The Curse of the Silent Houses

If you’ve been around the internet long enough you probably met the doomer. He’s a cryptid which is pretty easy to spot on the web, being the subject of quite a bit of memes. He is part of a whole species, the wojaks. The wojaks are a series of characters who function as an expanding system of star signs for the terminally online nerds: each and every one of them embodies certain traits and characteristics, inscript in our psyche by the unfathomable twists and turns of late-stage capitalism. But you know all of this already and explaining memes is the most boring hobby.

If you’ve been looking close enough you might have noticed an ongoing shift in the doomer’s national connotation, so to speak. Previously he was a suburbanite, living and dying in the West’s provincial blues; now he is moving to Russia, or, more precisely, to the post-Soviet phantom which the western mind has built over the ruins of the Berlin Wall. He now inhabits the desolate post-post-cyberpunk tundra which we project over the ex-Soviet Union, that shadow-realm which has brought us, in recent times, painful reflections on the frailty and utter fallibility of human collective endeavors, like the HBO series Chernobyl, and desolate, radioactive landscapes, like the hauntingly beautiful S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. The doomer is moving to the eastern, post-Soviet bloc of our collective mind.

In fact, in the beginning, the doomer was the protagonist of many “doomer playlists”, usually built to musically enhance the experience of the doomer’s iconic nightwalk. In them, one could find a, usually, pitched-down rendition of most of the mainstream Depressed Western Canon (The Smiths, The Cure, Radiohead, etc.) The doomer was a sort of coagulation of all socially-acceptable Hot Topic gothness.

There are also more refined versions, but the blueprint remains the same throughout:

Then, the post-Soviet turn. Youtube started to get flooded with “Russian doomer playlists”, usually divided into various volumes and showcasing a strong break with the music proposed by the previous iterations of the meme; the favored genre shifted from dark-ish pop and 80’s goth-darlings to Russian post-punk/darkwave, with a strong predilection for lo-fi/no-fi sounds. The doomer not only chanced his country but left his previous music tastes behind to immerse himself in a very niche and specific form of Joy Division-worship.

This “geopolitical” evolution – out of the Depressed Western Canon and into the Russian dark no-fi – of a meme all revolving around bleakness and loneliness could be easily explained away with at least two libidinal reasons, which are almost unconscious tautologies for everyone who lives in Europe or America (clearly, my perspective is very much situated, like yours after all, and every input from different parts of the World would make the conversation much more interesting):

  1. The post-Soviet landscape has been the receptacle of many Western fantasies regarding collapse (whether at the hand of political upheavals or by natural causes) and the destruction and disgregation of society. The Soviet Union and its aftermath have become a shadow-realm in which our collective mind can slip when it needs to imagine the progressive or abrupt dissolution of our present condition. It is the sunken continent where governments fail, where Nature, The People or nuclear powerplants revolt.
  2. Piggybacking on this first point, the Russian landscape has been the undead and hallucinatory proof, stuck in the back of our head, that every political system is ultimately contingent and doomed (get it…) to pass. The fall of the Soviet empire stands as the ghostly reminder that there is no system too big to fail and that our empire will fall, eventually and without much warning, as well. The harder they come…

The reappearance of the Soviet specter, using an extremely vivid catchphrase coined by Matt Colquhoun in one of the best chapters of his book Egress, is a form of unconsciousness raising, a collective emergence of a latent, painful psychological horizon which awakens frontiers we have tried our best to suppress. It is, as Matt puts it, the “dismantling of the state-sanctioned super-ego in your head”. In this case, the Soviet phantom and the haunting remainder of the post-Soviet psychic ruins put us in front of the staggering fact that there is an alternative to the present, that the capitalist “dreamwork” is extremely fragile, whether we like it or not and no matter how hard we try to eternalize the current predicament.

Another notable case of this sort of post-Soviet unconscious is definitely Laibach’s putrid (in the best possible sense of the term, if there’s one…) pop, but that will need a future post, or a whole field of Laibachian studies.

