Archive for June, 2009


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.


A Condition of Muzak?

2009, the end of the first decade of the 21century. In the old temporality of pop music, a time of reflection, tracking the decades sonic innovations, identifying its parallel to other socio-political narratives. By the end of the year the verdicts will be in, those sanctioned to pass judgement will have done so, But for now a view from below. By way of assessing the extent of aesthetic or formal innovation in the noughts (the first decade at whose close a comfortable generic signifier has yet to be found) we might formulate a series of rhetorical  questions. These questions, it must be granted, assume certain continuities, judging the present or immediate past, by its failure or success in replicating the conditions by which other eras’ creative fecundity has been measured.

The first and most pressing is that of identifying a single genre or form that is incontrovertibly contemporary, and that shares none or little  of its creative DNA with the already canonised. While there are a few contenders most of these will probably flounder in the face of attendant question (admittedly framed to elicit a response from an older audience); namely:

when did you last genuinely listen to something and feel  ‘I simple don’t understand it’, in other words  find yourself embracing the mantra of intergenerational estrangement ‘its all noise to me’?

Or as the K-Punk has formulated with characteristic percipience with respect to dance (or the ‘numm’ or whatever) :

A thought experiment makes the point. Imagine going back 15 years in time to play records from the latest dance genres – dubstep, or funky, for example – to a fan of jungle. One can only conclude that they would have been stunned – not by how much things had changed, but by how little things have moved on.

This ambience of mourning and melancholy, this belife that something is rotten in the state of sound, has been gathering momentum of the last few years (see here).

All of which might lead is to conclude that we occupy a moment of objectively measurable low novelty, the last sputtering of the innovation engine set in motion by pop (or pop criticism’s?) embrace of the Poundian dictum ‘MAKE IT NEW!’

But through another optic, the sonic world of ’90’s is another country where things where done so differently that even the most retrograde of today’s listeners would find its return perpelxing, and by the same token even the most avantist jungalist of ’94 would react to the sonic economy of ’09 with a measure of future shock.

Since to state the obvious, the last decade has transformed the musical landscape more radically than any since the end of the Second World War. A paradox then, an era of unprecedented change greater than all those that preceded it, is simultaneously an era of extraordinary conservatism. Formal exhaustion juxtaposed with infrastructural innovation.

For we must be clear, when the noughts as a space of radical mutation is invoked, we are talking infrastructure, or more precisely technology. For those who subscribe to Attali’s thesis that music is the most labile of all the arts, that it is :

‘…prophecy. Its styles and economic organization  ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future

it should come as no surprise that the sonic was the first to register the wider cultural permutations that would unfold in era of ubiquitous calculation.

Putting into abeyance the fraught question of aesthetic innovation, what must be registered is the eclipse of an entire ‘supplementary’ material domain: formats (tape, vinyl, CD) and their sites of distribution and consumption that will never return, archives whose only future resides in the archive. And in keeping with logic of Kittlerian media science, it is only the passing of a scriptorial system that allows us to register its consequences. To take an example, even as the prodomatic dimension of the breakbeat science of the 90’s is confirmed (i.e. a veritable exploration of the possibilities of a code ahead of the society–‘crisp information for your ears’ as one pirate radio MC presciently put it in ’94), the integral role ‘of the circuit that sustained UK dance music in the 1990s: the assemblage of dubplates, pirate radio…’ i.e., the historical determinate constellation of formats and technical media on which it was predicated, is revealed. The clarity of the latter’s  articulation is a function of its exhaustion.

Taken in concert this might suggest the utility of examining the techno-medial conditions under which the alledged ‘Restoration’ has been convened. Drawing out their sepcificity through contrast to their predecessors. Consider in this context the digitisation of music, its condensenation to bit-rates and subsequent dissemination of multiple networks.  Here surely resides the fundamental shift, from which the entire Web 2.0 aural-verse has issued. Indeed we might provacitively replace the narrativisation of decades in terms of styles/sounds/ movements with a techno-medial arc; from Napster to Spotify.

Although its economic rationale remains precarious, it seems safe to conclude that if not spotify itself, then its format will perhaps bring to a close a period of techno-medial warefare which has pitted audience, against industry, against artist. As a potential settlement between parties in deceptation, as a  platform cum treaty, spotify upholds the freedoms that now seem our digital birthright (everything free until you prise the mouse from my cold dead hand), while satisfying the legacy claim of a otherwise moribund industry, and hopefully the legitimate need for remuneration of the creatives without whom there is no sonic economy. .In fact it could be averred that Spotify itself, the subject of one of the fast assumptions in recent online history, might prove instructive.Spotify can be seen as the concresence of all the danger and ecasty of the transmigration of music from storage to caculatory media, and while the full reckoning of this process must await a future date, certain qualities of the ‘spotify user experience’ invite the user to draw wide rangining conclusions.

Accessing music via spotify arguably induces certain platform specific effects, in mode of consumption and in the interelationship between various content streams. As the ingression of the archival, hypertextual protocols of the internet into the marrow of the sonic, spotify invites surfing-and so reaffirms the heterochronicity that characterises music consumption in the post-digital; the erosion of the modernist imperative of an absolute conformity between style and chronos. But more fundamentally while in its current, and infant, incarnation, spotify remains constrained to certain platforms, but its inevitable extension to encompass a range of portable digital devices will allow it, or its content to attain what could be called ‘the condition of muzak’. An omnipresent, omniscent sonic archive, a infintely configurable aural envelope, it suggest that the inadvertent telos of the techno-medial evolution is indeed muzak, and thus in certain respects the 21st C. is witnessing the erosion of the distinction between music and muzak. There is a certain logic to this process:

