«We are to machines as a bee is to a clover, the reproductive organs of a species that is not our own»
( A. Greenspan & S. Livingston)
Traversing that gradient of hikikomorization which has been the 2020 pandemic, I found myself thinking about immortality, about the time and the efforts that our species has spent to eliminate oblivion. Forced inside with my bloodshot eyes glued to the static frenzy of our shared fever, I often thought about the stillness of a deeper time, a time more profound than the one dissected by our day-to-day lives. I often wondered whether this viscous pandemic time could participate to some kind of eternity, that time granted to the dead, sure, but also to all of those objects which can be replicated more or less effortlessly.
Drifting through my manic derive I have been struck by a comment which François Bonnet scribbles obliquely in After death, a book entirely devoted to the murder of death itself at the hand of late-stage capitalism. According to the French theorist, there’s a germ of eternity in each technical objects and in all human artifacts, especially in those which order, curb and pervert time, making it suitable for human consumption. Bonnet, in a marginal sidenote, highlights how the calendar, an essential object to contain the catastrophic flow of moments, shares the same etymological root with the verb to call, the word to whom we have assigned the task of designating the action of invoking, with our breath or our sighs, the objects or people who are not present at hand. Indexing the asymmetrical glide of days, months and years with the precision of the decimal system, the calendaric dominion carries out the necromantic task of calling back from their ditch that which should lay rigid. From a simple diagram of empirical time the calendar becomes a portal in which everything happens in unison. Dates, these machinic appendages, save what time would naturally disperse and they let us in an empty time in which everything is produced at the same time.
This salvific and quasi-transcendental function of our technical apparatuses is reinforced by one of the most interesting critics of the contemporary, Agnes Gayraud.
Gayraud dedicates one the most dense and moving chapter of Dialectic of pop to technical immortality, to this necromantic call embedded in human artefacts; it is a decadent chapter, dedicated to the empathy we feel for useless objects, which incarnate absolutely bygone times. Quoting Paul McCartney’s Junk, Gayraud claims, following Walter Benjamin, that human artefacts – especially pop songs, with their seduction and their status of mnestic apex predators – have the power to save time from itself, to freeze and give it back to a chronic eternity which exceeds us and which overflows into a time which is transcendental but fully material, a time present in each moment and which works tirelessly as the productive ground of each instant, but always more profound and cold than any lived second. Gayraud’s bops, just like the machines in Samuel Butler’s Erehwon which use humans as their genitals, inhabit us, pushing back the clock, giving us some glimpses of the factory floors of time-production. Quoting Gayraud: «To transmute the magic of a hit into pure reverie for the listener is perhaps to escape the dehumanisation into which the advanced rationalisation of the hit song seems to propel it; but it is also to migrate onto the side of subjectivity a promise that it would be better to hold to as something objective: that promise of reconciliation in which our being amazed and delighted together would not be an indication of propagandistic manipulation, but the experience of a universal aesthetic community, the actual realisation of the utopia of popularity», of an absolute Outside, produced, unwillingly, by human hands and by the unsexed reproduction of these human artefacts. As R. E. Templeton would put it: «In exteriority, where time works, that part of you which is most yourself has nothing in common with what you are».
A glaring example of this secular eternity is Oneohtrix Point Never latest record, Magic Oneothrix Point Never. The album is an intimist concept album, in which Daniel Lopatin puts to music radiophonic format flips, those moments in which American radios change their biology, ceasing to be, for example, a predominantly easy-listening radio and becoming a soft rock radio. Oneohtrix Point Never’s latest record, therefore, deals with eternity in two ways. Firstly, it is a record explicitly dedicated to an obsolete phenomenon, clearly superseded by the flow of streams and podcasts, and relegated to the fictional yarnwork of collective memory. Secondly, exiting these saccharine Video Killed the Radio Star-type of reflections, Lopatin’s record is an hymn to technical, real, material eternity; an exposition of the transcendental time which stems from each human artefact. Repeating and sublimating the format flip format, Lopatin shows how individual and private death has been abolished by the tireless production of impersonal and technically mediated time. The radio becomes the utopian but paradoxically real pulse of an unnatural and inhuman time, out of every joint.
