in our culture by its latent denialism which the album attacked, and could now be of value in the present tense to aim to fulfil the hopefulness generated in the first album. By my standards, this blog was very optimistic.

During the time that has passed since writing this piece I have been occupied by the notion of certain media products being heavily pregnant carriers of the prevailing cultural Geist; more so after reading Steve Shaviro’s Zero books Publication Post Cinematic Affect (2010), which excellently explains certain media products which are symptomatic of the brutality of the logical conclusion of neoliberal capitalism. I have a bit of a fixation with many albums from the first 18 months of the new millennium because I believe there are some which are profound embodiments of  the then cultural Geist of the naive liberal dream of a capitalist democracy where things could work out OK, after the disastrous communist regimes in Eastern Europe had fallen down a decade earlier, and the 1990’s had such fun and cool surface to it, with its recycled swagger. I have this fixation because they almost seem to embody a crossroads with our world and another; a world which could never have been, yet they reside here, a now distant past of naive optimism. To me it still seems relevant to look at music/film from this period because of its other-worldliness to the present, just over ten years apart.

Even albums from this period which contained a dosage of sadness, a confrontation with the postmodern condition, were still meekly satisfied with the world: The Strokes’ Is This It and the Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around The World (both released in 2001) sound like albums sighing at the realisation of the End Of History, or perhaps from post-modern relativism; accepting that nothing grand is going to happen, and nothing can be better than it is now under liberal capitalism; but it is just a sigh, no more, and it is rather quite comforting; today it has the sound of something from a totally different world. But more than anything there was a naive optimism within society in the late 1990’s to the morning of September 11th 2001. It looked towards a millennium that could never be; one which seems more than a full millennium away from the post-Sept 11th world of increasing state authoritarianism alongside runaway neoliberal capitalism, which Shaviro depicts with such frightening insight.

The album that seems to embody such a late dream more than anything else is Discovery (2001) by the French group Daft Punk. Purchasing Discovery from the second hand store CeX for one pound last year (a store in which the collapse of civilisation already seems to have occurred, as one feels that they are almost looting products once deemed to have value but now so cheap) I was instantly taken back to a place I used to frequent; old day dreams tied to a world that seemed like it could have been, which still seems there if one puts on headphones and looks nowhere in particular. There was in a period in my mid-to-late teens where I used to visit the local Gymnasium; the singles from Discovery remind me of that period; a soundtrack for such an attempt at personal betterment from within a ‘non-place’ reminiscent of the virtual. But this self-betterment, like all of them in our culture, isn’t narcissism but (to quote Jean Baudrillard) “frantic self-referentiality: … It (the body) is the only object upon which everyone is made to concentrate” (America, 1986). It is a demand that we conquer ourselves. The opening track One More Time is an order not an encourgement.

Discovery evokes a fantasy world, a virtuality free of friction, a world specific to the Utopian longing in capitalism. It gloriously embodies the work hard/play hard ideal of liberal capitalism, from where friction, if it occurs at all is only situated under the ‘life is a game’ banner of ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’; rejoin The Game tomorrow. All well and good if life worked that way, but it is an illusion, that to some extent, the entire premise of maintaining of positive attitude is balanced on under neoliberal capitalism. One which became more difficult to believe in after September 11th 2001, and then the Financial meltdown in 2008 (Philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009, Verso Books) uses Karl Marx’s ‘correction of Hegel’s idea that history necessarily repeats itself’ but that ‘”(h)e forgot to add : the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”‘ to deal with these ‘two events which mark the beginning and the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century…’). Although, it is arguable that in such times the need becomes greater for us to cling to the illusion of a Utopian capitalist world free of friction, thus a necessarily virtual one, (which itself brings to mind ‘the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is
easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’, Informed by Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, 2009, Zero Books), the geist captured in this record seems ancient.

