Haunted by its Future: Burning Blue Soul(1981)

Post-punk; the cycle of reappraisal and revival appears to have come to a close: the canon consolidated. Crucial in this process has been Renyolds’ Rip it up and Start Again which is likely to stand as the definitive assessment of the era, retroactively transforming post-punk from a period of time to a coherent sensibility. In such a process there are winners and losers, elect and preterite; those who appeared amongst the chosen find themselves demoted by posterity, others enjoy confirmation of their enduring possession, or find themselves the subject of a long awaited reversal.

Beyond these lie the doubly dishonoured–ignored both at the time and in its revaluation. Matt Johnson’s Burning Blue Soul (1981) is  such a work. Indeed,  its  further orphaned, since not only is it excluded from the roll call of respectable post-punk, but even from Johnson’s own corpus given that  most of  what the Rough Guide to Rock calls its ‘small but devoted audience’  are, like myself, otherwise indifferent to The The. This problematic status probably explains its history of re-releases, especially with respect to sleeve design. The original artwork, with its deliberate allusion to the Elevators day glo eye and the distended graphics of West Coast poster art, articulated an untimely psychedelia .

Within months of its release, and in the wake of poor sales, Johnson (barely out of his teens), expressed reservations of the wisdom of this choice. Noting its convergence with the short lived psychedelic revival ‘already dying a death’ ( endless reincarnations would follow) he reflected that  ‘perhaps in retrospect it may have been the wrong projection for the music’. [That particular revival is now almost entirely forgotten, centred around a few bands and clubs in London lasted for a few months in the spring of 198,  its most enduring artefact being WEA’s  A Splash of Colour compilation whose artwork evokes the secret persistence of a headier spirit in the brumal mise-en-scene of the early years of Thatcherism].

 Neutralizing this gesture, the 1983 edition (issued on the back of a comment by Ralph Steadman that the record was one of the best things he ever heard) was accompanied by an image of Johnson looking like a minor character in Scum

while the 1993 version integrated the album with the visual style of The The‘s back catalogue (a revisionism that extended to the album’s production,  leading to ‘the original 1981 release [being] highly sought after by collectors as the mixes are thought to be far superior than the latter 1993’ reissue– at least according to Wikipedia). One of Rip it Up‘s strengths is to remind us of a psychedelic strain in the music of the period. BBS first reviewers noted this dimension: NME judging it ‘One of the few truly psychedelic records made in recent years. An acid stew of remarkable proporitions. A minor hours masterpiece’  Sounds  saw in it ‘ A brand new surrealistic world of neo psychedelica… [the] music dissolves and flows out. Just like looking into a convex mirror’.  Yet this upgraded trippiness is only part of what makes so unique:  the album is also clearly an expression of its moment. Witness the ponderous bass lines that anchor the shifting soundscapes, the ‘cold swirl’ of phlanged guitar,  the sense of political instability (a ‘country gripped by social ills and aches’) that bleed into its reveries, and above all its participation in what Bracewell describes as generation’s wandering in ‘the ruins of punk’ in the hope of  ‘styling a collective de profoundis‘. If the desideratum found its purest expression in the somber genius of Unknown Pleasures, then it must be said that BBS is  closer to Bracewell’s acerbic characterisation of The Cure  who ‘with the chill mist of Crawley still damp on their pullovers’  fashioned a music wherein  ‘the soul was not so much bared as reduced to wandering around in its dressing ground’. But whatever the limitations of its lyrics,  the album casts its sonic nets as wide as any of its contemporaries with the aid of Gilbert and Lewis (whose presence must partly explain the distance of this work form Johnson later output), accessing something of a European avant garde (c.f.The Faust Tapes). Here Johnson’s own melodic sensibility is crucial since it gestures both back and forward (in the interviews accompanying its release he spoke of absorbing the sounds of the sixities through the floor of his parents’ pub, an image that captures the rather distorted, deformed way in which the presence of Lennon, Barratt Floyd etc are registered). The result is an brooding vortex of sound that passes through the dark evening of the soul, looking at the sort of sodium lit urban environment captured in films such as Frear’s Bloody Kids through a fish eye lens, a cauldron of  processed and filtered vocals, Delia Derbyshire refrains, that at times melts into shameless dissolves of multi-tracked backward guitar loops, at others delivering abrasive textures. Accompanying this is organic fluidity, a sense of melody that sets the album apart from the controlled, mineral rigour of its era.

Why then does BBS remain outside the charmed circle of post-punk? Johnson’s later successes no doubt have a part in this—while albums such as Infected sold well there appeal will always have been commercial rather than critical–and constitute a stain that even the participation of post-punk royalty like Lewis and Gilbert cannot expunge. Indeed, while their contribution is ostensibly limited to a number of tracks, they seem to be a central element in the record’s singularity, Reynolds speaks of Harvest’s hope that they would mature into a neo-psychedelia, and here they contribute to a project whose hybridity results in rather different vision of what such a term might entail. They also seem to have contributed to the ethereal, spectral quality of the album, which both sounds provisional, like a demo, and also dense and highly wrought. Thus the fact that Johnson provides most of the music imparts brittle or thin tonality, while the production immerses the listener in rich soundscape. The net result might be likened to a more recent 4AD artist, Ariel Pink whose ‘hauntological’  sensibility  commemorates the the poignancy of sound salvaged from the noise and decay of obsolete storage media.