Presenting what are, for all intents and purposes, a series of petite inorganic deaths, Oneohtrix Point Never dramatizes their absolute impossibility, putting all nostalgia to death (after all, how can you be nostalgic of something which eternally lingers…) and forces us to face the defeat of chronic, anthropic and progressive time, in favour of a post-historical and eternal time which keeps on folding onto itself like a snake, a coil or a spiral – a positive inorganic spironomy which eludes the finitude of our lives and on which we stumble upon, often unwillingly, through our artefacts and fictions. Quoting Lopatin himself: « My music always feels best to me when things are kind of changing and transforming […] When the dial is spinning».
Nonetheless, all these aesthetic and theoretical struggles to murder the moonlight and stop the banality of our empirical time feel like a minoritarian passion – especially when we have to confront the fact that, among the majority of contemporary cultural criticism, this undying passion for a spiraloid eternity is relegated, mostly, to a group of cognitive misfits. We must surrender to the evidence that, as Linda Trent already warned us in the nineties in her writing on tragedy, our cultural chronopolitics have gradually atrophied and have become an anaemic cult of nostalgia, an anthropomaniacal obsession and fixation with our finitude and our dear, private memories.
The most painful side of this marginality is certainly noting how a sad pseudocritical vulgate has been built on the idea of technically reproducible memory and, more particularly, around the corpse of Mark Fisher. It is easy to see, in fact, how a turbid mass has spontaneously assembled and is brandishing the remains of the British theorist to justify a resentful attitude towards the world mediated by our extented memory. Armed with Capitalist realism, exhibited as the Little Red Book of a pale and agonizing Cultural Revolution, and ready to accuse every enemy of being infected with the plague of theoretical vampirism, this group has transformed Fisher’s work into a sad invective against contemporary (cultural and economic) stagnation — a denunciation morally detached from this same stagnation and freed from all kinds of internal contradictions. With the tone of those who know far too much for someone like you, this congregation of exilic souls, relegated far from the promised land of the revolution, has hung its curses on the door of “neoliberalism” — an ultra-polysemic term, capable of encompassing everything in itself, freed from the rational need of all explanations, descriptions and clarifications — and has relegated itself to its black corner, where it can (un)collectively mourn the slow cancellation of the future (unaware of how the present constantly produces escape routes beneath majority time, of course).
The kernel on which this foul Fisherian posterity has become more virulent, reaching its nauseating apex, is surely the critique of hauntology, the denunciation of all those cultural forms which slavishly repeat the ghosts of a defunct past or of a future which never materialized.
With time, it got harder and harder to understand how these revolutionary ghostbusters where fighting the good fight, admonishing, with little to no practical or political effect, all of those artists or public figure which were not shaking the system, proving to be clean of all neoliberal ideology and to possess the almost preternatural capacity to bring into this world, ex nihilo, completely and undoubtably new cultural artefacts – or, at the very least, products that do not become too easily and too quickly complacent with the social world around them. Soon, these critiques have become a sterile agonism, aimed at cleansing all the aesthetic realm from all ambiguities and time-slippages, philistinely attacking all art which presents non-straightforwardly-revolutionary potentialities (which is all of it, I guess). The hauntological philistines tried to rid human expression of all movements which do not reside unproblematically outside this world and above the social stagnation in which we objectively live.
Quotes like: « “Repetition” names the condition of our culture, endlessly remaking remakes of remakes. Whereas the fifties, the sixties, the seventies, and the eighties all had distinctive by-the-decade styles in design, clothing, music, and art, from the nineties to now feels like one big remix. We are stuck in a boomer culture loop» have become forms emptied of all real critique – a critique which would entail all its necessary ambivalences, weird nostalgias and endemic neuroses. They are forms hopelessly aimed at attacking a morally decadent, but materially inalterable, status quo. These hollow shells of a critique are, as of today, indistinguishable from the rants of an economic boom-addicted billionaire looking for something new to pump down the throat of the free market. Oh, and the quote is Peter Thiel’s.
