Through the (Immediate) Past, Darkly

We are compelled to bookend the event, to portion months and years up into manageable, quantifiable volumes of matter and memory.  If time is the ultimate capitalist commodity, then our quantification of time is its currency, and it is in this way that the annual review-of-the-year rundowns which one can read in any given broadsheet or tabloid, or viewed on December 31st through a gaze of varying levels of ridicule are -to all intents and purposes – its audit.  Is it of any value to do this from a philosophical angle?  And, indeed, wherein lies the point?  Is it in order to file away each successive year into a unitary index for the historian or sociologist to access at their convenience?  If so, are we not further commodifying our notions of time?  In order to give this interrogation some perspective, perhaps we should benefit from referring to Manuel DeLanda (1952 – )’s excellent introduction to A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History:

 

“(I)f the different “stages” of human history were indeed brought about by phase transitions, then they are not “stages” at all – that is, progressive developmental steps, each better than the previous one, and indeed leaving the previous one behind.  On the contrary, much as water’s solid, liquid, and gas phases may coexist, so each new human phase simply added itself to the other ones, coexisting and interacting with them without leaving them in the past.”[1]

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This being considered, is not our Gregorian inclination towards sectioning off units of duration rendered utterly meaningless?  Certainly, it may serve to “time-map” individual and collective events, it can also be useful as measurement of progress and decline.  It can, however, be of very little use to the contemporary thinker as Élan vital.  It is futile to review a year in terms of its singularity.  What we think of as “time” is little more than the shifting of energy, the passing of matter from one state to another.  There was, and never could be a 2018, as duration, that which we think of as “time” would necessitate each antecedent year forcing themselves as one into that year which is being experienced.  This is Bergsonism at its purest (albeit, too, at its most simplified), and if we were to take that model of the  present being nothing other than the past happening all at once – insofar as one may interpret such a complex idea out of its parole – then we may find a perfect analogy for our times: the Twenty-First Century can be defined by its concentrated repetition of the past, both culturally and politically, and perhaps provides us with the first significant parallels between Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941) – for decades dismissed as an antiquity of the old guard in philosophy – and Marxist poststructural thinkers such as Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) and, more recently, Mark Fisher (1968 – 2017).  For, if we were to take the concept of Bergson’s Duration out of the confines of analytic philosophy and place it in the broader spectrum of Critical Theory (and we surely can, as was amply proven by Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995)’s re-interpretations of Bergsonism), then what we are presented with is a like-for-like match of what Fisher called The Slow Cancellation of the Future[2], the “temporal malaise” which is so much a hallmark of contemporary culture that one is hard-pressed to discern between that which has been created last week and the artefacts of the 1970s and 1980s.

slow cancellation 1

 

Contemporary thinking, I would suggest, has all but eradicated the notion of a sole Philosopher King stood atop his plateau (to borrow the Deleuzian analogy).  This has been the case for several decades.  In his 1957 foreword to the second edition of Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre (1901 – 1991) notes

 

“…professional philosophers generally ignored the book; for – starting with its title – it entailed relinquishing the traditional image of the philosopher as master and ruler of existence, witness and judge of life from the outside, enthroned above the masses, above the moments lost in triviality, ‘distinguished’ by an attitude and a distance.” [3]

 

Philosophy has, over the years, necessarily been a process of cross-pollination of thought.  In Elemental Discourses, John Sallis (1938 – ) writes

 

(i)n Derrida’s texts there are many voices. Some occur as citations from Husserl, Heidegger, or other authors. Yet, in the strict sense whatever is set forth in citations is not the voice of another but rather a passage from a written text. Even if what is cited should happen to be words once heard in the voice of another, they will, in being cited, have been transposed into the written text; in this transposition the voice of the other will have been silenced. And yet, we sometimes attest that in reading the words of an author we can hear his voice behind the words, that we can hear it silently resounding.”[4]

 