Thirty years on since its release, and in the aftermath of reevaluation of its era, it seems unlikely that Burning Blue Soul will suddenly be revived; posterity’s judgement seems final. [There is a certain irony to this, given that in discussion with Johnny Marr in 2002 Johnson would lament the fact that while the 60’s, punk, and more latterly Krautrock, had all been granted the status of key moments,’ that particular little era has really been neglected in the mediathere was that secret little pocket of post-punk British underground music. And that’s really my roots.’] . In this it would seem that its sense of bedsit epiphany, solitary illumination suggest a work always, already destined to fall between, to be passed over; haunted as much by its future as its past



For me, Wimbledon will always tinged with a certain melancholy, since one of my enduring fantasies was that one day the BBC would commission a tele-essay from David Foster Wallace, to be screened while rain suspended play (this was before the new roof), that while leaving perplexed the majority of viewers might nevertheless serve as a great hymn to what DFW regarded as ‘the most beautiful sport there is’

Never here to be realised, alas, nonetheless the British station in what Wallace dubbed ‘The Show’ sends me back to Infinite Jest, and in particular the hieratic figure of Coach Schitt–quasi-Hedeggerian/fascistic tennis savant, an emissary of old world rectitude and asceticism, rendered farcical and noble by his location in America characterized by an unproblematic valorisation of subjective desire and success. Although confined to no more than 10 pgs of the 1,000+ pg novel, Schitt’s disquisitions articulate some of the fundamental themes of IJ.  As has been argued elsewhere, IJ can be seen as a cogent expression of the symptomatological work of great fiction,  a great ‘clinical’ labour that identifies subjectivity (its constitution, deformation, regulation,  and destruction) as the locus of collective and individual ills. Tennis (as understood by Schitt) is both the site of the greatest danger and (a la Holderlin) that of the saving grace: if for Schitt the former is embodied in the perils of the ‘Show’ (the adulation, the stress, the inevitable decline, etc) then the saving grace resides in what this Show would render peripheral: i.e., the court and its Event, understood as a ‘Cantorian continuum of inifinities of possible move and response…infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of inifinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained…’.For Schitt then tennis is a theatre that stages the ultimate existential drama wherein :  ‘The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought…The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: his is more the partner in the dance. His is the ..excuse or occasion for meeting the self…’

To a group of teenagers struggling with rigours of the compulsory daily 6 a.m. drills of the Enfield Tennis Academy,  this philosophy is bodied forth in concrete terms:
‘…I am saying, is always something too. Cold. Hot. Wet and dry. Very bright sun and you see the purple dots… Outside is wind…Inside is smell of heaters, echo…clunk of machines vomiting sweet cola for coins…Bad lighting, so. Or Outside: the bad surface. Oh no look no: crabgrass in cracks along baseline. Who could give the total with crabgrass….Always something’

Such impediments, Schitt affirms, are not to be resolved through an adjustment to circumstances, ‘Adjust, Adjust? Stay the same‘. But through a process of subjective engineering, the erection of a second ‘world’ :  ‘Cold and wind is the world. Outside, yes ? On the tennis court the you the player: this is not where there is cold wind…Different world inside. World built inside cold world of outside world of wind breaks the wind, shelters the player…if you stay inside….there is in this world you, and in the hand a tool, there is a ball, there is  opponent with his tool, and always only the two of you, you and this other, with always the purpose to keep this world alive….This is not adjusting…Not ignoring ‘as if’…No cold wind where you occur…here there are no conditions’. No adjustment then, but a permanent habitation of this second world, the construction  of a ‘New type of citizen…of this sheltering second world we are working to show you each dawn’.

For those who bridle at the sacrafices, the demands behoven of those who seek admission to this second world, two options are presented: the first recalls a Beuys performance piece ‘ If it is hard, difficult for you to move between the two worlds…it can be arranged for you gentleman not to leave, ever here, this world inside the lines of the court. You know. Can stay here until there is citizenship…Sleep bags. Meals brought to you. Never across the lines…A bucket for hygenic needs. At Gymnasium Kaiserslautern where I am privilged boy whining about cold wind, we live inside tennis court for months…’. The second is expulsion ‘…leave here into large external world where is cold and pain without purpose or tool–not worry anymore about how to occur

