Matthew Noel-Tod’s Bang! is a cavalcade of consciousness, a history of humanity as seen through the eyes of an expanded advice dog internet meme, the latest animated medium through which we speak ourselves and speak to others.
The title of this talk, as many of you will have observed, places this ambitious universal history under the sign of a short-lived 2005 sitcom written by Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker, the tale of vacuous try-hard narcissist tosspot and self-facilitating media node Nathan Barley and his dubious new media empire, Trashbat Industries, a pioneer in talking animal gifs.
The first episode introduces his neighbour in the east london neighborhood of Hosegate, Dan Ashcroft. Ashcroft is a burnt-out depressive journo, astonished and appalled at the creeping gentrification of the area following a sudden influx of proto-hipsters competitively vying to top each other in the most ridiculous headgear, clothing and transport options, feeding and feeding on a pullulating ecosystem of increasingly abstracted and nonsensical recombined linguistic and visual culture, neologisms, catchphrases, references to references stripped of historical context and parlayed into coded insider signals. Prize specimens of these same sophisticated self-regarding halfwits also populate his hated workplace, vapid style magazine SugarApe. Boiling over with rage and resentment at the ironclad social cohesion of this phalanx of folly and its unshakeable faith in its own currency, Ashcroft pens a viciously polemical opinion piece entitled ‘The Rise of the Idiots’ berating their malign influence. But he has underestimated the idiots on every count, and is immediately adopted as a folk hero by the very targets of his ire, who dub him ‘preacher man’, slot him into their FMCG mythos of superficiality, and consign him to existence as a walking meme.
Bemused, friendless and skint, in episode two Ashcroft is inveighled into making an appearance at arch-idiot Barley’s launch party for his website—a pointless and self-regarding mess of prank videos, flash animations, smartphone plugs and celebrity idents that bears more than a passing resemblance to everyday life online in 2014.
As Barley whips the party crowd into a frenzy with his lamentable rapping, in an abominable crescendo of desolation Ashcroft’s desperate entreaties to the crowd—‘stop it, what are you doing? you’re all idiots’—are met with relentless waves of cretinous whooping and applause. No critique, no negation. Real subsumption by new media. ‘So say brother Nathan’.
These first two episodes of Nathan Barley encompass the essential story arc, one need watch no further. Dan Ashcroft is a Guy Debord manqué, a lone voice raised against the impervious universality of self-consuming idiocy, the papering over of physical and mental urban space by swarming new media spectacularisation tapped by old media capital, the usurpation of the very word creativity, and so on. Criticised as being concerned with an admittedly egregiously wanky but ultimately rather parochial London scene when it first aired, it’s quite telling that today, the targets of this show – written before youtube launched, before smartphones, before the social hegemony of Facebook and Twitter- seem relatively universal, or at least they overlap fairly well with the horizon of middle-class Western sociality. In an attempt at satire, Nathan Barley documented the vanguard of future popular idiocy.
So at first I thought about addressing Matthew’s work with a counterpoint of two quotes which seemed to me to exemplify a tension that runs through the piece: one from Barley, and the other from Guy Debord. Debord is the eminence grise behind the hi-res colours of Noel-Tod’s Bang! (2012), the theorist whose Society of the Spectacle underlies its meditation on capitalist subsumption, and whose last and most monumentally maudlin film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni est not only prescribes the endless circulation of A Season in Hell 3d (2013), which completes a trilogy of Noel-Tod works, but also presides over this central episode of the cycle.
Bang! extends Debord’s critique of our collective complicity with the emptying out of all human life into the consumption of endlessly circulating signs and images, the production of a new passive subject of (but no longer in) history; and does so through the use of the most debased visual heralds of this process: the internet memes which, so it seems, we now speak through, or which speak through us, with the alien tongue of a culture that belongs to nobody and constructs itself continually, autonomously,—a culture that is both immediate—in its infantilism, its garish appeal, its universal stupidity—abstract—through its unpredictable recombination and unknowable evolutionary evolutionary mechanisms—and socially ordering—through its continual demand for attention, currency, ‘creativity’ and self-representation.
So that’s why it makes sense, at least on a first approximation, to suspend the work between these two authorities, one representing a subject that is rampantly exuberant, endlessly relaying a nonsensical juvenile hypersemiosis to which he is totally in thrall and upon which the entirety of his shallow self-knowledge is invested, the other representing a subject who imperiously affects to stand outside, a lone hero, the voice of historical authority calling out the idiots and waiting, anticipating the downfall of their empire: between the preacher man and the idiot.
