I’d prefer not to have to state that this title is meant to have an irony to it, but I probably need to, as part of the reason I chose it is because if it was used for a similarly-composed landscape drawing made 50-70 years ago I believe the title could have been used without irony – and legitimately-so. Today, however, capitalist growth no longer has energies, which were usually oppositional, incorporated in it or pulled alongside it, that could fuse capitalism’s energies with progress, making for a better civilisation.
The opposite could be said to be true, since we moved firmly into this era of global financial capitalism, legitimised by neoliberal (market fundamentalist) theory. A relentless eroding-away of the social contract that was built up over the last two centuries in the first industrial states to protect individuals from the extremes of capitalism’s boom/bust cycles and market dynamics. Alongside this is an almost universal disintegration of a picture of a future worth inhabiting (something that wasn’t the case in capitalist societies 50-70 years ago), as the violence of profit-thirsty growth brings human life into conflict with itself, the environment, and internally, through the invisible mental illness epidemic.
The upwards-driven spiral in this drawing is two things at once. First of all it is an imaginary chronology of capitalism on planet earth, violently veering off a path made-steady by social and civic idealist demands and onto a hyper (‘feral’) capitalist path, severing its ties from reality, whilst dragging us all along with it. As, even though this is clearly a critique of what capitalism produces (and reduces things to), looking back at where this ‘break’ from what before occurred (at a series of points during the 1970’s and early 1980’s), I really do think that, despite the horrors its ‘invisible hand’ induced during the previous centuries, if we had transcended it at this stage, humanity could have taken stock of the then zenith of material plenty under capitalism, and said “we wouldn’t have what we have now without it, but now it is time to go beyond capitalism” (pretty much along the lines of what Karl Marx meant, that capitalism was the best thing and the worst thing to happen to humanity).
But at this very moment when I firmly believe profit-motivated dynamics were no longer needed, (at least here in the west) a progressive program should have been introduced to help us beyond capitalism (and according to Doreen Massey, what is forgotten by history is that there was plenty of ideas about how to do this). However, a trick was played on social evolution. And in hindsight we can see that although individuals were demanding more autonomy and individual freedom, we (to use a Will Self analogy) had “accepted a Trojan horse” gift; the ruling class had staged an ambush. This isn’t conspiracy theory: it’s about one class (the ruling class) working collectively to regain the ability to organise society in the way they thought it needed to organising. What we thus received was an even more ruthless, sociopathic capitalism, with diminishing social alternatives standing in its way, globally.
The second thing this upwards spiral shows is the social and environmental gradient, that gets harsher and more brutal towards the bottom, where so much is reduced to waste, both in economical and ecological meanings of the word. The protestant work-ethic has an increasingly religious grip over us (a violent dislike of the unemployed has emerged); it isn’t a coincidence that this is happening the same time as so many human beings are becoming surplus to needs of capitalism, no longer needed to exploit their labour, and are falling from all security nets towards an existence of utter destitution and state-sanctioned repression. As economist Guy Standing pointed out in his talk at the Leeds Tetley gallery, the UK Tory MP, Iain Duncan Smith (a figurehead for this extreme enforcement of the religion of work, work, work) has in speeches more or less repeated the same words that, written in German, were above the gates of one of western civilisation’s most extreme outcomes: “arbeit Macht Frei” (“work makes you free”), which was above the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp. But, without forgetting that the vulnerable/voiceless always get smashed first in such a system (the poor, the minorities, plant and animals life), let us not forget, that with total collapse of civilisation, which the dynamics currently driving will sometime no doubt lead to, no one is spared; all in this drawing are vulnerable, eventually, within this upwards spiral.
Up is also down in this drawing. The system, as much as it accelerates – faster and faster , also just accelerates entropy. It only reproduces itself as it drags everything crashing down to a primordial ‘dustland’. Capitalism works fine, whilst putting everything else into crisis, until there is nothing left to put into crisis. Indeed, the only buildings/objects visible in the ‘dustland’ within this drawing are icons from a time when civilisation could be said to be progressing – when our past believed in a future; space shuttles from a time when our frontier was space and not the inverted privatisation of our biology; symbols of times when an alternative world seemed on the horizon; towers and buildings for cities for citizens rather than cities for finance and elites.
The use of red pen colour always seems appropriate when depicting a landscape that shows a civilisation/a humanity/a planet running out of time. Perhaps it makes me think of the ‘red planet’ – Mars; earth’s next door neighbour in the Solar System. Mars is certainly a red barren ‘dustland’ and is also what the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, argues could be the fate of planet earth if we make it so that earth’s co-operating eco-systems are no longer able to enable that thing we we call ‘the living planet’.
