Idiot Joy Showland

This is why I hate intellectuals

Tag: pop culture

Guest column: the ghost of Theodor Adorno reviews Sepalcure’s self-titled album

As a Marxist, it is essential to resist any attempt to mystify or romanticise the afterlife. It exists, in its faint pallid way, of that one can be certain; but while its existence may indeed be problematic for adherents of vulgar materialism, those who accept the reality only of the material world and not of any spiritual plane, there is, it seems to me, no reason why the validity of dialectical or historical materialism should be brought into question by the unexpected fact of life after death. Therefore it only remains to conduct a material analysis of the role of the ghostly realm in relations of production. Concerning material production it appears to have little relevance – we ghosts work in no factories; nor do we consume any tangible commodities. In terms of cultural production, however, our influence can indeed be felt: sometimes we may seize the hand of a living writer, painter, or composer, and create through him. Ghostly labour is at once alienated – we do not own the product of our exertions – and unalienated, a prefiguration of labour under Communism – our labour is driven not out of economic necessity but is rather the product of a free expression of creative impulses. On occasion a cultural artefact will flow in the other direction, arriving by some agency in the shadow-world of the dead, where we may appreciate or criticise it. Sepalcure’s self-titled album is one such piece.

Before considering Sepalcure, it is essential that the album be placed in its historical context, and in the context of my own posthumous theoretical development. While I maintain my commitment to high modernism against the products of the culture industry, and regard theorists of the ‘postmodern’ such as Jameson overhasty in their dismissal of my theories as ‘irrelevant’ in the postmodern age (despite the adoption of popular culture as a supposedly reputable field for serious academics, surely its material origin and social function are unchanged since my time, as is the general structure of capitalism) events since my death have forced a readjustment of my formulae. As more recent developments have demonstrated, the culture industry is fundamentally parasitic: it does not create so much as it appropriates. Elements of popular culture deriving from the people themselves may, their non-intellectual aspect notwithstanding, also be considered as radical art that disrupts or challenges the prevailing order (although they can never be as liberated or as autonomous as high culture) – however, such an emergence is always followed by a process by which it is subsumed by the culture industry. This process can be observed in the trajectory of the hippie movement, in punk, hip-hop, and in contemporary electronic music – perhaps even in the development of jazz during my lifetime. (Maybe I was too harsh on those jazz players… In the cold grey world I now inhabit there is so much time for regret…)

The musical roots of Sepalcure can be found in the dubstep movement of the early to mid 2000s. While the electronic music that preceded it was almost uniformly sympathetic to the culture industry – being as it was music not appreciated for its intrinsic aesthetic qualities but as a necessary element in the creation of leisure-time, a leisure-time structured by the organised working day of alienated wage-labourers, a leisure-time the sole purpose of which is to act as a release valve for the negative effects of life under capitalism, a leisure-time that in its socially mandated abandon and Bacchanalian excess only reinforces the drudgery of weekday labour – in early dubstep we find a form of electronic dance music of which the primary mood is not one of elation but one of alienation. The radical potential of dubstep can be illuminated most clearly by an examination of the metamorphoses it underwent during its integration into the culture industry and subsequent mass popularisation, of those elements of it that were deemed unacceptable by the bourgeois culture industry and excised.

While, as I have argued frequently, works produced by the culture industry tend to emphasise repetition, as repetitive music lends itself more easily to mass manufacture and easy consumption, culture industry dubstep lost much of the repetitive element, opting for a fast-flowing cacophony of various distorted sounds rather than the propulsively monotonous quantised wobble of dubstep in its early incarnations. This can only be because the repetitiveness of dubstep was not, as in other forms of popular music, a mere manifestation of the prevailing mode of mechanical reproduction, but when coupled with the overall air of alienation, actually constituted a critique of it. While its industrial repetition contributed to an overall aesthetic effect, more importantly it prevented leisure-time from being seen as wholly separate from alienated labour, it shattered the illusion of leisure as an escape from the banalities of life under late capitalism. This pervasive sense of alienation was in the process substituted at the first opportunity for either an insipidly euphoric harmoniousness or – more commonly – a ‘dark’ aggression, a feeble imitation of the more profound paranoia it supplanted. The reason for this is evident: anger and aggression are cathartic, they allow the purging of dissatisfactions built up through the antagonisms of the working week. In the grotesque devolution of dubstep from a musical form marked by alienation and repetition into one marked by aggression and variance within a specified field, the conditions for its integration into the apparatus of the culture industry can be clearly discerned.

