Reflection I

There’s a point Mark Fisher made that has stuck with me (I believe it was in his Anti-Vital lecture). He remarks that one of the biggest challenges faced historically by anti-capitalism is that it has often had difficulty persuading people that their economic system oppresses them. Orthodox Marxism has typically explained this by appealing to “false consciousness”: the idea that the system itself distorts people’s perception of their own economic conditions, blinding them to their own oppression. What Fisher points out is that this explanation has not been persuasive. Any effective critique of the system we currently inhabit, he argues, must not assume that we are all suffering from some kind of mass illusion. Instead it must begin with a recognition of our own complicity in creating and sustaining the situation we are in.

The concept of false consciousness is a familiar one. When the rise of Donald Trump (or of Boris Johnson, or of Brexit) is raised in leftwing circles, it is common to find the conversation moving directly to the question of how so many people were deceived, bypassing the question of how they were persuaded, or of why conservative narratives have often proved more appealing than progressive narratives in the years since the financial crisis of 2008. A similar idea also seems to underly attempts to understand consumerist culture as a kind of spiritual deficiency, the product of a Western materialist metaphysics, a modern veil of Maya all sugar and neon light. Awakening to a better world is thus understood as a matter of piercing the veil, of swallowing the red pill and escaping the Matrix for good. It is the appeal to this kind of image that Fisher thinks is a bad move.

Still, if false consciousness is not to blame for the strange stasis of consumer capitalism—perhaps most vividly dramatised in its inability to respond meaningful to looming eco-catastrophe—then this leaves quite a puzzle. Why would we choose this fate? Fisher himself seems to me to have been inconsistent on this point. One of his key conclusions in Capitalist Realism is that effective critique must aim to point out capitalism’s own internal contradictions, or “aporias”. This advice always felt a bit toothless to me, not least because one glance around the cultural landscape reveals aporias being pointed out everywhere already, in novels, films, nonfiction books, ironic-not-ironic social media posts, the mission statements of social enterprises, etc. Wander into any contemporary art gallery and you will have several uncomfortable encounters with aporias within the first ten minutes. There is an industry in pointing out aporias.

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Note II

Here’s my thousandish-word summary of Mark Fisher’s book Capitalist Realism.

TS Eliot first made the point that culture’s ability to produce the new is dependent on its capacity to store and transmit collective memory. Innovation depends on a sense of tradition, otherwise there is nothing to innovate against. By destabilising the material conditions of life and through its commodification of culture capitalism has undermined this capacity; consequently cultural innovation has become impossible. Since exchange-value is privileged over use-value, the value attributed to a cultural product is dependent on its alienation, in Marx’s sense: its abstraction from its life-world—from its function and significance within the social context of the individuals and communities that produce it—and re-situation within a system of general exchange. This corresponds to a shift in the way we encounter cultural products from a mode of participation to a mode of spectatorship. Culture ceases to be a participatory forum for shared projects of self-narration, instead becoming a factory for aesthetic objects produced for passive consumption.

This is no less true of intellectual and political products. Anticapitalism becomes something consumable—this itself is an effect of capitalism. The villain of the Hollywood film is now the evil corporation, or even consumerism itself (cf. Wall E). This is a reflection of the overvaluation of belief relative to action, i.e. the privileging of exchange-value over use-value in the particular case of the conviction. The role of conviction as cultural capital takes precedence over its role as a motivation to act. It becomes more important to perform your beliefs than to act on them; to express a cynical belief is now a worse crime than to act cynically. ‘Being negative’ becomes the ultimate faux pas, while acting in a way that is insensitive, unkind, or flaky is barely worthy of comment.

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Meditation I

A sound system could be understood as a technology for producing space, operating by consolidating and autonomising local time, neutralising it through the cancellation of metronomic difference. Rhythm both dissolves temporality and resolves narrative interiority: a becoming-time of space at its edges. Time is the becoming-extensive of intensive space, the crust that contains and defines it. Leaving the club is always an encounter with hostile temporality experienced as a loss of shared space.

The fragmentation of rhythm and foregrounding of the medium in Burial’s music conveys temporality as shattered. Mark Fisher described it as a mourning for the lost futurism of rave: “Ravers have become deadbeats, and Burial’s beats are accordingly undead.” But this loss of global temporality can also be seen as a side-effect of the loss of narrative space produced by the sound system in its local cancellation of the present. Burial’s music can be read as striving to reestablish this lost space, a paradoxical attempt to recover the sound system’s collectivising spatiality in the solipsistic locale of headphones. (If Peter Sloterdijk is right that spatial fragmentation is an immunological response, then headphones are surely its frontline antibody.)

Fisher emphasised the continuity of Burial with dub’s phono-centric sensibilities, its granting of a “privileged role to voices under erasure.” The denarrativised voice is the source of the undead in Burial’s music, of its spectrality and mourning: the presence of a humanity stripped of agency. But it is not really the beats that are undead, per se. In Burial’s disjointed rhythms there is a different kind of presence, neither dead nor undead, but inorganic. Percussive elements are defiantly autonomous, clattering material processes in themselves. They are poised to disperse, yet hang together nonetheless. Rhythmic unity in Burial operates according to a principle of solidarity (historical contingency), never identity (definitional necessity). It is this sense of narrative contingency in the inanimate, a certain autonomy in matter itself, that replaces the lost human agency and reestablishes narrative space. The drainage of potentiality from the human sphere is answered by its rediscovery in nonhuman matter. It crystallises in the socialisation of the inanimate, in the yearning of urban debris and the pathos of machines.