It would be difficult to find a bleaker perspective on this than Debord’s final testament in in girum imus; however I may have succeeded in doing so: philosopher-mathematician Gilles Châtelet’s polemical 1995 essay Vivre et penser comme des porcs—To Live and Think Like Pigs
Châtelet is an interesting figure, philosopher of mathematics, friend of Deleuze, militant, activist in the Front Homosexuel d’Action Revolutionnaire. His last book is a lament for the decomposition of the liberalising ideals of ’68 into the libertarian cynicism he saw emerging in the ’80s, a coruscating attack on the nascent ‘tertiary service society’ and the cybernetic ideology peddled by its apologists. Châtelet describes how the emerging order requires the production of a new generation of carefully managed and controlled neurolivestock wired up to global entertainment networks, primed with envy and greed, cyber-zombies bred to circulate freely in the mediatic pastures provided them, neurostock to be milked by vampiric capital, all the while innocently naive in their bovine belief that the ideals of permanent revolution are now being realized in the festive neoconservatism of gimcrack nomadism, constant acceleration, and abandonment of all things to the market as a virtuous chaos from which a new liberating order will spring readymade: in short the complacent self-satisfied individuality of a postindustrial third wave, as Châtelet says, a generation that aspires to be ‘light, urban and nomadic’, ‘a multitude of young cavaliers in charge of more and more ‘intelligent’ nomad-objects’— ‘Postmodern cretinisation by communication’, Châtelet declares—a full decade BB [Before Barley]—‘is a more advantageous substitute for the subjugation perpetrated by the conservatisms of yore’
Châtelet retains his worst invective for the happily complacent consumers, and much of his book could run as an alternative commentary to the habitat showroom family in the stills that Debord’s film fixes on for what seems like an eternity, their open, smiling faces putrefying before our eyes under his cold gaze, a perfect unit of shiny people playing out ‘what they have seen in the spectacle: a happy, eternally present unity’. whose new image would be furnished for them by what Châtelet calls ‘The Nomad Overclass of the twenty-first century’.
Châtelet reserves, on the other hand, a kind of pitying despair for those who see themselves as the vanguard, and who are indeed the wellsprings of idiocy whose diluted byproducts the middle classes will sup from; The primal scene of To Live and Think Like Pigs unfolds in Chapter 1 in the Paris nightclub Le Palace, where movers and shakers vie for style pioneer status, believing—like the denizens of Hosegate after them—that they occupy, in Châtelet’s bravura description:
Reading Châtelet I have had more than one moment of despair in wondering what he would have found to say if he had known how much worse things would get. When, for example, he speaks of the
One must of course avoid any waste, and limit oneself strictly to the needs of the future neurocracy, to what is strictly necessary for cybernetic fattening-up: to go beyond this would be unhealthy: to ensure the health of every body or to make sure each one got a careful education would an infringement of the liberty of brains, and would risk compromising the ‘autonomy and self-management’ of the units of livestock.
Replace Walkmans with iPhones, read it and weep. By the same token, I doubt whether, when Nathan Barley was penned, Morris and Brooker even at their most cynical and satirical, guessed quite what a large proportion of our everyday social existence would be constituted by consumption of trashbat-esque media in a decade’s time. And how much we all ended up enjoying it, discarding the prophylactics of irony that we once thought would protect us, properly enjoying it, and without any hope of finding some outside from which it might be ‘critiqued’—a dumb word.
On an immediate visual level Bang! appears to inhabit this space; yet like Debord in in girum imus, its maker might say, ‘I pride myself in having made a film out of the rubbish that was available’. In doing so he possibly hopes to deprive it of some of its hold on us but also, on occasion, he rolls with it, and even adds some jokes of his own.
But before turning to Bang!, let’s first briefly describe the first part of the trilogy, Castle (2011).
This piece involves not dogs but tigers, and specifically, I think, its subtext is Bataille’s striking affirmation, in The Accursed Share, that ‘the sexual act is in time what the tiger is in space.’ [note: MNT later informed me this had no influence on the work at all :)]
We see a meticulously rendered CGI tiger dreaming; it then springs into full motion, and just as suddenly is frozen, captured, rotated in a highly controlled geometrical fashion, exposing the ability virtual technologies afford us to meticulously model and manipulate desire in time through the sytematic examination and control of exactly what the tiger is in space.
But the tiger is not the main character here: next into this empty space with its digital no-time there appear two perfunctorily-gendered Gaultier perfume bottles manufactured with hard bulges in all the right places. They autonomously shed the circular cuffs that restrain their metallic pumps and begin to spray each other in a highly chaste symbolic coitus.