Allowing for comic exaggeration, Schitt’s philosophy is suggestive. Tennis as agon with the self, in which each contestant is the occasion of the other’s confrontation with self. The creation of a world of infinite possibilities through the imposition of limits. Limits that cannot be merely acceded to, but must be creatively grasped, that constitute a narrow aperture, a perilous defile through which each must struggle to pass in order emerge within the space of a second world. Naturally, this second world cannot be identified with the physical boundaries of the court, the construction of the second world is a perpetual work in progress, and exile , banishment, only a moment’s inattention away. Citizenship is forever temporary.  Every game is a visa application, every point raising the spectre of it being revoked. Last week, Schitt’s vision was literally realised, as Mahut and Isner became  citizens of the second world, in a spectacle so surreal that the appearance of a ‘bucket for hygienic needs’ would not have seemed amiss.Fortutiously, that three day epic, coincided with a return to the 15th series of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense which opens with a meditation on the time of the battle, of the battle as event.

Let us recall its terms: the event is ‘impassibility’ , it is inviolate neutrality, indifferent to all determinations of ‘the inside and the outside’. These determinations are in a certain sense its medium or residua, their expression determines that the event has occurred, or will occurr, but,  set apart by an infinitely narrow but unbridgeable hiatus, the event retains its neutrality under all circumstances. The battle is pure event by virtue of the polyvocity of its determinations (‘because it is actualized in diverse manners at once, and because each participant may grasp it at a different level of actualization within its variable present’). The battle qua Event hovers over its site, ‘neutral and impassive in relation to victor and vanquished…Never present but always yet to come and already passed, the battle is graspable only by the will of anonymity… “of indifference”.

Is the battle-event, the second world ?  Are points, games, sets, and matches temporal actualizations? For when watching the finest matches, the finest players, we can see the traces of the pure event: the stratagems  and rituals by which it is invoked (players who visibly expunge from their being all impedimentia to its realisation, time and time again), and the cost of a failure to maintain this purity (the collapse of will, the concern of a point that is not the present point, and thus the point of loss).The Event-battle is of the order of Aion, in contradistinction to the temporality of Chronos. Chronos is the time of the first world, of traces, of distributions, of actualizations, Aion the second world an elusive and evanescent eternity, changless by virtue of its infinite speed.

While the perimeter of the court may constitute the physical borders of the second world, the latter being metaphysical cannot reside there, likewise while points, sets and games, comprise the register of its passage it cannot be reduced to such mundane avatars, it is elsewhere always. Even  those (not-quite) ‘indiscernables’ frequently and increasingly desperately invoked in the course of Mahut-Isner, are of the order of Chronos, ‘“Where” is the battle ?’  Deleuze asks rhetorically; and provides a seemingly contradictory answer; it is here. Amongst the points, games, sets and matches; and what is more we the spectators, preterite citizens of the first world, are fully able to discern its advent, celebrate its arrival and mourn its departure, it is what we await …

The combatants of the second world must be ‘determined to consider each temporal actualization from the height of the eternal truth of the event which incarnates itself  and…in his own flesh’, arriving at a ‘pure grasping of the event by means of the will that the event creates within him’, that is beyond success and failure. Thus attaining ‘the willing of the event’, the chiastic ‘of ‘; at once a will toward the event, which attained becomes the will of the event-this marks the threshold of the second world, where the will of the individual and will of the event dissolve. Nevertheless, the concept of ‘attainment’ is problematic, since ‘the question is less that of attaining the immediate than of determining the site where the immediate is “immediately” as not-to-be-attained’ . The immediate is forever poised on the cusp of its temporal actualization in embodied states of affairs, in points, games, sets, and can only be attained in the form of the latter, but since such states are by definition never the immediate ‘itself’ but its declension their attainment cannot be the immediate…The ‘not-to-be-attained’ is that which haunts, frequents, the ‘cutting edge of the sword or the stretched string of the bow’, it is fugacious (fugitative and fleeting), and eludes every instance as a state of affairs.

This ‘attainment’ of ‘willing the event’ implies a ethics or praxis. Speaking of Zen and archery Deleuze observes that ‘the bowman must reach the point where the aim is also not the aim, that is to say, the bowman himself ; where the surface of the target is also the line and the point, the bowman, the shooting of the arrow, and what is shot at’. This demands a paradoxical condition of passivity and affirmation, the event is that which must be awaited, but also that which is supremely willed; the player must be able to discern and occupy that site within states of affairs upon which the event will dance. The task then is to ‘bring about the correspondence of the minimum time which can occur in the instant with the maximum time which can be thought in accordance with the Aion’

Schitt concludes his disquisition with a rhetorical question, namely ‘Where is where you apply for citizenship in second world…?’ eliciting this response from Hal:  ‘The human head, sir…Where I’m going to occur as a player. The game’s two heads’ one world. One world, sir’. To will the event then is to identify that point at which two heads are One world, and One world two heads. In this regard, the willing of the event is not the same as full embrace of a Oneness, understood as simple (sic) dissolution, or what Deleuze’s perjoratively describes as the ‘abyss of the undifferentiated’, it is rather the occcupation of that  juncture at which two apparently inimical orders intersect.

