29 May 2009

The Fear Factory

K-Punk, in full-on concept-factory mode, taking down Tim Abrahams on blogs as 'nostalgic', and then later (he can't help it!) giving the weary limbs of Sonic Youth one more kick... Killer quote:
simply comparing the present unfavourably with the past is not nostalgic in any culpable way. It is the tendency to falsely overestimate the past that makes nostalgia egregious: [...] Conversely, we are induced - by ubiquitous PR, whose blank, joyless positivity has a crushingly depressing effect, even though (or rather precisely because) no-one believes it at the level of content - into falsely overestimating the present.
This is true – but (and this is something I often forget myself), nostalgia needs to be separated from sentimentality. Nostalgia is the longing for home (nostos = returning home, algos = pain). Nostalgia is a sickness – it haunts you despite your best efforts. Nostalgia has a long tradition: Joyce and Dublin. Wordsworth and his spots of time. Ulysses and Ithaca. Adam and Eve evicted from Eden. Sentimentalizing the past is the sin, the deliberate wallowing in a kitsch-en sink of schmaltz. When Mark writes about a 'false overestimate' of the past, what is a false overestimate but an idealization? What is an idealization if not a fantasy? And what does a fantasy do but comfort and sedate? (I've got a post planned on this subject in relation to Ashes to Ashes). This distinction still works for Mark's defence of hauntology though, because what is (an unsentimental) nostalgia for one's youth if not a mourning for lost futures?

Mark describes a culture industry which produces complacency, another false overestimate, but this time a false estimate of the present, something like a version of the 'end of history' for consumers, in which nothing will ever be at stake anymore, because we have reached the finish line and history can go away now. This is the trivializing blather of the complicitariat, in which reviews sound like press releases which sound like ad copy (...which try to sound like something someone cool would say (...in a world where the cool person works out they ought to like Grizzly Bear because the right reviews website tells them it's ok (which sounds like…)))))). This is the perpetually 'light, upbeat, irreverent' tone – that haunts colour supplements, culture sections, arts TV, radio. E4ification. The eroticization of shallow insincerity. The eroticization of glib. It's glibidinal!

But for me this misses something, or at least puts the accent in the wrong place. 'Light, upbeat, irreverent'. Permanent irreverence is not the same as complacency – it's a pose, a parrotting of the rhetoric of the complacent or confident. The mass media's perpetual irreverence is pure defense mechanism. There's an aggression in that kind of humour: gags that trivialize and belittle, that preserve the joker from commitment, deferring honesty and engagement by enabling an arms-length smirk (which should not be lazily equated with irony – irony is a weapon and a warning).

The irreverence encrypts pure fear. It's The Fear. Lily Allen is the pop star this country deserves, with her piss-poor strings of one-liners parading as lyrics, and her shabby facsimiles of whatever genre her producer thinks is timely that month. But Allen is right here. The real contemporary sickness is not complacency but fear and anxiety. The logic of the news bulletin is wholesale fear production. People crave and idealize the past partly because the present is (and always has been) confusing, overwhelming, uncertain – while the past can be demarcated, read and rationalized. So the past is consumed as an antidote to the present. But while Mark complains about the compulsive, cancerous commodification of the past, isn’t the selling of the future a bigger, more prevalent problem – the infinitely repeated promise that if you buy X you will become New You, Better You.

The selling of the future overlaps with the selling of fear. One of the most depressing aspects of New Labour (and the Bush/neocon era) has been government by management consultancy, and with it a whole new approach to managing voter expectations. Managing expectation is an art. You keep people 'happy' with your performance through constant alarmism, so that any small success acquires disproportionate cachet. Imagine you're a government responding to a terrorist incident or a flu epidemic. Rather than (as seemed to be the response in every disaster movie I ever watched as a child) appealing for calm, you do everything you can to scare the shit out of people. (My mother, a district nurse, was solemnly informed by a senior PCT exec last month that she would unquestionably lose friends and family to swine flu). It's a win-win. Disaster? Told you so. No disaster? We saved you!


