Note V

Brandom begins his exposition of the Self-Consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology by considering “essentially self-conscious beings.” These are beings whose self-conception forms an essential part of what they are in themselves1. Since for them a change in their self-conception can bring about a change in what they are, they are capable of “making themselves different by taking themselves to be different.” If they do so, and the change then provokes a further update to their self-conception, this will begin a cascading developmental process moving through sequential alternating modifications of what they for themselves and what they are in themselves.

Needless to say, Brandom reads Hegel as understanding us to be such essentially self-conscious beings. If we are then we possess no essential features (other than our being essentially self-conscious), since what we are essentially is always subject to change as our self-conception is revised. Accordingly, rather than understanding ourselves as creatures with natures, we should understand ourselves as having histories2.

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Note IV

Writing in the introduction to his recent book on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Brandom has this to say about the contrast between the modern and premodern experiences of normativity:

The implicit principle of traditional forms of life is the status-dependence of normative attitudes: the authority of how things ought to be over what we should strive to do. The founding principle of modernity is the converse idea of the attitude-dependence of normative statuses. At its base is the thought that there are no normative statuses of responsibility or authority apart from our practices and practical attitudes of taking or treating each other as responsible and authoritative.

This difference shows up in the historical transition from Aristotelean to modern science, during which teleology was drained from the scientific image of the natural world and replaced by law-governed efficient causality. The disappearance of natural telos corresponds to the loss of objective normative statuses—that is, natural facts about how things should be—which could provide objective reasons for judgements of correctness with regard to conduct or function. Among other things, the premodern recognition of objective normative statuses underpinned forms of social determinism, with individuals understood as bound to roles and duties fixed within an objective social order indifferent to preference. Governed by this picture, the tragic dimension of premodern life is characterised by the concept of fate.

In modernity norms are understood as products of subjective normative attitudes. The latent tendency hovering over this conception is the collapse of normative judgement into arbitrariness. If what is right is reducible to what one takes to be right, then in what sense can a judgement of rightness ever be binding? If a moral principle conflicts with desire, then on what basis should the moral principle be taken to be overriding, if its own authority is ultimately also licensed by subjective attitudes? If one has the authority to choose one’s own set of values, then one can also authorise oneself to swap them for another set at some later date. But if this is the case, then it seems that no-one can ever be unconditionally committed to anything. The tragic dimension of modernity is correspondingly characterised by alienation, as the attitude-dependence of normative statuses undercuts the stability of spaces of shared value, purpose, and meaning.

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Meditation II

In 1935 Walter Benjamin compared the performances of the stage actor and the film actor. He found two differences:

  1. The screen performance is less unitary than the stage performance. It can be pieced together from different takes and repeat performances, incorporate “real” footage, be altered, spliced and restitched. Unlike the organic unity of a stage performance, it is a patchwork of fragments sewn together into a synthetic unity.
  2. A screen performance is more readily susceptible to critical engagement. It can be rewatched by an audience many times over, slowed down and reversed, examined in its minutiae.

» mediations

Benjamin theorised that both differences are produced by the intrusion of the camera as mediating interface between actor and audience. It changes the relationship between them, restructuring the norms of performing and receiving1. A single reciprocal relation between performer and audience is replaced by two unilateral relations—between performer and camera and between camera and audience. The breakdown of reciprocity fixes the difference between producer and consumer, polarising their division of labour.

The camera’s role is surgical, dissecting the performance for inspection. Removing the audience from the performance space it removes the actor from their source of immediate feedback. Benjamin described a new kind of performance anxiety that arises for the film actor, likening it to the feeling of standing before one’s image in the mirror. The attitude of the audience shifts from reciprocal involvement to unilateral scrutiny. The camera tests; the audience test with it (there is nothing else they can do). The screen performance is tested for its “realism” even though its production for reproduction is always an act of artifice2.

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Note III

Brecht had some fascinating things to say about classical Chinese opera, and found within it many points of contact with his own “epic theatre”. Here are some snippets from his essay Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting.

[T]he Chinese artist never acts as if there a fourth wall besides the three surrounding him. He expresses his awareness of being watched. This immediately removes one of the European stage’s characteristic illusions. The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place.