I haven’t written this because I am critical of the album, quite the opposite: it is an incredibly seductive record. But it is what it seduces with which is of concern. So, as informed by Steve Shaviro, the aim here isn’t to place Discovery as a record that deliberately endorses the then prevailing geist, or as a record that aims to depict it: some bands can embody it without possibly being aware of doing so, and thus become brilliant historical artifacts. It is often said how Post-Punk music of the late 1970’s embodied the feelings of misery and fear in western countries during a time of mass decline and decay of the old industries; likewise the dance music scene of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s embodied a sense of optimism and a desire for freedom, at the dawn of a naively optimistic decade after the fall of many bad things such as the Berlin Wall.
Discovery continues that optimism, but after the freedom of early 1990’s dance had been largely co-opted into a lifestyle of self-betterment rather than freedom as such; now for nightclubs, gymnasiums, and holidays to the Mediterranean, and Festivals that have become corporate theme parks (track 5 Crescendolls, sounds a like an mp3 compression of a fairground ride). Discovery encourages us to transcend the screens around us, and live inside the Myths its media weaponry have been programming us with our entire lifetime. The album half transports you to a place that feels like it is waiting just beyond view in a capitalist society.

The cartoon characters that feature on the videos for the singles from the album (which one can never quite forget when hearing the songs, as they are the only spectacle for it, and they seep into your thoughts) could be anybody. Indeed the smoothness, lack of dimples, lack of split hairs on the characters (as with many more human-based cartoon characters) is the logical conclusion of life-as-conquest over our mortal bodies; our only destiny in a depoliticised world. This conquest is very alluring, and is a very seductive. As is Discovery: it is the music over which to plan your next trip to the gym, night out/holiday; a permanent betterment of physical and social self.

The desire to become cartoonised (cleansed of all mortal ailments) in such a society in turn cartoonises our desires. In fact this is the narrative of the single taken from the album Digital Love, where the content isn’t as threadbare as it possibly intends to be

“Last night I had a dream about you
In this dream I’m dancing right beside you
And it looked like everyone was having fun
the kind of feeling I’ve waited so long”
A virtual liaison, where nobody really touches; a simulated encounter
“There’s nothing wrong it’s just a little bit of fun…”
The liaison in our listeners mind becomes one between a cartoonised listener and a cartoonised desired person.
“Why don’t you play the game?” the song then entices us with. The purely capitalist game; a Utopianism that is of course virtual. One consisting purely of a ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic without the consequence of the physical/mortal world.
“Work It/Make It/Do It/Makes Us Harder/Better/Faster/Stronger” (Discovery, 2001)

Jean Baudrillard, in his accounts of the oldest Hyperreal place, America (1986), writes “America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it has already arrived”. Of course, Baudrillard, like many writers before him, went to America to give a cultural diagnosis to what would spread from this “centre of the world” to everywhere else. Baudrillard was from France. So are Daft Punk. Judging by this, their prophecies are true to form. If Utopia is achieved already, reality cannot really be accepted; simulations of reality become the place in which to play Utopia out. Daft Punk’s Discovery encourages us to dive right in.

But could this world truly be believed in before the rude awakenings of the the first decade of the twenty-first century, especially the world after September 11th? Daft Punk’s Discovery still has more in common with many albums from that time than may at first seem apparent. Although without the jubilance of an avatar-like existence of Discovery, other albums from the period such as the aforementioned Rings Around The World by Super Furry Animals, and Is This It? by The Strokes (realised literally on the brink of the world-changing event of September 11th) still possess a sentiment that if we sink away from the problems of the physical world, ‘well, that’s all we can do. Nothing will really matter anymore, but that’s OK, because we’re safe here’. A sentiment that seems so far away now.

I’m obviously not suggesting that we are all suddenly wide awake in contrast with living in a dream beforehand. But it is much harder to hide from the problems of the world now. And although the troubles can still at times seem unreal, they no longer seem so far away. And as the need to cling to an illusion becomes more desperate, Discovery is still probably the best album to fit the headphones on us to drown out the world.  But, if others are like me, it is a fading sound of a late dream, now it is so hard to drown out the world; always expecting something to occur, where harmless noises that penetrate the music one is hiding under, become terrifying calls to remove one’s headphones, because the world is alive, not a playground frozen in time that such records embody.