This frigid copulation produces what seems to be an infantilised CGI caricature of Bataille’s tiger, a perfectly-formed cute ball of tiger fur bristling with energy, bobbing and pulsating as it’s batted back and forth by the gushes of masculine and feminine scent, until these perfectly formed objects even abandon their three-dimensionality, spilling and seeping across the screen in an ecstatic kaleidoscopic rendering error.
As Bataille outlines in The Accursed Share, the capitalist system can be seen as constituting a departure from primitive societies which ritually destroyed abundant surplus produce in various sacred rituals of unproductive expenditure; this carnival of wastefulness is eschewed by capitalism which confronts the overabundance of wealth by engendering scarcity and compelling accumulation. If we do indeed ‘turn in circles in the night’ to be ‘consumed by fire’, as Season in Hell suggests, therefore, this is no apocalyptic conflagration, no orgasmic nihilation; this fire is the measured, antiseptic flames that form the backdrop to Season in Hell 3D, the time of apocalypse is immanentized into this all-consuming stasis just as the sexual act is produced in commodified space.
These then are the all-consuming cold fires of festive neoconservatism and its well-managed antiproduction that châtelet shivered at, horrified, as the ’80s progressed, every perfectly rendered detail of the deadened object, every pixel of the flatscreen LCD, every byte of MP3 squeezed from an earbud a supervised venting of libido that is but the miniscule pendant to massive, equally sterile accumulation taking place on another scene.
If the 3d spectacle of Castle’s Tiger shows us the commodification of an impoverished eroticism, a glimpse into the alien space of spectacularized sexual desire, Bang! turns from the economics of eroticism to the production of the existential, dramatizing the way in which we discover and reflect our selves in beings to which, however animated, we refuse the privilege of subjecthood; yet which provide the indispensible sounding board for our own privilege. Yet, centrally, this whole trilogy is concerned with the material technologies of the spectacle through which these processes are mediated, the dead and impermeable surfaces which continually enliven us and stoke our fires.
In the great Hegelian tradition, Bang! presents a history of spirit, but as told from the ‘other side’—as the objects through whose medium we come to construct and recognise ourselves as subjects call our bluff and begin to speak for themselves.
Modes of subjectivation from the Greek polis to the Christian kingdom of god, from the dignified self-reflection of Renaissance Man to the paranoia of Cartesian doubt—and out the other side into the media landscape where we engage daily and explicitly in constructing our self as an object of, for and by the circulation of images drawn from a common media stock.
Echoing the furry tiger ball of Castle, Bang! makes use of infantile images, merging tropes from didactic children’s TV programmes with the timewasting gimmicks of the tumblr generation. To call this infantilism is in fact to do an injustice to children: if, as Deleuze asserts, in capitalist society especially, ‘children are subjected to an infantilism that is not their own’, at least we now have the honesty to subject ourselves to this infantilism too.
This meme culture is, on a very high level, what Debord refers to as ‘a communication without response’—to which only a ‘pseudo-response’ is possible. Infantilization: ‘The need to imitate which is felt by the consumer is precisely the infantile need conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession.’—‘you reject and remake, watch this vid, then go and post your status update,’ observes a glum human figure toward the end of Bang! who has become virtually indistinguishable from his own dog.
‘We are all one by grace of an alien’ says Noel-Tod’s god-dog, an analysis that holds strikingly constant throughout the vicissitudes of the history of spirit…. The creation of community of men, and of the human itself as a plastic existence, takes place through a socius that itself is historically constituted, depending on the particular regime of production in force: it inhabits a body produced alongside production, upon which production is inscribed, and from which the relations of production appear to emanate miraculously, as if from an originary nature. body of the earth, divine body, body of the despot, body of capital, the body of the park.
The dog in Bang! stands in not only for the particular animated images through and against which the subject constructs itself, but also and at the same time the guardian who polices the boundaries of the hallucinated unity of the social, the universal surface—the reversible god-dog alternates between our looking at things as subhuman and inanimate, and our endowing them with magical life.
So, in Bang! we traverse the Christian faith, the shattering of Renaissance humanism and its proud vision of the dignity of man, and the crack-up of the modern subject. Starting with Socrates and Alcibiades, with the park as the greek polis.
