Watch yourself! There is always a camera hidden somewhere.
1996; London: THIS IS ART
As cutup Super-8 reels of Stalin’s funeral flicker on the white walls, Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ plays on the sound system, overdubbed by blasts of spoken-word Adorno text. In another part of the room, slides of old people on holiday flick by. Cultural detritus, discovered in junk shops and church fetes, forming a jaded carnival of negative authenticity. A joyless juxtafest where ‘found objects’ recline passively, waiting for your listless stare to turn their way.
The scene could have almost been set up to illustrate Baudrillard’s weary polemic. ‘Any object, any individual, any situation today could be a virtual ready-made…’ (VI 99) The ready-made, Baudrillard writes, ‘extracted from its context, from its idea, from its function, becomes more real than real (hyperrreal) and more art than art (it enters into the transaesthetics of banality, of insignificance, of nullity, where today the pure and indifferent form of art is to be seen).’ (VI 99)
Your body feels unbearably heavy. Your head turns lethargically to each exhibit in turn, and then begins again. You feel the same ennui you would reading and re-reading old magazines in a waiting room, then remember, horrified, there’s nothing to wait for: this is the event.
A dreadful self-consciousness pervades the whole scene. People carefully and consciously perform the actions that they would have made were they dancing, were they enjoying themselves, carefully simulating, and being seen to be simulating, all the gestures of carefree pleasure. As if sim-life lip-syncing to kitsch classics, moving with the confident self-consciousness of photographic models. Jacques your body…
‘We have swallowed our microphones and headsets … We have interiorized our own prosthetic image and become the professional showmen of our own lives.’(VI 96) ‘No more actions save those that result from an interaction—complete, if possible, with television and built-in feedback.’(TE 46)
Sim-panopticon, and you’re always on stage. Circuiting everything through the automonitor, showing a series of reruns and sim-programs in your place while you theorise yourself into existence. As if … You’re wise enough to know it’s impossible to do anything, following commands from the automonitor: DISCLAIM YOUR BODY IMMEDIATELY. Abandon your desiring machines all ye who enter here.
Everything has already been screened, circuited through the auto-monitor, this psychic appendage capable of unlimited metabolisation.
Auto-monitoring PoMo is a machine, but IT ARRIVES LIKE LIGHTNING, sweeping away any evidence of its origins as instantaneously as it establishes its miraculous reign as prime cause of everything. Immanent to its workings is a suppression of intensity behind the screens of representation, epistemology and signification. It’s either meaningful or meaningless; in any case, it’s saturated with significance. Before anything gets through security it has to check in with the Jacques officers. You have to ask what it means to do something rather than just doing it.
The PoMo machinery will convert any input into a signifying formula. Whenever anything is working, it will ask: What does it mean? What is it? There’s nothing outside the text because nothing gets in unless it’s already been textualised, complete with brackets and quotation marks, converted into canon fodder.
‘There is a degree of sleeplessness, of rumination, of the historical sense’, Nietzsche wrote in Untimely Meditations, ‘which is harmful and ultimately fatal to the living thing whether this living thing be a man or a people or a culture’. His scattered accounts of this infinite and infinitely frightful ‘boundless ocean’ forewarn of the throbbing inescapable ache of irony, knowing self-mockery, the interminable stepping in and out of cultural idiom which we might recognise as popular postmodern culture. He concludes: ‘The oversaturation of an age with history seems to me to be hostile and dangerous to life…It leads an age into a dangerous mood of irony in regard to itself and subsequently into the even more dangerous mood of cynicism.’ But surely the only danger here is that of a comprehensive neutralization, the second-hand miming of irreverent destruction, a wilful squandering of energy.
Playing in the ruins, then is our game—a desultory and arbitrary sorting though of the mass of valueless junk left at our disposal. Some take a certain glee in this abject practice, a fervour for revival, citation, surreal juxtaposition and all the other characteristic tropes of popular postmodernism. However this is what Nietzsche describes as ‘Pessimism in decline…as growing effeteness, as a sort of cosmopolitan fingering, as “tout comprendre” and historicism.’
