“They keep calling me”
Amidst the pretty stark turbulence I experienced as 2015 began I became obsessed with trying to write something about Joy Division’s eternal-presence in my life. But I never got anywhere, convincing myself it needed to be a project of a sizable, I-know-everything-about-Joy-Division, quality due to the task of writing about one of those bands guarded with pitchforked-opinions by musos. But it felt crucial for me to write something both for myself, and for the reason brilliantly articulated in Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life: “If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listen to Joy Division now and you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channeling our present, their future. From the start their work was overshadowed by a deep foreboding , a sense of a future foreclosed, all certainties dissolved , only growing gloom ahead.” (Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, 2014).
Ben Hewitt’s article Joy Division: 10 of The Best, in the guardian this week, gave me an motivational template: I’d use a selection their songs to expand on all this stuff about the band that I have been driven to tell people in pubs for the past 3 years. But I don’t have any desire to write about a fave song list per se: the album tracks I reference gain a great deal of their significance when listened to within the context of the entire album (this should seem obvious, but in the Ipod age, the ‘shuffle’ features heavily in the way we listen to music). I also wanted to use individual tracks to explain how the din of their resonance seems to get louder and louder the further we (in UK terms) descend further into the Thatcherite experiment that may finally be coming to end… “this dream it takes too long”. And although I found only managed to write about 7 songs, they were more than sufficient. Thus I have proceeded in writing the blog I’ve been wishing to write all these years.
In the past few years it seems overwhelmingly the case that we are looking back to a certain time for answers to a present day inertia. Yet we don’t seem to realise that this is what we’re doing, and so just continue doing it blindly. Cultural artifacts from the 70’s into the early eighties seem to be constantly at hand for reference on all media platforms. For example, Ben Hewitt’s article: although I think it’s brilliantly written in its own right (far more imaginative use of language than I could ever achieve), and it creatively touches upon material that relates to their ‘channeling of the present’, it also seems oblivious to it. When he writes of Dead Souls that “…Curtis sounds like he’s being pulled by ghostly apparitions, trapped in a place “where figures from the past stand tall / And mocking voices ring the halls”…” isn’t the most ghostly aspect of all in how this perfectly describes our relationship to Joy Division in the 21st century? Such articles and documentaries don’t seem to understand the motive behind their accumulative coming-into-being 35 years after Ian Curtis killed himself. Of the 7 Joy Division songs I have picked, I have tried, when possible to introduce them in relation to personal experiences, 1. Disorder
“Could these sensations make me feel the pleasures of a normal man?”
It must have been 2010; in that murky moment between something bad (New Labour) and something worse (all-out-Tory Class War-disguised as ‘the coalition’). Up until now Joy Division had been off my succession of cheap mp3 players for a few years – having told myself that the obsession I had with them in my early 20’s, some five years back into the thick of Blair’s Britain, had been a sign of immaturity, and that they’re subsequent increasing popularity was no more than a Topshop accessory. As the fall of 2010 arrived with the threat of immobilising snow storms entrenching a deeper existential inertia, it all reversed, and I found myself hurtling back towards some kind of early 20’s point.
We were drinking at a friend’s flat in the back-end of Barnsley- one of those new-build apartment complexes, squeezed in amidst unhappy-looking Victorian terraces still stained by the soot of a vanquished industry. A few cans downed and then it was time to head into town, myself regrettably still hooked the mirages of fulfilled hopes and dreams that coated the shell of the so-called Blair-year Party-times. But this was now descending into its zombie stage.
We came to an agreement that we needed a ‘going out song’, and we chose Disorder. The throbbing beat of the bass drum kicked in, and the trance-like state took over for the first time in years. This wasn’t a flashback, as I was back there again. The way my slightly inebriated friends were moving around the room, getting seduced into the whirlpool-like nature of Disorder when played at volume, made me realise that this wasn’t some “Lets all dance to Joy Division” indie-cool trend: this was real. My early twenties-daily dependency on Unknown Pleasures didn’t seem so weird any more. My friends may or may not have been depressed, but they existed, like me, in secretly-depressed times. At that point, despite differences in opinion of the severity the global and social issues outside the window, Joy Division felt like understanding of life that we all shared.