The true cardinal sin of this kind of chronopolitical operation is not only to be unsound from a critical and cultural perspective – and it is, surely – but it is, first and foremost, to be profoundly unjust towards Mark Fisher. Beneath the intact surface of this moral condemnation of each and every repetition of the past and of the abstract “neoliberal” world tout court, one can still hear the ring of the kicks and screams of an author far more ambivalent towards mass pop culture and our electric memory. Digging through the papers of the beatification of Saint Mark we can retrieve a fecond bundle of neuroses and the silhouette of a conceptually dysfunctional man in a desertified cultural landscape – the shadow of the only true characteristics which we fully share with him unambiguosly. Among the figures which the official hagiography, dutifully sanitized of the petty comment sections and the social media shitshows, tends to forget we find: Mark the Moralist, excommunicating thinkers left and right while scolding Twitter’s and the SJWs’ moralism; Mark the Extremist, who drifts seamlessly from «apocalyptic cyber-Stalinist anarcho-capitalism» to «woolly left-liberal humanism», quoting Rhian E. Jones and Carl Neville; Mark the Dogmatic, who pens, with no regrets, blogposts to stamp “dumb” on the forehead of those who lost a lot of precious time reading Kant and Bourdieu; and many other Marks which we wouldn’t be able to list here.
Setting aside all of those glaring examples, which contradict this monolithic and anti-hauntological moralism and let the profound contradiction in Mark’s thought and in his online persona shine through (and we could also quote Fisher’s love for The Caretaker, a quintessentially hauntological creature, now more popular than ever among the pandemic time-sickness infected zoomers, or the central role that a despised character like Drake played in Ghosts of my life), we want to highlight these incongruences to unearth an undercurrent of Fisherian thought which is worth revitalizing, especially for the dissonance it creates in the contemporary process of his reception and canonization; an undercurrent in which pop and mainstream culture are the place towards which the underground should strive, without hesitations or purisms, without being too picky about the “neoliberal” behaviours of the mass. A hidden passion for popular and secular eternity.
The blueprint of this peculiar brand of Mark Fisher’s anti-fisherism could be traced back, probably, to a piece dating back to the CCRU, written with Robin Mackay for a conference on “Post-theory” and then published in Abstract Culture, titled Pomophobia. The text is a declaration of war against postmodernism, against the «dreadful self-consciousness» and the «jaded carnival of negative authenticity» of contemporary culture. Fisher and Mackay resurrect an old Nietzschean refrain which goes a little something like a culture saturated with history and self-consciousness is mortifying and openly hostile to life itself and they use it against the post-human boredom of the nineties. It still is a ferocious piece, especially for readers still stuck in a world obsessed with history and our inane, banal neuroses.
The solution to this cosmic boredom, to this hypertrophic capacity to conceptualize and psychoanalyze every inch of reality is, at least to the Fisherian doxa, decisively counter-intuitive: the two authors propose, like (more or less) Bonnet, Gayraud and Lopatin, the repetition of the past as an escape from the aesthetic-political strictures of the present. The repetition of cliches of epochs disappeared in the vortex of consensually-shared history is presented here as a form of synthetic radical culture: a theft and a destruction, a profanation of the flow of majority time and an eternal subterranean recombination, which decrypts and salvages the cyphered permutations which lay underneath the threshold of reality.
It is, at the end of the day, the typical method of the most cruel incarnations of modernism, from revolutionary constructivism to hardline futurism, brought back by rave and club culture, from jungle to hip-hop: steal, deface, destroy and push the world towards its outer margins. An aesthetic enterprise which, in other words, is not looking for lost past or dead futures, but the shock of rupture and the timeless clairvoyance of brutal and militant repetition.