Thus we may observe the clinamen of Lucretius evolve throughout the ages and become Deleuze and Guattaris’ desire, accounting for the clinamen’s inclination towards capital.  Indeed, the most pertinent and evolutionary use of philosophy is to commandeer from its massive historical inventory of themes and ideas – and, it can be argued, this is how philosophy finds its true meaning (Deleuze and Guattari themselves said “the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.  Kleist and a mad war machine, Kafka and a most extraordinary bureaucratic machine ….”[5]).  One need not absorb every text by Foucault, or attend two-hour lectures on Lacan to gain a healthy reserve of critical resources with which to formulate one’s own theories. Plato’s cave and Wittgenstein’s stonemasons serve very well as building blocks for an architecture of language and socialisation, reality and simulacra.  These ideas the modern philosopher must osmose and re-interpret, modify and apply pressure to, and for that very reason philosophical models function in much the same way as art: intense critical thought and complex abstractions simplified to the nth degree as signs, giving flesh to otherwise untranslatable concepts: art builds real architecture in Utopia and peoples it accordingly, yet it draws its strength from its ability to topple said architecture and rebuild.  Artistic movements provides the zeitgeist for this architecture, and these zeitgeists are the very agents of its destruction and reformation.  Much to Plato’s imagined chagrin, art is in many ways inseparable from critical thinking. At any given moment, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogonous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature).  But, if we again consult Bergson, thought processes are time in its purest state.

 

“Let us assume that all the sheep in the flock are identical; they differ at least by the position which they occupy in space, otherwise they would not form a flock. But now let us even set aside the fifty sheep themselves and retain only the idea of them. Either we include them all in the same image, and it follows as a necessary consequence that we place them side by side in an ideal space, or else we repeat fifty times in succession the image of a single one, and in that case it does seem, indeed, that the series lies in duration rather than in space. But we shall soon find out that it cannot be so. For if we picture to ourselves each of the sheep in the flock in succession and separately, we shall never have to do with more than a single sheep. In order that the number should go on increasing in proportion as we advance, we must retain the successive images and set them alongside each of the new units which we picture to ourselves: now, it is in space that such a juxtaposition takes place and not in pure duration.”[6]

 

The Twenty-First Century has, since 2001, been bereft of landmark political or social moments.  The key word here is “landmark,” indicating a fixed point in time after which the ideological apparatus in place before the event can no longer function, such is the impact it has on society, economics and culture.  The word “landmark” also implies space, rather than time, yet is no misuse: chronology and geography are intermingled in memory, creating those very ghosts which populate Derrida’s hauntology, and in keeping with the concept of hauntology, the most critical phenomena of the year occurred just as it was ending.  Two separate and distinct events, which happened no more than a week from one another at the end of December and superficially bear little-to-no relation, but which in fact have great reciprocal significance.  Firstly, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series gave us another instalment in the form of the feature-length Bandersnatch, which was closely followed by the announcement that HMV had gone into second liquidation, His Master’s Voice now nothing but a pitiable whimper in the neoliberal wind.  As outmoded a capitalist model as it is out of touch with the times, HMV has, for decades, pre-packaged culture and sold it on as part of some great promise that what that culture represents is the very essence of what one needs to understand our times.