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(Before starting these notes let me take a moment to acknowledge the hauntological question. It wouldn’t surprise me if any of the Russian bands featured in these videos were accused of being “hauntological” or an instance of goth “retromania”. I believe that this sort of framing has grown more and more sterile. The question of the repetition of the past and the slow cancellation of the future are becoming common places which most of the time block our actual engagement with the aesthetic object at hand and the ripple effects it creates. I’d rather concentrate on the bands themselves and their peculiarity in the context of this meme and avoid these critical topoi which, as far as I’m concerned, have grown boring and tired. Also, I believe that the memetic reception of bands likeКонец Электроники has far more to do with the 2000s wave of shitgaze bands like Blank Dogs, Teenage Panzerkorps, Blessure Grave, Blank Orphan or Factums. These bands defaced the memory of Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees with a jagged lo-fi angularity whose blackhole-like qualities have little to do with the absence of the future or the return of the past. I’m pretty confident in saying that one of the aesthetic reasons why these Russian musicians strike a chord with a relatively vast Western audience has something to do with a peculiarly similar perceived sensibility. There is truly nothing nostalgic nor hauntological about them or the way their music is consumed)

***

I feel that, besides this session of unconsciousness raising, there is an interesting aesthetic quagmire going on here, on two intertwined levels: first and foremost, there is a baffling form of involuntary stardom happening in this meme, a stardom which is entirely peculiar to the digital native generations, and, secondly, but without stirring too far from this path, there is a wider question of aesthetic consumption (especially, the listening experience embedded in the meme itself) at play in this situation.

If one observes these playlists one will surely notice that there is a band which is disproportionately present:  Молчат дома (which means House Are Silent, ominously enough). This band, like most other bands in these compilations, plays an extremely somber and stripped back darkwave. Nonetheless, compared to all the other Russian bands featured on these playlists, they are ubiquitous and ever-present. They have become the spearhead of this online movement, Detriti Records had to re-issue their most well-known record five times and their music is now being re-released by the indie juggernaut Sacred Bones.

This band seems clearly a pivotal figure of this scene and the reason behind this omnipresence and this success seems fairly obvious: they fit the bill completely, they sound like the quintessential form of the dreary brutalism of the “Russian Doomer band”. They are the best example of a made-up genre, produced by a swarm of anonymous posters who acted as a collective, untraceable taste-making intelligence. They are the chosen ones, called forth by the anon fate of the internet. They fit to the T a criterion which exists only as long and as far as the meme continues to have viral currency and widespread acceptance within an aleatory and active community of users.

Clearly, this troubles the way in which we imagine stardom and the possibility itself of reaching a vast crowd. If in the past century the idea of the Star was intimately related to a powerful cultural hegemony, capable of planting his ambassadors inside the popular consciousness, creating a homogenous psycho-cultural landscape, now the fate of the Stars rests in the distributed and decentralized hands of the swarming intelligence of the internet, whose modus operandi is not a clear, homogenous project, but an exercise in apophenia, making up scenes, cultural friends and foes, ingroups and outgroups and aesthetic sensibilities out of random patterns dispersed across the Web. Rather than having a pre-fabricated narrative, handed down by powerful Kafkaesque bureaucrats, we have the creative fictionning of a mass of loosely assorted users, who bind one another into this exercise of hype-creation and cultural-construction and for whom “Russian Doomer music” is a proper and recognizable genre just like rock n roll and rap – it just needs to get viral enough.

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(We should probably ask ourselves if the idea that there was a monolithic ruling hegemony imposing its tastes unto the people isn’t itself a sort of paranoid apophenia, the construction of a conspiratorial coherent narrative meant to create a pattern out of a far more complex situation. Nonetheless, useful simplifications are useful and they should be taken into serious consideration, even if they fall squarely into the paranoid style of conspiracy theories. Deconstruction for the sake of intellectual deconstruction should be abandoned or exercised with a lot of circumspection as soon as we are faced with meaningful and useful cultural truisms, which describe a more or less accepted popular narrative. If a narrative is popular in any meaningful way it means it is, for better or for worse, working. Also, the discourse surrounding “industry plants” is everything but dead and the hypothesis of a cultural hegemony controlling our tastes looms large both in the vanishing mainstream and in the conspirosphere. For example, Billie Eilish is, for a big chunk of the internet and civil society at large, nothing more than a emo liberal psy-op)

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In other words, we are witnessing a shift from the dialectical contrast between the ruling cultural class and the indie or subcultural underdogs towards a horizontal arms-race to construct scenes and sensibilities out of thin air and convince as many people as possible that they are an actually existing thing. After all, what is a doomer aside from a loose connection of random, bleak character-traits?