In fact, keeping in tune with the talk of Space and the planets here, you could interpret progress… as capitalism (and the generations of humans at its mercy) embodied as a space shuttle; elevating itself on the planet’s stored-up energies; veering off track and dragging life (displaced and dismembered) with it, needing it as it bleeds it, like ripping a plant from the soil and then leaving it on the surface to starve of nutrients as ‘surplus to requirements’. And then add to this the powerful instrumental music piece evoking time speeding up, and then crashing, from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon, which will forever be the music that reminds me of the conception of this drawing, and you’ll maybe know, more or less where I’m coming from.
100 years ago war finally broke out between the dominant empires and rising empires of the day. In Britain, war with Germany had been a much-expected, anxiously-anticipated reality right through the 20th century years leading up to 1914 (and these feelings were probably mutual within Germany). Then, one day, it ceased to be a looming threat, and people found themselves actually living through it.
Through the 21st century years leading up to 2014, another kind of pending catastrophe has loomed over our heads, nestling in the back of our minds. “What are we going when climate change begins?” is what you can almost see people silently thinking to themselves. Suddenly we have awoken to find ourselves living through it; climate change is now. The voices in which we place our trust in telling us ‘what’s happening out there’ – news reporters, train station tannoy announcers – are repeating the words “extreme weather” or “adverse conditions” with an increasing frequency. However, it should no longer be seen as being ‘adverse’: this is it; this is the way it is going to be now.
Of course, it has been the reality in other countries, poorer countries in the global south, for some years previous; but over here, although it was on our television screens, and we knew it was happening, we never actually believed it was happening. The belief system/the dominant ideology was still functioning without cracks in its force-field. Because we largely kept the feelings about a looming terror to ourselves, we didn’t realise that everybody else was probably having very similar thoughts; and the mainstream media would report on the environment like an innocent that knew what had just occurred, but without the ability to relate it other occurrences and thus report on why it had occurred. This is what the theorist Slavoj Žižek using the ideas of psychoanalysist Jaques Lacan, refers to as ‘the big other’. ‘The big other’ is an ideological function, where any given individual believes that the other (everybody else) is thinking the opposite. Thus, distrusting our own thoughts, what we believe (as opposed to what we know) remains in line with what we think everybody else believes – “surely catastrophic climate change can’t really happen to us?”. But Žižek reminds us that ‘the big other’ does not exist. This year, right here in Britain, climate change suddenly seems very real indeed – ‘the big other’ doesn’t exist.
Something seems wholly different about the world when we step out of our ‘private bunkers’ and onto the streets. It suddenly comes to be recognised as a submerged world. Both literally, as the flood waters show no sign of residing (“will the floods ever leave now?”), and also as an analogy for a world that is suddenly so heavy with ominous anticipation for what may happen from one second to the next. Is there any light left in a submerged world for a soundtrack to run through your head? If so then it is by the artist Burial, the music of exhaustion, let down and loss; people’s heads weighing heavy as they make their way through storm-ravaged city streets. All other music, anger or anxiety-driven, now remains in the anticipatory, but not lived-reality of yesterday’s world.
Societies will adapt when there’s no choice, that’s for sure (or the ruling class, and its state apparatus, who stand in the way of adaptation would find itself at war with the rest of country), but whether individuals within that society are able to adapt psychologically to a new reality remains to be seen. According to Alt Sheffield, in an article in the city-based Now Then magazine about the necessity of growing as much food as possible within a city’s borough: “Britain has only about 3 days’ supply of food at any given time”. But it encouragingly says that “the community-level social interaction of allotments can dramatically improve peoples lives”.
This is just one example of many potential ways in which society would have to adapt. However, I think it remains to be seen whether individuals within a society would find a new reality more fulfilling (where we would have a society with a similar level of well-being to the often-mentioned high level of well-being brought about the necessity of communities pulling together during the big wars of the past) or whether society would be a landscape of beaten people, entombed in a state of painful disappointment and loss; people who had been mentally wired-up with the mores of what Jodi Dean calls ‘communicative capitalism’, who just cannot transcend the dreamscape that’s been fed into them. This dreamscape is part of an ‘anxiety package’ of drives that keep capitalism legitimate. The package includes acute unhappiness with the way things are, but the unhappiness often becomes a perverse enjoyment from inside the window of the western belief system, and may struggle to deal with itself with the coming collapse of this belief system. This will collapse happen; but it just remains to be seen whether or not there will be a catastrophic reaction caused by this within many peoples’ lives – what Franco Berardi calls a ‘psychic timebomb’.
All this remains to be seen, and will be seen. Because what is so clear now is that we cannot go back to yesterday’s world.
