CH: Would you be able to say something about your background, and when you came to Warwick and came into contact with Nick Land?
RM: In terms of my background, I was into music, I’d been in bands, and I’d also been an early adopter of home computing—I got my first computer, a Sinclair ZX81, when I was six or seven. So I was very aware of programming—in a way that children now tend not to be, even though they’re very familiar with the use of digital devices. With those early home computers, you had to learn to program it in order to make it do anything at all. There used to be magazines you could buy with programs you could copy out into the computer. So that was an early interest.
When I was sixteen and came to do my A Levels, I wanted to choose computer science, but because of a timetabling problem I wasn’t able to do it, and I ended up taking philosophy although I didn’t really know what it was. Thanks to two really superb teachers at sixth-form college, I discovered that it was something that I’d been waiting for in some way, something that really grabbed me.
I ended up applying to the University of Warwick, not for any specific reason—I didn’t have particularly pushy strategic parents or anything, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t have any knowledge of the department, as a lazy teenager I was just choosing randomly. I arrived there in 1993, I think. In the interim, the main things I’d been reading that were influential on me were Nietzsche especially, as well as some Freud. So my concept of philosophy involved its being integrated with how you live your life—you know, existential questions—and of course, as a teenager reading Nietzsche, it also clicks into your instinctive feeling for how disgustingly banal and conventional the world is, and that there must be something more interesting than this, there must be a way to aim higher; and the idea that one can analyse, disintegrate, and remake oneself.
Unfortunately, having arrived at Warwick, the first year I found very difficult, taking the first year courses was kind of appalling because…well, I kind of enjoyed logic, since it was something akin to programming and so I was good at it. I’d already done Plato at sixth-form college—we used to actually read out the dialogues in class—and I enjoyed that. But the generic exposition of epistemology, metaphysics, analytic philosophy, that didn’t exactly appeal to a student hyped up on the prospects of Nietzschean self-overcoming.
I’ve talked about some of this before, but it was only in the second year that I first encountered Nick Land. And I was taken by the very open and enquiring personality of Nick and the fact that he seemed to be someone who was actually doing philosophy rather than reporting back secondhand on others who had done it, assessing and finessing what had gone before. There was an exciting energy about what he was doing and also the thinkers that he then introduced me to, or who I discovered through going to his classes.
There were two good courses, one was called Recent Continental Philosophy, at that time taught by Keith Ansell-Pearson, and the other one was Current French Philosophy. And, you know, the very idea of there being ‘recent’ or ‘current philosophy’ seemed exciting and somewhat unexpected, even though it was not really that recent, it was post-Heideggerian and then post-’68 thinkers, in CFP mostly Deleuze and Guattari—but certainly, those were the exciting courses to be on.
But I wouldn’t like to overstate the importance of the official academic curriculum because, for me at least, that wasn’t what was important. At that time, there was already a coterie of people loosely aggregated around Nick. And one thing that was really good about Nick was that he didn’t just come in, do his job, and go home. He would always be out at the bar; he would mix with graduates and undergraduates. And he always wanted to talk and to listen to what other people were doing. I think that helped create a certain kind of community.
I don’t know if that’s specific to Warwick, but it’s something that I have noticed doesn’t exist, really, in universities I’ve been to over the last decade: there was this sense of community in the philosophy department whereby the undergraduates, people doing PhDs, and some of the staff, would mix; and among those on the CFP course there was a sense that there was a common intellectual project that extended beyond the teaching hours, which is something I haven’t seen much in university departments since then. That may partly be to do with the fact that Warwick is a campus university, out in the middle of nowhere, so it’s kind of insulated, you see the same people all the time, and it’s an effort to go anywhere else. Who’s going to make an effort to go to Coventry or Leamington Spa anyway?! So, it had a kind of hothouse vibe about it.
All of this was before CCRU happened. But there was already this group gravitating around the CFP course. In part it would be people like me who were possibly in some way slightly psychologically damaged or desperate, or disgusted with the world, and looking to philosophy to address existential questions; and obviously, Nick, in his book on Bataille, had offered some extravagant answers to those questions…well, perhaps not answers, but a certain way, at least, of talking about them. And although I don’t think he would ever indulge self-pity or existential melodrama, he took those problems seriously as problems, so it felt that it wasn’t just a pathetic teenage whim to want talk about nihilism, and that you could turn it into a positive enterprise of philosophical enquiry.
In addition to this, Warwick was one of the first places to have a philosophy and literature course, so there were also people who were studying things like Blanchot, Deleuze and Guattari’s Proust or Kafka, but also science fiction, cyberpunk, various things like that.
And then there was a contingent who were into the kind of stuff covered in Wired magazine, getting excited about the early internet, neural nets, nanotech. Of course the web was in its infancy. In my first year at Warwick, you would need to go down into a dark basement where there was a big cavernous computer room full of geeks, and that was where all the computers in the university were and you could get online from there. I remember discovering through a very early browser how to access what there was of the web at the time, and downloading texts and books. At the time, for me that in itself didn’t necessarily seem like a huge deal, but through contact with these ideas that were circulating in the department, it became linked to a whole stream of theoretical speculation and became an indicator of something much more expansive and future-oriented.
So, there was already a series of crossovers happening here because Nick was into all of these things, he would always be interested in what was going on in nanobiology, quantum computing, and so on.
Between ’94 and ’97 at Warwick there was this series of conferences, Virtual Futures, originally organized by three postgraduates, Eric Cassidy, Dan O’Hara, and Otto Imken. It was a coagulation of that whole mixed group of students and their different interests, and also brought in people from farther afield who shared those interests. In the early years it leaned more toward the Wired side of things, speculation about the future of technology, but also with a strong current of cyberfeminism and interest in the interference space between fiction and philosophy. The conferences featured a lot of speculation about cyberspace, the link between technology and social change, and so on. The first one was a small-ish academic-style event with papers and panel discussions, but the event exploded to ten times the size in ’95. You had people like Manuel DeLanda who were doing syncretic work bringing together complexity theory and bold sociological or political theses about technology, and essentially, a whole lot of cross-disciplinary fertilization was going on. I think from the Warwick side a lot of this was already coming out of the realisation that in Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia they were presciently addressing a lot of these questions around complexity, cybernetics, economics, desire, and the social in a way that anticipated the knotting-together of those things that was becoming increasingly relevant as we approached the twenty-first century.