« Kurt Cobain embodied what theory disembodies, the raging stomach pains which plagued him finding their disintensified correlate in the the chin-rubbing, brow-furrowing protocols of urbane academic anxiety. Smells like Hegelian Spirit. By contrast, synthetic culture disorganises the docilising regimes of disciplinary body politics. Hip hop and jungle work on the body, not in the overlit luminotopological epistemoscapes of necrospective mummification, but in the dark zones where you don’t have a chance to think about what things would mean before they happen […] Samploid music and video games emerges as the leading probe-heads of synthetic culture precisely because of their overt machinism, their asignifying functionality […] far from being imprisoned in the past, synthetic culture unlocks the machinic surplus value in the already actualized, stretching and warping time into nonorganically reprogrammed somatic circuits of inhuman speeds and slownesses»
Clearly, the hauntological and resentful neo-fisherian could rebut, pointing their little, humanist finger, that this was just a juvenile mistake, a piece written by a Mark Fisher which was still looking for his true soul – socialist, social democratic or populist, according to the specific fetish of choice. Nonetheless, it is easy to realize that this passion for synthetic and aeonic culture, which appropriates the mainstream to break it, destroy it and salvage the temporal pulses which run amok beneath it, remained crucial for the English cultural critic, (un)living as a lingering and tacit tension in all his later works. Let’s consider, for example, the way in which Fisher treated Paul Weller’s The Jam, in the midst of his populist phase.
The Jam are interesting, according to Fisher, because they are manifestly the incarnation of a mod and a popular (not necessarily populist, since «if the explosion of experimental popular culture in the second half of the 20th century taught us anything, it’s that it’s possible to be popular without being populist») political aesthetic, for their unflinching adherence to a certain public mode of existence in modern England. What immediately sticks out, though, is the way in which Fisher defines mod and popular.
In fact, he immediately highlights that mod stands for modern, in the most destructive sense – an amphetamine logic, oriented towards a future absolutely alien to human life, far from the nauseating fifties revivals which have plagued us since the eighties. Even more strong and abrupt is his definition of popular; not so much because he gives it a particularly novel or unheard of definition, but because he attributes to it the most skeletal and essential definition: popular is what thrives in public, becoming one with the spectacular immensity which surrounds us. In other words, popular is that which becomes one with that eternal technoscientfic communion which Gayraud dubbed the utopia of popularity. Popular is that which thrives among everyone irrespective of local and temporally codifiable contexts, bearing the weight of all the contradictions of all epochs remorselessly and paradoxically – ignoring the petty things, the identitarian preservation complexes and the anthropological particularisms, which are the bread and butter of contemporary populisms. Being popular means being lethally and oceanically pop, with no bounds, fully incarnating the social structures that surround us, making them eternal, horrid, unnatural.
«The Jam thrived in public space, on public service broadcasting. It mattered that they were popular; the records gained in intensity when you knew that they were number one, when you saw them on Top of the Pops – because it wasn’t only you and fellow initiates who heard the music; the (big) Other heard it too. […] Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently. And you could say that all of this was self-consciously worked through by Weller, with his Mod(ernist) affiliation, and its hunger for new sensations»
The Jam’s music, for Fisher, amplified and realized its nature as a tool for proletarian propaganda when it was broadcasted on the national airwaves, which, for Fisher as much as for Lopatin, are a chronopolitical Twilight Zone, as a call from an imaginary party which treads on everything that stands. Even if the blogpost is rife with anti-hauntological critiques, the thesis remains tha same: absolute pomophobia, the dialectics unfolds in the womb of popularity and with modernist, brute weapons. Even Fisher’s most vanilla socialism is born out of the actual eternity of mass media, with the means of mass seduction of pop culture, in the shadow of a time which is not ours. Even in the most humanist and politically engaged Fisher there’s no time to justify our temporal security system.