The insightful left-wing group Plan C convincingly argue, in their essay We are all Very Anxious that anxiety is the dominant ‘public secret’ of this current stage of capitalism (which doesn’t mean to say that other negative emotions have disappeared, just that this is the definitive one of our age). By ‘public secret‘ it is meant that it is “…something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about. …[W]hen discussed at all, they are understood as individual psychological problems, often blamed on faulty thought patterns or poor adaptation”.
I would add that there are two public secrets; the anxiety we endure being the first, and the second being that we exist in ‘depressed times’, and many of us spend much of our lives rocking painfully back and forth from anxiety to depression. But what is incredibly important here is that Joy Division share the public secret with us, ‘catatonically channeling our present’ as Mark Fisher says. What makes Disorder so [Unknown]pleasurable is that it shares that publicly hidden anxiety with us. It speaks about something we normally have to hide. The guitar riff between verses is so riddled with panic it is intoxicating, it recognises the pain that is otherwise barred an outlet.
From 2010 onwards I remembered what this music did for me. How it’s darkness was often a life-saver. Perhaps a necessity as I stared down the barrel of a nastier, more Tory reality. As the drums continue to smash out in a death-drive whilst the rest of song exhausts itself into finitude, Disorder becomes an introduction to a record that makes no emotional compromises; doesn’t pretend things are OK; makes no effort to pretend it sees a bright side to life. And this is why from this point onwards it resumed it’s place as a make-shift prescription tablet ‘day in day out’, from 2010 onwards.
“I’ve lost the will to want more, but I remember when were young”
The mid years of New Labour were a weird time for those of us in our late teens and early twenties. So many people I thought were sorted were actually in a real mess, trapped between small-town college courses they had no interest in and bleak job prospects, propped up by bi-weekly drug or drink intake. I never put 2 and 2 together at the time. One friend from back then spoke of his recent depressive spell: “It’s like somebody flicks a switch, and I’m gone for days on end.” The minute-long opening to the track Insight has something of the uncanny about it. The soundscape of lift-shafts moving and doors locking is so close to epitomising the nausea-like continual-return of depression it’s almost an unreal sensation as the shivers go down your back and you think “fuck me, that’s exactly how it is!”.
I was pleased Ben Hewitt included it in his list of songs, although it’s with tracks like Insight that I come to realise that listing album songs merely for their individual qualities is somewhat lacking. Insight’s intro is the seminal moment in Unknown Pleasures. Even after the self-destruction of Disorder, and building terror in The Day of Lords, there is still potentially room for another world, another way. But Unknown Pleasures is the world of the depressive; once that door locks the depression sufferer knows all-too-wll what world we’re in; he/she knows that feeling of that ‘locked door’, once you’re inside “gone for days on end”. Insight plays the pivotal role in signifying that this is no ordinary record; you’re entering a specific world, at which point sufferers of repetitive bouts of depression have a moment of strength due to being able to invite others into it. It has much the same relationship as Heart and Soul does on their second album ‘Closer’ – the position of the sorcerer’s hand, dictating the overall direction of the record. Their producer Martin Hannett was clearly quite unique, his ability to conjure the soundscape around Joy Division’s tracks is so fitting the only word you could use in hindsight of what Joy Division became is ‘perfection’. It now almost seems like he was electronically connected to Ian Curtis’s emotional state, forcing him to be the cypher for our present day cyberspacially-fucked subjectivities.
Insight makes sense of what has been and what is to come from the viewpoint of clinical depression. But if we are to conclude that we live in a secretly-depressed time, then that sense seems far more wide-spread than merely being down to personal shortcomings. Insight really does channel something. The world they and their post-punk contemporaries saw/foresaw, one where social democracy was crumbling under a return of more powerful and relentless capitalism, where industry no longer needed them, no longer of value to society, well all that never went away. All that happened was that it was buried under the incessant command to be positive and proactive in the market fundamentalist economy that requires us to be market individuals, where opting out of the game is all but impossible without dying as it seeps into all potential waking (sleeping) moments due to computer technologies. This sense of having “no future” actually intensified, but was barred an expressive outlet amidst an intensifying downpour of aspirational dogma. I think this is why these days we so often find ourselves praising certain artists from the Post-Punk-New Wave crossover of the late 70’s to early 80’s, because that period seemed to be a ‘breathing space’ for raw emotional response to the early days of the Thatcherite transformation, before it became so entrenched that raw expression became so much harder to articulate; a ‘reflexive impotence’ (Fisher) that not only affects our ability for political engagement but also our emotional expression – “smile or die”.