Muzak as is well known was a hybrid form, a historical compromise between a proprietorial aesthetic paradigm, and emerging techno-medial infrastructure whose tendency was clearly toward the implementation of total sonics. In other words, in order to harness the audio-technological ability to broadcast anything, anywhere, anytime, while avoiding the punitive royalty fees that the industry levied, muzak was borne, simulacral, parodic, but by the same token, free radically democratic- the sound for all. The differentiator that instituted the distinction between these spheres, was that most contested of concepts: intellectual copyright.  It isof  little surprise then that the objective deconstruction of the latter, effected first by technology, before being championed by its users, should have created the scenario we currently inhabit. With the removal, or abeyance of copyright, music could at last in terms of its mode of consumption enter the condition of neo-muzak. Anything, anytime, anyplace. And the hyposatization of the condition of muzak is to be found in what, economic exigencies withstanding, is surely the format of the future: spotify. As a free to user, advertising/subscription sponsored audio archive, as the long tail incarnate, it may well obviate not only the moribund sphere of physical sales, but also those piratical domains that have flourished in this era of contestation and renegotiation –torrent sites, rapidshare blogs,the old P2P networks, usenet etc. 

Taking its place alongside myspace, though superior to the latter in terms of fidelity  (a consequence of its embrace of the efficacy of open source codecs (ie. Ogg Vorbis), it is surely the sound of the future.

Especially when the passage through the media wars has fundamentally altered our relationship to music. In retrospect it was scarcity that compelled patronage, in era of superabundance, when the kind of aural fatigue once confined to journos,and execs , has been extended to all, the need for ownership is minimal. Curiosity can be satisfied in seconds, appreciation and enjoyment in hours, why purchase then?

For those inculcated in the age of the materiality of sound, when album sleeves were portals to other worlds, manifestos of aesthetic insurrection, when track listings, personnel, years of release (and the microhistory they encoded) were absorbed osmotically it is hard not mourn a certain loss, and to ask who will invest the same creative intensity in a form whose mode of consumption, is that of a single, inevitably homogenising, binary substrate, where only interface separates prior media, and their respective cultural forms. Apropos of the latter,  the encounter with the interface of this sonic cloud induces some curious and largely unpredicatble effects. Foremost amongst which is a leveling, a homogenisation of tendencies and traditions.  The first impulse is to put the system through its paces, to summon up the ghosts of futures past, to remember faded excitations, to indulge in the flush of guilty pleasure, invoke the margins, obscurities. Yet while not robbed of their charge, it is remarkable how within this format immiscible sounds peaceful coexist, how the technology disposes the listener to a certain magnanimity, an irenicism in place of what would have once been the site of violent disputation.

Certain inferences could be drawn from this ‘interfacial affect’ regarding the future form of pop’s temporality and tradtion. Firstly although ostensibly the final term in commemorative rock, the spotify affect strangely effects a deconstruction of the canon, through an emulsification of its terms. It is hard to reactively champion a decade, a movement, to argue that one’s privileged historical locus (67, 77, 89, or whenever) constitutes a lost age, when  as the playlist rolls, the search engine arranges its spoils, each takes its place alongside the other under a pax digitalia. Since on one level we are discussing a transformation of the archive, Derrida’s meditiation on the latter is worth recalling, in particular his obseravation that:

‘…the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existance and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event’

In other words, spotify represents one of multiple instances of what might be termed the archevent. One one level the history of popular sonic culture has been indexed with the history of archival technologies- for instance, the ‘album’ as a musical form was an embrace of the constraints and potential of the parameters of a given archival technology, and their transmodulationn necessarily effects their content. This is potentially a little fact gravid with meaning, but for now a couple of speculations.Recently, Fisher (King) has spoken of  ‘we are in a culure that is formally nostalgic to an astonishing degree‘, and this ‘formal’ condition may well have its origins in the archevent. However, the proposal louded procalimed in that quarter that salvation lies in a particular strategy of aesthetic intolerance, the subtractive gesture that seeks to confine influence to a few sanctioned precusors, while a valid response to a formally induced ‘anxiolytics of influence’, might be seen as insufficently grounded in contemporary techno-medial conditions. The attempt to resusistate the serial conditions of an historic network, and the aesthetic agon that followed from it, is quite possible negated in advance, lost in the I-shuffle. How much emotion can one invest in the extirpation of data streams, how rigourously can one oppose one file from another? To again turn to Derrida:

<!– @page { size: 21cm 29.7cm; margin: 2cm } P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm } –>‘In the archive there should not be any absolute dissociation, any heterogeneity or secret which could separate, or partition, in an absolute manner. The archontic principle of the archive is also a principle of consignation, that is, of gathering together’. This consignation, this retroactive consanguination, exists at the level of technics, it is the formal consequence of archevent, and since for the concievalbe future this infrastructure is likely remain operative, its aesthetic homomorphisms will likewise endure-negating in advance the reactivation of the revolutionary energies of earlier assemblages.

Polemically, it could be concluded that lament is misguide in the face of this scenario, at least for cultural innovation. If we recognise that software and hardware and their soci-cultural adventures are legitamate areas of cultural expression, then what we observe is a new vector or probe head. It may well be that music does not, and will never?, enjoy the cultural privilege it formerly held, but music is only one dimension of culture (and in truth we are talking about a rather limited subdivision of the sonic spectrum). Elsewhere, in the very tools that are deployed in bemoaning its exhaustion, novelty proliferates.

Addendum: Interesting analysis of the collapse of Muzak (the company) in early 2009

All of which might lead is to conclude that we occupy a moment of objectively measurable low novelty, the last sputtering of the innovation engine set in motion by pop (or pop criticism’s?) embrace of the Poundian dictum ‘MAKE IT NEW!’.