The cardinal features of PoMo—the arbitrary aesthetics, the simulated gestures, the boredom, the poignancy of the lost object—combine to produce a transcendental miserabilism: a deep sense not only that there is nothing to be done, but that nothing could ever have been done. Zarathustra’s Ultimate Man, ‘inexterminable as the flea’ says ‘irony’ and blinks; ‘They are clever and know everything that has ever happened : so there is no end to their mockery’ (Zarathustra, Prologue, 5).
1991: NO FUTURE (US reprise)
Punk arrives in America: Nirvana on MTV.
‘“Smells Like Teen Spirit” begins as if on Jupiter, where body weight has hideously increased, the music pressed down by a fatigue, lassitude, why-bother: “Never mind”, as Cobain says to kill a line.’ (ALD 29)
What Cobain’s weighed down by above all is the dead heaviness of the past, the overwhelming sense that everything has already been done. When Kurt Cobain first heard the punk records that would excite and inspire him, they were already old news, the fading afterglow of long-extinct stars. He lived, he always knew, in the arid cultural interregnum that Jameson, referring to an ostensibly very different cultural sphere, called ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, [where] all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum. But this means that contemporary or postmodernist art is going to be about art itself in a new kind of way; even more, it means that one of its essential messages will involve the necessary failure of art and the aesthetic, the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past.’ (PCS 18)
NO FUTURE had a gleeful edge when Rotten sang it, a sense, not only of being relieved of an obligation to the future, but of being freed from a responsibility to the past. But from where slacker was, Rotten’s sneer, even Mclaren’s demystifying Svengali strategies, looked as nostalgic as the Silver Jubilee they supposedly opposed. Where the xerox revolution of punk emerged in the wreckage of disciplinary societies, as an escape from the dreary treadmill of school and dead end jobs, Slacker was in a control(led) loop from the start. Its every move anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knows that he’s just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV. Knows that his every move is a cliche, scripted in advance. Knows that even realising it is a cliche.
This epistemological spiral may seem like a runaway ride but at escape velocity it simply goes into a cold orbit, processing everything through the automonitor. The result is a dreadful physical paralysis. ‘Words take a long time to emerge from this gravity, from Cobain’s hoarse, seemingly shredded throat. It might be months on the radio or MTV before you begin to catch what’s being said in Nirvana songs—“sell the kids for food”, “I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind”, “I feel stupid and contagious”, “I’m neutered and spayed”, “at the end of the rainbow and your rope”, “I don’t care if it’s old”—but the feeling of humiliation, disintegration, of defeat by some distant malevolence, is what the music says by itself.’ (ALD 29)
It’s Baudrillard who is the consummate philosopher of Slacker and its correlative physical state, the lethargic couch-potato impotence, the affectless, doped tension-free of the terminally defeated. ‘One day the image of a person watching a television screen voided by a technicians’ strike will be seen as the the perfect epitome of the anthropological reality of the twentieth century.’ (TE 13)
Metaphoresensic analysis screens events before they happen. They arrive prepackaged and prefiled as niche commodities: tragedy, massacre, political condemnation, all-party talks mediamatically pattern recognised, the extirpation of contingency going hand in hand with the proliferation of categories, vocabulary. The significatory categories have to be established before anything is allowed to ‘happen’.
When Baudrillard says the Gulf war didn’t happen, it’s because, on the terminal beaches of PoMo, nothing happens any more. ‘Events’ belong to the past; all that’s left are commemorations, anniversaries, revivals, remakes, remodels. Events were precisely that which could have happened differently. The Gulf War, meanwhile, had the scripted inevitability of a TV programme—a carefully designed real-time apocalypse scenario that unfolded as it was broadcast, in an uninterrupted (and uninterruptable) telepresent simultaneity. Which is why the Gulf War played the same symbolic role for Slacker that Vietnam did for the sixties.
Generation X was always out of time: arriving after the orgy, it found itself exiled from the progressivist aspirations of the sixties counterculture and thrown into the seamless temporality of MTV—a temporality Jameson, writing just as MTV was just beginning to broadcast, was already describing when he wrote of ‘the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change…’ (PCS 28) But this simultaneous perpetual present is nothing but the endless reiteration of the past: the airless no-time of ‘the classic’, a timeless eternality removed from history because bereft of any sense of contingency.