It is becoming clear to me that by desperately trying to collect and ‘itemise’ memories,you end up starving them of life – putting them into something that resembles an expansive yet underused ‘memory museum’ (a collection of dead things). Yet, inspite of this, I remain obsessed with time, captivated by the passing of it, that there is tantamount importance placed on personal memories in my life, almost in a king Canute-style attempt at stopping the flow of time. But I try in vain to stop the flow precisely because life doesn’t seem to move and alter with time anymore. And I think that the reason (which is certainly connected to the political/cultural dead end we’ve found ourselves in) is because the total recording (and instant availability) of all events around which memories form (think, for example, Youtube -a the photo-album of all that’s ever been, or Netflix ) has landed us in an ever-present, where there is no past as well as no future. And within such a reality, the unpreventable decay of all organic things is so much more painful.
It is likely that a major player in the reason why I post my writings on here is possibly the futile desire to make sure my thoughts really do exist upon the melancholy ‘computer world’, where any organic happening, that doesn’t have its computerised stunt-double upon it is threatened with never actually existing anyway. After all, I am still pretty-much an arm-chair thinker, a writer from the ‘lay’ community; having to drop out of a culture studies Masters, and having a pretty weak range of sources from which I quote. This is partly why, even though I write as much as I draw, I pull the writing under the ‘artist umbrella’, from where it will be more accepted, within a ‘specialisation’ I actually completed a degree in.
So then. Recently I felt an urge to track down the Sci Fi cop-drama Ashes to Ashes (the follow-up TV series to the popular Life on Mars) where a woman on the verge of death in 2008 finds herself transported into the early 1980’s – it remaining uncertain whether it is a dream or she really has travelled back in time . My urge to track it down had nothing to do with whether the program was any good or not, but to do with being tempted to preserve the unpreservable: a memory that, during the last 5 years since I was an over-tired armchair-bound spectator of bits of the series, has accumulated not nostalgia but a longing for a feeling from my past to exist now. Originally I saw a clip that contained music by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (specifically their late 70’s early 80’s music) which prompted me to investigate their music that itself serves as a time-capsule of a past that seemed to be in control of both its present and therefore had anticipation of its future. And the music stuck, became wrapped up with the memories of the show, and many personal feelings from that year (2009).
The inevitable inability of the actual series being able to live up to the memories, prompted me to move onto Life on Mars itself, from where I remembered a rather interesting blog written about the TV series by one of the very theorists I overuse to the extent that my poor range of sources is proven: Mark Fisher’s blogs ‘The Past is an Alien Planet’ and ‘Mitigated Nostalgia‘, written in 2007 about both the problem with Life on Mars and the then new Doctor Who series.
Both shows are nostalgic: Dr Who in trying to resurrect something lodged in British cultural memory of the mid 20th century, in the 2000’s, and Life on Mars in trying to actually resurrect that very time-period on screen. Fisher argues that they do not succeed and gives reason as to why this may be in our non-times when everything that has been recorded, as long as you have constant web access and active web accounts (which, most likely, you do) is more or less always at hand. Fisher wonders, with doubt, whether “the new series of Dr Who, which continues to frustrate and disappoint, will be remembered as the old one was. In the period before re-runs on digital channels and VHS re-issues, the old show existed only in the form of memory, of course. In the case of many of the episodes from the 1960s, long since wiped by the BBC, this remains so”
Fisher here Places an importance on the difference between memories and the resurrection of every media artifact around which the memories originally grew out of. This began with the availability of VHS/cassette-tape recordings (although cassette recordings had a character specific to each individual tape that none of the following devices for music storage would have) and has thus-far resulted in seemingly being able to track down any media artifact on the web within a minute of memorising it. He refers to Jean Baudrillard’s remarks “that computers do not have memory because they cannot forget” – if everything can be recollected then memory does not exist. But ,frighteningly, “digital memory” is beginning to be used instead of real memory, and, I would argue, a sense of tragedy, ensues.
“These augmented recollections, these re-dreamings, inevitably had the richness that actual episodes, when they were available again, could not match, damaging the reputation of the previously celebrated”. Is Youtube (to pick an example) a memory graveyard (the vitality of the original memory drained the moment it appears online)? Once you know that it is extremely likely that the artifact exists in digital memory on the ‘computer world’ the temptation to seek it out is often too great; the argument not to seek it is very weak, as it is nigh on impossible to practice a life without access to these digital memories.
In this time there is no time, because everything is ever-present. In this context the past can no longer exist, and regarding Life on Mars, Fisher say that it “is a 73 that doesn’t feel lived in. The actual post-psychedelic, quasi-Eastern Bloc seediness of the 70s is unretrievable; kitsch wallpaper and bell bottoms are transformed instantly into Style quotations the moment the camera falls upon them”. Yet as, he points out, digital memory doesn’t forget, and, as our culture devoid of time increasingly has to rely on referencing a past “that every cultural object from 1963 on has been so thoroughly, forensically, mulled over that nothing can any longer transport us back…”
In a blog I wrote well over a year ago, called Miles Away, I commented on how an emotional response to (in this case) a music track that memories had grown around is often only now achieved by listening to (mainly sonically-innefficient) adaptations of the originally-heard track; “Not as good quality, not as good versions, cover versions, poor live performances, these [are often the only ways to] rejuvenate shivers in me that the original/and landmark (to my ear) ones can no longer create.”. A memory kept half alive by imperfect representation of a song. But almost in a direct response to the melancholia of the takeover of ‘digital memory’, there seems to be something particularly captivating about 8-bit-computer-game-style remakes of classic tracks. Maybe through them we have an emotional outlet for the loss of vitality that ‘digital memory’ has done to all cultural artifacts?