What then are we, the lowly spectators, to derive from this mastery, since we do not inhabit this juncture? Perhaps we enjoy a doubling of the event, we await its fluguration, its glittering advent amidst states of affairs. Indeed, tennis (or indeed any sport) might be understood as structure or framework for such a manifestation, the institution of system of determinate states of affairs, of binarity, of an agon between terms in which one must emerge as victor and an other as vanquished, to be enjoyed not solely, or primarily for this conclusion, but for the event that it facillitates. When we talk of a good game, as opposed to a good result, is it not because the event has flashed across our horizon? Something intangible, instantly recognizable but intrinsically elusive (hence slow motion replays, no matter how exacting their resolution,  how fine their quantisation, do not give us the event, but only a magnified insight into states of affairs). Tennis, then is both agon (the contention of agonists, of bodies and states of affairs) and aion (the second world of the evenescent event): it is the a(g/i)on


Something rotten in the state…

Formally, The White Ribbon seems most naturalistic (as opposed to realistic) of Haneke’s films to date, this quality, as with the film’s other departures , would seem to be a product of its being a period piece. Particularly intriguing in this respect is the role of sound: Haneke is unique amongst his contemporaries in having not simply fashioned a distinctive visual signature, but also a sonic one. Sound plays a critical role in what’s often described as his neo-Brechtian alienation technique. Often deployed contrapuntally, Haneke’s work deliberatly exploits the contrast or transition between different aural milieus,juxtaposing the simultaneously comforting and threating sounds of machinic modernity, the tinnitius of a mediatized environment, against the human suffering and angst, delighting in the manner in which, like the surface of water after agitation, a prexisting aural continnum (the diffuse sound of urban life) is restored after an act of singular violence. The White Ribbon offers few examples of this deployment of sound as a aesthetic organon, indeed it reveals the aural space of Haneke’s work to have been instrincally bound to the contemporary. Since the life of rural Germany a century ago does not afford this oppurtunity, the visual takes added significance,hence the metallic monochrome, the hyperreal detail of the film’s digital image: within which the textures of the material role serve a contrast and support; to put in Deleuzian terms, in The White Ribbon the op-sign assumes the role of the son-sign in Haneke’s earlier films.

As a film at whose centre lies a crime without culprit or motive, it recalls Hidden.In both films this trope serves to extend culpability beyond the evidentiary; no one is guilty because all are, but while in Cache (as Time Out notes) a present crime serves to expose the extant legacy of the past, the crimes of White Ribbon are premonitory,anticipatory. Thus, in the absence of a definite perpetrator, suspicision is directed to the milieu and its practicies, in particular the casual violence used to police familal relations: women and children are repetedly struck (physical confrontation between adult males is noticibly absent), or a subject to commands that broach no opposition.Curiously, the flim brought to mind the much maligned Wilhelm Reich, in that it offers a study in intergenerational ‘sexpol’. The centrality of sex and its canalization is signalled by the film’s opening: the first of the unattributble crimes–the brining down of the Doctor,is an act witnessed by his teenage daughter and domestic assitatn/lover-the village midwife The only characters that will be seen engaging in sex. A congress conducted in both instances in a rather literal embodiement of body armour, that is fully clothed (apart from the obvious). This amoured quality determines almost every interaction in the film, we always observe confrontations between formal identities, parent to child, employer to employee, superior to inferior, indeed perhaps the only exchange that seems an direct confrontation between two individuals speaking freely is the harrowing exchange between Doctor and Midwife.

If as targets of malicious and vengeful acts these characters correspond to the libidinal or sexual pole of a desiring economy,  the others appear to arise from the iniquity of productive relations (the political pole). Here the Baron and his family are the focus, thus there son is abused, their property attacked. Guilt focuses on the children of the pastor, who bear the epononymus ribbon. The latter is curiously chiastic sign, in that mobeius strip like it folds morality and crime into one another. Ostensibly a memento of purity and innocence, it marks its bearer as everything but, it is a goad, or brand, an outward sign of insufficent grace, but in the film’s wider desiring economy, the purity, innocence etc that it signifies emerges a corrupt, malign. The paradoxical moral topology of the ribbon is hypostatized is the pastor’s sullen, taciturn, and socially adept children, who emerge as the most likely instigators of the misdeeds. But certain crimes, notably the blinding of the midwife’s disabled son, or the incineration of the Baron’s barn,seem respecively too extreme or unlikely, and point to other more mature perpetrators. The film’s climax comes when the narrator voices his suspicions to the Pastor, whose response is moral outrage ‘You obviously have no children, otherwise you not suggest such abberations’ –a opinion that exemplfies the ambiguity that runs through the film. Especially since Haneke., has stated that the mutilation of the pastor’s prized bird by his daughter has already confirmed the presence of sufficent violent malice, so that he knows that it is ‘true’ (does this mean that the children are solely responsible for the crimes?)