What is important here is the link between the naturalistic illusion experienced by the audience—the sense that one is viewing a real event—with the “unseen” quality of the spectator, which is to say their complete uninvolvement. As soon as the artist involves the audience member as a seen spectator the audience can no longer encounter the actor as a “real” character, but only as an actor representing a character to them. To be involved in the narrative space of the artifice is to be robbed of one’s ability to witness it as a real event. The unconscious assessment of the action as real depends on a staging apparatus which places the audience in a position outside its sphere of involvement; expression of the awareness of being watched is one means the artist has to interrupt that positioning.

A further means is that the artist observes himself. Thus if he is representing a cloud, perhaps, showing its unexpected appearance, its soft and strong growth, its rapid yet gradual transformation, he will occasionally at the audience as if to say: isn’t it just like that?

The artist’s object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely a himself and his work. As a result everything put forward by him has a touch of the amazing. Everyday things are thereby raised above the level of the obvious and automatic.

The involvement brought about by the fourth wall breaking techniques of the artist make strange what in the naturalistic mode would appear to be passive pieces of environment. They become strange in the sense of the stranger, the newcomer in social space with as yet no defined place within its dominant narrative. The object talks back.

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Study IX

I’ve finally got round to putting up some music on Bandcamp. All these tracks were made years back, but a long rainy walk along Regent’s Canal yesterday provided both a cover photo and the nudge I need to put it all online.

These are mostly tracks based on a single sound that has been chopped, looped, distorted and layered in various ways. While it was not a conscious motivation at the time, I realise now that the preoccupation driving these productions was the idea of “changing in place”, the kind of stationary motion that has always gripped me in music.

In Cormac McCarthy’s anti-spiritual journey novel Suttree, the repeated return to the river—the Heraclitian symbol of transience—acts as a stable point in the otherwise chaotic unfolding of Suttree’s life, holding in equilibrium a scattered bundle of narrative fragments with no particular start or endpoint. The river is what binds Suttree’s life into a unity without subjecting it to the violence of curation, of a process of exclusion through definition.

The constancy of the canal in the frenetic temporal and social dislocation of modern London touches something similar, and I like to think of this music as intimately bound up with that. The essence of the canal is its crustiness, a crossing point between the human sphere and its outside, where the decay of the artificial is revitalised in its reclamation by organic life.

Photos by Kallie Ennever.

Reflection VI

One aspect of Baudrillard’s thought rarely emphasised is its empirical content. I find this odd, given that his whole oeuvre is devoted to describing processes that give predictions and explanations of concrete social structures and events. (Where it has received attention, as with his claim that the Gulf War “never happened,” he has tended to be interpreted without much charity, in my opinion.) It is, after all, this empirical content that forms the bridge between the abstract core of his theory—revolving around the idea of “semiological reduction” (more on this later)—with his familiar proclamations that “events are on strike”, that “history is frozen”, or that the postmodern experience is at root a boring one, in which all the stakes of life have been abandoned and nothing ever really happens.

I want to approach this via a discussion about veganism, a topic which I suspect has rarely crossed paths with Baudrillard. This is for basically personal reasons. My first encounter with Simulacra & Simulation coincided with my own quiet backslide out of veganism, and I found his ideas helped enormously in making sense of the collapse of ethical will I was experiencing. Conversely, reading him in that mood of disillusionment helped me to situate Baudrillard as a thinker with much of value to say about the conditions of possibility of moral and political agency, and the state of these conditions in the contemporary moment. (For the record, none of the points in this post are intended to hinge on any particulars of veganism—I am hoping it will serve as an illustrative example of how ethical conflict plays out in general).

The peculiar thing about this collapse of will was that it did not seem to arise from any internal change of mind, but from some more nebulous external pressure. Roughly, my sense was that the ethical content of my decision had been stripped away by the reduction of veganism to a lifestyle brand. I think most people would recognise what I mean by “lifestyle brand” in this context. But there are at least two questions this raises:

  1. Isn’t it up to you whether an ethical commitment functions as an identity marker in your case or not? If you act with ethical reasons, how can the ethical content be stripped away by the fact that others appear to act from non-ethical reasons (virtue signalling, identity mongering, brand loyalty, etc.)?

  2. Even if it does, why should this matter? If the ethical content of the act ultimately lies in the extent to which it achieves ethical goals, then what does it matter how it gets there?