How to move beyond this ever-present I am not sure. Meanwhile the organic, normal decaying process of life, and the collapse of planetary eco-system becomes more unbearable as cultural experience remains frozen in this ‘digital memory’. It gives us less means to be able to come to term with death. But this in turn encourages us to try to immortalise our lives, by constantly documenting and referencing everything we have done, seen, heard or felt. This, to be honest, was the sources of the doubts I had about my own actions, that originally prompted me to post this blog.
I got thinking today about whether Lego is the most useful toy for explaining to children how the world really works, regarding the temporality of what you build, its entropic nature. Whatever you build with Lego (or Lego-like bricks) will have to be taken down (usually blocking access to something in the household) at some point. The child knows this, and becomes accepting of this reality. Even though Lego is plastic, and (unless burnt into toxic fumes) will outlast us, whatever you build won’t. All other toys break as well, but it is/was a terrible, unexpected event when they did.
Maybe Lego is a toy that helps us come to terms with capitalism’s imposition of an even more rapid impermanence on the world? Yet, as much as the so-called ‘creative destruction” that capitalism imposes on us makes everything impermanent, its reality-grip is seen as permanent through the dominant discourse and memes of the day. Yet, for this reason those who have the power to make decisions that affect us all treat whatever they’re planning on doing as something that will last forever; or that the world that they’re making these plans within will be like this forever.
Maybe those decision-makers had grander toys, bigger, faster, more expensive toys than other children, that solidified a sense of lasting, unthreatened entitlement in their young minds, never having their child-world reality altered by those doubts that most children have when their boundless wishes are left unfulfilled by parents struggling to do their best. Take HS2 (the proposed high-speed train network) for example. As well as its proposal being a publicity-gimmick, it is being planned around a reality, that isn’t just capitalist, but a particular stage of capitalism reliant on London’s financial empire, that necessitates an a nationwide-structure geared towards London-commuting, until towns as far north as Doncaster and Wakefield become commuter towns for the capital. But, regardless of the looming challenges to it in the form of frequent weather disruptions, a likely-continual hemorrhaging of workers, will this reality still hold sway by the time HS2 would be complete? I doubt it.
It is also an act of childishness. Competing against all other nation states that are desperate to be seen as one the big boys – to see who has the biggest, most fancy toys. From what I remember of childhood Lego moments, it was a far more co-operative toy, unlike toy guns, and of-the-moment action figures (made ‘must haves’ by popular cartoons/films) where it basically all boiled down to wanting it either to keep up with piers or the ‘beat’ them. No doubt today’s decision-makers had the biggest of toys, that would have blown our more lowly competing groups out of the water. Giving them an unchallenged feeling of having a right to things, lasting from childhood to Oxbridge, or any other Hogwarts-esq bastions of entitlement.
Ok, so maybe the Lego thing is a bit far-fetched, and a bit of a weak-link to put too much emphasis on. But it has here been a key that has unlocked a lot of my other thoughts that were bashing against closed doors in my mind as I made my way through a rainy Sheffield city centre that seems to possess more tragic figures existentially and financially displaced by ‘progress’ by the day. It helped here raise an important issue that people will undoubtedly respond to the world through the cultural values that are handed them as children; from the ways they play to what and who they play with.
Personally-speaking, before I my age was in double-figures, I lived in a car-less household, where walking was essential, and as a result a feeling of common-ownership for the surrounding environment ensued (hence the slow and muted horror as, year by year, interests with property rights to the landscape chewed it up for this and that purpose related to the aforementioned imposed hyper-impermanence by capitalist dynamics). However, I was also brought up in a, then, poor household, where, even though I initially felt I got a sufficient amount of toys, young friends around me (who’s families weren’t struggling as much financially) would love to show me that their toys were bigger, fancier, and more expensive.
Such things can foster low self esteem. Yes, friends hand down toys, lend you them (we were surrounded by generous family friends), but there remains this feeling that “you’re not the entitled one – that’s other children, not you”. I remember going to see an exhibition of the fossilised remains of dinosaur skeletons at York Museum aged 9, the first time I had ever seen such things through my own eyes; I remember that the excitement I felt was challenged by a sense of doubt that more or less said “I’m not worthy/I don’t feel special enough to view such things”.