I have previously written about this uncanny-like-relationship music from this period has with our contemporary situation. It’s like what happened from then onwards was some sort of icing over, and that we now stare at these voices as if they have been frozen in time, floating underneath the ice. I wrote previously of Kate Bush and Joy Division in particular. I think of the music video to Kate Bush’s Breathing (based on nuclear war – another issue that, although as relevant today, seems frozen into a 70’s/80’s time-pocket), and the images of her trapped behind the see-through skin of the bubble she is encased in seems to pretty-much visualise what I mean here. Perhaps the drive towards retrospection in this current moment is due to a slow-awaking to the horrifying future-less reality we actually exist in, finding ourselves with no choice but to push away all the hyperbole that disguised this truth to us from its onset there-on-after? 3. Novelty
“You’re on your own now, don’t you think that is a shame, but you’re the only one responsible to take the blame…so what you gonner do when the novelty is gone, ?”
A sense of loss. Novelty was actually one of the first Joy Division songs I ever listened to. Aged 18 (2002), it was a cassette featuring a Joy Division compilation on the one side, and Television’s Marquee Moon on the other. It signaled the end of teenage life. I was experiencing my first ‘They Live’ moment (where he puts on the sunglasses and sees the Real), when the comforts and sugary surface of the social construction fell away, leaving me shit-scared of a world my nervous system has no way of coming to terms with. It resurfaced into 2012 when my messy inability to adjust to a Masters course in 21st century London made me face the truth that I my youth had now come to an end, with no progression to another stage of life on the horizon.
I reference these two points because I think it is arguably most tragic of their songs, because it seems to document the point of loss – that point where a little something of you dies inside, from which ‘New Life’ proves impossible for many. Mark Fisher in his 2005 Kpunk blog The Nihil Rebound (published in Ghosts of My Life, and probably the strongest piece on Joy Division I know of) writes that “what separated Joy Division from any of their predecessors” was that their “bleakness was without any specific cause… …crossed the line from the blue of sadness into the black of depression, passing into the ‘desert and wastelands’ where nothing brings either joy or sorrow…Curtis sang ‘I’ve lost the will to want more’ on ‘Insight’ but there was no sense that there had been any such will in the first place”.
Yet I don’t think Novelty does this: it is even more tragic in that it evokes the act of loss. For me Novelty shares the same emotional space as The Smiths’ This Night Has Opened My Eyes (“and I will never sleep again”), the result of which Morissey sang he neither “happy or sad”, just numb. The songs evokes a point of departure. The Smiths, hailing from the same city, would (in my opinion) not make a song that came as close to the point of bleakness as this, whilst for Joy Division it signals the point of departure to “a bleakness without any cause”. 4. Digital
“Feel it closing in. Day in Day out”
As 2005 got messier and messier, I briefly entered a wider social group including of a group of lads from the incredibly-deprived former pit villages of the Dearne Valley (Thurnscoe to be exact), and a group from former mining communities straggling between Wakefield, Barnsley and Hemsworth. All of the places somewhat left abandoned after the pit closures, and which saw our area of South/West Yorks (Darton) as posh – a consequence of us getting the M1, and it becoming a split community of tepidly-affluent commuter houses at one side and council houses built for coal miners at the other.
Sections of this wider group would end up fighting and momentarily-despising each other (mainly over women), and each constituting a more-or-less ‘with it’ group leader and many emotional or physical wrecks. The Dearne Valley lot had no time for Joy Division’s near-death finale Closer, but were obsessed with Unknown Pleasures (and the album tracks most akin the Unknown Pleasures sound), even wearing the album-sleeve t-shirt. I would’ve thought it a fashion accessory back then, until I realised how much of a ‘fucked up’ generation I belonged to, and why such music may just appeal to these people.
“Let’s All Dance to Joy Division” was a track by a then in-vogue indie-cool outfit The Wombats (to which you WON’T find a link on here). It seemed to treat their surging popularity as something with a comical tint to it, as if we were all easy-come easy-go hipsters unaffected by REAL shit. But I saw no joke in what these tracks meant to me, at a very turbulent point, and even 25 years after they ceased to be. Before the death of small town student nights, the customary dingy indie night club would play non-album-track Digital for us every Wednesday, demanded as necessity and eventually granted.
