Speculations on the death of cultural history with reference to selected moments in popular culture.
We have reached the end of cultural history and what follows is not the spectacular cult armageddon, but a slow decline into a confused and increasingly isolated cultural identity.
Postmodernist cultures of the 20th century promised an economically and culturally lucrative future which, in retrospect, has failed to happen. Instead, technological development has fuelled the decline of profit for everyday workers, by virtue of the global market’s encouragement of cheap, exploitative labour in developing areas. Additionally, the democratic and utilitarian technological prophecies of post-war science fiction have not been realised, and instead have been manifested by dominant corporate structures as a means of yielding economy from working-class popular masses. This socio-cultural attitude has manifested itself for decades within the realms of music, breeding a neglect for experimental ideas and harbouring emphasis on easily consumable sounds. This attitude can be evidenced in the music industry as early as the 1930s, where broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers all began to join forces to produce a sound for radio that worked in coalition with a capitalist agenda. In 1938, Phil Spitalny, who directed the Hour of Charm program, (sponsored by General Electric) said:
‘Experience showed that the vast majority of our people are music lovers at heart […] To my mind, the answer is light music: melodic, rhythmic, well played tunes which will satisfy the ear and the emotions, without overtaxing an intellect which has not been trained so that it may grasp the beauties of the greater classics’
Commercial companies believed that the most money could be made from simplistic, ‘classics’, aimed at the untrained popular ear. This became especially prominent in the 80s when platforms such as MTV began to feature factory-like production of ‘guaranteed money-maker hits’. With the rise of new forms of broadcasting media, record companies capitalised on the quick financial benefits of emphasising existing popular sounds rather than creating new ones; thus the charts began to be dominated by sounds that repeated musical structures (chord sequences, recording techniques and even lyrics) from past musical successes. For some socialist critics, postmodern pastiche became something that signified the death of cultural identity by submission to the austere authority of the multinational capital:
‘blank expression and flat appearance come together in a common chord which resounds through contemporary culture like a great dead sound
Counter-cultures emerged from a sense that the emphasis on the lucrative ‘popular’ rather than the radical or the progressive was a regressive step towards a bland, robotic and anti-humanitarian society. Punk began as an aversion to commercial music and culture, and certain areas of the movement adopted situationist attitudes, acknowledging and responding to capitalism’s stupefying spectacle. The Sex Pistols were pioneers in acting out an intrepid mockery of the boredom capitalism created:
‘Because of Rotten’s ludicrous proclamation[…] teenagers screamed philosophy, women demystified the female[… ]everyone shouted past melody, then rhythm, then harmony, then beat, until the shout became the first principle of speech[…] sometimes the last.’
The Sex Pistols performed their reaction to capitalism: they captivated audiences through bold mocking detournement and a rich ‘[dramatization] of what the punks called “Britain’s decline”’. Despite their explicit, stark and sometimes brutal socio-political proclamations, The Sex Pistols were disorganised, drug-addled and not committed enough to direct a coherent political crusade. Their music acted as a springboard, however, for more developments of this kind to be made and some believe that it is in the music succeeding punk that more delicately constructed political commentaries can be heard. Lydia Lunch observes post-punk’s influences, detailing inconsequential historical events of her time which brought to light a repetitive culture adopted by the ruling authorities in which postmodern promises are never delivered:
‘Post Alan Vega’s aptly named two-piece – Suicide – and before pop-punk-grunge Sonic Youth, New York City was the devil’s dirty litter box and No Wave was the bastard offspring of Taxi Driver, Times Square, The Son of Sam, the blackout of 1977, the dud of the summer of love, the hate-fuck of Charles Manson, the hell of the Vietnam war, Kent State, the Kennedy assassinations; it was a mad collective of death-defying miscreants desperate to rebel against the apathetic complacency of a zombie nation dumbed down by sitcoms, disco, fast-food, and professional fucking wrestling. […] We were angry, […] an extreme reaction to everything the 1960s promised but failed to deliver, a collective mania that shot through the night skies of the decade riddled with the aftermath of all the failures and the frustrations that had come before it.’