Молчат дома are the unsuspecting victims of this form of cultural production, this shift from a cultural hegemony, which is either locally broken by a strong indie scene or which rules uncontested over the market, towards a proliferation of small barely-real niches, which appear out of the machinations of our distributed and involuntarily self-orchestrated (by no one and everyone) activity on the internet. Even the bigger, most organized taste-makers within these pocket-scenes (for example, still talking about the Russian Doomer music, the anonymous Youtuber Harakiri Diat, whose channel is a small masterpiece of curatorial work) are mostly anonymous nodes within a multidirectional network of anon cultural critics. We are witnessing the provincialization of the mainstream. Everything is a subculture now.

This decentralizing movement was dubbed by Anna Greenspan and Suzanne Livingston Future Mutation, a prophetic vision of a widely distributed stack of “circulatory systems” which preceded our present situation. Sure, this “circulatory systems” are absolutely controlled by the monopolistic structure of platform capitalism, but, doing a typical workerist theoretical move, we could say that the productive forces (us) at play within this digital factories are far more effective, efficient and powerful than the controlling function of capital could ever possibly be. If the capitalist dreamwork used to be, or used to be narrated as, the creation of a small ruling class, intent in putting the popular consciousness to sleep, now it is openly a fragmented weaving which the ruling class could only try (and fail) to control.

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(It is interesting to note that this open-source dreamwork coincides with a progressive worsening of the material relations of late-stage capitalism and a nascent tide of socialist sentiments in most of the West. The 2020 American elections might be the stage of a psychic secession of a Socialist America out of the mainstream)

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An interesting analysis of this wide-spread exercise in apophenia and decentralized cultural production was Simon Reynolds’ article on the dissolution of the mainstream. While the article focused mostly on the effects of platform capitalism and streaming services (which, as we have previously conceded, play the dominant role in this phenomenon) and mostly sidestepped the wonders of anonymous taste-making, it diagrammed a novel sense of fragmentation in the cultural Western mind into smaller pockets of intellectual affinity (and, sometimes, lonely and isolated wandering), rather than aesthetic identity.

 That process had already begun in the first decade of the 21st century, with file-sharing and YouTube creating a vast, disordered open-access archive of past pop culture, that mingled promiscuously with current releases to create an effect of atemporality. This dizzying power of total and instant recall went into hyperdrive during the 2010s, thanks to streamers such as Spotify, Netflix and Amazon. Rather than simply usurping the place of the old mass-media monoculture, these gigantic platforms have a curious effect of simultaneously unifying and fracturing. Instead of inviting consumers to tune into a shared cultural experience at a designated time, they encourage individualised trajectories through teeming repositories of art and entertainment. Slowly but surely, streaming is killing the idea of a mainstream.

This idea, ultimately, has strong effects on how we listen to music in general, especially in the context of these meme-related genres. If (more or less sub-)cultures cannot rely on the direct confrontation with a monolithic monoculture in order to gain their social significance and identity, the role of the listener moves from that of the consumer or the intellectual critic towards that of the active producer and the ultimate judge, in a far stronger sense than the critic ever was, of the worthy and proper character of a specific insular genre. The listener becomes, in every iteration of the listening activity, the producer of the internal unity of the cultural phenomenon at hand or the ruler which calls for splintering or cancellation of the apostasy from the self-proclaimed norm.

We will have to see whether this heterogeneous micro-cultural landscape will resist homogenization; for now, given the fragmenting hyper-hyperdrive behind emerging platforms like TikTok, I’m pretty positive it will and that the rift between micro-bubbles will become more and more prominent, posing an unprecedented question on society at large. The archipelago will only expand from now on.

Un pensiero riguardo “The Curse of the Silent Houses

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