If it weren’t so minimal the message would be lost. The song is like a drill piece, which, like the outro solo to Shadowplay, is violently unwilling to divert from it’s acceleration towards a dead end. It is 3 minutes of medicinal joy, an energy-release from the general continuity of mild-distress. “I feel it closing in”. If one sensation is necessarily put to the back of the minds of those who hit their twenties in the post 9/11/post Iraq invasion world of increasing cyberspace-interpenetration, it is one of being on borrowed time; where the future has imploded and is hurtling back towards us. ‘Stay young – what else is there anyway?’. With our hands perpetually hovering over our panic buttons, and our feet walking a tightrope above depressive dysfunction, Joy Division’s chaotic hell begins to arrange the look of the world in a way we can deal with. A way we could deal with, back then, when I for one most certainly relied on their music for survival at the most unstable of points. And yes, we did dance to Joy Division. 5. Decades
“Here are the young men, the weight on their shoulders”
Decades, the final song on their second (and last album) begins with a soundscape the feels like entering some sort of bone-yard-remnant of unquantifiable suffering- but a suffering being undertaken with total indifference. Again, Hannet’s soundscaping seems, in hindsight, so close to a putting the seal of inevitability over Curtis’s then-imminent suicide, that you often wonder if he truly was a man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time: a tortured pop artist, radical to the cause, caught in the crusher of one huge transformation paving the way for the a much worse world: one lacking a future. The chilling intro conjures to mind a scenario similar to the raising of the skeletal dead from a parched graveyard on one of the most unnerving of Ray Harryhausen‘s stop-frame-motion scenes in the 1962 film production of Jason and the Argonauts.
Decades doesn’t just seem to drag behind it the weight on the shoulders of the punk/post-punk generation, it seems to drag the ghosts of all previous proletarian generations, embodying the destruction of all that the working classes had worked for/fought for. Not only do Curtis’s vocals sound like the voices of the dead accidentally picked up on a tape recorder, but it is as if our forefathers are raised, bent and buckled by two centuries of exploitation, to see the future they believed they were building for their grandchildren crumbling into wasteland.
“I guessed they died some time ago” (Interzone, Unknown Pleasures)
Joy Division were beyond a cause, and weren’t political, even when Curtis sang of the worst excesses of unaccountable power. But without meaning to or not, they remain a cypher for the collapse of a humanist future, the swansong of a post-punk movement that woke up to the depressive reality of the no-such-thing-as society-nihilism that was Punk’s rallying call; the ‘spirit of ’45’ had been buried and a new nastier phase was on the cards. Curtis’s own political leanings and obsessions were more collateral damage than anything, conveying a sense of despondency with the course being taken by humanity, who seemed too far gone to be able to threat any longer over rights and wrongs. As I said before, this despondency articulated by post-punk never went away, but has been largely denied a contemporary articulation due to appropriation of any idea of individual expression into ‘market individualism’. Consequently their legacy grows larger and larger. Collateral damage indeed.
Ten years later The La’s, a Liverpudlian band, fronted by Lee Mavers, who was hell-bent in trying to make the best pop album in years, closed their only album with two tracks that seem to be living through Post-Punk’s anticipated breakdown in a city smashed by the Tories, Failure and Looking Glass. After the defeat of working class solidarity by Thatcherism in the 80’s, The La’s’ self-titled album now seems to make more sense in 2015 than it’s more lauded ‘Madchester’ contemporaries whose energies were far more easily subsumed into a more omnipotent capitalism’s demand that we enjoy our servitude. Although stylistically following the late ’80’s guitar-band tendency of looking back to the 60’s for solace, the lyrics to the La’s’ Failure “So you open the door with the look on your face. Your hands in your pocket and your family to face, and you go down stairs and you sit in your place” could easily have found a fitting place within Decades. But the incessant demand to ‘dance, dance, dance to our servitude‘ of neoliberal capitalism is wearing thinner and thinner by the day. I think the increasing popularity of Joy Division with young people is a sign of this, even if there little self awareness of the motive.
“there’s a taste in my mouth as desperation takes hold/heaven knows it’s got to be this time …..avenues all lined with trees.”
