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.