Now this isn’t a self-pitying exercise, but remembering it has helped me understand how some people grow up feeling that they aren’t as good as others in a culture that is both driven by dynamic competition and at the same time an unshifting hierarchy of social privilege for some. When you feel less worthy, you feel less capable and thus your approach to life is infantilised. If one sensation stuck whilst out and about today, it was a refusal to treat-as-normal, and to lay down and accept my place, in a society at its most hierarchical since the Second World War. Some are born into an environment that makes them feel entitled to be in the high places in society, whilst most others grow up feeling inferior, constantly held back by an overriding feeling in certain situations that says “I’m not good enough to do that” or “I don’t belong in such a place”, with the further psychological pressure due to the increasing addition of household-anxiety over whether bills can be paid the next month.
At the moment we are being bombarded by a disproportionately-well-equipped right-wing media artillery, that has in its sights the destruction of the remaining social security gained by the lower sections of society during the past century. The word I used above, entitled, is used frequently here, but it is aimed at those at the bottom of a society, using grossly exaggerated propaganda (yes, propaganda) to make the working poor see the non-working poor as their enemy in trying to make ends meet. What we hear is “people think they’re entitled to benefits”. However, this is a section of society rendered surplus to requirements by capitalist dynamics once it destroyed the unionised industrial bases in western countries such as the UK. But the assault didn’t end there; an increasingly growing number of individuals are falling into this category, as paid work becomes rarer and rarer. These are the sections of society that have endured a systematic corrosion of self-worth, do not feel entitled, they have been made to feel that they offer no value to society, they feel the opposite of entitlement. I say feel, because, due to the demise of collective consciousness, they have no means to explain their predicament; they are trapped in a endless series of days, getting through them the best means they can; “being poor is a full time job” (David Graeber).
Is it surprising that child well-being in the UK is so low? I cannot begin to imagine what impact the contemporary level of competitiveness for the poor and privilege for the rich must be having on the minds of children growing up into lower income families especially. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘old boy’s network’ is visibly running the show again, for the first time in years it seems to feel that it can confidently show its face(s) – children who have been reared feeling they have the right to take the highest place/jobs in society, and have the confidence to do just this. It is thus not at all in the interest of the upper strata of society to take seriously, or even acknowledge, the damaging impact on self-worth, feelings of inferiority, that class injustice deals out (using the word ‘class carefully, as the lower sections of society are the only one who seem to be denied class consciousness in contemporary Britain); it is in their interest to promote the idea that the people highest in society are the most talented and most deserving, and have earned their right to do so, and they make a good-sell of this argument by using rare cases of individuals from unprivileged backgrounds who do fulfill their passions/childhood talents/interests. The term ‘social mobility’ wouldn’t even exist to be spouted at us by politicians and business gurus in a society where everyone began on equal footing to fulfill their talents/interests, and excellence wasn’t almost totally (mis)directed to entrepreneurialism in a sink or swim reality.
I apologise if the use of the word Lego in the title has brought people who were generally intrigued by the toy reference into a full-blown rant against the state of things; but the state of things is currently criminal and should be directed in front on our gaze as much as possible until we exit the psychological bunker of denial and start thinking about ways we can make things different. I also find a re-examination of my childhood often tells me more about the place in society I have found myself in than my current position. Not that it should be an excuse for remaining as a person who apologises to people when they’re the ones who’ve erred, and often cowers into a disheveled posture out of bouts of inferiority feelings, but it does allow for a clearer understanding of the injustices of growing up in a society where the children of the ‘winners’ (still) nearly always take all.
Even though I intend this blog to be about my own responses and reflections on music that has informed my understanding of life during the past 20 years, I have been motivated to write it in the first place due to being captivated by the thoughts of many cultural theorists ; in particular, Mark Fisher and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. It is very likely that their thoughts on popular culture within the past 60 years have prompted me to internally revise my responses and reflections on music that has made an impact. But also, as in the case of Fisher’s writing on Joy Division, it has given courage to previously ‘unsure-of-themselves-thoughts’, realising certain drug-like-dependency-responses to the music (of Joy Division) weren’t an oddity, and immature as I’d previously dismissed them as being.
So… Here I have attempted to gather together songs that evoke in me a sense of a world once imaginable. A sensation that is both personal and social, because it is both within my lifetime and also stretching back beyond my life, fed into my understanding of the world as a young child, even as these ‘alternative worlds’ were fading and dying by the time I was born (1984). Sensations that once felt alive and now just have an haunting presence.
When did things begin to feel like they were no longer alive? And are wider cultural impacts internalised and lived by individuals acting within that society? I believe so, and I am convinced that I have indeed absorbed the wider mood into my own character.