It’s early 2002. I’m a anti-social 18 year old, plugged into his cassette tapes, still capable of day-dreaming in the learning centre of a now-demolished college. A tune comes back into my head from some early childhood point. This was a few years before the days where a tune could be found in just a matter of seconds after remembering it. If this could be classed as memory at all: as memories for me seem more akin to the pre-digital-tech cassette player, in how the original pitch of a track always seems to be lost in translation; a memory/cassette-tape error that allows for a unique relationship with a tune. This only really became apparent after I recently re-watched the film Donni Darko; Love Will Tear us Apart features on the film, and I am convinced that it plays at an higher pitch, which incidentally makes it sound like a cassette tape version.
The tune I remembered in 2002 was Love Will Tear us Apart. But it took me until the summer to actually manage to listen to it again. Thereon-after, as my teenage inertia was superseded by a young-adult inertia (based around what I would come to see as ‘Depressive Pleasure-seeking‘.), Love Will Tear Us Apart became an staple in The Retro Bar at The End of Universe; former bars would be replaced by future former bars, with their only continuity being the ‘stuck record’ of the ‘Indie Disco’. The hair-raising synth and drum outro feels like it could stretch out into eternity, due to perpetual dependency placed upon music that was new when capitalism’s ‘slow cancellation of the future’ was only just beginning. The ‘eternal present’ of our capitalist reality has to come to an end, in some form. But the end cannot be seen from within. But, my god, it is longed for.
As with Atmosphere and These days (written at a similar point) Love Will Tear us Apart and Ceremony (although properly recorded as New Order, after Curtis had died) share the same sense of painful longing for something that never materialises – “this dream it takes too long” as Curtis sings in 24 Hours. Ian Curtis’s lyrics may have been most directly attributable to the specificities of his collapsing personal life, but it is clear that there’s a longing here for something that stretches far beyond these confines, towards a promised world, perhaps? the dreams of postwar optimism, now falling into tatters in front of the atomised, lonely type of Utopia offered by Thatcherism. It is inconsequential whether Curtis voted rightward or not, he was caught in the headlights of a pivotal moment in history and expressed an anguish an increasing proportion of us identify with.
I listen to Love Will Tear us Apart and Ceremony with that sense of longing that other Joy Division’s songs do not allow for: the social world I long for, not the one being blown into atomized, lonely pieces by the end-game of neoliberal (market fundamentalist) political economy. It’s an in-the-making conclusion that I never thought I’d come close to making when listening to Joy Division; that there is a longing in some of their final songs that looks for an escape route from certain-demise, a last gasp of life. Ceremony’s “Heaven knows it’s got to be this time”, is a plea: that ‘I want another chance to live!’. “Avenues all lined with trees”, a social world of vitality, for our families, that we once saw as a guarantee. For me, in this past year, these lyrics have served as a mute wish I carry around with me to supersede this awful stage in something I have no embarrassment in calling ‘the human project’. You see, with all these documentaries, and articles, we are looking back to Joy Division to trace our steps back towards a future that was stolen. We want it back.
Reflections gathered from performance in the Anti-Gallery Show, weekend 16,17,18, January 2015
This text is a reflection on the performing of Non-Stop Inertia: A Stuck Record – inspired by Ivor Southwood’s book Non-Stop Inertia. Part of a wider collaborative project between myself and Leeds-based artist/curator John Wright, Non-Stop Inertia was played intermittently over a 3 day period as part of the Anti-Gallery Show, at The Espacio Gallery in Shoreditch, London. As this text deals purely with reflections during and after these 3 days, the explanation for the motives behind this ongoing work can be found here: https://johnledger.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/non-stop-inertia-a-stuck-record-the-anti-gallery-show/ . However, the writing uses other points within the 3 day period in London to talk about a larger project, in which Non-Stop Inertia is just one part.
A Psychological Experiment…
That I am in a well-and-truly-spent state the day after our Non-Stop-Inertia piece means that if it was as much a psychological experiment as it was a piece of artwork then the experiment was successful. The carefully-chosen texts we chose to read out were so fitting, but fitting within the eternal-now, ‘in the loop’ of the performance. Because the gravity of their content could as easily fall from mind as it could be put back there once there performance resumed. The content itself became looped; there was no further level of understanding. It was the poetry of a ghost trapped in the machine.