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Reflection V

The term “virtue-signalling” first appeared as a way of mocking the perceived insincerity of those who vocally advocate for social justice causes without making any real effort to effect them in practice, or doing so only insofar as they complement their own lifestyle choices. The anti-leftist sentiment baked into the concept is no doubt one reason why it was not initially taken seriously as a critique by its targets. Another might be that those whose sincerity is in question simply do not experience themselves as insincere. There are, after all, reasons other than self-interest to vocally espouse a cause—for example to persuade, to compel, or to mobilise. If the goal is collective action then mobilisation through discourse is its precondition, not its afterthought, and to criticise individual espousers on their lack of current individual action would seem to miss the issue.

Nevertheless, the suspicion that there is a cynical disarticulation of reasons from actions at work has not gone away, and while virtue-signalling may never have become a familiar expression in left-wing discourse terms like “performative ally” have arisen within it to describe something similar. So-called “woke capital” is guilty of this as well, with brands often producing the signs of diversity as little more than a marketing strategy. The underlying concern is that virtue-signalling does not merely mask a pre-existing absence of virtue, but actively corrodes virtue by replacing it with its performance; not just a deflection from the absence of resistance to power, but an active functional component in the auto-regulation of power relations.

This point about motive insincerity is one I’ve been chewing on a lot recently. On the one hand it seems pretty clear that virtue-signalling names a real phenomenon, and not a marginal one. On the other hand the typically left-critical explanation of it—that it stems from insincerity at the level of individuals, i.e. ostensibly selfless political or ethical expressions are actually in the service of cynical and calculated self-interest—just does not seem right at all. It seems equally clear that most people advocating for social justice are doing so from broadly sincere motives, at least in the first instance. If virtue-signalling is to be understood without appeal to motive insincerity on the part of individuals, then the puzzle is how to understand it as something more like a network effect.

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Reflection IV

A new documentary about the evolution of the drum and bass scene came out last week, and is well worth a watch.

The film tracks the scene from its roots in London in the 90’s, through to the sprawling international web it is today with all its offshoots and subgenres. It is interesting for the story it tells of the huge mutations music distribution and consumption has undergone in the last 25 years, and how drum and bass subculture has survived them.

DJ Hype makes a point (starting at 1:06:45) that where other UK-born underground music genres have often died shortly after achieving commercial success—garage and dubstep are his examples—this has not happened with drum and bass. He suggests that this has to do with the fact that drum and bass has consistently retained an underground infrastructure, while commercial success in other genres has often led to people leaving the subculture behind, which then collapses when the fashion cycle moves on and commercial incentives disappear.

Why this might have happened with drum and bass but not with garage or dubstep is hinted at by someone else when they say that drum and bass can never really be cool. Coolness suggests a kind of cachet whose exchange value is publicly agreed upon, even if only implicitly, but drum and bass is just fundamentally too fast and abrasive for that kind of value to ever stabilise in any context outside the subculture that created it. A comparison could be made with metal, another genre which has retained a huge thriving underground despite the birth and death of many commercial offshoots. The suggestion here is that there are some genres whose musical form makes them essentially underground, too different to be pastiched into something that can ever sit comfortably in a commercial landscape. Whenever someone tries the underground just sneers at them and turns its back.

If the capacity of the drum and bass scene to resist commodification lies in what could be called its “unassimilable difference”, then this probably tells us something about how commodification operates as a process in music culture as a whole. I was listening to some Tool tracks the other day and found it hard to imagine a band like them existing today. What seems to have disappeared is the very space they occupied in music culture: respected as innovative and anti-mainstream, yet with a broad enough appeal to act as public representatives for an alternative—but not underground—music culture that doesn’t really exist any more. The reason it doesn’t is just that there is nothing identifiable as a unified “mainstream” for it to be an alternative to (or to put the point another way: a Kerrang can’t exist without an MTV). The mainstream now is a much more diffuse entity, more like a process than a public space, one that more likely resides in the algorithms of Spotify and Youtube than broadcast entities like MTV. In a way the mainstream has gone underground, and it has taken with it the possibility of a public alternative culture.