Intringuly, in the same interview Haneke suggests that the teacher’s narration is being delieverd some 60 years later (in the 1970’s), and so that the ‘events that later happened in this country’ that he believes his story might explain extends to the RDF ). While the first world war is ominous presence throughout the film, and the focus on children, the majority of whom exemplify a chilly, blond aryanism, clearly augur  the rise of fascism few, I suspect, would have spontaneously projected the film’s sphere of commentary that far into the last century (one curious coinicidence in this context is the note that is affixed to the blinded boy, a biblical quotation declaring that the sins of the father will be revisted upon the son even unto the third generation-– Fassbinder’s study of German terrorism).

However the scope of its influence is determined, the world that the film depicts is continually haunted by future,. Some scenes seem ripe for, or already infused by recollection, for instance a young boy’s disturbing primal scene,of his father’s sexual abuse of his sister, whose dialogue is repleate with Freudian displacement; father, she tells the wide eyed child, has just pierced her ears, hence her tears and pain, the holes having closed up, this will allow her to wear her mother’s earrings: the symbolism of rupturing of protective membranes, and the assumption of the mother’s accourtments, seems to issue from the analyst’s couch.

Neverthless, its suggested that the parrallels are too explicit, that the apparent ambiguity and indeterminate merely dissembles; the underlying logic is clear: the brutality and repression of domestic regimes will ripen to political disaster .Certainly, on one level it is the most literal of Haneke’s works (though I wonder whether the declaration of one of the city police men sent to interrogate a child who appears to have some foreknowledge of events ‘We have ways of making you talk’ was intentional , or inadvertent irony thrown up in translation). But the charge of a programatic explication of a prior thesis (brutal and intransigent micropolitics incubating macropolitical catastrophe) elides a cruical dimension of Haneke’s vision, and reflects a crudityof analysis rather then thematics. White Ribbon is poorly read if seen as the assertion of a facile equation between patriarchal repression and violence and future fascism; as if Germany were simply the site of an overzealous coding of desire, whose excesses spawned claimity. On one level, the brutality of gender and class relations, hypocrisy of organised faith, and distortion of sexuality delineated while odious is surely far from unique- allowing for dramatic effect its elements could be discerened in a range of socieites–not solely those that would succumb to fascism. Correlation does not imply causation, this libindinal economy anatomosied should be seen as necessary, but in no way sufficent (as Haneke has saide ‘it’s not specifically an explanation of German Fascism because that would be an impossible thing to do’).

More important still is the crucial fact that this is not a study of repression but rather of its failure. The confrontation, the brutality is nearly always associated with refusal to submit, woman and children are growing beyond the command of the ancien regime. On every level, at every strata, (in the relation between classes and between individuals, in a continually sense of the erosion of bonds and obligations) the structure cannot hold; if fascism is prefigured then it resides in this collapse, in the decoding not coding of flows. The entire order articulated in the film is in its twilight; the war is a death from inside that emerges arrives from outside (and vice versa).

White Ribbon is not an equation, but an immersion in a complex field of social, and libidinal forces, whose unbinding reveals the logic of their prior ordering, and whose fragments and legacy will hybridize with myriad vectors of modernity, that shall haunt the present for many years to come.

the simultaneously comforting and threating sounds of machinic modernity,


Separated at Birth ?


Greeking the Other…

In his contribution to The Ister (2005), Bernard Stiegler haing outlined his techno-mythpoetics of Epi/Pro-methues , he observes with an infectious certitude (Indeed, the entirety of Stiegler’s disquisition can be seen on youtube, the comments that will exercise us occur in part 3 : 24-36) of the constitutive techno-cultural inheritance that makes up the ‘already-there’ of the subjects and cultures:

‘It is Greek

Because all the past is Greek…even for a Japanese, an Australian, an African…Because Technics is Greek ...’

This declaration is not in itself unprecedented, at the beginning of his lifelong enterprise Needham noted the existence of a ‘an abundant literature’ that works ‘backward from modern science and technology, tracing [their] evolution…to the experiences and achievements of Mediterranean antiquity’, and in asserting ‘all the past’ including that of Africa and Asia etc to ‘be Greek’ by virtue of the putative ‘Greek’ origins of technics, Stiegler would appear to perpetuate this vision. Certainly the notion that technics, or more accuratley science, is by birth Greek and by upbringing European is well established, and is not without merit, at least with respect of science when separated from technics. But Stiegler concern is rarely experimental science, indeed whether or not he has explicited advocated a diremption of these terms (technics and science) it is evident from his concerns that the occasion of his enquiry is technics as a material ‘supplement’, which accompanies ‘man’ through the vicissitudes of ‘his’ historical becoming. Thus in its meditations upon Simondon, Leroi-Gourhan et al, the first volume of Technics and Time, figures technics as variously a heteronomous organizing principle, an originary transductive relation that configures and transcendeds in putative terms , even a universal tendency that is diffracted and modified as it traverses mulitiple ethnic milieus. Indeed, there would appear to be a distinction between technics and techno-logy, the latter being a late expression of the aboriginal ‘anticipation’ that characterizes an unfolding originary technicity.