Those events were, I think, quite pioneering and unique at the time. I think the feeling that there was some kind of homegrown way of approaching and talking about these subjects and bringing something different to them was there from the beginning and, although it wasn’t overt at first, there was an emerging underlying scorn for the naivety of the Californian cyber-optimist ‘technology will free us’ discourse. Notable was what became the traditional star turn by Stelarc, this kind of bawdy semi-masochistic cybernetic bricoleur….and a scattering of artists, performance artists, cyberpunk novelists, people talking about electronic music, all helping inflect things more toward the wild side, as well as academic theorists. And the conference was accompanied by a club night. From ’94 to ’95 the whole thing grew massively, and began to recognisably gravitate more around a cyberpunk vibe than any recognisable academic agenda—or the agenda of tech evangelists. Imported from the thinkers who were taught on the RCP and CFP courses, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, and reinforced by artists’ explorations into the new cyperspace environment, there was more of a dark side to the whole thing, more discussion of the idea of an abolition, or at least derangement, of the human that wouldn’t be some kind of angelic migration into cyberspace, but a disintegration of human society into its own machinic infrastructure, which was bound to cause a massive disturbance to our sense of ourselves, rather than just being a kind of transcendence.
Sadie Plant had been a presence at Virtual Futures, and it was ’96, I believe, that she was employed by Warwick, to found the CCRU. Sadie brought with her a number of her students from Birmingham. I’d already encountered some of them because they’d given presentations at Virtual Futures and at other events. But that’s when I properly met the group known as SWITCH, which was Mark Fisher, Rob Heath, Steve Metcalfe (who didn’t come to Warwick), Tim Burdsey, and Angus Carlyle (who was at Manchester). Suzanne Livingston was also one of those students who came with Sadie, and she became a member of CCRU proper and did a lot of the graphic artwork used in publications and such. I don’t think she was a ‘member’ of SWITCH at that time… they were more of a boy band! SWITCH was really cool because they’d turn up and do these presentations together, against a backdrop of intercut video clips from Terminator and Predator. I think already at that stage they sometimes used a soundtrack as well. That was something I hadn’t seen before. They had attitude.
SWITCH were all coming from a cultural studies background, because most of them had studied with Sadie at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. So they were all people who were very well versed in the visual culture of movies, music, popular science fiction, horror, etc. In the UK the preceding decade had been the era of the scandal of ‘video nasties’, this invasion of the home by supposedly disturbing and even socially deleterious violent moving images, as the video market grew massively, conspiring with the technological sophistication of special effects to create an escalation in the speculative weirdness and violent scenarios that were being portrayed. SWITCH used all of that, trying to imbue theory with the energy of that popular culture and the fears and delights it tapped into, and also with the energy of the music they were listening to, electronic music, rave, hip-hop, hybridising all of these forms.
Earlier on, when I was doing my A Levels, I’d had something of an epiphanic experience when I read Simon Reynolds’s book on ‘shoegaze’ bands, Blissed Out. That had been one of the first theoretical books that had really got me excited because I thought, wow, you can take all of these (what seemed to me at the time) exotic French philosophers smoking their pipes in Paris, you can take their sophisticated jargon and use it to talk about the kind of music I’m listening to—you can talk about My Bloody Valentine using Derrida, or whatever. The name for the zine that I published around ’95-’96 at Warwick, ***collapse, a distant forerunner to the journal published by Urbanomic, actually came from a chapter in that book, on the band Loop. Just the chapter title for me was emblematic of this pioneering spirit of applying maximally portentous philosophical language to pop culture, something that would totally be a part of the spirit of CCRU later on. Not only was the chapter entitles ‘Black Mysticism of Transcendental Collapse’, it was about one of my favourite bands too! People ask me about the name Collapse and think it’s some kind of reference to quantum theory but no, that’s the real reason behind it!
So, I understood immediately that SWITCH were extending this kind of practice, and meeting them was a renewal of the realisation that it’s possible for theoretical work to be part of what Mark Fisher always called, simply, ‘cultural production’: you’re producing something that’s aesthetically stimulating, that involves narrative drive, images, sound, perceptual stimulation, but it’s also theory, it’s also cognitive intensity.
CH: And the students actually shifted institutional affiliation as well?
RM: Yeah. Some of them may have been on the MA at Warwick, I think, before they did a PhD, I’m not sure. What I do know is that there was a lot of weird institutional politics around Sadie being in the philosophy department and a lot of grumbling, ‘That’s not philosophy. Why is she here?’ Probably, I think, she had already gained a certain notoriety and been in the press, and so there was maybe a business case made in Warwick, ‘Get this person who is going to create a reputation for being “innovative” and “cutting edge” and install her here.’ I don’t know whether that’s why it happened or not but… but there was certainly uneasiness about it which was made clear to her at the time.
I know that the students also had difficulties, in particular Mark, he had a really hard time having to go to meeting after meeting and to the PhD review sessions and justify what he was doing, you know, Toy Story and Baudrillard, ‘that’s not philosophy! That’s not rigorous. You haven’t read this; you haven’t read that.’ I think that was a formative experience for Mark, in a negative sense, in terms of his critique of intellectual authority, guilt, and class—and once he had finished his PhD, it probably drove him further into wanting to create some kind of ‘pop theory’ that would function via other channels and without encountering those kind of institutional barriers.
There was a kind of mutual education that went on where, you know, I certainly remember Mark introducing me, for example, to Paul Gilroy’s work, The Black Atlantic, the kind of stuff which was canon for Cultural Studies in Birmingham, but which I hadn’t really encountered before. And we talked for hours about Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason…So there was a kind of cross-breeding of two fields, with Deleuze and Guattari increasingly becoming a common language as we all read and re-read Capitalism and Schizophrenia constantly.