This has in large part been facilitated by online platforms like Instagram which simulate the kind of horizontal connections between artists, audiences and promoters that exist in subculture. Now those connections are mediated by technical platforms which shape and mould them to their own interests. Commodification no longer speaks through vertical structures which authorise the value of music or artists (MTV, Radio 1, etc)—this work is done by the interfaces and algorithms that mediate horizontal peer-to-peer connections. The musical landscape ends up as it is now, somehow fragmented and homogenous at the same time: a million different aesthetics but no corresponding variation in musical form; subgenres without subcultures, undergrounds without infrastructure.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the survival of the underground drum and bass scene it is that there’s a reciprocal and self-sustaining relationship between the form of the music itself and scene infrastructure. The infrastructure (private networks, independent labels, online forums run by and for scene members, etc) creates a local public sphere in which the value of a music too different for commercial appetites can be inscribed, established and performed. Meanwhile the unassimilable difference of the music stops the infrastructure of the underground from being absorbed by big tech, which would undermine the autonomy of its processes of value creation. The resistance of the drum and bass scene to commodification is deeply tied to formal and material properties of the music itself, and this in turn is what allows it to continue existing as an autonomous subculture.

Anyway, I’ll end these thoughts with a link to a d&b mix (mostly modern minimalish neurofunk) I made after watching the film:

Reflection III

Here I want to gather a few thoughts on accelerationism, a current of thinking with near roots in the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (a sort of experimental theory collective based at Warwick University in the 1990’s), and far roots in Marx’s idea that capitalism would ultimately create the conditions of its own disintegration. The term only really came to signify anything like a “current” sometime in 2010’s, and since then it has fragmented into left-wing and right-wing variants (called l/acc and r/acc, though sometimes begrudgingly), not to mention a whole slew of other offshoots. This Guardian article provides a nice account of accelerationism’s history and some of its protagonists.

There are several things I find interesting about accelerationism, not least that the very fact that it has been able to fragment into multiple antagonistic strains without abandoning the word testifies to its status as a legit intellectual subculture, living an amorphous and often turbulent existence outside academia. Another is that its mode of thinking provides a wide-angle means of understanding the relationship between capitalism and the political categories of the left and right, a relationship which has often felt blurred along weird lines in the years since the financial crash of 2008. This is what I want to focus on here.

At the heart of all this is the question of whether capitalism itself is a progressive or reactionary force, an agent of social change or an agent of stasis. The jump-off point is Deleuze & Guattari, who famously analysed capitalism in terms of the cybernetic concepts of positive and negative feedback. Negative feedback refers to mechanisms of homeostatic self-regulation, while positive feedback is a destabilising force that opens up lines of flight from equilibrium states. A thermostat implements a negative feedback system, monitoring for deviations from a desired state and then adjusting material flows to maintain it. The audio feedback produced when a microphone is held close a speaker is an example of positive feedback, a runaway process of growing intensity which shakes apart an equilibrium.

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Reflection II

In recent months Squarespace has been running an ad campaign riffing off the tagline “a website makes it real”:

The message plays off a tension between two different senses of the “real”. The first refers to how things actually are, in this case the material conditions of Oscar’s life—what is sometimes called the Real. In this sense the message is obnoxiously false: obviously the Real is what it is whether it has a website or not. The second sense concerns what is visible to and readable by the system of public value, or what is sometimes called the reality principle. “A website makes it real” is a statement both giving us the content of the reality principle and asserting its primacy over the Real: the Real cannot be publicly registered as real (cannot have value to assigned to it, positive or negative) until it has been correctly framed as content in a media space.

What I find interesting about this messaging is not only that it states a truth about how value works in the present social reality (if it didn’t the ad would have no bite), but that it is somehow able to present itself as an emancipatory message. Rather than coming across in the obvious pessimistic key—that Real material poverty, homelessness, etc., is rendered invisible by the reality principle whenever it is not represented in a public medium—what is actually communicated is something more like an offer of social mobility. As if it no longer mattered what the material conditions of existence actually are, because cultural capital can accrue to anything as long as it is framed in the right way. Even a load of old trash. Value is created in the act of framing itself: curation ex nihilo.

I also enjoy this one:

All questions of truth, predictive power, or spiritual value have now been replaced by the question of public readability via conformity to aesthetic codes. You can imagine the next advert in the series: astronomy—a website makes it real. The side-effect of this becoming-real through decodable representation is the loss of any potential for deep incompatibilties between things represented—between, say, science and astrology. Both can have a website so both can be real, in the same sense of “real”. Both are reduced to signs competing with and exchanging for each other in the marketplace of idea-identities. Exclusive difference in the Real order is reduced by the reality principle to a compatible difference in the semiotic order, true heterogeneity to a series of variations in content on a single aesthetic form.

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