If not entirely restricted, then, to material techniques, these undoubtedly lie close to the ‘origin’ of Stiegler’s problematic. Since this takes the form of constitutive prostheticity, what are we to make of the coalescene of ‘Greek’ and ‘technics’? In what sense can technics―as defined by T&T:1―be defined as Greek. Given that the claim occurs in the context of an adumbration of (anti) foundational myth of Stieglerian techno-ontology, we might consider J-P. Vernant’s (the key reference in Stiegler’s deployment of epimetheus) own reflections on Greek (material) technics-offered in the same chapters that Stiegler locates his mytheme:

In point of fact, the Greeks, who invented philosophy, science, ethics, … were not technological innovators. Their tools and technical knowledge were borrowed from the East at a very early date and were not fundamentally modified by new discoveries …The stagnation of technology and the persistence of a pre-mechanical mentality…are all the more surprising given that the Greeks appear to have possessed the intellectual equipment which should have made it possible for them to make decisive progress in the field

Vernant goes on to note the ‘divergence’ between conceptual innovation and ‘application’, has most often been attributed (at least in those willing to countenance its existence) to the economic and social structures of Greece ‘in particular the existence of abundant slave labour and …the lack of any internal outlet for commercial production’

Nevertheless, according to Stiegler,the history of all Others is Greek, because technics is Greek. Technics, it would appear, has its birth in a society indifferent to its operation, whose contribution to its (in the restricted sense of material technologies) is minimal, and whose artefacts, and techniques are borrowed from the East (sic).

It would appear that half a century of scholary labour in the comparative history and sociology of technology has passed Stiegler by. One name might be profitably invoked to stand for this body of knoweledge: Joseph Needham; whose monuemental multi-volume Science and Civilisation in China irrefutably demonstrates that at the level of material technologies (until at the earliest the Renaissance) China was an engine of pure innovation . Moreover, as even the most hostile or ignorant commentators acknowledge, its innovations played a crucial role in the formation of what might be called European techno-scientific modernity. Consider Francis Bacon’s famous observation of that trinity of technologies

‘which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origin, though recent, is obscure and inglorious: namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the whole face of the world, the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes; insomuch that no empire, no sect, no star, seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries’

Likewise, we might refer to debate regarding the ‘medieval industrial revolution’–the emergence of a technical system based around the introduction of the stirrup, harness and a modified plough design—whose consequences are thought to include feudalism, technologies that are thought to have diffused from ‘the East’.

However, according to the pre-eminent philosopher of technology this history of adoption , suppression, and the (re)invention of origins (which while ‘obscure’ are nonetheless ‘recent’ and assuredly ‘inglorious’) to obscure to origins of inventions, is not the past—of either ethnicities or technics, since that as we know is, and can be nothing but, Greek.

Of course we may be guilty of subreption, or simple misunderstanding. After all it can be assumed that a thinker to be praised for his provision of a sorely needed material genealogy of the supplement/ machine would be more than acquainted with the multi-volume of labours of Needham et al, the anfractous diffusion of technics, and thus alert to the dangers of restricting technics to a culture that contributed little to their evolution.Nevertheless, the past of China, Africa, Australia is Greek, because technics is Greek. ..

Perhaps then, the error of such objections resides in an elementary confusion: the Greek technics that is the past of all, is nothing so crude or banusic as material technology. No, what Greece bequeaths all peoples is the problem or question of technology, a question that finds its clearest formulation in pro/epi-methean complex. And since all peoples, either by choice, or the logic of unintended consequences, must encounter this prosthetic bind, the debt incurred by the originary de-fault, they are assumed into the universal history of Greek technics. As in Heidegger we learn that the essence of technology is nothing technological, it is rather Greek.

This essence is a curious thing to be sure, it manifests in a milieu of indifference to its essendi. While in a milieu that for the best part of millennia exhibits an unbroken tradition of technics, fails to atttain this principle, and so remains ignorant of the putative essence of technics, We might concluded that technics can evidently flourish in the absence of ‘its’ problematic, and that Stiegler’s logic, will only discover it when it encounters the technologies of the self-appointed heirs of those charged with discovery of said ‘essence’ .

Following Vernant, this Greek discovery of technics (qua problemata) is all the more remarkable for a culture that had little or no conceptual understanding of technology, in which the latter did not enjoy the diginity of the concept.

But what of Technics and Time 1 appeals to the quasi-autonomy of technology’s becoming–Sourced in the genetic theories of Simondon, and Leroi-Gourhan? Is this not of the essence, or is it a ultimately a Greek affair? The latter even by the information provided by Stiegler appears untenable : Leroi-Gourhan, who following Bergson, talks of a universal technical tendency; or Simondon who sees technogenesis as a instance of a generalised individuation (occluded by the hylomorphic prejudices of Greece and its slave economy).