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Study VIII

Lowercase is a term coined by Steve Roden, referring to a form of minimal ambient music that makes use of very quiet and usually unheard sounds.

These studies are the product of some initial experimentation for a project I started with a friend, but which never quite got off the ground. I hope to return to it one day.

The photographs are of Shoreham Cement Works, and were taken around the same time.

Study VII

This is almost a recording of a live set I played at Inertia Beltane Gathering 2016 in Brighton. The set did not actually get recorded. And then my laptop died the next day. And then when I tried to recover it from a backup the external hard drive was partially corrupted. Anyway, eventually I did manage to recover most of it and squeeze out a recording. Here it is.

Note I

This somewhat lazy post stockpiles a load of quotes I’ve pulled out of Brian Massumi’s paper Autonomy of Affect, which I’ve found extremely helpful for patching up some of the leaks in my own understanding of affect theory. I’ve left these quotes verbose to capture the context.

It could be noted that the primacy of the affective is marked by a gap between content and effect: it would appear that the strength or duration of an image’s effect is not logically connected to the content in any straightforward way. This is not to say that there is no connection and no logic. What is meant here by the content of the image is its indexing to conventional meanings in an intersubjective context, its socio-linguistic qualification. This indexing fixes the determinate qualities of the image; the strength or duration of the image’s effect could be called its intensity.

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Document I

A Daily Telegraph article published in October 2008 describes the exploits of an octopus named Otto, who, acquiring a taste for chaos after learning how to short circuit the light above his tank by squirting jets of water at it, embarked on a rampage of escalating mischief. In addition to electrical tampering, by the end of the spree Otto’s misdemeanours included damaging his tank by throwing stones against the glass, juggling hermit crabs, rearranging the tank “much to the distress of his fellow occupants,” and squandering the resources of the aquarium staff, who took some time to get to the bottom of the matter.

The director of the Sea Star aquarium was quick to discredit Otto’s character. “We’ve put the light a bit higher now so he shouldn’t be able to reach it. But Otto is constantly craving for attention and always comes up with new stunts.” Another spokesperson stressed the moral gravity of the issue: “It was a serious matter because it shorted the electricity supply to the whole aquarium that threatened the lives of the other animals when the water pumps ceased to work.” Bored Otto may have been, but in the eyes of the aquarium this was no excuse for placing his fellow sea critters in danger, not to mention the trauma endured by those hermit crabs.

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Study VI

Chitter is an installation consisting of a collection of small electronic devices, each housing a single solenoid electromagnet switched on and off in an evolving rhythmic pattern. Controlled independently and sounding at different tempos, the tapping of the solenoids fills the space they inhabit with a dense, mechanical sound texture.

I wanted the visitor to be drawn into encounters with individual devices, as rhythms become identifiable against the background milieu. Nearby devices falling in and out of sync with each other, passing through moments of transient rhythmic cohesion. Movement through the space would exposed a multitude of machine voices, conversations emerging and dissolving in a shifting network of allegiances and conflicts.

The devices are identical, cheap, and numerous. They are inspired by the consumer electronics that fill modern life yet are rarely taken as objects of contemplation. The solenoid, a component usually intended for internal and silent use, is external and noisy.

Placing the incidental and suppressed qualities of everyday gadgets in the foreground, the piece aims to displace their role as anonymous tools, offering a mode of encounter in which they appear both in themselves and in dialogue with each other.

Study V

For the alchemists, ‘prima materia’ referred to matter in its primeval state. Equated with Mercurius, the world-creating serpent concealed in matter, the prima materia symbolised the infinite diversity of form in the material world.

Prima Materia is an installation probing the entanglements between human understanding of natural form and the technologies used to manipulate it in laboratory practices. A camera points at a petri dish of ferrofluid, an oily liquid that takes shape in the presence of a magnetic field. Analysis of the camera feed extracts motion data from the surface of the liquid, which is then used to drive the pulsing patterns of electromagnets beneath the fluid, in turn affecting its patterns of motion.

The process of input, analysis, and reaction is visualised on a nearby screen. The system forms a feedback loop in which the natural tendencies of the ferrofluid are continually interacting with an external system comprised of physical, electrical and software components. The interaction is mutual and self-regulating, questioning the extent to which the process of science can be distinct from its object of study.

Study IV

Fluid form is a series of five objects based on the propagation of waves through fluids.

A simulation of rippling water was deformed in 3D space to produce a virtual object which could not exist according to real world physics. Its form unfolding over time, moments in the process were captured as static objects.

The objects are 3D printed in white resin using stereolithography, a form of 3D printing in which a targeted laser chemically bonds different layers of liquid resin (it then rises from the ooze) to create an extremely smooth finish.

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