So while the postmodern scene is obsessed with the past, it is only historicist in the way that Nietzsche’s ‘cosmopolitan fingerers’ are. What Jameson has called the nostalgia mode is characterised by an atemporal mix‘n’match aesthetic that has moved beyond the model of linear development on which historical narrative is premised. That constantly recurring feature of the postmodern scene, the ironically revived text, is ‘a complex object in which on some level children and adolescents can take the adventures straight, while the adult public is able to gratify a deep and more properly nostalgic desire to return to that older period and to live its strange old artifacts through once again’. (PCS 19) A deep cynicism lies hidden behind an apparent generosity: Britpop may just be a reheated version of the past, but it is ‘new to the kids’, giving them ‘a chance to experience what they missed’. The revived artifact emerges as doubly transcendent, offering a transcendence not only of the present (from which it seeks to escape into a supposedly more coherent past), but also of the very past it affects to fetishise (since ironic distance and a little modification here and there allow us to enjoy the past without the embarrassment of being actually immersed in it).
Britpop is only one example of the British version of PoMo which, if anything, is both more cynical and more wistful than its American variant. The interlocking milieux of late-night TV, retropop and graduate comedy, protected by a demystificatory barrier that ensures it won’t get fooled again, languishes in the citational abyss of an increasingly friction-free revivalism. We look at the old days with a certain pity, a certain tenderness, and a great condescension: they are what we can never be, unconscious of the great weight of their existence, unembarrassed, whilst we can only simulate, in thrall to the authority of an absent authenticity, slave to a dead god. Enkitschment, or ironical reinvestment, is invariably followed by a sneer at the reconstructed naivete which is, however, cherished despite its apparent embarrassed acquiescence at the hands of PoMo ‘cynicism’. A superficial glee accompanied by a nostalgic sigh—if only we could really go back to those simpler times, watching Bagpuss in our nylon Starsky and Hutch T-shirts.
The miserable relativism of PoMo is already invited by the inherent pathos of Kant’s metaphysics, backed up by the barely disguised theocide of rationally enforced regulative principles and transcendental simulations (the as if). As the grund falls away, you have to learn to police yourself. The transcendental as a generalized apparatus of capture, locking intelligence into closed circuits, simultaneously produces and fulfils impoverished expectations.
The repressive force of this machine can only be gauged by the absurd amount of energy expended upon its maintenance. PoMo’s transcendental miserabilism, a last cubby hole of humanity amidst the swarmachinic rhizome of technocapital, domicile where once was dominion, purposiveness without purpose, constitutes a multi-story ‘as if’ where only a residual conceit secures homeostasis. Fiercely protected, PoMo is all about cults, clubs and cliques. Nothing gets in without prior inoculation.
The shocks to this system come from the darkside, from the unanticipated and unprepared for. What is genuinely new will evade the pre-scripted categories—‘the new Beatles’, ‘the new Punk’—which have already neutralised any possible deviation from the already processed.
Technocapital, as generalized decoding machine, is the basis of a numerical or synthetic culture whose ability to break down, display and replicate code into asignifying, machinic elements within virtual systems puts it on a line of flight away from all signifying language, unleashing a generalized decoding which irradiates the whole culture.
‘While decoding doubtless means understanding and translating a code, it also means destroying the code as such, assigning it an archaic, folkloric or residual function’ (AO 245)
Capitalism displays antithetical tendencies, tenaciously reaffirming redundant cultural forms with one hand while ruthlessly decommissioning them with the other. Bourgeois tragic culture revels in a retro-reactive fascination for these archaisms (kitsch), building them back into the system at the level of ironic simulation (which further strengthens the reflection-reproduction of a self-satisfied human interiority under the great weight of its own poignant degeneration). But regardless of chronological priority, simulation is always secondary to and derivative of synthetics.
The arbitrariness of transcendental simstim regulations does not itself necessitate the reification and metaphorensic examination of this lack of a ground (which itself serves as the basis of transcendental miserabilist aesthetics/ philosophy/theory). This is more the product of the already existing bourgeois culture and its decadent tendency to translate its own petty problems into grand gestures.