And ghosts trapped in the machine we became. Neuro-psychically electrocuted by the randomly occurring door-alarm signal, I for one can testify to the physical effect (in my manic body movements) that such internalising of the constant expectation of random interruptions can have. Certain lines read out from our texts would land in unison on the pulse-line of the subjectivation, at which point we’d look to each other as if to confer “yes, that’s what this is, exactly!”, but cognitively building on what was being said/read felt impossible due to this anticipation of interruptions. How can you build on things if you are in a perpetual state of siege?
The door alarm noise signaling our ‘calling’ to disseminate emotionally-laboured welcoming-spiel (language absent of life aimed at an absent customer) was, of course, implemented in a random-fashion by our own design. But the intention was to show how this unending anticipation of unpredictable interruptions of our thoughts is a constitutive part of contemporary life, which (we believe) is intrinsic to the inability of individuals and societies alike formulate, or even imagine, a way out of the current global cultural situation that consumes the hopes, desires and visions of alternatives with the same level of ferocity that it consumes the people and resources needed to constitute a future world full stop.
We came away from this performance with no answers to this, but this was the intention: to give poetic form to the very structures preventing us from finding the answers to the current situation. We believe that if the structures permeating contemporary life are dismissed as irrelevant to the task of building towards an alternative, then any kind of positive alternative is impossible.
No Desire to Converse
Whilst in London, myself and John Wright frequently discussed the difference between desire and drive: that, in an ‘always on’, no-future, hyper-competitive, hyper-capitalist world, desire is both short-circuited and disemboweled from drive. This leaves us trapped in a ‘nothing-left-but…’ state, where we often feel a zombie-like-entrapment to the motions of tasks, duties and habits and especially the end-game pursuit of sugary, narcotic, or sexual stimulus; that can often feel like being in a state of seizure due to inconceivability of there being anything else we can do “but pursue pleasure”. (an overly referenced section of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism book, which I attempted to read out as part of the performance).
As well as the resulting post-performance-state leaving us in a state of incomprehension of what we could possibly do except going and getting alcoholically intoxicated in the city, the performance itself also functioned through pure signal-actioned drive. The words were spoken out of drive, rather than desire. This is why others who attempted to engage in the dialogue, and who weren’t used to the nature of the represented job-type to an extent that they could ‘go through the motions’ like we could, very quickly became frustrated (as was partly the intention). One of the participating artists in the Anti Gallery Show said he couldn’t see the point in trying to make conversation. What was the point of him trying to gain something from a conversation if he was to be constantly sent back to square one by the interruptions?
If we are correct in viewing this predicament as endemic in contemporary life, could it not be said that the breaking down of thought and communication to a sound bite-form isn’t merely the result of a reduction of our attention-spans caused by our immersion in cyberspace, but is actually caused by the lack of desire to engage in conversation due to the anticipation of interruptions slicing through it? We also argued that the increasingly competitive nature of contemporary life further reduces the room for conversation, because the constant sense of the self-under-siege within such a competitive world makes it seem an immediate necessity to get our point heard rather than allow the time for other points to be heard (I, for one, am very guilty of this). Indeed, what was left of our broken up conversations was used to discuss the breaking up of dialogue intrinsic to one of the largest social media platforms: Twitter.
All in all Non-Stop Inertia: A Stuck Record was successful – too successful perhaps; afterwards, the necessary walk (climb) back to Kings Cross station seemed almost daunting.
The (Un)realised Project
This inability to transcend, to get beyond the “this is so relevant!” point whilst we were reading the texts/debating perhaps makes Non-Stop Inertia:A Stuck Record pivotal to a wider sensation myself and John Wright are investigating. That, as numerically-measured time pushes onwards, and one’s skin slowly sags downwards, somehow one hasn’t merely become ‘stuck in a moment’, but that the moment has terraformed, re-landscaped the horizon so that the next step beyond this ‘stuck moment’ seems to have never even existed, and that the places that proclaim to have movement are merely just full of frenetic ghost-like actions, speeding up but going nowhere. The unending nature of the sentence I have just written embodies a unending struggle to put to sleep the ghosts that haunt me. After countless debates around this matter, myself and John Wright began an investigation, of intertwined stories (personal to me) and wider post-millennial cultural moments, that we aim to turn into a solid body of work under the umbrella title The (Un)realised Project.