But the ideology still tries to convince us to live in the world Discovery was brilliantly symptomatic of. The instrumental track Voyager sounds like a world in which the oceans have become an aquarium; the sky just a fantastic backdrop, as one flies through life. Again we see the ‘work hard, play hard’ ideal with no friction either side. In Ways Of Seeing John Berger describes the touristic ideal that capitalist publicity surrounds us with where “the entire world becomes a setting for the fulfillment of publicity’s promise of the good life. It offers itself to us. And because everywhere is imagined as offering itself to us, everywhere is more or less the same”. A place’s history, no matter how troubled, becomes a mere artificial backdrop to pleasure-seeking.

Voyager and the album title Discovery seem to conjure up a friction-free around-the-world trip, from where, in such an hyperreality, we become spectators of our own movies in our minds, and the latest logical extension of the ideology of self-betterment (self-conquest), social networking sites, allow us to display the movie shots in photo albums. Roland Barthes, in his essay The Lost Continent, (Mythologies, 1957) similarly describes a touristic approach to the rest of the world: “Penetrating (in this case) The Orient never means more for them (the producers of the documentary) than a little trip in a boat, on a azure sea, in an essentially sunny country”. But he warns that “the device that produces this irresponsibility is clear: colouring the world” (as in colouring in into a destination) “is always a means of denying it”

Many people I know are heading to Greece this very summer. All very excited; fun-times in bars/clubs staffed with English-speaking peoples. Live the  dream-scape that Voyager embodies, fair play to you, it seduces me from time to time also, but wait? Greece is in turmoil. The hell capitalism has created in the physical world has spilled out onto its streets; people cannot even afford to eat; will this cause a rupture to Voyager 2012?  It is the logical limit of late capitalist ideology hitting the roof of what is fighting back.

It is also useful to keep in mind that Daft Punk are maybe the digital heirs to the analogue world of one of the pioneers of electronic music: Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk were conscious of technological advancement, maybe ever-so slightly critical (one may be able to dance to Computer Love, but what it suggest is solitude and sadness). Daft Punk; digital equivalent; of neoliberalism and post Berlin Wall pleasure seeking; uncritical; embodying it; living it. And this is why Daft Punk are Kraftwerk version 2.0. First futuristic robot men, then cartoon kids who never get old, stay forever young. Possibly, Kraftwerk (before the melancholy nature of the 1981 album Computer World) is the sound of modernist thinking; progressive; a Utopia sought after, looked for. The Utopia in Discovery is the one of Baudrillard’s America: one already thought to have happened; an End of History utopia set in a capitalist hyperreality. Just keeping that virtual Game ticking over and over; “One more time we’re gonner celebrate it….don’t stop the dancing”. At the end of Digital Love, however, once the climax is over and the soothing synthesiser resonates to its audible vanishing point, I have the image of the smoldering twin towers just beginning to appear, as “that dream” was just a dream. Look Backwards now towards this dream-scape at the other side of the horizon. From here there is one fact of reality that is even harder to ignore that the rest: climate change has all but set in now; it alone can tear down any hyperreality

But if it is the sound of a capitalist Utopian dream that is now an utterly pathetic one, it is also the sound of an enslavement to the necessity of self-betterment/self-conquest at the cost of the power to try to change the condition of the human race; an enslavement that encourages us to want to be simulations of our mortal selves because of the impossibilities of a virtual perfection expected of us. Perhaps, in the current period of turmoil, and dread at the depths this system will happily take us to, unlike back then we can see this enslavement clearly for what it is?

(afternote: A friend pointed out with constructive criticism that I had failed to mention the important feature of Daft Punk’s song construction: that they are samples from other songs, altered. I already knew this, but had forgot to mention it. The use of samples, through digital technology is a method quite specific to music creation in a our post-modern (or post-fordist) times).

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