Lunch alludes to a sense that cultures are not evolving from the wake of significant socio-political events and revolutionary ideas have failed to be delivered, leaving people disillusioned and unable to place themselves within a society that does not promise them a future by way of its favouring of the past. This sense of cultural disillusionment resonates in the lyrics of Lunch’s Suicide Ocean, where she sings:
‘Time died at quarter to midnight
The scent of ghost fills the air
The clock on the wall broke down to fall
My bleeding head on the baseboard
My how nothing changes
Different men in the same positions.
This sense of time stilling, the ghosts of past ‘men’ forcing new people into their ‘same positions’ – it implies an impression that that which has passed still indoctrinates the present. This resonates with hauntology, a concept rooted in Spectres of Marx, where Derrida’s argument births the implication that Marx’s communism, whether active or not, has a ghostly presence in our society. Presence is massively important to this concept as it aims to place hauntology in contrast with the ontology that ‘thinks of being in terms of self-identical presence. What is important about the figure of the spectre, then, is that it cannot be fully present: it has no being in itself but marks a relation to what is no longer or not yet’. The spectre, or ghost, is not a paranormal figure fashioned from something outside of humankind but the offspring of generations of cultural speculation that has not been pardoned with a conclusion.
As Frederic Jameson has commented, hauntology ‘does not involve the conviction that ghosts exists or that the past (and maybe even the future they offer to prophesy) is still very much alive and at work, within the living present: all it says […] is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.’
The sense permeates through society more avidly when regarding the late 20th century and early 21st, where the digitalization of past and present personalities gives rise to a culture of retromania. Where does one place themselves within a zeitgeist defined by the identities of the past? If we look specifically at popular music within the last few decades, James Parker is right in coining the catchphrase ‘out with the new and in with the old’, where everything presented as ‘new’ seems somehow in dialogue with something from the past. The cheery re-appropriation of old sounds and objects is a symptom of what Simon Reynolds calls ‘the addiction’: ‘there has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artefacts of its own immediate past.’ Retromania, however, is different to the atmosphere of hauntology. It celebrates the past, whilst hauntology mourns the future. The other difference is that retromania has the agency to pick and choose which fads and phases to start ‘re-trending’, whereas the helpnessness of cultural stagnancy that permeates throughout hauntological art is what gives it its signature melancholic and nostalgic sound.
Position Normal’s hauntological sound is one rich in meditations on identity and culture within a retromanic age. The aesthetic of the two-piece group is something reminiscent of The Thing, and Chris Bailiff and his associates are often seen sporting big parkas with inflated yellow balls where the heads should be. This aesthetic could be symbolic of a sense of loss – loss of agency, loss of future and perhaps even a sense of being possessed by history. Their music challenges the clean-cut, smooth, coherent and ‘finished’ style of chart music popular in this epoch by featuring fragments of misplaced inertia in the depiction of an urban reality that could be equated with The London that Nobody Knows.
It is as though, in this instance, the body has rendered itself nothing but a host for the ghosts of the past to inhabit. This is echoed in the sense of stillness and inertia so prominent in the creeks, crackles and echoes on albums such as Stop You Nonsense. The use of white noise has an implication of the uncanny concept Colin Davis describes as the space ‘between life and death, presence and absence’ and also communication between living and dead spaces:
‘That silence is pregnant with the uncanny, with references to death and nothingness. […] The move from sound to silence is particularly evocative of the move from being to nothingness, from activity to emptiness, from life to death. […] In this hauntological sense […], overdubbed voices in music can be read as a form of “electronic voice phenomena” (EVP), the spirit voice some believe to be communicable within white noise’
Entropy is ever-present in Position Normal’s music, which features impressionistic glimpses and fragments of every day urban life. The content of some of the tracks focuses on the stillness of a working-class reality – the cup of tea, the corner shop, the east-end market– which confronts the spectacular, sexualised and materialistic subject matter of chart music of its time. Notwithstanding, the group dubbed ‘the godfathers of hauntology’ are not limited to the melancholic pessimism and subtle anxiety which is inextricably linked to the urban fear of entropy. ‘Entropy isn’t a threat so much as a lysergic promise, a chance to uncoil, unwind, unspool. Gradually, you are made to forget all of your urgencies as your brain is lulled and lured into the sunny Sunday afternoon where all Position Normal tunes seem to take place.’ In Sunny Days, we are content in the stasis of ghostly inertia and misplacement, despite the growing sense that we, the alien, the mal-identity are not from here. The lyrics are rich with a sense of unheimlich nostalgia: ‘I wish that I could swim to the moon, I wish that I could be home soon’. Somehow, the outcome of this misplacement is positive, accepting of the fact that we do not belong by virtue of the warm, psychedelic cocoon of entropy in which we exist. This creates a dialogue with ‘a certain trajectory of in 60s’ rock: the sunny daze of the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, The Small Faces Lazy Sunny Afternoon, The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows and I’m Only Sleeping.’