RM: There was a group who were older than me, who were doing PhDs when I arrived. But as I was saying, there was a quite a lot of mixing so you did get to know people. I remember Diane Beddoes, who was doing a PhD on Deleuze and feminism, Justin Barton, who later did the audio essays with Mark and who was certainly there doing work on Deleuze and Guattari. And then there were people who I think may have been from other departments or who were kind of working across departments. I know there was Michael Eardley, who was doing some kind of research spanning philosophy and computer science. There was Martyn Amos, who was from the biology department, who was interested in nanotechnology. Eric, Dan, and Otto who ran Virtual Futures—these were all people who would regularly turn up at the bar. I remember seeing Hari Kunzru around too. Undoubtedly there are many others I’m forgetting, there was a kind of shifting hard core and then a fringe of other characters who came and went.
But it was a kind of strange, heterogenous group of people, really. And I guess the common language they were able to talk was this kind of Deleuze and Guattari argot of complex systems, deterritorialization, strata, and so on, at a maximally abstract level—a weird kind of abstruse machinic Esperanto.
Once CCRU was installed, there was another iteration of Virtual Futures in ’96, subtitled ‘Datableed’, which I ended up being one of the organisers of. Basically, there was a schism during the planning of the event, between those who were into hard science and wanted to talk about complex systems and cybernetics in a strong technical sense, and biotechnology and whatever—and a contingent around CCRU who were very outspoken, and who were more interested in this idea of cultural production, maybe looser with the ideas but arguably more energetic and creative—obviously, at the time, led by Mark Fisher at his most vociferous and sometimes borderline malicious! That confrontation was perhaps based also in the fact that they had arrived in Warwick in the philosophy department, they weren’t really versed in philosophy, and it was felt they were trying, in some way, to take over Virtual Futures to make it into something else, like to make it into some kind of weird Goth-Deleuzian post-punk performance art meltdown! Which was true. So that was an interesting time. And I guess probably only the presence of Nick was able to hold all those things together, but the schism was evident, most of the original organisers of Virtual Futures having left, myself and a couple of other people trying to pick it up, and the CCRU with a kind of evangelistic fervour trying to steer it in their direction.
CH: And Virtual Futures, was it an independent conference or was it associated with Warwick and the department?
RM: It was always officially sponsored by the philosophy department in some vague sense, but I have no idea how that played out in reality. In ’96, when I was involved in organising it, there was a lot of financial irregularity, just because no one knew what they were doing and I think that ended up getting the philosophy department in trouble, which is why it didn’t happen again. Things were looser then…I also used to steal the departmental photocopying card to print ***collapse, or I just took it to the print shop and told them it was for the department, although for the second one I got called back in because they considered some of the images to be pornographic and refused to print the cover.
But yeah, it was always connected with the philosophy department and tolerated by them, I suppose. Certainly in ’95, where they had people like Stelarc and Orlan, it was getting media attention and that may have been something that seemed positive to the university authorities, if not to the philosophy department—that it was somehow connecting with that whole Wired culture and getting publicity for Warwick. But I’ve no doubt the whole scene and the publicity it got did in fact bring students in to the philosophy department.
CH: Outside of Sadie Plant and you mentioned Keith Ansell-Pearson, was Land mostly ostracised within the department or were there other allies or part-allies? Was Andrew Benjamin there?
RM: Yeah, Andrew was there. I don’t really know that much about the internal politics. I know all the time I was there Nick was definitely on good terms with Keith. I know that they planned to write a book together during a certain period, with someone from the business school…it was going to be called Machinic Postmodernism. It’s not as if Nick was deliberately abrasive to the other members of staff, I don’t think, but he would maybe say what he thought sometimes injudiciously, and probably was not so keen on keeping up with the bureaucratic side of the job. I would say from my observation that the older Continental Philosophy staff were slightly condescending to him and to his students. And then the more analytic philosophers in the department, I think he had a good relationship with Greg Hunt, for example, who worked on computation. And I think Nick brought a lot of students into the department and they couldn’t argue with that. It became more of a problem when it became obvious that the activities of Nick and the students connected with him weren’t merely academic, and didn’t fit into any known definition of ‘philosophy’.
I’m not really that clear on what happened and how the situation deteriorated or even, really, how the official existence of the CCRU ended, except I got the sense that Sadie didn’t feel welcome and she was the kind of person who would just say ‘Why would I stick around and take shit if I’m not wanted?’
But during the time she was there and for about a year afterward, CCRU existed, virtually. And physically—there was, for a certain period, a room where people just used to meet and discuss stuff.
CH: This wasn’t at Warwick?
RM: Yeah, yeah…
CH: Oh, it was?
RM: In the philosophy department, yeah, there was a room at one point, apart from Sadie’s office. Sadie somehow managed to make that happen, and then for a while after she left even, the room was still there, and it was used as a kind of common room for us—but CCRU was never really an officially acknowledged entity.
CH: Didn’t it move to above a shop?
RM: This is after I left, but in 1998, some of the CCRU decamped to that flat in Leamington, and then afterwards to a house which, apparently, is where Aleister Crowley used to lived. I had done my degree and an MA and then I started doing a PhD at Warwick. And I think by that time I was probably a bit directionless and stifled by being at Warwick for too long and I was not really clear about what CCRU was doing, where that was going, or what I was doing.
So I left before the point at which all of them ended up detaching themselves from Warwick, because everyone was finishing their PhDs, Sadie was no longer there, Nick left or lost his job, and CCRU just became this free-floating group unattached to an institution. I was there up until the period just before Nick left, during the extreme number mania period, which was pretty disturbing, worrying to see it happen. I wrote about this before, but I remember Nick giving this seminar… at that time, Current French Philosophy was still an entity. And Nick used to give this seminar in a bar which was called The Airport Lounge, I don’t know why they built it to look like an airport lounge but it had windows all the way round, and it was snowing, the snow was swirling round us. And this is at ten in the morning, Nick hands out these sheets of paper, these diagrams of the keyboard with the initials of the chapters of A Thousand Plateaus with lines drawn between them—they’re reproduced in Fanged Noumena. You know, there was something rare about that just because it was really beyond the bounds of any kind of social and intellectual propriety, beyond the bounds of embarrassment at not being intellectually rigorous or socially acceptable, it’s taking exploratory thinking beyond all of that, you know, something genuinely strange is happening to this person and we’re participating in it. I probably followed as far as anyone could into this question of intensive numbering because it was something I’d tried to work on too, and it was actually connected to the whole question of jungle in certain ways, but eventually I couldn’t follow it any further either.