During the past 35-40 years society has gradually become almost-totally saturated with the postmodernist logic. However, a term I find far more appropriate to describe this process would be Mark Fisher’s term ‘Capitalist Realism’: a cultural infliction that sustains an inability to be able to imagine a world beyond this increasingly stale, yet frightened, ever-present .I’d say full saturation happened somewhere between the late 1990’s ,the 9/11 horror spectacle, the damaged done to the belief in democracy due to the ineffective 2003 anti Iraq-War demonstrations, then to be compounded by the farce and global insult of the 2008 financial fiasco. This is certainly the case here in the U.K, if not most of the world.
I say this because even after Thatcherism’s ‘There is no alternative’ agenda (TINA) reigned triumphant in the 1980’s (that precipitated the dictatorship of individualism that began to make people ideologically blind to all things but their own reflection) there was still space for a rejuvenated feeling of a better world on its way in the late 80’s to mid 90’s. I think it is safe to say that this was largely instigated by events such as the fall of the Berlin wall, that symbolised the end of a globally disliked Soviet order/the cold war, and then a few years later what seemed like the end of Apartheid/the freeing of Nelson Mandela. But it was also instigated by the utopianism surrounding the beginnings of the digital/Internet revolution (before the very troubling realities became a spectacle spreading disbelief, from where nothing shocking could shock any longer). Basically a culture-wide naive optimism (blindness to the vacuum behind the big new brands that were promoting a golden new dawn; New Labour for example) led us to imagine and put expectation in what would slowly crack, break apart and melt away as we passed through the first decade of the 2000’s, revealing the cold and harsh real in ‘capitalist realism’. Now we are surrounded by the ghosts from these times; a faded colour, like the advertisement holdings left behind after the 2008 meltdown, fading away in the sharp light.
Basically, I (and probably nearly everybody else alive today – if they truthfully asked themselves) would wish the world to be different to how it is now – very different. I firmly believe that it shouldn’t have to be the way it is. And I will never be truly satisfied until it is no longer how it currently is – if that change occurs in my lifetime. Music that makes an impact on us can enable us to imagine the world as a different/better place, but for me at least, these days music is much more an enabler of a feeling that it just shouldn’t be like this (as it stands now). Thus music from a time in social or personal history (and I do my best to stress that both are infinitely interconnected) that evokes a feeling of the world being a different one, from the decaying social structure under capitalism that we feel stuck, haunts us, fills the space with these ghosts from the past. I suppose, before I go on to list the songs, the that this leaves me little choice but to stress the importance of popular music can play in our wish for a better world. Music cannot start a revolution (and in our times when we feel trapped in inaction, music that is angry with the state of things can often be merely cathartic; providing the feeling of action,rather than action itself), but it can, and has before, been a way of enabling an awareness of the possibility of change in society.
These songs either evoke a feeling of something lost, that seems irretrievable, or of a time in my life when I had optimism for a better world, that eventually dries in the successive vitality droughts brought on by let downs/disappointments. I have attempted to club the songs together where they relate to experience.
Kate Bush: Wuthering Heights.
On Youtube there exists a digitally stretched-out video of Kate Bush’s mystical-masterpiece Wuthering Heights – slowing down the track so that it lasts 36 minutes. I have never listened to all 36 minutes of it (I think I found the time to get 30 minutes through), but 4 minutes is enough to experience a strong hauntological presence in Kate Bush’s music – a background element that the stretching out of the song brings to the foreground. There is something of the uncanny about Kate Bush’s (specifically early) music, how it seems to be very much at home amidst the then-contemporary music of the late 1970’s/early 80’s, yet how it also seems to expand into a mythological England of yesteryear, whilst also seeming to stretch into a utopian future; a ghost in the machine/the record player.
I’ve heard the original record so much. It has been etched into my mind that it is a song I love. Yet the reasons for this are no longer conjured up by listening to it, as if repetitive playing on personal music players has drained these connections of vitality. Unable to access what made it sound so good all those years ago, I find this slowed-down version, whilst not being incredibly ‘listenable’, has hauntological traces of the impact the original record had on me, first as a very young child, when it became woven into my understanding of what good music is, and then aged 19/20 when it (and the rest of her earlier recordings) synchronised itself with a rejuvenated sense of vitality within me, largely based on the confidence making art gave me, and a naive belief that I had overcome the heavy negatives within me. Hauntology – as traces of something no longer present: I can no longer access what made the original sound so good to me, because they clung to a vitality that belongs in the past.
Some chart-moulded, nightclub-driven, songs accidentally reveal what they most commonly try to blot out of the audio-visual horizon: real melancholia, real loss. Informed by the hauntological revelations the stretch-out version of Wuthering Heights gave me, and the presence of (what sounds like) samples of upbeat songs from the (surface-level) upbeat 1990’s in the music of Burial, I wanted to play around with certain songs to unlock the hauntological ‘particles’ I was certain were present within them. With Every Heartbeat was one track I has been eager to stretch-out.