Thus far it has been agreed on that one specific work, The Mary Celeste Project (The Scene of The Crash), will take centre stage within this body of work. The Mary Celeste Project (The Scene of The crash), completed in 2014, uses my own turf (post industrial areas stretching along the foothills of the Yorkshire Pennines) to examine near pasts, lost futures and dead dreams to understand the wider contemporary social condition. Focusing on two lost futures and the un-locatable present, the condition of which is largely caused by the loss of the previous, and their haunting presence. The first lost future is that of popular modernism, which died in the latter quarter of the 20th century. The second lost future being the naively optimistic early to mid-1990’s, and its utopian gaze toward the coming new millennium. The un-locatable present here refers to a specific intensification of life under digital capitalism, looking at a severe disconnection to the passing of time since the 2008 financial crisis. The Mary Celeste Project (The Scene of The Crash) is crucially inspired by my sense of a loss of narrative and of being out of time, amidst a feverishly neoliberal reality. But certain locations I spent time in prior to the beginnings of this project were crucial to reasons behind making of it.
It is clear then that specific geographical spaces are very important to this whole investigation. Thus, with the rarity of two people from northern England planning to embark on the south at the same point, it was essential we had to go another very symbolically important location: Greenwich.
So what makes Greenwich so important? We’d arrived in darkness, and the specifically-threatening-looking silver Met police cars guarding the gates put us off trying to find a way in, so we circumvented Greenwich Park wall right down to the river. One point of agreement on that walk was pivotal to the whole text I’ll write thereon after: my ‘stuck in a moment’ fixation with a 3 month (yet 3 year-long-feeling) time spent in London, unsuccessfully trying to complete an MA in Cultural Studies just down the road in New Cross, prompted John Wright to say to me (in a supportive manner, of course) that I really ought to have done the MA in Leeds (I had considered doing the MA at the University of Leeds, the institution John had recently been awarded an MA qualification at), but we both instantaneously and almost simultaneously responded by agreeing that I had to go to London; that there was something much larger and important at play.
I’ve written way too much already about the mental state I found myself in down London that forced me to leave, and the time leading up going and the time afterwards is far more crucial to the project and the reasons for the usage of my experiences within Greenwich. However, there is one crucial line explaining my state down there that activated this entire project: I believed I’d reached a total dead end, that there was nothing beyond this spell in London.
During this 3-year-disguised-as-3-month-spell, I found myself at Greenwich quite a few times (even ending up with a part time job there, just a week before finding myself back in bed in the north), finding the momentary ease under the autumnal ‘avenues all lined with trees’ an embodier of the wish for a granting of indefinite residence in a place I never really wanted to leave – “I like it here can I stay?” as the lyrics from The Smiths’ Half A Person that weaved through all other thoughts within my room in nearby New Cross.
Something had occurred here to a degree that I was finding it incredibly hard to get out of bed in morning after 15 years of habitually getting up at 7am. The years preceding had seen a building up of both foreboding and understanding of the global cultural situation, to which 2011 felt like the zenith; a clicking into place of a new reality from which we couldn’t go back. And now I was here, in the last 3rd of 2012, and it truly felt like the eye of the storm; the “that’s exactly it!” masters course (that I wanted to last forever, not 1 year of pressurised performance); the financial epicentres seen from my windows; the potential of meeting the world in a world-city; THE HEART OF DARKNESS – as it really did feel like I’d finally found it in as if in an inversion of Joseph Conrad’s novel – because, as comical as it sounds, the plentiful Megabus trips down there looking for a home were symbolic of a wider feeling of being worn right right right down into a man in search of a resting place. And, after the year 2011, there appeared to be no way of going back. And at that initial point before it all went wrong it didn’t matter that there was no way forward.
But as the London-endeavour lead on it became unavoidably clear that there was a dead end rapidly approaching. Throughout the preceding years there had been so much effort to show how entangled my inability to perceive a future for myself was with the dead end that was the endgame of the course the world was taking, to the point where I was exhausted just as it all seemed to come to a head. But as I walked around Greenwich, a place arguably unsurpassed in symbolic importance to creation of the world as we know it, to the extent that it often feels like the meridian was the first line ever laid, it became very clear to me for the first time how our ‘always on’ global capitalist culture was trapped by the past.