So that was worrying but it’s not something you can… we did say to Nick, ‘We are actually worried about you, people care about you’, but you can’t say that kind of thing to him. He’d just be like, ‘There’s no need, the entity has something for me to do…’. Because there were various entities around at that time, acting through people, that was really something we all cultivated as a more precise way of talking about processes of production without referring it back to persons—I guess something that became more and more central to CCRU later. The Current French Philosophy course became Cur, this entity that puppeted all the people who had been on that course. And then there was Vauung….
That period was the direct precursor to the material that’s in the CCRU Writings book, the work they did post-Warwick, which is actually practising that kind of practical abstraction, that depersonalisation where, by approaching things from an external, detached position you end up dealing with these cybernetic hyperstitional entities or egregores that you treat as if they exist and by virtue of doing that consistently in a group, in some sense you summon them—that’s a core part of what CCRU called microcultural production.
The best way to understand what the programme was behind all of this is by understanding the two words, ‘cybernetic culture’ as a double proposition: on one side, yes, it was about the fact that computational, cybernetic machines were playing more of a part in the generation of culture, in the shaping of the cultural imagination. Of course we are living in ‘a cybernetic society’, a ‘cybernetic culture’ in that sense. But then also, on the other hand, it was about projecting the cybernetic understanding back into the very content of culture: trying to understand cultural production itself as a cybernetic system, grasping how ideas, images, words and sounds are synthesized and generated, how they spread and propagate, are taken apart and resynthesized.
And I think that dual perspective was unique at the time. It’s very easy to see a lineage, isn’t it, between what we were seeing in Wired in the ‘90s and today’s TED Talks. You know, there’s always been this kind of very optimistic discourse, which is essentially humanist, even when it’s talking about escaping from the human body. It’s still humanist in the sense that it doesn’t really question any of the fundamental conventional ideas of what it is to be human and what is to be valued. CCRU was something different from the beginning. And I think that that emphasis on popular culture is important because popular culture is the culture that is engineered to travel through whole populations, to propagate itself through machines and mass-produced commodities, and that produces waves of collective affect and stimulates social change. That was something brought from their Cultural Studies background but then mutated and developed in new directions in the new environment.
CH: So, can I ask you what cybernetics you were reading? Was it the only Wiener and the Americans or was or was there other stuff…?
RM: There was always that historical background, Wiener and so on. Gregory Bateson. There was also autopoiesis, the work of Maturana and Varela, that generation of cybernetic thinking. But I think mostly the excitement came through this kind of syncretic activity of people like DeLanda who, following Deleuze and Guattari, used cybernetics as a framework with which to view anything and everything. And more out-there stuff like Burroughs on addiction. The central part of that, via Nick, was the question of positive and negative feedback which, again, is really important in the sense of what today we would call memetic production: How do you produce culture machines that propagate themselves? So the cybernetics always had those cultural questions attached to it.
As I mentioned, at Warwick there were these different factions. So there would have been some who really were going home and carefully studying scientific papers on the cybernetics of fruitfly cell reproduction or whatever. And then there were people who were just kind of picking up… I’m not saying this disparagingly but, just picking up buzzwords, getting a general understanding of it, and getting excited about it and connecting it to all sorts of other things. I’m happy to admit I was more in the latter camp. But both of those things were a part of what was happening, and that’s something that continues to this day, you know, there’s always a contingent of people who are not scholarly about what they’re doing, but they also contribute to the production of new syntheses and combining different disciplines and different subjects and different approaches.
What’s interesting to me is that a group of people who have now revived the Virtual Futures name, including one of the original organisers, it does have the appearance of something more like the TED Talks. It seems cleansed of some of the wilder elements that I found most interesting. And then on the other hand, CCRU now has become something that people are increasingly into and trying to find information about, but it seems like people are most interested in playing up the occultish aspects of it.
CH: The cybernetics stuff is just really interesting to me because it really feels like the intellectual waters in which so much of contemporary technoculture swims nowadays. You cannot really avoid cybernetic ideas in talking about technologically mediated culture.
RM: You know what the absolutely crucial missing link is here, though? Cyberpunk. Obviously, in the sense that everyone was reading William Gibson, also Neal Stephenson, Pat Cadigan and others—but really Gibson was the central reference—and that seemed to feed into this darker vision of the kind of networked, technologically enhanced future, artificial intelligence and so on. But more important than that was cyberpunk as a concept derived from punk, in the sense of culture not being the domain of any authority, and technology not being about magnificent, gleaming, perfectly-built corporate robots but about sticking components together in a basement that you’ve picked up off the street and just, you know, doing it yourself, even if in a very crude way.
And that’s absolutely how Switch and CCRU operated in real life. I mean, I remember sitting on the floor with Mark with two VCRs, copying the same two seconds of Terminator over and over again from one tape to another to make one of these presentations, or filming the TV screen with a camcorder and solarizing it, or whatever. And that was the attitude to the theoretical work as well: plug things into one another, stitch stuff together. The Deleuzian/Guattarian term ‘assemblage’ is key to that cyberpunk understanding of materials: that there’s no privileged level of theoretical or practical treatment, that everything plugs into everything else on different planes, on the ragged edges. That conception of doing cybernetics prevailed in CCRU over the scientific or rational exploration of the concepts of cybernetics, because CCRU was always more concerned with doing enough theory to enable cultural production.
Something I still try to stay true to myself is finding the correct balance between these things: yes, you have to do a certain amount of theoretical work and know the coordinates within which you’re working. Yes, there’s knowledge production going on; but it’s always within the framework of cultural production, in which you’re not standing above the thing that you’re talking about, you’re a part of it, you’re participating in it and examining the effects, the feedback. That’s also I think an antidote that Mark and myself arrived at in order to counteract the kind of impostor syndrome you can get when as someone socially ‘unqualified’ you venture into an area like philosophy, and you always know someone haughty is going to tell you you’ve got this or that detail wrong or that you haven’t taken something into account. Deleuze and Guattari in a sense give us permission to do this, to just plug theoretical machines into other machines and see what happens, see what works.