I recall hearing the late 00’s chart song some months after its release. It struck a chord with a peculiarly satisfying point of sadness/let down that came over me whilst I was waiting for friends returning from the bar in a expansive chain pub in Barnsley. The video for the song was playing on large screen whilst I sat, strangely captivated and moved by visuals that were incredibly ‘production-line-pop-music’. Yet it stuck, as it isn’t supposed to for a person who (at least then) still dressed and wrote music as if there was still a genuine oppositional alternative culture to a conservative mainstream.
Hearing it thereafter, it strangely became synchronised with the 2008 financial collapse and the resulting reality just a few months down the line from the aforementioned moment in the pub. It became a sound to represent a party that was just about to end, a party that had nonetheless frustrated most of its attendants (UK society), by being the only thing that there seemed left to do in a public-space-deprived, capitalist realist, credit-sustained existence, which often ended in tears and regret. It frustrated because during this period, the big night out had become the unacknowledged ‘dream-keeper’ of society; promising to fulfill or at least find us those human needs of love, happiness, meaning. Even before the crash this song felt like a sad wave goodbye to all this, as if you could sense it was over; “at least you gave us dreams, but I know now they’re about to go“. Of course, most UK towns still exist as the heavy-drinking wild-wests (at least to the sober) after 6pm, but it’s with an intensified bleakness, as if an entire scene could resemble one person’s drawn-face and lifeless eyes; we’re now just ghosts of our past reveling-selves, even more future-less than before, haunting places that once at least promised something, just going through the motions. With Every Heartbeat thus becomes very painful in this light.
Annex and Genetic Engineering – Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark [OMD] from the Peel sessions recordings
Jacques Derrida describes hauntology as “the accumulation of ghost-like traces of the past as we move further into the Future”. These Peel session recordings already sounded like a past I remembered from my early childhood when I heard this record in 2009, even though they are sounds that evoke an era that was more or less ending by the time I was born (but there again why is it that childhood memories seem to absorb things you can’t possibly remember because you weren’t born then? It is as if the preceding years come pre-packed in you, from your family and the surrounding environment). The sonic structure, the synth sounds that evoke a future which often feels like it lost the will to materialise, remind me of a 1980’s I was in reality too young to remember.
“These are the lies they told us, that this is the only way” – Genetic Engineering. “This is the only way” is more than certainly an highly concerned ‘NO’ response to Thatcherism’s “there is no alternative [to capitalism”] assertion. Back then, however, it was an assertion, now it has become a cultural reality. In the summer of 2009, I was listening to this record whilst making my drawings in a studio in South Yorkshire, mixed with day trips to the nearest big financial and consumer centre, Leeds. I regret what happened that year, I regret what was probably inevitable in my life as if it wasn’t inevitable at all: the loss of the last bits of my early 20’s vitality, as I forced myself to take the issues seriously that has been running around my head for years, which forced me to look deeply into capitalism, climate change, and thus having to face the harsh truth that life will get less and less bearable by the year, unless something drastic changes.I am certain that the ghosts in the OMD-machine from the pre ‘capitalist realist’ gravitated towards the ghost-in-becoming of what died in me in 2009, and now listening to Annex and Genetic Engineering from the Peel Sessions is an haunting of both of these things as if they were the same thing.
Trans Europe Express, and Autobahn by Kraftwerk
Despite the Middle East oil crisis of 1973 – the impact it had on culture that would now have to take seriously the fact that resources and material advancement may not be infinite after all – Autobahn from 1974 seems to evoke a time when those things were firmly believed. The lush, superrealist album cover, and the bold step into ‘synthesiser-world’ look forwards to the future with wonder and excitement. Kraftwerk’s 1970’s work oozes the modernist impulse, and sometimes feels like music that could accompany modernist painting from 50 years prior to Kraftwerk. More than anything it sounds like a future that never came. Listening to Kraftwerk is (to paraphrase John Berger) nostalgia for the future. In current times, not even cultural products labelled ‘Science Fiction’, pulped into cultural white noise by an over-emphasis on CGI graphics, can generate a feeling of a future.
Kraftwerk’s music is music that carries ‘the new’, and, like the darker-underbellly-of-progress synthesiser music of John Foxx, it still maintains the essence of something new now. It has almost remained frozen, in radiant youth, in the age of retrospect and re-hash that came into being afterwards. I heard both of these albums at different points of ‘fresh feeling’ within myself. Stepping onto one of few the trains that arrive on time, and listening to Trans Europe Express I could half convince myself I was in a future that took a different track (no pun intended). In a similar way to the aforementioned OMD tracks above both the idea of a an era of new, and a feeling of the new within me, became attached and synonymous: the music now evokes the traces of them.
