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baths-of-titus

Views of the Baths of Titus, Giovanni Battista Piranesi

In part one of this essay, I laid out the disappointing reality of the walking dead or pop modernism that has taken hold of contemporary cultural forms. This hollowed-out take on radical 20th century aesthetic movements is particularly relevant to dance music. Over the remainder of this essay, I’d like to update Mark Fisher’s conception of pulp modernism and lay out a few illustrative examples of its potential.

In an essay that went through several iterations, first on the k-punk blog and later in The Weird and the Eerie collection, Mark Fisher’s examination of The Fall’s music through the lens of the “weird” has been a provocative touchstone for both my understanding of Mark E. Smith’s post-punk outfit and the greater potential of a counter-hegemonic popular music. Almost right off the bat, Fisher juxtaposes the “gnarled, collage cut-up” of The Fall with the “minimalist, metallic austerity,” of Joy Division, marking out what he sees as the fundamental break between a classical modernism and the pulp modernist mode.

In rejecting both lumpen-punk’s reductive literalism (“circles with A in the middle”) and the bourgeois excesses of prog, The Fall’s music was full of “gobbets of linguistic detritus ejected direct from the mediatised unconsciousness” and came in the form of “tracks,” not “songs.” Contrasted with their more urbane counterparts, The Fall were opposed not only to an older, establishment right, but to a middle-class left who “talk of Chile while driving through Haslingden.” Circumventing social realism entirely, Smith’s lyrics dealt in “hexes”, the  “restricted linguistic, gestural and behavioural codes which produce a sense of inferiority and enforce class destiny” and were unfiltered by any reflexive, or centering, subjectivity.

 

 

Where pulp modernism really takes off in relation to The Fall is in the convergence of the weird and the grotesque. Drawing on Philip Thomson’s study of the grotesque, Fisher’s understanding is characterized by the “co-presence of the laughable and that which is not compatible with the laughable.” This is exemplified in the crudely rendered creature (“emigres from old green glades”), left etched into the cover of the 1982 single “City Hobgoblins”. The etching functions as a threshold between worlds, muddling the ontological distinction between inside and outside and making irrelevant “standard modes of legibility.”

The humor here does not come from a recognizable common language, but from a “psychotic outside,” formulated in a “psycho(tropological) spewing of associations and animosities.” Juxtaposing their gnarled sound and fantastical lyrical content with the mundanity of growing up in the post-industrial north of England, The Fall “reacquaint modernism with its disavowed pulp doppelganger.” Arriving on the precipice of Thatcher’s rule and the crushing of the labor movement, The Fall’s Grotesque (After the Gramme) and Hex Enduction Hour can retroactively be seen as a fledgling frankenstein entity emerging from modernism’s corpse.

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Image from Twitter

“The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe.” – Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Look out over any large city’s skyline and a homogeneous certainty is made clear. Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers or knockoffs are omnipresent, fighting for urban space with Norman Foster’s oddly shaped, reflective totems to multinational capital. IKEA’s denuded take on mid-century modern furniture is the de facto interior decor for the young professional set, while the clean line and muted color-driven design of the Swedish furniture conglomerate is ubiquitous in chain restaurants, web design, and everything in between.

The promethean, utopian modernism of the 20th century has largely atrophied under 40+ years of neoliberal order, now resigned to art books and heritage sites. Aptly laid out by architecture and culture critic Owen Hatherley, modernism is now defined by the “distance between itself and the everyday.” Hatherley’s Militant Modernism and Landscapes of Communism, published in 2009 and 2015 respectively, function as earnest and honest investigations into the makeup of the modernisms of the last century. Probing the architecture, literature, film, theater and politics of the early revolutionary Soviet Union, industrial England, Weimar Germany and more, both volumes salvage kernels of wisdom from past forms.

An earlier volume, Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, published in 1982, performs a similar task, delving into modernism’s genesis moments (Goethe, Baudelaire, the construction of St. Petersburg) to draw out the contradictions and failures of uneven development in Russia, mid-twentieth century New York, and a burgeoning austerity state under Reagan. Berman understands modernity as a “maelstrom of perpetual disintegrations and renewal,” and that only through communication, dialogue, and dialectical thinking can the dream where “the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all” become reality.

Following the rise of multinational capital and its ensuant postmodern cultural logic, Hatherley and Berman’s tracts are important reminders of what was once possible: an art that didn’t dispense with the everyday, politics in the street, and a vision for a world after capitalism. Many of the modernisms called on by both — Brechtian theory, early Russian constructivist architecture, Marx’s “free development of physical and spiritual energies” — still feel eminently alive today and are worth excavating for their relevance to contemporary life, as well as  studying in their own right. That said, modernism’s vitality comes from its relationship to the present, to humanity’s “capacity for perpetual self-critique and self-renewal” and through a willingness to “wake up out of this dream, with its proliferation of phantasmagorical commodities, into an entirely new world.”

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In my year end essay for FACT published in December, I focused on 2019 releases that deal extensively with the quotidian. I’d like to expand on that piece and reframe the releases mentioned in the context of Fredric Jameson’s understanding of “cognitive mapping” and Rafael Lubner’s rejection of post-internet discourses. These are not definitive examples of this aesthetic mode, but a nod to the potential of a music for fighting alienation.

Music for walking the city — for building into and bracketing every facet of our urban existence — has been of increasing importance to me over the past several years. More often than not, that music tends to be about the everyday: not in a literal, descriptive sense, but in that it deals largely with the issues of ordinary people. I’ve wondered quite a bit about what separates the music that elicits a feeling of place-ness versus that which increases isolation, paranoia and a loss of agency. Neither can be reduced to a set of aesthetic principles, but I think there are distinctive qualities, outlined below, which begin to unravel the question. When referring to alienation, I won’t be using it in the strictly Marxist sense, although alienation from one’s labor is a key component.

In assessing matters of alienation and disalienation, Jameson lays out a loose structure with which to assess large scale cultural developments in the second half of the 20th century and follows with a potential strategy for moving through and transcending postmodern hegemony. Lubner’s analysis functions as a rejection of a segment of contemporary music and culture criticism, as well as a constructive framing of much of the music that we both adore. Later, I refer to both approaches in my further interpretation of releases from Amazondotcom, Loraine James and Oli XL. These releases have been particularly relevant to my attempts to fight personal alienation this year and provide a potential jumping off point for working towards what Jameson would refer to as a moment of truth.

In Jameson’s “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, initially published in New Left Review in 1984 and later adapted for the seminal Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, the American Marxist theorist and cultural critic lays out an aesthetic strategy for fighting alienation in the capitalist city. Building on the work of urban planner Kevin Lynch, Jameson places spatial concerns as his central organizing principle, writing that “the alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves.” In this, the postmodern city is a reflection and a representation of the intentionally unfathomable dimensions of multinational capital, an “emptiness…here absolutely packed” with mirrored totems.

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