So that’s exactly the kind of attitude CCRU had towards music, probably conditioned by their prior involvement in Cultural Studies: there’s nothing interesting about just theorising about music. What you want to do is somehow plug writing into the types of operations that are going on in the musics that excite you. If you are compelled by the kind of cybernetic operations, the types of synthesis that are happening in a certain music, whether it’s hip-hop or jungle, and if you think that music expresses something crucial about contemporary reality, then somehow work out how to plug writing into that and participate in it rather than analysing it or writing about it.
CH: Yeah. I mean, that really comes across in the CCRU material that you sent me. What was so interesting is the DIY cottage-industry style production aesthetic across the Abstract Culture zine, the events you were putting on etc. I didn’t realise that Collapse was originally a sort of fanzine.
RM: Yeah, the original one. I was doing ***collapse at Warwick before Sadie and SWITCH arrived. And that was, for me, a kind of personal release from academic work…. you know, I have spent my whole life now dealing with books and quasi-‘academic’ materials, but I have just never really liked universities that much, and I’ve always had this other kind of energy that doesn’t fit there—basically what we were just saying, ‘cultural production’: I just want to make stuff. I didn’t really know what I was doing and I wasn’t even immersed in zine culture or anything, I just started making it, together with another student in the philosophy department, Robert O’Toole, after meeting Nick and being involved with this mini-community in the Warwick philosophy department. ***collapse became the expression of the most rabid punk side, the least academic side, of what was going on at Warwick. I should also mention Michael Carr, a peculiar chap who apocryphally, had been ejected from Warwick for telling the then head of department David Wood to fuck off, in Latin, but who used to still turn up every now and again, and who would make these unsolicited insane photocopy posters for ***collapse. There was a whole cottage industry aspect to ***collapse. I used to get hundreds of stickers printed up and plaster the whole campus with them, and go and leave copies of ***collapse in the University newsagent shelves—‘surcapitalism’, I called it…. And somehow, I guess through Nick, then through Sadie, the SWITCH crew had seen ***collapse and they thought it was cool that these things were going on at Warwick.
Similarly, when the CCRU kind of existed as a semi-official entity, Mark and I would be the ones being annoyingly impatient about the production of some external object. I think that was something that I always shared with Mark, this impatience, always saying, ‘We’re talking about it but what are we going to make? Let’s make something.’ So within the CCRU, subsequent to ***collapse, that gave rise to the Abstract Culture journal, which I designed and which carried on after I left, with the Digital Hyperstition issue. Abstract Culture was far more together content-wise, where ***collapse really had just been an eruption of delirious technoid nonsense made for the sake of making something.
CH: There was also an actual CD release by CCRU.
RM: Nomo, yeah.
CH: Could you just tell me about that?
RM: That was quite a bit later. First of all, to set the scene: Mark, obviously, was totally into music writing and immersed in post-punk music. While he was in Birmingham, or before that in Manchester, he was in this band called D-Generation, which was a kind of nihilistic, electronic punk or something; I don’t know how to describe it. So, it was Mark and his friend Simon Biddell, I believe. I don’t know if they ever actually played gigs or anything, but they put out one record.
And then on the first issue of ***collapse, myself and Ben Greenaway, who was also part of this circle of people around Virtual Futures, had done this tape, which was a reading of Nick’s text, ‘Meltdown’ by one of the early Apple powerbook system voices, on top of some ambient techno done by Alan Boorman, who was someone I knew from my home town, he was part of the local music scene there, he’s now in the dada-esque band Wevie Stonder, but in those days he was doing techno. So I think I had really come to this idea of combining theoretical text and music myself in some way. I don’t think I’d had any discussions with anybody about the idea of putting theory with music. It was just something I did, again, out of this compulsion to make something. But it was obviously an idea that was very much reinforced later.
In that first year of CCRU, other students came to study with Sadie including Luciana Parisi, and Steve Goodman, later to become Kode9. At the same time Anna Greenspan, who would be one of the core members of CCRU, began an MA.
I think Steve’s presence ended up being galvanizing not just in reinforcing the importance of music, but in the possibility of communicating with actual practice and the scene itself. Steve wasn’t yet producing then, but he was a DJ and knew what he was doing. He actually came from playing funk and then hip-hop, I think, but by that time he had been closely following the evolution of jungle for a few years and was an avid collector. So, you know, he was the cool one who dared to go into a record shop and knew which were the right records to buy. During that time I helped Steve learn Cubase because the year before I’d started making really bad happy hardcore and pseudo-jungle tracks on a Sound Blaster sound card on my PC. I was making mostly really terrible tracks pretty much continuously throughout ’96 and ’97, and I used to record them onto tape and make everyone listen to them. Steve and I also ran a jungle night at the Warwick Student Union, which was called Ko::Labs. So I think once these new recruits had arrived, the music side of things intensified further, we basically had our own club night that was effectively a testbed for jungle phenomenology.
There were also several CCRU productions, produced either for Virtual Futures and other events, or made afterwards out of the materials. The track Gray Matter is a good example of that integration of music and text, I’d taken a recording of a paper co-written by CCRU and spoken by Anna Greenspan, and I took samples from that and integrated them in to a jungle track. There was a lot more of that stuff than is actually extant today, although we’re turning things up every now and then. Essentially, every time anyone was invited to give a presentation, we would try to turn it into one of these multimedia things.
Swarmachines is an even better example. I think the story behind that one is that in January 1996, Sadie had been invited to give a talk about situationism at this conference at the Hacienda in Manchester, and we all produced Swarmachines, which was a cut up-text where everyone contributed and then I mixed a jungle soundtrack and we recorded the vocals and laid them over the top. That must have been before Steve was around, because I did that by mixing it by using the varispeed on a Tascam 4-track portastudio! It was early on, the production is credited to ‘SWITCH/***collapse/CCRU’.