If ‘the past is Greek because technics is Greek’ is not to be understood as the unthinking replication by technics’ great thinker of the deliberate obreption of the histories of technics – a Eurocentric narrative expressly formulated to replicate within the history of technology that of the destiny of the West with its innate aptitude and predisposition to the act (to which the quietist, inertial cultures of the East and South offer a pitiable contrast) it would appear that it must be understood in the sense of this problematic. A problematic that is nothing technological, but of sufficient moment to render technics and all who encounter it for the next two millennia Greek. A formidable problematic then…

Some of these difficulties can be resolved by an alternative candidate for this Greek essence of technics, one which is certainly far easier to uphold. Namely, that technics is Greek, because its development rests upon the foundation of mathematical science laid down in Ancient Greece. But if we accept that what is Greek is not technics but rather mathesis , the invention of a mathemetical ideality, a ‘subtractive’ organon that will facillitate the apprehension of nature behind nature, and that when coupled with the preterite dross of material technologies will negate ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, then technics may indeed be Greek, allowing the latter to become the past of everyman. In this scenario technics has no autonomy, it is science that is triumphant. Technics must be subordinated to the logos of science, its materiality secondary, overdetermined, in order that it may convicingly remain Greek. Here Stiegler would find himself in good company, Badiou for instance insists on the reduction of technology to science in its Greek and stellar purity (although leading him to dismiss technology as unworthy of philosophical import), indeed even Needham appears to subscribe to the ‘Greek’ thesis that technology is science’s poor relative, the artisinal pursuit of ‘sooty empiricks’ in contrast to the regal ideality of science (hence the anxiety in establishing the per-conditions of the latter in China, and the suggestion by some that one possible resolution to the ‘Needham question’ resides in a reconsideration of the traditional hierarchy between these terms). But while the credo that modern science is Greek in origin, and so the past of everyperson (since all absorb its consequences) is not untenable – although a genealogical filter would dispose one to focus not on origins but rather on the use of certain historical elements, their deployment in a singular conjunction—does this legitimate an extension to technics tout court. Especially if the later has been defined in terms of meta-cultural dynamics of becoming, as the occasion of a scene of originary supplementation that precedes and subtends any local formulation of the ‘human’

Understood in empirical terms the assertion that technics is Greek makes little sense, it entails a subordination of material history of techniques to cultural ideals, and thus must be judged as a late expression of an European ideology that posits an unbroken historico-cultural continuum linking Classical Antiquity to Western Modernity, as exemplified in these fifty yr + qoutes:

‘ Our civilisation has produced not merely a high intellectual grasp of science but also a high technology. By this is meant something distinct from the background noise of the low technology that all civilisations and societies have evolved as part of their daily life…the various crafts of primitive metallurgists, agriculturalists etc …’

‘…the answer lies in Greece…the Egyptians, it is true, developed surveying techniques and conducted surgical operations.The Babylonians disposed of numerical devices of great ingenuity for predicting the patterns of the planets. But no Oriental civilisation graduated beyond technique to curiosity about things in general’

In the assertion that Technics is Greek, Stiegler appears to betray two dimensions of his own project, firstly, that of the materiality of the supplement—subsumed under the ideality of the question. And secondly that of the genealogy of the trace: although Nietzsche is not a frequent reference in Stiegler, it can be assumed that to the extent that Stiegler turns to Heidegger and Derrida (both of whom take up the fissile legacy of a Nietzschean genealogy) he also inherits the challenge of a genealogical enquiry. But where in the conflation of Greece and technics and the past of all Others do we find that genealogy whose pursuit ‘is to maintain passing events in their proper diversion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations—or conversely, the complete reversal—the errors, the false appraisals, and faulty calculations…it is discover that truth or being does not lie at the root of what we know…but the exteriority of accidents’ .

Given the heterogeneous intersection of fields involved in such debate, resolution is impossible– and even a refinement of these questions would involve deep thought and research, none of which can be here undertaken. In in-conclusion then we would have to agree with Stiegler when he states ‘that the question of hypomnesis is a political question and the object of/in a struggle…for the politics of memory’ but suggest that in such a struggle Stiegler’s thought is both a tool for emancipation and an agent of repression: the equation of Greece and technics is a mnemopolitical statement, and one that a emancipatory politics of (technical) memory must rigorously combat.

UPDATE: As I’ve just discovered (doh!), the at last translated Technics and Time 2 treats the specificity of Stiegler’s claim with respect to writing, science and Greece. This material may well adjust what is written here (the dangers of blogging into the void), but I’ll leave it stand for now

MORE STUFF: A new collection of essays on Stiegler: Transformations


Black Skin, White Masks

Reflecting in the wake of the news of MJ’s sudden demise, it seems natural to consider his fate, or at least that of his physiognomy, as a classically Fanonian tragedy : of the subject  ‘overwhelmed to such a degree by the wish to become white, because he lives in a society that makes inferiority possible’ –a pattern  Fanon (writing in 1951) read in Lacanian terms.