Greenwich is a place symbolically laden with traces of ghosts from other eras that refuse to die; a fusion of what-might-have-been’s (lost futures) and unshifting-has-been’s’ (archaic tombs that won’t close up). One that caught my attention was the Queen Elizabeth Oak, an important tree for the Tudor dynasty (a crucial period in the formation of Imperial expansion and modernity). Yet the tree is 100+ years-dead, and has laid on the floor like a wooden carcass for some years now too. Trapped under the weight of the past, with no future to speak of, the speed of life/the ‘always on’ endless labouring within the infinitely accelarating capitalist technosphere, traps us in a frenetic eternal-now epitomised by the Non Stop Inertia project. But in such a Stuck Record state, the present is also a void without a perceivable future in its wake, meaning the past, especially the near past, seeps into the void left by the unlocatable present (think of how traces of the optimistic 1990’s seem to cling to everything); impounding the pressure between the new reality demanded in the wake of 2011 and the lack of ability to be able to even think beyond the current moment. This is well and truly an hauntological state, and through my endeavouring after abandoning London to engage on a cognitive level with the South/West Yorkshire landscape I lapsed back into, these past 2 two years have been profoundly hauntological; all that has followed as felt unrealised…undead.
Connections….Always Looking for Connections…
Of course if we didn’t deem all this crucial to some wider situation we wouldn’t have embarked on the (un)realised projects investigation, nor would we have bothered taking the bus to Greenwich on a cold, dark night. The very fact that I also ‘sound like a stuck record’ on this blog now is more to do with my emotional energies smashing against 4 walls, looking for a way out, than the indulgences of dwelling in the past. Or at least this is what I tell myself. I have to tell myself this, because I am profoundly sick with the way things are, and the conviction that I am not alone means that the current direction of my work is as much as political act as the works I made in my early 20’s that dealt specifically with the threat of climate change.
The closed brackets around the ‘un’ in unrealised, was John Wright’s idea, positing it as the hope that all that is hanging around in a ghostly form will one day be realised. Using Jacques Derrida’s differentiation between an Ending of something and a Closure of something, John and I discussed how this dead-end feeling doesn’t have to be (or at least shouldn’t have to be) the end in itself, but a closure of something that allows the beginnings of another. Of course, our usage of specific geographical locations was a way of simultaneously commenting on this as both a deeply personal and deeply global cultural state. Perhaps using landscape is one of the strongest methods or articulating the fusion of two issues that would appear very distinct on a surface level?
The Utopian Never Truly Dies
As much as we felt it necessary to travel to Greenwich after our performance on the Saturday, after our final, most exhaustive, performance on the Sunday, we deemed it necessary to spend time in the Barbican complex before we set off back for the train.
There is something truly special about this place, which gets beyond the facts of why it remained like this whilst other Brutalist utopian residential schemes failed drastically; that this estate was designed for the well off, the cultural elite, and thus corners weren’t cut in its construction (nor was it fucked up socially by mass job losses), is a seperate matter to to truth of the place which is that it exists as a realisation of the utopianist society that truly could have been. This place doesn’t even seem to have been bothered by the onslaught of Thatcherism; neoliberalism seems to have been kept at the gates of this fort-like-structure, and you can imagine the same being true in long night of fascistic, repressive governance if we don’t find a way of changing the course we are on. It may be a place of the communal/the shared for those who already have their fair share, but in that it actualises elements of the ideal, it shows that they could, and should exist elsewhere.
What I like about this place is what makes me realise that as undead as I often feel, as emotionally-turned-to-stone as I regularly feel, I am still deeply utopian. Utopian is different from a Utopia; arguably Utopia can never exist, but to be Utopian is to be an idealist in life, not to accept any given reality as ‘the way it is’ – such fatalism is dangerous, and has arguably made the situation we are in profoundly worse to deal with.
The Barbican reveals traces of the utopian in the past that was left behind when neoliberal economic theory and postmodernism galvanised the TINA (there is no alternative to capitalism) reality. We sat in the canteen (the only place I know of in contemporary life where the word canteen isn’t associated undesirable eateries), and just sat, without the need for more pleasure-seeking, drink, etc – just sat. As we moved on toward the station, making a closure on this situation still felt as far off as it did before the performance, in the Barbican we did at least get a glimpse of elements of a place that could exist beyond this stuck point. This point has to be moved on from; personally speaking, I cannot stay here any longer.
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?