When we were sitting there writing the text together, we were just passing stuff round and saying, ‘The bit you wrote could go here… no, move that bit there’. It was a kind of collective cut-up method, it was literally taped together on the floor of Mark’s flat in Birmingham.
And then we read the text, recorded the voices, and I remember me and Mark sitting at my PC, putting different effects on all the different voices. Eventually, after four hours or so, we were so bored of it we were just saying, ‘Yeah, just do like a molar time-stretch on that one. Next…’. We were doing all this as fast as possible the day before the conference. And the voice track was then laid down on the 4-track on top of the music and mixed down onto a cassette to take to Manchester.
That wasn’t just cyberpunk, it was totally inept cyberpunk—but just using whatever we had, including our weak technical skills.
Steve was someone who was more sophisticated than that, he was far more embedded in music culture and confident in how production should be done, more than any of us were. But yeah, there were quite a lot of these experiments in text, music, and then in putting the two together.
The Afrofutures event happened during ’96, organised by CCRU, with Kodwo Eshun, and that now seems very much a pioneering event, thematically. My memory is a little fuzzy on that but I know Steve DJed and I remember I got to play at least one of my more experimental tracks called ‘Dread Afriq’ which was in effect a kind of musical exploration of certain aspects of my Wildstyle piece.
Then there was Katasonix at Virtual Futures ’96, which I did the music for and Nick did the text with the artist collective Orphan Drift, who became heavily involved in CCRU in the latter years. Now, that’s VF ’96 so this is the one where CCRU semi-‘took over’. It was really a performative testbed for all of these ideas. There was a series of four or five presentations, all of which were someone speaking their text over a musical background that had been specifically shaped, produced for the occasion.
So, Angus Carlyle, who was in SWITCH…
CH: Is he a sound artist?
RM: He is now, yeah, and he teaches sound art practice. He gave a talk about corporeality and boxing, that text is in one of the issues of Abstract Culture I think, and for that we mixed this loop out of Wu-Tang Clan, put it through various filters, so the talk was given as a kind of performance over that. Rohit Lekhi did a piece called Black Bedlam, which I also made some kind of atmospheric audio texture to go behind. There’s also a remix I did of one of his papers called ‘Futureloop’, that was done around the time of ‘Gray Matter’.
Katasonix was the most sophisticated one, probably, it was a proper track that I made out of breakbeats, with an ear to this question of the acoustic correspondence between the beats and the components of speech. I really liked that track, but I’ve never been able to find a copy of it since, or any footage of the event.
So, VF96 was an opportunity CCRU used to try out that mixture of theoretical text and sound, music, and use it as a performance—and to morph what was a conference into a rudimentary kind of theory gig, I don’t know if it was ‘successful’ and probably that’s not really the point. But, reflecting this schism that had taken place during preparation, the audience response was very much mixed. There were people who had been coming to Virtual Futures since the first one in ’94 who were like, ‘What’s this? There’s no one talking about cyberspace. What’s any of this got to do with the future? What’s any of this got to do with the virtual?’ And then maybe there were others who got into it. There are a lot of people that I’ve met ten years, fifteen years on who were there and who remember it.
CH: So when did the Nomo CD happen, and was it actually released in any form?
RM: In 1999, the group who had more or less held together as CCRU—Mark Fisher, Anna Greenspan, Nick Land, Suzanne Livingston, and Steve Goodman—Mark, Anna and Nick having been largely responsible for most of the material that appears in CCRU Writings, the real core pandemonium/CCRU mythos stuff, they moved from Leamington to London, or gradually people ended up in London. And they were somehow offered the opportunity to do this show at Beaconsfield Gallery. And the Nomo CD was produced for that. It was the first and only time, I suppose, that CCRU had been funded to do something.
But that was preceded by Steve and Mark’s KataJungle EP, which was this kind of weird Gothic-nihilistic-UK-garage genre. I think that was the first record Steve put out, one of the tracks is credited to Kode9. And that must have been around the same time.
Along with the Nomo CD, there was also another CD, Radius Suck, and a catalogue/booklet that they made with Orphan Drift. And the show also included there were also the diagrams that are at the back of Fanged Noumena, they were all in the exhibition as well blown up into poster size, they were pages out of Nick’s notebook, basically.
I remember going to that show and feeling there was something not altogether convincing about how it was working, or that the setting was unsuited to the material. Part of it was that I was then at quite a distance from it all, I hadn’t participated in the preceding intense period of productivity and insanity, I’d just gone and got a job and forgotten all about it…but another thing was the importation of CCRU into the contemporary art gallery context—What do you do with this white room?—and there were people wandering around nonchalantly and not really knowing what was going on or how to deal with it except in a vague respectful art-spectator way. It was a very different environment to the CCRU collective as I remembered it, which was always a compact working environment, and, as I said, I was always the one interested in producing replicable products rather than performance.
I think also that show happened at the time when things were falling apart—or it contributed to them falling apart. I know it was a very stressful, difficult time for everyone involved.
The CD seems like a kind of continuation of what we were doing in those earlier years. I think it was interesting in terms of Steve’s later work as Kode9, his theorisation of the hyperdub continuum, and the birth of dubstep, that what you hear on that CD is very much the idea of the beats being there virtually, there’s this kind of pulsing through it, which is at jungle speed, but the beats are hardly ever there, they just emerge from this murk every now and again. You don’t have theoretical text over the top, it’s almost like the theory’s kind of putresced into a few remaining elements that surface every now and again from the sea of slime. So it’s almost like the digestion of theoretical activity by sound has been consummated in those pieces. To be honest, it’s not something I listen to often—but it’s an interesting further stage in that whole process.
CH: Whose are the voices on Nomo?
RM: Usually there was a preference for female voices, partly because the affect of the female voice always was more effective in that context, just as an empirical observation that seemed to hold true; partly because sonically it just works a lot better. On Nomo you hear Anna Greenspan and Suzanne Livingston most prominently, but Nick is in there too.