Dogs and philosophers have indeed been companions since the so-called dawn of Western civilization. Plato’s contemporary Diogenes of Synope the Cynic who famously slept in a ceramic barrel in the marketplace, was reputed ‘doggish’—the root of the word ‘cynic’—not only on account of his disdain for the niceties of the civilized life and decorum, but also because he and other cynics prized the dog’s seemingly instinctive feel for who is a friend and who a foe. Humans are too prideful and self-deluding to be easily fooled, whereas a dog’s bark, so it was said, always tells the truth.
Diogenes was also apparently a great mocker of Plato, whose philosophical use of dogs however draws on the same reputed virtues of the faithful animal. But, ventriloquizing Socrates, Plato suggests that the dog is a fine model for those noble pups, the guardians of the Republic, precisely because of their spirited and philosophic nature:
As Plato has Socrates say:
If dogs are prized because they know what they know and what they don’t know, then their being used as a model for the guardians of the city marks the departure of Plato the great planner from the company of a cynic and cosmopolitan like Diogenes; and the pestiferous vagrant Socrates, who continually professed his astonishment at what ‘everyone knows’ when he himself knew that he knew nothing, and yet at the same time demonstrating how to draw out—even from a mere slaveboy—that which we know without knowing that we know it.
Of course there is more to this, the proposition is more ironic and more complex: namely, if the dog is a mere creature of opinion—a dog of doxa—and recognizes its friends and enemies through sheer force of custom and habit, then it is most certainly no philosopher; the dog is only a model if it barks at the real stranger, ignorance and licks the real friend, wisdom. Meaning that the guard dogs of the republic need a little more sophistication than your average pooch—the space of reason is one of boundaries that constantly shift under pressure of reflection and history.
Nevertheless there may be a yet deeper and older truth to this faith in canine discrimination: it has been suggested by scientists investigating the history of wolf and dog genomes from archaeological sites, that the advent of settled human communities 15,000 years ago is contemporary with a co-dependency of man and dog, with the dog both as a guard against nocturnal attack for cultivated territory and as one of the first instances of inherited wealth making possible in both these respects the more complex societies.
These notions of the dog as discriminator of inside and outside, as both property and guardian of territory, seem key to Bang!, as the film’s dogged pursuit of the human shows how this history runs in parallel with a territorial pissing, a marking out of property. And the reciprocal marking of the subject by the logics of property it is subjected to and defined by. In this way Bang! extends Debord’s reflection on how the growth of the spectacle is paralleled by a neutralization of urban space. In girum imus nocte is also in part Debord’s elegy to a Paris that no longer exists.
Executed as a public project in 2011–12, the year when the London Olympics was mobilized as a massive alibi for the regeneration largely by stealth privatization of vast swathes of East London, Bang! asks what becomes of ‘the park’—the open, public space of leisure and sociality where humans exercise their unique ability for real encounter, a world beyond even the most audacious dog’s impoverished horizon, when it is meticulously veneered over by the shimmering carapace of the ‘illusion of encounter’, the ‘hallucinatory social fact’, that slippery mix of governance, semiosis, and money (‘money it’s a visible dog, a manmade dog’, a Koons dog whose mirror surface reflects us perfectly declares). As per Baudrillard, reality itself has become a simulation, a sheaf of thin CGI surfaces.
The question of the survival of anything beyond this real subsumption is at its most subtle yet acute in the final section of the piece. Interspersed with txting clichés are Beckett quotes, and blackberry messages from the riots that exploded in London during the making of the piece—which famously themselves expressed dissatisfaction in terms of consumer dream-fulfillment—the looting of cellphones, sneakers, and flatscreen TVs. Châtelet again:
Do we have to accept that, looking back from this ‘this vale of desolation’, in Debord’s words, to speak of ‘alienation’ can only be a nostalgic term, that in speaking of a former generation who ‘were not content to subsist on images’ we must lapse like Debord into personal memoir, lost friends, good times?
This is perhaps the question of accelerationism: If capitalism is the vehicle at once of a process that progressively dismembers the organic body of the socius, drawing it ever nearer to an immanence with universal schizophrenia, and if this process, reaching the point of real subsumption, shows no signs of dying of contradiction, or of producing a revolutionary proletariat that would be the agency of its overthrow, then might not the revolutionary path be to push this process further until it exceeds the axiomatic of capital itself, accelerating this schizophrenic tendencies that Debord diagnoses at the end of Society of the Spectacle toward the full, unsegmented body upon which uncontrolled schizophrenic flows continually recombine and machine each other in perfect anarchy?