Sepalcure marks a reaction to this capture. Rather than simply reverting to the atmosphere of earlier music, as in Krytpic Minds’ Can’t Sleep, Sepalcure maintain the disjointedness of dubstep while casting aside the actual musical vehicle it formerly inhabited. The achievement of this album is to combine a radical, almost Schoenbergian dissonance with accessible listenability. It is swathed in vinyl hisses and muted analogue sounds that waver in and out of key, the various musical textures and chopped-up vocal samples form an oblique fog into which melodies fade and re-emerge, the drums pop and crack at offbeat intervals. Unlike the more commerical strains of house and bass music, it is non-cathartic, leaving a sense of incompletion that defies the attempts of capitalism to subdue discontent through the provision of leisure and simple, gratifying cultural artefacts; there is a sense in which it refuses unqualified enjoyment.

Its harmonious discordance is a direct product of the cultural milieu that surrounds it, and in particular of the parasitic gluttony of the culture industry. For this reason Sepalcure is not a work of autonomous high culture, its significance can never transcend the political and cultural conditions of its creation.  It does not address the untransfigured suffering of man, only the specific neuroses of late capitalism. As a suite of electronic compositions that mimics the organic imperfections of earlier forms it is only a pale shadow of real artistic vitality. Nonetheles, as a reaction against prevailing conditions it does constitute a radical work.

A fever dream: on the eviction of Slavoj Žižek from the Celebrity Big Brother House

The scene: a raised platform, ringed with bright white lights, set before a surging mob, waving placards for pitchforks, bearing the political slogans of the post-ideological age, spitting and grimacing, desperate for vicarious jouissance, their toothy grins tinged with the threat of violence. On the platform: to the left, Davina McCall, professional objet petit a; to the right, Slavoj Zizek, the subject-supposed-to-know-what-a-subject-supposed-to-know-is. Between the pillars of light, grotesquely large pictures of Slavoj’s face – or what face there exists between bulbous nose and parasitically fungal beard. For a brief moment they both stare blankly forward – a cameraman gives a series of hand signals – suddenly they are animate, Davina cheering and throwing up her arms, Slavoj frantically tapping his nose and beard in a spasmodic fit.

DAVINA: Welcome back to Celebrity Big Brother, and welcome to Slavoj!

The crowd erupts in – not a cheer, exactly, but a noise, a mingling of yelling and clapping and hissing and roaring and stamping of feet, a riotous commotion.

SLAVOJ: Thank you very much, no, yes, it is an honour.

DAVINA: And it’s an awful shame, isn’t it, because you were so close, you were one of the last four left in the house.

SLAVOJ: Well, yes, I am not so much interested in the winning of the show, the accolades, the headlines, and so on, and so on – but the fantasy of being the last person in the house, to be alone in the house, with the cameras, with the constant presence of the Big Other, this I am interested in. It is a recurring theme in horror movies, no? You are alone in the house, but you are not alone, someone is there, someone is watching you – it is a perverse fantasy, I think. And very much Freudian, as well, in the sense of the unheimlich, of the home being a place of danger. So I am disappointed I did not win, yes, very much, indeed.

DAVINA: [unfazed] Let’s talk about some of the other housemates. There was a lot of tension, wasn’t there, between you and Chipmunk?

SLAVOJ: [with a startled snort] You say there was? I did not see any of this tension, entirely not, I felt he was an interesting man – maybe clinically, perhaps, you could say.

DAVINA: [to the crowd] Shall we show him the diary room tapes?

The crowd roars its assent. Fists are flung into the air in jubilatory schadenfreude: some miss and collide with another person, suddenly a hundred brawls are taking place, the crowd turns in on itself, here and there knives are produced and the sharp tang of blood mixes with the stink of sweat in the air. Only after the first few gunshots are heard do the security guards intervene: a phalanx of rottweiler-faced men in dayglo jackets forces its way towards where the violence is at its most intense – they are consumed by the crowd. Perhaps they are killed, perhaps they melt into its roil, it is impossible to say. A line of police cavalry charges. At first they make some progress: those at the edges of the crowd are swiftly truncheoned and detained, but soon the horses find themselves mired in the furious swarm, and in their anxiety they throw off their riders, the line is broken, the plan of attack evaporates. Some of the crowd attack the horses, some of the horses start fighting one another, gnawing chunks from each other’s necks. In the near distance, the low rumble of heavy artillery can be heard.

DAVINA: [exultant] Let’s show him the tapes!