At the time when it was a quasi-official entity, the people active in CCRU would have been Mark, Nick, Sadie until she left, Anna, Suzanne and Steve and Luciana. That would have been the core group I think. But there were never really like membership cards or anything so it was always fluid…Rohit Lekhi, Tom Epps, Iain Hamilton Grant, Kodwo Eshun and others were associated at some time.
The weird thing is, you know, we’ve all been in touch more since Mark died, it’s a sad fact that it took that, but it’s been interesting to talk to others who were there and realise they have the same feeling about it: ‘Something really important happened and then it just totally disappeared and I’ve been wondering ever since what it was’.
CH: To what extent was music deemed to be something special or significant within this assemblage of different references that includes cyberpunk theory, cybernetics? And could you tell me a bit about this relationship that music had to the future in CCRU?
RM: I would say music really entered as an important element with the birth of CCRU and the arrival of Sadie and her students. That’s when we all began to formulate more attentively the way in which it could play a role.
Before then, I think, there was a kind of vague thing about, you know, ‘We’re interested in cybernetics and the future, therefore, we listen to electronic music’. And as I mentioned there had been a club night associated with Virtual Futures. But that was as far as it went. What arose with the CCRU was this understanding, firstly, that as a subject of analysis, highly synthetic electronic music was interesting particularly in so far as it was a futuristic form that emerged out of a cultural process largely unplanned by any overarching narrative—a process that was not part of a mainstream self-conscious modernism, for example.
Read through the framework of works like Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, there was also the idea of black music as resulting from a forcible virtualisation of culture, which then reinvented itself with whatever happened to be at hand—in a cyberpunk way—the idea of hybridisation in hip-hop, Kraftwerk being transplanted into the Bronx and turned into something else…all of this fitted well with kind of the idea of the assemblage and so on. So, there was this idea that this lineage of music was exemplary for a cybernetic cultural analysis, precisely in these two different senses that I’ve mentioned, a culture of the cybernetic age, and culture as cybernetics.
But then there was also a second thing, which was that this music and the experience of this music in what was, I guess, by that time, the post-rave scene, the actual bodily experience of the music, was seen as acting like a kind of antidote to ‘white-man-Reason’, you know, all of the classic enemies of post-’68 thinking. There is the Nietzschean idea that the philosophical exercise of reason is intimately linked with a kind of repressive body posture, a way of holding the body, a way of not experiencing the body—and that’s something that is inevitably blown apart by the experience of music, and especially with the kind of bass engineered specifically to induce rhythmic dance and to shake up and disrupt the body.
So there were those two senses in which, as something to analyse or as a model, the latest electronic music seemed particularly promising, and as something to experience, it seemed to disintegrate theoretical structures or it seemed like something that you could use as a meditative aid to find new lines of thought through bodily experience.
So, that’s why, in particular, jungle became important and at that point it was almost as if techno became the enemy because of its 4/4 rigidity and its lack of syncopation and polyrhythm. You know, there’s a certain amount of caricature in that: you could say that those two factions who were fighting over Virtual Futures were also fighting over a model of music: druidic trance techno on the one hand, as a kind of representative of the great monorhythmic priesthood of metric regularity for the purposes of transcendence, and jungle on the other hand as this kind of weird multitemporal hybrid entity dedicated to picking apart the body and disrupting it with polyrhythm and with bass. So, there was that kind of ideological level to it, as well. As in all these things, you can’t overstate the importance of Mark’s polemical character in this—that played a big role—when Mark became an advocate of something, true to the spirit of musical tribalism, he was inevitably fiercely against something else. And I think Nick also had and still has this belief if you can produce a schism, then you should. So there were perhaps a lot of cartoonish ideological divides being drawn with this hardline partisanship for jungle, it became emblematic beyond just the music.
But I think what’s interesting is that this kind of idea of the experiential, the idea of blackness and hybridity, the idea of virtualisation, this whole complex around the experience of music that is on what Steve calls the ‘hyperdub continuum’, i.e. polyrhythmic bass-heavy music which is, in a sense, a part of the evolution of an engineered system, a collective evolution of effective technologies for mobilising the body.
That’s all part of the discourse today, right? There’s a lot of writing and thinking about that now. As I said, CCRU were doing Afrofuturism back in ’96!
But what’s really interesting here is the counterpoint between that and a philosophical analysis coming from the other direction and looking into what these cultures of sound are doing, the fact that their computational and acoustic engineering is driven by practical imperatives—the music has to perform in a certain way in a club—and what the technical operations consist in.
At a theoretical level we can see the operations happening in jungle in terms of the type of thinking we were looking at then, and in particular that chapter in A Thousand Plateaus, ‘Geology of Morals’, where D&G try to produce a model of immanent materialism that escapes from hylomorphism by using Hjelmslev’s theory of linguistics, which is already a bizarre hybrid of geology and linguistics whereby, rather than having form and matter, you have a proliferation and ramification of stratification processes—expression of content, content of expression, content of form…the essential idea being that there’s never a transcendent mechanism that imparts form to matter. There are always two series or two types of matter, which interact to produce a plane of consistency.
Now you have this idea of double articulation. The classic model would be geology, where you have particles that are formed in a certain way and are then selected, compacted and sedimented into a plane of consistency. So one thing I tried to expand on, and which we talked about a lot, was the sense in which the sonic technologies deployed in jungle served to break apart the double articulation of sound.
Basically, if you think of the stave, that’s a heavily coded obvious double articulation, because you have the notes as pre-packaged entities which become inviolable units that can be arranged along the stave. And in a sense that constrains your access to the matter, the virtual matter (what Hjelmslev calls ‘purport’) of sound, and the two articulations—packaging sound into notes, arraying notes on the stave—are inseparable and in a relation of reciprocal presupposition. But in the same way, going ‘further down’, even a waveform as a conventional way to represent sound, is double-articulated, if you think about the classic two-dimensional display of a waveform, you have samples of amplitude against time, and again the matter of sound—which basically is intensity, displacement, what happens ‘between samples’—is in a sense screened by this operation of double articulation. The crucial thing is that the double articulation, in actual fact, is not ‘perpendicular’ as it seems to be. It is produced by a kind of folding of temporal perception (at the point where rhythm becomes tone).