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Within the first few minutes of Bandersnatch it becomes apparent that popular culture will never tire of revisiting the 1980s, as though that decade was both the genesis and zenith of our postmodern metanarrative.  And yet again, the past is shown to us through countless factual and technical filters – for instance, it is safe to say that nobody ever bought a Tangerine Dream album in WHSmith in the mid-1980s.  WHSmith, like HMV represents the Harrods model of “everything under one roof,” which for a store that deals in entertainment and culture, is a laughably hyperbolic claim.  Yet our memories of these shops, for those of us who had childhoods in the 1980s, portray them as precisely that, for our own undeveloped awareness of the sheer richness and variety of culture is reflected by HMV’s own limited scope of same.  Thus, it adequately met our stunted expectations.  As culture and technology evolved at an ever-increasing rate in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, it soon became the case that this capitalist model of the third place serving as cultural nexus could never fulfil our ever-more-sophisticated understandings of culture.  This could partially explain our craving for nostalgia, as the artefacts of the 1980s remind us of the last time we were culturally satiated – the economy of craving and fulfilment was in balance (perhaps it is only in childhood that this balance is ever truly equal).  “Nostalgia,” though, as Simon Reynolds (1963 – ) points out, is translated etymologically as “homesickness.”[7]   Contemporary sociologists favour the notion of a fourth place in order to tackle the workplace/home environment crossover, but it is more accurate to re-identify The Third Place as increasingly virtual.  This is hardly surprising, since 9/11 shattered what was quite possibly the West’s final moment when an event was experienced collectively in The Third Place, and was the last “where were you when…?” moment in living memory.  As the Twenty-First Century has unfolded, global events have occurred in what feels like a steady trickle, owing not to a lack of event, but in the way in which events are now relayed to us.  In the sixteen years since the towers collapsed, the ingestion of current affairs has gradually slipped away from the static television screen and become something experienced singularly (one-on-one) through portable, streamlined devices.  Before the internet, the news was fed to us daily at precise quarters of a clock, with the 6 and 9 PM instalments reserved for in-depth investigations into the ramifications of the day’s events.  This may well still be the case, but it is now by no means how we initially learn of these events, which are continuously fed to us via the offices of internet newsfeeds which have no beginning or end, and wholesale information dumps such as Twitter.  News is no longer dropped on us four times a day around a centralised information hub (i.e. television or radio), but is now with us all day, and can be accessed from any location via mobile phones, tablet and laptops.  Wi-Fi has freed us from the necessity of the specific location, and thus the “where were you?” moment can no longer really exist, since such an occasion is marked by more quotidian, tangential social interactions (since social media, we are paradoxically no longer social beings) – history has always been made in conjunction with analogue discourse to provide context and understanding; the pause for reflection has been superseded by the knee-jerk re-tweet.  Is it any wonder, then, that cultural eruptions comparable to that of 1976 have been scarce-to-non-existent during the last decade-and-a-half, and that the cultural satellites of the punk movement can now be bought in Primark on t-shirt racks which also contain images of Miles Davis and Marvel superheroes?

In this sense we can quite easily relate the lack of modern social information exchanges and their replacement by personalised feeds of information to a Twenty-First Century flatness, or to put it simply, an age when globally-relevant events are still unfolding on a daily basis but are no longer felt as shockwaves.  Without shockwaves there can be no fissures, which is where Twentieth-Century culture once thrived: jazz, pop, punk, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art and the Postmodern break in general all happened as a consequence of events which were felt as they occurred, and carried real consequences, unlike the political pantomimes of today.  The ages in which these events happened had their own zeitgeist modelled from the social mood, and are remembered – perhaps rightly or wrongly – for their cultural and social values.  In an age which has had no real shockwaves or fissures a void has inevitably been created which has no atmosphere, zeitgeist or – crucially – human analogue.  Since domestic concerns are primarily centred around economy, the average Western citizen concerns him or herself with financial survival and the waning scope for prosperity.  Let us, for a moment, contemplate upon a strata of people working not for prosperity or an elevated standard of living, but only in order to cling onto the standard of living they already have.  The opiate of the masses has been superseded by a cold bucket of water, terror at a knock upon the door.  The clinamen of capital (its desire) is absolute subjectification.  In 2018, Brexit once more proved itself to be that very subjectification, spreading fear and hatred across the UK and using similar (albeit more sophisticated) tools to divide the country as did Germany in 1939.  Brexit is more pernicious than the campaigns of history, however: there is no single identified common enemy, no one sub-section of society singled out for persecution.  Rather, it plays to the worst fears of all social stratifications, always with one lingering threat – you will lose what you have. Again, as with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, one can discern a palpable sense of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” a clear attitude of “rather you than me.”  Brexit has played into the neoliberal ideology in the only way it could: divide and conquer.  But in recent years, it has become the norm for events to resemble past situations.  Occupy, it can be argued, was itself a modified sit-in, grafted from the late-1960s onto the present day and given an Economics degree.  Where it has prospered – as opposed to the disenfranchised, disconnected youth of fifty years ago – is in its organisation and the clarity of its voice, both of which can be attributed to technological agencies unimaginable in the last century.  We have lost our sense of the epoch-making event, the galvanising force to attempt something different: the rule book is no longer torn up, so much as it is re-told through post-millennial perspectives.