This, anyway, was the position put forward by Jean-François Lyotard in what he later denounced as his ‘evil works’, in which he recommends the renunciation of the sad passions of theory, the depressive, pious position of critique, which has little to offer other than ever-more sophisticated laments and the self-important guarding of the flame of hope, the lament for “the impoverishment, servitude and negation of real life”—in favour of a position according to which, in the words of his follower Gilles Lipovetsky,
If it cannot be a question of going back, of reinstating Mirandolo’s dignity or Descartes’s spirit, then it is inevitably a question of a speculative vision of human plasticity, and thus of the possible mutations of that sociotechnological surface that is inscribed and miraculously emanates the human. A new schizo-park, a new sociotechnological basis, a new earth for a new humanity.
But take the plane of consistency that Deleuze and Guattari describe, upon which, in their words,
—to which we may add: a dog giving bad advice, carrying a Harrods shopping bag made of Lego, playing at god in the park—isn’t this plane the very imaginary of Trashbat industries?
The Barley generation is surely too jaded to take seriously the revolutionary agency of this affirmation without judgment; it means only that the idiots have won. It means relinquishing our dearly held theatre of critical perspective in favour of the onrush of pullulating directionless positivity. It means yielding to the unconscious which, as Freud tells us, knows no negativity. Only endless, positive drift with no orientation, and, as Châtelet argues, immediately recuperable.
Nevertheless in the absence of dark hopes for accelerationist breakthrough, we admit that we retain a certain fondness for Barley’s puppyish positivity. Because who wants to be old dog Dan Ashcroft, pissing into the gale of idiocy, so maddened and disorientated by the endless vacuous churning of disjointed fragments of culture that he is rendered impotent and speechless, like Debord, leaving his last testament in the form of a filmic palindrome to be played and replayed endlessly, invests his last hope in its eternally vigilant yet hopeless gaze, filled with horror and even somewhat hysterical, like Adorno when he glances at a door handle or a pair of slip-on shoes and sees nothing but the congealed shadow of Auschwitz. It is this truly inescapable disoriented circulation that A Season in Hell distils. Bang! is perhaps less bleak. But these subject positions belong together—as Charlie Brooker said reflecting on Nathan Barley, maybe Aschroft is just Nathan seven years later.
We always live through an alien, whether it’s god, dog, industrial machine, social media network and/or their underlying configurations of capital. It may be possible—at a stretch—to read this work in a lineage of accelerationist art that aims to concentrate and exacerbate the sociotechnological regimes that dismember the dignity of art, and would include Warhol’s factory, Koons’s ushering in of banality, Murakami’s universe of über kawaii.
Certainly the space Noel-Tod’s films inhabit is that of the false immediacy of a shared, repeated, reinforced culture that produces as if through a miracle these perfect surfaces that are the subjectivating dog of the post- un- neo- or trans-modern; however, it does not simply amplify or mimic them.
Concretion at the level of ‘immediate’ cultural experience is the achievement of massive abstraction attained collectively through countless technical and creative microcultures and the new conceptual and logistical procedures that emerge from them. The abstract matter refined by these forces of production is selected, processed and distributed according to supple and responsive practices of aesthetic and linguistic coding and decoding, animal response technique, and automated audience participation and modulation. How would it even be possible to call this immediacy ‘false’ or to cry ‘alienation’, what does it mean to dismiss our collective enjoyment of this mediation?
I feel a deep ambivalence, more profound than protest or an affirmation, in the work, and in Matthew himself as a person. (An assessment based on my relationship with the artist over the last year which consists 1% of face-to-face conversation and 99% of participating in the construction of Matthew-Noel Tod as a distributed vector for the production of dog-based Facebook humour. Like Aschcroft, he has become his own memeplex. He is a Guy deBarley for our times.)
Bang! is neither a celebration ironic or otherwise, nor is it a counsel of despair. But truly, it offers no hope beyond the perplexing fact of its own existence. With that, lets finally get to those two quotes from which I initially proposed to hang what little I could manage to say about this perplexing work, leaving them unattributed so as to sustain its troubling ambivalence:
At the very end of Society of the Spectacle, Debord writes:
The park must be built, for dog’s sake. The construction, in the inescapable, infinitely well furnished freefall of images, of an oriented space where we can finally encounter this condition itself, and each other within it. Presenting this ‘direct link to universal history’ in the form of what at first glance looks like a risible, attenuated caricature, a ‘bonkers philosophy mash-up’ stuttering in the stunted visual vocabulary of the spectacle, in animate images which, as Debord says, are ‘ideology materialized’—but what ideology?—freighting these brittle carapaces with a weight under which they begin to crumple and lose their charm, Bang! succeeds in giving voice to their own labour and ours under them.