And it seemed to us that the operations that were happening in jungle tended to kind of collapse this double articulation and open up access to an extended immanence of sound, and therefore promised new ways to construct and experience sound.
One sense in which that is the case is when you’re exploring the territory between percussive units and waveforms. So, if you have a snare and you repeat it and bring it closer and closer and closer together, until you produce a kind of buzz, you know, that becomes a tone. And you can pitch the sample up and down and create these elastic runs of percussive samples that become tonal glissandi. This is something that regularly happens in jungle, a slippage where encapsulated units of sound freighted with a semantic status are ‘melted down’ and used as sonic particles to forge some other fluid sonic phenomenon. So essentially in this music there are produced spontaneously certain methods of problematising the objectivity of the sound object.
Most importantly there is the use of timestretching endemic to jungle, and the idea that timestretching is a fundamental diagonalization of the double articulation of acoustic time itself as expressed in the waveform, whereby, given a recording on a physical medium, you usually can’t speed up its playback without making the pitch higher. In violating this principle by using digital sampling, it’s almost as if timestretching breaks time itself. That’s the affect of timestretching, that’s how it feels when you listen to it, but also there’s a deeper kind of truth to it.
The score of Steve Reich’s 1967 conceptual piece, Slow Motion Sound consists only of the command: Very gradually slow down a recorded sound to many times its original length without changing its pitch or timbre at all. You can see the later piece 1970 piece Four Organs as a realization of this idea, but only in so far as the rigour of the instruction is essentially compromised, because one can immediately hear that the difference between Reich’s original plan and this realisation corresponds to a radical difference in register; that between a musical operation and a sonic operation. Instead of the elongation of a sound (sound as material object of the operation), Four Organs now elongates notes (notes as preformed sonic structures, upon which the operation will be carried out).
In fact, a realisation of Reich’s piece would now be quite feasible using timestretching, which was born in the 1960s with tape technologies, but only became realistically viable for music production from the 1980s by virtue of rapidly-accelerating processor speeds; because timestretching achieves this impossible goal of slowing down a recorded sound without altering its pitch, violating the reciprocal relation (double articulation) between duration and pitch.
The crucial thing here is, just as, in a sense, ‘below’ all geological stratifications, all different rock formations, there is the same virtual material (what D&G call ‘the body of the earth’), beneath all organised sound we can similarly postulate a sonic virtuality. The ‘line of flight’ out of sonic articulation is achieved precisely to the extent that one is able to access that virtuality, which is the ultimate material basis of all sonic organization.
The terms ‘molar’ and ‘molecular’ are generally understood in a rather vague way by commentators on Deleuze and Guattari’s work. In fact, ‘molar’ derives from the mole, an international standard term of measurement which identifies the number of particles in a given amount of matter. For any given atomic system, a mole is the amount of substance of that system which contains as many elementary entities as there are atoms in 12 grams of carbon 12. In the same way, we might say, a ‘note’ or a ‘sample’ presupposes a convention that is an arbitrary and externally-imposed statistical fiction in relation to the virtual matter of sound. What we were looking for in jungle is moments when instead, a molecular relation to sound is achieved—so to speak, an experience of sound from the inside of matter.
But isn’t timestretching just a kind of trick? It’s never perfect, and all it really does is cut up a recording more or less finely and duplicate and splice waveforms to make it longer. Moreover, that process always produces weird artefacts—which early jungle made a virtue out of, in the same way that people now use autotune.
Reich’s specification was to lengthen the piece ‘without changing its pitch or timbre at all’, and whereas you can easily cut up and stretch out a simple sine wave, ‘timbre’ implies that the sound in question is more complex than this. and the problem with which digital pitch-shifting or timestretching algorithms always have to deal, is that they operate by slicing up a sound and duplicating and splicing its parts; and it is impossible to find a ‘slicing’ frequency that will leave all of the overtones intact; some will be sliced at the wrong point, producing artefacts in the stretched sound. That’s what produced those metallic, shimmering effects so characteristic of the timestretched samples in early jungle tracks.
But what is the criteria for judging the success of a timestretching operation, for it not being ‘just a trick’? It could only be a comparison with a non-existent, transcendentally impossible reality. The question, whether a timestretched sample of a piano chord really is what a piano chord would sound like were it stretched, seems a nonsensical one, unless we understand it to mean ‘were the pianist to sustain the chord for longer’, in which case we have missed the point and are back with the compromise of Four Organs. In reality, to elongate a note has no meaning outside the reciprocal relationships of speed and pitch, i.e. inside sonic time. You simply cannot make ‘the same’ sound longer except by slowing it down. Talking about it as artificial assumes a standard of reality we do not have. So I would say that those artefacts are in a sense the audible indication of a straining against the limits of sonic time. What if instead of timestretching just being a ‘trick’, time itself was just an artificial capture mechanism imposed upon perception by the evolutionarily contingent folding of the sonic continuum…? It’s not that timestretching is a ‘cheap trick’ because it lacks the profundity of the form of time it claims to subvert; instead, that form of time itself never had anything profound about it, it was simply a matter of foldings, double articulations.
So, in short, it seemed like there was this whole set of operations which were breaking apart the double articulation of sound, the way in which sound is packaged and is expected to be delivered in certain types of units, if you like.
In that sense then, jungle also became a kind of model for diagonalizing. How do we escape from double articulation? How do we escape from the strata, at all scales? We looked in these new sonic operations as kind of exemplary models for how one can operate this destratification, this return to the potential of virtual matter, called for by Deleuze and Guattari.
The notion of diagonalization involves producing some machine within the double articulated system—because we’re inside the strata, that’s where we start—something that slowly breaks it apart or, to put it another way, disinters the material continuum beneath the double articulation. That notion was hugely important.
I remember being at a party and talking to Nick, and Nick scribbling in his notebook about this. And, being dedicated Kantians, we were like, ‘It’s the transcendental deduction of jungle.’ But yeah, I think what’s interesting to me once more is this cybernetic/culture thing: how it’s come from both of those angles. The experience of the music enables you to start thinking in certain ways, but you can also do a theoretical analysis of what’s going on inside the sound that you can then transfer to other realms.