This, and its complex genealogical deformation in the circuitry of celebrity, family tragedy, psycho-sexual trauma etc, is an integral component of the Jackson mythos. Its appeal operative even on those who claim that they ‘simply love the music’, the obsessives that proclaimed his innocence.

Hence the inadequacy (as well as racial segregation, note the ethnicity of all the privileged deremptors –sonic revolution as the prerogative of the master) of readings such as this:
Confronted with performers as appealing and disturbing as Elvis Presley, the Beatles or the Sex Pistols — people who raise the possibility of living in a new way — some respond and some don’t. It became clear that Michael Jackson’s explosion was of a new kind.’

Granted Marcus’ comments are probably decades old (‘disturbing’ having become MJ’s defining characteristic), nevertheless the life and death of Jackson offers a better index of our time, its torsions, pressures and psychic toll,then anything offered by Presley, the Pistols and their latter day heirs.


‘In some places we are all ghosts…’: The Incalling

Hauntology, a much discussed, perhaps abused term; but one whose veracity is demonstrated by the fact that, as is often said of verse, its seems to capture something intuited but hitherto unarticulated. It was already a spectre lurking on the fringes of the consciousness of a demographic, but until its programmatic formulation remained inchoate, a frisson triggered by certain sounds, images, memories that remained tantalizing vague.

In retrospect the particular fascination that M. John Harrison’s short story ‘The Incalling’ had long exerted over me is best understood in hauntological terms. I encountered it as a teenager when multiple copies of  The Savoy Book (as well as the rest of the publishers back catalogue) could be acquired for a few pence in remaindered bookshops. While the majorty of that collection made little impression, I found over the years that I repeated returned to the story, and significantly found that I could never read without preforce imaging its prose in televisual terms, played out on the creaking sets of UK TV drama, in an VTR image distinguished by the curious halos around points of light, the lingering impressions left by moving light sources. Hauntology avant a lettre haunted my reading of this story of haunting.

In keeping with tale in which ambience and milieu will emerge as a protagonists, The Incalling narrative frame is slight. Austin, a London publisher, increasingly concerned about the mental and physical wellbeing of one of authors, Clarke, submits against his better judgement to attend the ‘incalling’ a scenence cum ritual held, memorably, in ‘that warrent of defeated streets which lies between Camden Road and St Pancras’. The address he has been given, leads him to a second hand clothes shop on a largely derelict street, staffed by a sinister boy whose diction and accent are entirely incongruous with his age, dress, and ethnicity, directed to an equally decayed house, where he witnesses the ‘incalling’. This ritual is figured as cheap mummery, tawdry theatre exploiting the sexual and emotional frustration of Clarke, a middle aged man whose minor literary success has trailed into indolent asperity. Alice Sprake, a girl of about 18, shuffles inelegantly around the bare boards of an undecorated room, in a chalk circle inscribed by the sinister boy, where she is soon joined by Clarke. As the incalling approaches what promises to be an apparently libidinal climax, Austin exits.

Sullied by this encounter, Austin resolves to abandon Clarke to his obsessions. But his participation is a compact, and after a scene in which Austin catching a bus at the Victoria Embankment observes Clarke shadowing Alice, both parties moving obident to a motion that issues from neither, he finds himself entangled in their fates. Following the delivery of an illegible manuscript,Austin is forced to visit Clarke in his Tuffnell Park bed-sit. Here he learns that Clarke had a few months to live, and that he believes the Sprakes to be his only chance. Agitated, fearful, and contempous of the superficial concern of his publisher, Clarke becomes hysterical and opening the window of his flat delivers a stream of invective at what is revealed as the ‘Sprake’s son’. Disgusted at the ongoing exploitation of a desperate man, Austin returns to the Sprake’s shop, and in the absence of any adult authority berates the boy. This exchange, the story’s denouement, is chilling. The young boy with malign precocity informs Austin ‘ Your horrified Mr Austin and who can blame you? It was immaterial what Clarke did with his life…Good, its never too late to feel compassion … Later you may discover that your compassion is not so pure…’  and instructs Austin to look out of the window, where he glimpses Alice and Clarke shuffle in their sonambulistic reverie. Enraged at a situation that eludes his comprehension Austin beats the child. The story concludes with a coda, when following Clarke’s expected death, Austin is visited by a dream, which adds a further dimension of ambiguity to Harrison’s shadowy tale.

What eludes this summary is what elevates the Incalling to poistion of a masterpiece of ‘Weird’ fiction, comparble to Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’, namely the role of its milieu, whose presence is so powerful that it assumes the status of a character.

From this perspective the Incalling becomes an allegory on the urban as a sort of gnostic hell, a world of fallen materiality.