Fed on the endlessly regurgitated brains of dead philosophers, post-structuralism degenerates into the spongiform Hegelianism it always-already was, proudly dwelling on its own desolate but strictly delimited ground while barely concealing its delight that we can’t escape from the narratives of modernity. Theory remains tethered to the ‘post’, given over to interminable rumination on what is superseded but, supposedly, never overcome. All texts are pre-texts—also post-texts—flimsy tracing papers colonially irrigated and preemptively captured by reassuringly dull, appropriately academic, subtitles. Pun colon verb definite article academic designation. “Jacquing off, Offing Jacques: Derrida, Lacan, and the Self-referentiality of the Academic Subject”.
Rapid response is rendered impossible, the danger of embarrassing oneself by saying something that has not been rigorously automonitored, ruminated over for a punitively extended period of scholarly detention, is too great.
Nietzsche’s critique of the clogged digestive system of the West’s Last Men, itself often perversely interpreted as a metaphor, expresses all too acutely the constipated Eurocontinence of these constricted bodies, themselves minor fascicular elements of a resonant system of transcendental miserabilism disseminated across all levels of culture.
The dreary textocratic dribblings of post-theory are merely the transcendental idealist counterpoint to the empirical realism of postmodern culture. Kurt Cobain embodied what theory disembodies, the raging stomach pains which plagued him finding their disintensified correlate in the the chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing protocols of urbane academic anxiety. Smells like Hegelian Spirit.
By contrast, synthetic culture disorganises the docilising regimes of disciplinary body politics. Hip hop and jungle work on the body, not in the overlit luminotopological epistemoscapes of necrospective mummification, but in the dark zones where you don’t have a chance to think about what things would mean before they happen. Effects arrive before objects, scrambling the operating system of the automonitoring signifying apparatus.
Samploid music and video games emerges as the leading probe-heads of synthetic culture precisely because of their overt machinism, their asignifying functionality, their indifference to epistemological conundra brewed up in the depths of the strata. There’s nothing to believe in, only a cyberpositive circuit to plug your body into.
The asignifying codes of synthetic culture are not at all to be identified with the great inarticulable deferred transcendental object blearily hallucinated by senescent Bavarian Catholicism and lingua-Francophony neo-communitarian dessicated Judaism in their post-theoretical guises. Materially functional numerical systems, these codes represent nothing, but are real parts of abstract machines, hooking up desiring machines by way of a continually complexifying axiomatic.
What is dissolved in synthetic culture is not commodification per se, but commodity fetishism as it regulates the bourgeois object system, in which everything is assigned a proper place. Synthetic culture sheds no Benjaminite tears for the lost aura of objects in the age of mechanical reproduction, celebrating instead the way in which the subject-object dichotomy and its attendant pathos are reconfigured as machinic circuits in the age of cybernetic replication. ‘The transaesthetics of banality’ plays upon the poignant, if bathetic, aura of found objects, but for abstract culture everything that’s ready made, or mass-marketed, is there to be dismantled and relocated into the unfamiliar architectures of the synthetic composition, the ‘uncanny adjacencies’ of the hip hop or jungle track, where they have a machinic, rather than merely a citational, role to play: decomposable elements on a plane of consistency, not cut up fragments.
To the jaded eyes of the PoMophile, sampling can appear to be part of its own aesthetic of incongruent bricolage, yet another example of the crippling self-consciousness bedevilling a culture so exhausted it is fit only to sort through its own entrails. But, far from being imprisoned in the past, synthetic culture unlocks the machinic surplus value in the already actualized, stretching and warping time into nonorganically reprogrammed somatic circuits of inhuman speeds and slownesses.
A breath of fresh air, a little relation to the outside, that’s all schizoanalysis asks.
It’s a matter of synaptic connectivity, crashing the Kantian mainframe, burning the cranial arboretum, switching on desiring machines.
ALD – Greil Marcus, ‘Art of the Living Dead’, <em>Wire</em> 109 (March 1993)
AO – Deleuze/Guattari, <em>Anti-Oedipus</em>
PCS – Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’
TE – Baudrillard, <em>The Transparency of Evil</em>
VI – Baudrillard, ‘The Virtual Illusion: Or the Automatic Writing of the World’