Dog Shelter and Unite by Burial
If I am to use Burial’s music here, it is to state with honesty, that my a lot of interest in hauntology was inspired by reading Mark Fisher’s thoughts on Burial, and my subsequent interest gained in the music itself. But the haunting feelings I had when I listened to the music were quite specific to my own personal experiences. Dog Shelter, a track from the Untrue album, particularly evoked this feeling. It now evokes memories of sat waiting for train in Sheffield train station, early summer 2012. Trying to think about whether or not I can make it to south London to go and study a masters. Burial is from South London, apparently. This made the music stick more.
Was thinking about my past, my memories of my ‘worldly-outlook’ in the early 1990’s; that this song seems to have ghostly traces of certain ‘feel good’ songs that remind me of the early 1990’s, even if what I remember was mostly the mainstream music from this period. It’s My Life/Rhythm is a Dancer/No Limits/The key The Secret; a chunk of early 1990’s optimism poured into the mind of a 8/9 year old, for whom previous to that remembers all people projected into the living room from screens as stale, white, head-teacher-like people (in hindsight, probably Tories on the Sunday politics shows of back then). Whilst also these projected music videos seem to include mixed-race, exciting-looking (largely) females, especially from someone coming from a town where there must have been only 1 non-white person for every 1000 inhabitants. It was an exciting future, that slowly dried up, not least down to (what is clear in hindsight) the white public schoolboy culture-coup ‘Britpop’ that basically banished all that wasn’t white boy guitar music, that (again in hindsight) belonged in the past, to ‘towny’ (soon-to-be ‘chav’), ‘degenerate’ music, and helped tear up a future Britain in exchange for a Britain based on an idyllic collage of its past. Burial, two decades on, seems, for me to be a ghostly ‘what-the-hell-happened-to-that-early-90’s-vitiality’ ode, mixed with the dangers of an uncertain age of climate and political uncertainties. Listening to it before I went to London made me feel really solemn about the past, and how all that feel good optimism has vanished. But that a new start was needed, maybe to leave the past behind now; stop letting it haunt me. The plan to go to London was not successful though, and Burial’s music has subsequently taken on another layer of traces of a lost energy.
Unite specifically evokes a chilling feeling of the near future, regarding the threat of climate change, political/social chaos in the near future. Memory of song: early Spring 2012. An haunting sound,(like sound of long-gone city rippling through time) that gave me image of people finding love, as things begin to fall apart – gave me the chills. Like a musical response to Jean Baudrillard’s ask, specific to our postmodern time, to see apocalypse as something that has already occurred. Faint noises,like trains at night,are like the memory of having dreams, having a future. As if we’re now just going through motions until it peters out.Music that is in its essence brave, the noise of facing the storm not burying one’s head
Coming from someone who’s life lived has bared witness to the slow decline, stagnation, and retreat of progressive dynamics in pop music, this song almost seems to sound as if it is a vessel carrying all the break-neck-speed at which pop music progressed from the 1950’s to more or less the date the album Dare (which contains Seconds) appeared (in 1981). It is powerful, energetic, yet strangely tear-jerking at the same time. The sadness doesn’t lay with the song’s subject matter because of a famous president (John.F.Kennedy) being shot, but because the assignation itself is one of a few 20th century horror-spectacles that seem to capture the tragedy that befell the century, as the expectation of progress (that a “better world is around the corner”) collapsed.
Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes about how “in the last three decades of the [twentieth century] the utopian imagination was slowly overturned. and has been replaced by a dystopian imagination”. Although the assignation of John.F.Kennedy was in the early 1960’s, still a point of ‘high modernism’, retrospectively it literally appears as one of a few bullets that eventually brought the belief in a future crashing to the ground; and I am in no way arguing here that John.F.Kennedy himself was a man who would have been a major player in this, if at all, just that his killing was one of civilsation’s ‘disaster spectacles’. Pop Music’s progressive, modernist impulse was a short-sharp surge in comparison with the rest of modernism. But, again retrospectively-speaking, Seconds by the Human League is a song that visualises something like a bullet fired into the heart of a past world that believed in a future.
In his recent film ‘A Perverts Guide to Ideology’ Slavoj Žižek ends the film by quoting Walter Benjamin from almost a century ago, saying that “every revolution (if authentic) is not only directed to the future, but it redeems also the past failed revolutions. All the ghosts…the living dead of the past revolutions, which are roaming around, unsatisfied, will finally find their home in the new freedom”. To return to what I said earlier, I would not consider for one moment that music could play an active role in a revolution (that in our times when we feel trapped in inaction, music that is angry with the state of things can often be merely cathartic; providing the feeling of action,rather than action itself), but isn’t Žižek’s above use of Benjamin’s quote most noticeably happening right now in our times through our audio/visual culture, the still mainly consists of cultural products made 30-50 years ago? Are we not at this moment surrounded by most ghosts from past failed revolutions that any other time in human history? The question is then, will these ghosts “find their home in [a] new freedom”? Or will this state of long decline just continue to be a dumping ground for them?