wwi-color-restored

October saw the release of Peter Jackson’s They shall Not Grow Old, a technically astonishing colourised documentary to mark the centenary of Armistice Day.  Nothing can detract from the visual and journalistic achievement, although one could also read the film via Jean Baudrillard and liken the process to, for instance, the endeavours of Japan’s Ōtsuka Museum of Art, where only precise facsimiles of well-known original works are displayed.  The museum is, of course, anything but that: indeed, one might say that it is part-PowerPoint presentation / part-PT Barnum grotesquerie.  Or perhaps the film is more akin to the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa which was rebuilt by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.in Upper Manhattan using building materials from the original abbey in Southern France from what remained after it was rebuilt in 840.  The latter suggestion is given more weight when one considers that much of the original footage found in They Shall Not Grow Old was filmed using arcane hand-crank cameras which struggled to maintain a steady 12 frames-per-second, which is why the original films appear so jerky.  This jerkiness has been digitally offset by high-end digital trickery to save the World War One soldiers from an eternity of coming across like “…Charlie Chaplin-type figures.[8]”  This obviously means that fifty percent of what one sees in Jackson’s film is not original footage at all, but very sophisticated computer animation.

When Jackson says “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more” he misses the mark somewhat for what has actually happened is that these veterans have indeed been brought out of the past, but only in a digital suspension: half-human, half-computer-generated chimera, they hang on the screen like exhibits from the Ōtsuka Museum.  Similarly, much of the audio track to They Shall Not Grow Old is actors’ dialogue, translated via the offices of a deft lip-reader who no doubt spent as many hundreds of hours reviewing the original footage as Jackson’s team did animating it.

Curiously, one can with great ease finish watching They Shall Not Grow Old and immediately begin watching the first episode of Peaky Blinders (set in 1919, one year after armistice) without any disruption in either narrative or visual quality.  Peaky Blinders itself, is an example of history’s reworking and re-presentation.  Its non-diegetic soundtrack is entirely of the Twenty-First Century, and consists of artists aping the late 1970s and early 1980s.

 

There can be no table of contents for 2018, nor can it be reviewed month-by-month.  The writer cannot simply disclose a year as a series of events which range in importance or ramification.  I certainly have not done this (nor would I ever wish to).  Charlie Brooker, when not writing episodes of Black Mirror, will scan the year in a linear manner in his New Year’s Eve Wipe, but for serious discourse this can never fully articulate the essence of a twelve-month duration.  I will, however, borrow one recurring sound-off from Brooker:

 

“That was (2018)…now go away.”

 

[1] DeLanda, M. (1997). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books, pp.15-16.

[2] Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of my life. Winchester: Zero Books, pp.21-39.

[3] Lefebvre, H. (1991). Critique of everyday life. 2nd ed. London: Verso, p.5.

[4] Sallis, J. (2018). Elemental Discourses. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.13.

[5] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004). A thousand plateaus. London: Continuum, p.5.

[6] Bergson, H., Ansell-Pearson, K. and Ó Maoilearca, J. (2002). Key writings. New York: Continuum, pp.49-50.