CHIPMUNK: [onscreen] I just don’t get him man, like, what’s he done, why is he here? I ain’t never seen him on anything, like, nothing. And he’s some fucking wasteman, like, man ain’t had a single shower since the start of the show, swear down, he fucking stinks, doesn’t he? I can’t fucking sit next to him, or like even near him, you know what I’m saying? And he chats some breeze, innit. I’m saying, it’s not just his weird accent, and all the snorting and those little hand twitchy things he’s always doing, you know what I mean – he’s talking about sex the whole time: like, yeah, cool, but it’s all perversions, everything’s perverted, I can’t take a dump without it being some representation of my desires in the symbolic order or whatever – I’m like, are you kidding me? This guy built a career on that bullshit? It’s not even anything, really, it makes its own internal sense, kinda, but it’s entirely divorced from the actuality of human subjectivity and the actuality of the human condition, and that’s what the ultimate focus of philosophy needs to be, not all these masturbatory Lacanian abstractions. It bears no relation to how people actually function, it’s a poststructuralist psychoanalysist’s fantasy about how people actually function. So, nah. Me and Slavoj, I don’t see us being in the getalong gang in the Big Brother house, you know what I mean?

DAVINA: So, Slavoj, how does that make you feel?

SLAVOJ: Well, myself, I make it a point of never reading my critics, never reading my reviews. Or I will tell the publishers: put the bad reviews on the back of the book! My audience know who I am, they will read me anyway. But Chipmunk – he is ultimately an empiricist, he has a very British way of conceiving these things, this antipathy towards the abstraction, the Continentalism, and so on, and so on. In his music and his music videos, the focus – it is entirely on the immediacy of experience, no? So his criticism, it is still rooted in ideology, this I claim. The ideological disagreement, it does not translate into personal antagonisms. I am a good Hegelian, after all, such oppositions, they are necessary. But I should say, the proceduralism of intimacy in the diary room, it is exactly like Catholic confession, no, it is exactly the same. You do not confess to the priest, your confession is directed towards God, towards the Infinite Other, as in Levinas, and so on, and so on. You do not talk to Big Brother, you talk to the Big Other, to the audience at home, to the Holy Spirit. After I am evicted from this house, I am no longer a participant, I am an observing subject, an ordinary pervert, then it is acceptable to show me these tapes – it is a form of licensed voyeurism, is it not?

DAVINA: [nodding her head] One last question.

SLAVOJ: Please, please, go on.

Throughout this exchange Davina has been undergoing a grotesque metamorphosis: her cheeks grow fuller, her paunch expands, her tits shrink, her hair turns white and recedes. At first the faint shadow of a moustache falls on her upper lip, then stubbly hairs sprout from her chin. Soon she has a full beard, her eyebrows sit heavily on her brow, her camera-friendly coquettishness becomes a stern gaze, almost disdainful, which she now fixes on Slavoj. She is no longer Davina McCall: instead, Slavoj finds himself being scrutinised by the unmistakeable visage of Karl Marx – or perhaps Jehovah; depictions of the two are, after all,  very similar.

MARX: Do you not think that your participation in this televisual charade, your gleeful willingness to put your theorising at the services of capital, your unashamed prostitution, your jestering and japing, your fruitless contrarianism, your pop-psychoanalysis – do you not think that this not only casts disrepute on your status as a serious Marxist thinker, but also cheapens Marxism itself? Are you not turning revolutionary ideology into just another media gimmick?

The crowd, who are all orthodox historical materialists, nod sagely, in unison.

SLAVOJ: I know you. You said a man should be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner. Well then – can I not play the jester in the morning, advertise for garment retailers in the afternoon, appear on reality TV in the evening, and still be a serious philosopher after dinner?

MARX: You forget that we are still living under capitalism.

SLAVOJ: But under capitalism, we must still live.

The crowd, racked by confusion, briefly organises itself into a series of non-hierarchial egalitarian communes, forms a workers’ state, undergoes Thermidor, becomes disillusioned. Defeated, they shuffle back to their allotted space in front of the platform.

DAVINA: [for it is her again: the beard has gone, the grin has returned] Well, Slavoj, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Celebrity Big Brother. Do you have anything else to say before the end of the show?

SLAVOJ: Yes, I do. I would like to say that I endorse all the products of the Coca-Cola corporation, and that the cool refreshing taste of a glass of Coke proves without question that the transcendent object of desire is not in fact unobtainable – in fact, it can be obtained at your local newsagent or grocery store.

Lights wind down, theme music plays, scattered applause. Slavoj, rising from his seat to re-enter the world, takes an especially deep snort – then starts to gag. Something is clearly wrong. Davina sits impassively as Slavoj chokes on his own mucus: the cameras are off, after all. Slavoj writhes on the ground, flailing frantically. The sycophantic crowd tries to imitate his dying motions. Everywhere they collapse, their limbs jerk around, they feign choking noises. Everything begins to blur: the crowd, the stage, the cameras – now they are only a single undulating mass, a throbbing that reaches up above the horizon and encircles the world. Perhaps an orgy is taking place, it’s difficult to tell. There are no images any more, no clearly defined shapes or people, only an immense all-enveloping pulsation. The dream ends. Still, nothing is understood.

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