My final thoughts on Sonic Youth. I still find Mark's SY critique inconsistent, or at least incomplete. Its the temporality that's awry for me. In an earlier post Swans are used as a stick to beat SY with, to break their collective arm presumably. But Swans v Sonic Youth: Whose Year is Zero-er? is a disaster for Mark's argument. Swans repeated themselves over and over as if Year Zero meant annual recording-studio amnesia: terminal stasis. Swans' leader Michael Gira then gave up, gave up the very post-human severity which Mark lauds (and ended up by '04 putting out… Devendra fucking Banhart. Oh how the mighty, etc.) In the same period of the '80s, SY put out six very different records: from the debut EP to Daydream Nation. They moved on (...and this is why their current stasis is disappointing). It was SY, not Swans, who restlessly moved forward into new futures. But this is the crux of Year Zero. How can you make it look like Year Zero without summoning by negation whatever history you want to shed? Put another way, if you want to escape repeating history, you must define yourself by what you are not, and your negative aesthetic space ends up describing Year Minus One. You can only reject it by holding it very clearly in your mind. As Modernist battle-crys, don't 'make it new' and 'remake/remodel' avoid this trap? How does one go about being a good Modernist, erasing the traces and declaring Year Zero, while digging hauntology? Lots of traces there... traces all the way down...

[NB - I've edited out a para here which I didn't really agree with – but might return to]

One final thought: referring to Starbucks' SY comp, for me, is a palpable hit by Mark. I was shocked they did it... But isn't K-Punk against ideology's shifting of the ethical burden onto the subject away from social structure, the dogmatic insistence on the individual as the dutiful citizen-recycler, as the ethical shopper? If it's missing the point to refuse to drink Starbucks, because you thereby acquiesce in ideology's passing of the buck onto the subject, then why shouldn't Sonic Youth accept the offer of a compilation CD? You could insist they live to a higher standard than their fans, but isn't that, like... rockist? Artist as heroic Romantic martyr?


next up (maybe): the unbearable quantity of the past, post-human cultural memory, generational disconnect, the Struldbruggs, natural resources


Mike Beggs said...

That last point is right on... One of the odder suggestions to come out of all this is Jorg Heiser's claim that "the problem with Sonic Youth" is "that they haven't dared to be mainstream enough, or rather: pop, enough." http://www.frieze.com/blog/entry/guess/

In which case we wouldn't be talking about Sonic Youth, would we? We'd be talking about some other band that had slotted into their position in the pop culture structure.

I don't really get what is being judged by Mark here, given his (good) arguments against personalising/subjectivising/moralising politics elsewhere, as you point out. Is the injunction to Sonic Youth, like Heiser's? Or to listeners, that politics would be advanced if we invested aesthetic enthusiasm in bands other than Sonic Youth?

Sam Davies said...

Thanks, I hadn't seen that, will go read. The mainstream angle is interesting because SY explicitly signed to Geffen in order to be, as Mark quotes from the Pop Group, 'an explosion in the heart of the commodity', but in the end the explosion was Nirvana and SY were eclipsed. I might be wrong about this, but I think no SY record has ever gone gold, which is extraordinary given their critical reputation. In the end being part of the mainstream structure wasn't enough to make them aesthetically mainstream. Tokenism is the key here - they were a marquee/token signing for Geffen, and, going back to Mark's arguments, appearances on Jools Holland or the Juno s/track are mainstream tokenism too. Look at the SY track that Juno's makers picked out - their Carpenters cover! The most insipid, inoffensive thing they've ever done. That doesn't stamp them as mainstream in the way that using say, Stereo Sanctity or The Diamond Sea would have.

totally reified dave said...

The root of the word nostalgia in the ancient world is, I think, Plato's theory of the Ideal. The human being is born with a vestigial memory of the world of abstract perfection that the soul occupied prior to incarnation. Our homesickness is for that state, and art is accredited with the power to provoke its recollection.
The Greeks also perceived time as flowing in the opposite direction as we do. The past is before us receding and the future is over our shoulder unseen. I offer these points only as a way of highlighting the degraded concept we currently employ when using the word nostalgia.