The reference to the post-war psychedelic fantasies of the 60s in the music of Position Normal is yet another disturbance in the convoluted temporal presence that hauntological works create. Other artists associated with the hauntology movement such as Boards of Canada also practice the symbolic use of recording techniques to summon the impression that our socio-cultural futures have been lost to a forceful and belligerent capitalist agenda. Like Position Normal, Boards of Canada refer back to the short-lived utopian afterglow of the second world war in songs such as 1969, where the use of purposeful warping creates a meditative loop on which the obscured lyrics ‘although not a follower of [hseroK divaD], she's a devoted Branch Davidian, (1969 in the sunshine)’ are repeated. This refers to the Davidian cult movement which prophesized imminent apocalypse and the second coming of Jesus, which led them to act in extremely absurd and violent ways as a result of their ‘higher’ knowledge. Thus, it could be said that the implication of such pieces of music is one which affiliates the behaviour of these cult individuals (manipulated to act in inhumane and unconsidered ways without questioning the brutal orders of their divine superior) to the behaviour of the masses under an amorphous and intangible capitalist authority. Suffice to say, this kind of association is extreme; however Boards of Canada do explain that the sharp references used their album Geogaddi came from the spectacular uncertainty of 9/11, which happened ‘smack in the middle of working on [the album].’
Many such artworks consider the sonic incorporation of retro recording processes to elaborate on the temporal confusion caused by digital capitalism. Position Normal’s somewhat Situationist means of recording contemporaneously synthesizes retro and futuristic technologies to form a sound that’s uniqueness is, to Chris Bailiff, simply down to ‘“the microphone being a bit fluffy, the connections being a bit iffy, the tape a bit hissy”. The sense of circumambient swirl is “me walking around with a mic in my hand. Some of the echo and reverb comes from being in the toilet. Toilet reverb: that’s hard to replicate in a proper studio.”’ Vinyl crackle is a prominent figure in hauntological music as it is a temporal disruption in that it references past methods of recording in a present which has the capacity to record with sonic invisibility. Mark Fisher suggests the crackle to be a grounding presence in hauntology – the signifier of the ghost that lurks within the music:
Phonography has always undone the metaphysics of presence. What you hear in a recording is not there. It is a spectre.[…] When vinyl was ostensibly superseded by digital playback systems […] many producers were drawn towards crackle, the material signature of that supposedly obsolete technology. Crackle disrupts presence in multiple ways: first by reminding us of the material processes of recording and playback, second by connoting a broken sense of time, and third by veiling the official ‘signal’ of the record in noise. For crackle is of course a noise in its right, a ground become a figure.’