[7] Reynolds, S. (2012). Retromania. London: Faber and Faber, p.50.

[8] Ilse, J. (2019). Prince William attends World Premiere of “They Shall Not Grow Old”. [online] Royal Central. Available at: http://royalcentral.co.uk/uk/cambridges/prince-william-attends-world-premiere-of-they-shall-not-grow-old-110509 [Accessed 2 Jan. 2019].

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No Job for a Grown Man (part three) – Whereby the Artist Screams Poverty.

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Which is not to suggest that any of this is easy, nor that I now have a particular formula for success after four years.  There is still the chasm of indifference to cross, and as yet I still have no indication of how to cross it.  I said, two years ago, that nobody is ever going to care about anything I have to say, and I stand by this today.  Without sounding overly dramatic, society by-and-large doesn’t often care for anything for too long: there are far too many factors and trivialities vying for attention at any given time, and for an artist to believe that they have the power to stop people in their tracks is nothing short of hubris.

The often-repeated apothegm concerning history being recorded by the victors can much more effectively be broken down by swapping the term “victor” with “dominant ideology.”  That is to say (and at the risk of my ever-present working class Pharisee yet again bubbling to the surface), the West still – perhaps now more than ever over the preceding half-century – affords the neo-liberal middle with the monopoly on art production and knowledge.  One thing I did partake in over the Summer was another entry into the Frieze Writer’s Prize, which left me in no state of surprise when I was met with thunderous indifference (and which was yet again won by someone of higher social standing than myself).  Overall, this is news to nobody, and any real or imagined outrage can just as easily be attributed to sour grapes.  What has struck me as a hard truth this year, however, is how biased the art education system becomes the higher one develops.  Universities do not grant their student bodies access to art supplies in the same way that FE colleges do (although, in all fairness, HE colleges themselves are starting to phase out their provisions, if my last year at Bromsgrove is any indicator).  This means that the student must submit to one of two alienations: contiguous employment, or a lesser opportunity for progression and growth.  Naturally, the former automatically impinges on the potential of the work, whilst the latter adds financial concerns.

How the working class can ever hope to thrive in such an environment is key to the attitudes prevalent among art produced by said class.  Such art carries a sometimes-explicit anger which can be traced back to the anger found in British literature during the mid-Twentieth Century (and here I take no small pride in citing fellow Nottingham writer Alan Sillitoe).  This anger is filtered in the modern age through a crisis of identity analogous (indirectly) to de Certeau and Lefebvre and (more tacitly) to an instinctual knowledge of the bracketing tactics employed by our modern knowledge owners.  This is the exact juncture where youthful anger becomes misdirected, because rather than blame the true culprits of identity crises – which are the corporate bodies who ultimately plan and author the conduits of rebellion – the young are still identifying the same traditional scapegoats as the dominant offices of a repressive status quo.  To wit: anybody who has any measure of power greater than themselves.

It would be folly – not to mention conceit – to suggest that any previous generation were any different.  My decade-long tenure as a chef, not to mention the preceding years working as a dogsbody in hospitality made me ever-distrustful of the false camaraderie and manipulation tactics of middle-management, whilst my education previous to and after that saw an automatic feeling of being considerably lesser than my tutors.  Two perfect scenarios for (if not outright rebellion, then a species of) recalcitrance, regardless of their grounding in reality.

But the class warrior stance is not just old hat, it is now utterly threadbare, especially in an age when ninety percent of this country’s populace are being disgracefully short-changed.  With the best will in the world, I could never say anything remotely revelatory about the haves and the have-nots.  Perhaps an artist’s political stance, or more specifically artists who choose not to overtly politicise their output, operates in a tacitly Wittgensteinian manner, in that the only thing worth saying are said in silence.  Ideology has little to do with this once one accepts a starting point of all art being political, and if one approaches the plastic arts with this in mind, one can almost forget that politics is involved – because for much of the time, the artist has done the same.