There are many instances of warping and sampling of wartime commercials in the music of Position Normal, which bend the temporal scene of the music. Voice is used interestingly in Position Normal and Boards of Canada as they both experiment with sampling, inversion and equalizers which are all processes which comment directly on the use of time and communication- the equalizer’s telephone/radio sound suggests speaking to someone far away such as an alien, or in Christopher Bailiff’s case, perhaps his father. Bailiff’s father was an avid music collector, and after his memory was dissolved by Alzheimer’s disease, Bailiff found himself rooting through his father’s music collection in his adult life, investigating the sounds he had been too young to understand in his childhood. ‘”I started to listen to them all and recorded onto tape my favourite sounds and made incredibly varied mixtapes. I then edited them down and down until there were what I suppose are called samples.” It’s as if Bailiff was simultaneously attempting to simulate Alzheimer’s and counteract it,’ much like Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, where the materiality of the object delivering the sound makes it the victim of its own presence and it subsequently vanishes a little more each time it is recollected until there is nothing left.
The romance of nostalgia is an ambiguous sentiment that hauntology often lucidly pins down. The memory of a sweeter past permeates throughout Position Normal tracks, as Bailiff glorifies and emphasises his childhood for being the only unadulterated time he got to spend with his father. Boards of Canada also focuses on childhood as a potential for future. Their album Music Has the Right to Children features a bleached 70s style cover with a gathering of men, women and children with faded nothings where their faces should be. One can find a sense reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006), which depicts societal collapse through widespread infertility that heads towards human extinction. This could be linked to ‘North America’s haunting of its Colonial past’ – the inclusion of Native-American samples allude to the aboriginal ghost very prominent in horror film such as The Shining. Combined with the children’s voices synthesized with robotic sounds and minor modes, one gets the growing sense here that Boards of Canada are suggesting that a stagnant dystopia is upon us.
Technological phenomena has created an environment where we are able to feel the effects of something without presently experiencing it. As Derrida explains, ‘one touches there on what one does not touch, one feels there where one does not feel, one suffers there where suffering does not take place. […] The commodity thus haunts the thing […] like an anonymous silhouette.’ What has already happened is tangible, in a way, whereas everything beyond that is not. With a surplus of information and a deficit of meaning in a consumerist society, popular culture and identity is disabled in forming its own autonomous shape, constantly moulded by temporally dislocated cultural moments. Amidst a barren society resemblant of Dickens’ Satis House, one might be more tempted to the gnostic pleasures that hauntology provides. Perhaps our focus on the past isn’t a choice – we have no future to look in to, so why not sit back and enjoy the trap?
- Written by Sienna Mustafa 2017
Special thanks to Mark Fisher, Tristam Adams and Adam Harper
Adam Harper, Hauntology: the Past Inside the Present, (Rouges Foam: 2009), available at: http://rougesfoam.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/hauntology-past-inside-present.html
Christopher Partridge, Mortality and Music: popular music and the awareness of death, (London, Bloomsbury, 2015), The Undead and the Uncanny, Hauntology, p77
Colin Davis, Hauntology, Spectres & Phantoms, Fr Stud (2005) 59 (3): 373-379, available at: https://academic.oup.com/fs/article/59/3/373/638853/Hauntology-spectres-and-phantomsDavid Stubbs, Position Normal, (Wire: 2010), Issue 311, p12, available at: https://reader.exacteditions.com/issues/6269/page/12
Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, (London: Routledge, 2003)
Gal Detourn, Above Board!, (Playlouder: 2005), 51, available at: http://bocpages.org/wiki/Interviews#2005-10-20:_Playlouder
Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces, (London: Faber & Faber, 2011)
Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, the state of the debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, (Routledge, 1994), trans. Peggy Kamuf, excerpt available at:https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/fr/derrida2.htm
James Parker, Simon Reynolds’ Retromania and the Atemporality of Contemporary Pop, (DISCIPLINE, 2012)
K-Punk, Pontone’s Special Guest Mix: K-Punk – The Metaphysics Of Crackle, (Pontone: 2011), available at: http://pontone.pl/pontones-special-guest-mix-k-punk-the-metaphysics-of-crackle/
Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life, (London: Zer0 Books, 2014),
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?,(Zer0, 2009)
Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, (Stanford University Press: 2008),
Position Normal- Goodly Times, 2003
Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past, (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), pxiii
Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun & Mark Fisher, Post-Punk: Then and Now, (Repeater Books, London: 2016)