In 2011, I attended a panel discussion about Record Store Day at the South by Southwest music conference. Titled “Record Store Day and Revitalizing Indie Retail,” this early afternoon discussion was framed more as an awareness rally than a conference panel. Moderator Susan Tanner—a Record Store Day volunteer and former label employee and talent booker—began the session by excitedly handing out Record Store Day buttons and other souvenirs. “Independent retail is still out there,” she noted once she had taken her seat on the dais. The three panelists—Record Store Day organizer Carrie Cotillon, record store owner Joe Nocero, and Scott Register, the owner of an independent distribution firm, stayed firmly on message. During the question-and-answer portion of the panel, any inquiries that were critical of the holiday’s operation were rephrased as motivational statements. Others came up to the microphone not with questions, but simply to profess their love for record stores and the role they play in their local community. For about 10 minutes of the discussion, Tanner cued video testimonials recorded by famous musicians for Record Store Day on a laptop connected to a projector, and Cotillon breathlessly read submitted testimonials about the value of local, independent record stores from artists such as Tom Waits and Paul McCartney.
This is a rather interesting piece about the language and the “moral economy” of Record Store Day (which is not the same as being economic with your morals… I think). It does occur to me - and it’s hardly a very original idea - that there is something odd, or telling, about having a movement in defence of physical retail, in that it might say something about our larger relationships with, and fears of, the digital economy (and the conglomerates it comes with).
Fuck record store day. Here’s an idea record stores, why don’t you just have cool in-store shows? WOAH. Or here’s an even crazier idea, why don’t you help some local bands release some records? Or actually BUY the records and show a little faith instead of doing consignment. Yeah. Wrap your head…
I never even thought about this stuff until last night when it was pointed out to me that One Direction- a group I have nothing against but are you know, one of the biggest in the world- released a 7” yesterday. Which is cool. However, the demand for it meant that the pressing houses were all full up, so no room for the little guys to have theirs done in time. I totally get the appeal of limited edition items, especially on fancy vinyl. However, the entire point of record store day was to help out the little guys. The record shop and the bands. It’s amazing to see the big deal it’s become over the past few years, but it would be so much more satisfying if it weren’t just going to the big names who don’t need the money.
I saw one direction vinyl yesterday but it was a glam rock band.. Maybe tower ordered the wrong ones.. There were a lot of them.
Yep, that was them. Ironic humour or whatever. Apparently, it not only stopped smaller acts from having theirs done in time for RSD, but even bands who were just planning releases for around this general time. They’d scheduled their album launches for months to be told that they weren’t a priority compared to this lot. Ouch.
What? That’s do fucked up. RSD is meant for smaller independent music people not bloody one direction. Like, I’ve seen people give out about tower records doing RSD, but they are independent in Dublin just cause there store is now bigger than HMV’s. But it’s not for one direction.
Side note: Do one direction fans even own record players or will they try to put them in a cd player? Like most of them are 10 years old.. Right?
I did see the head of RSD UK suggest that it will start to regulate itself to a point. Now, me WOULD be optimistic, but Tower had to buy all those One Direction picture disks. By the time I’d got in they’d already sold out of some thinags I wanted but they had LOADS of One Direction records left. They won’t be making that mistake twice.
There’s still a problem with major labels dominating it in general though. I’m not sure how that could be solved…
I sort of tiptoed around this in my earlier post because I didn’t want to unnecessarily denigrate teenage pop fans (hello, Tumblr poptimists who may be reading this!) but I can’t imagine many One Direction fans own turntables. However, they don’t need to own them, but just have access - which is why I suggested parents or older siblings - a sort of trickle-down effect of the vinyl revival, if you will (although, especially if it’s older siblings, there may be some conflict involved). Furthermore, since there are a lot of One Direction fans, it only takes a few…. and lastly, I think it’s fairly well established that plenty of people will buy a particular record even without the means to play it, *just* because it’s a cool object (which is a large part of why many people buy vinyl, the ability to produce sound from it is merely an extra justification).
As you say, commercial logic dictates that if they don’t sell, they won’t be produced again, at least not in such numbers. But the conspiracy theory would be that there’s some attempt to choke off smaller releases to… I dunno, concentrate the pressing capacity on more lucrative reissues? That’s a stretch, but as you say, the dominance by large players - almost a tautology, really - is a difficult thing to address, as by its nature it’s baked into the capitalist process.
I didn’t partake of RSD this year, in part because I haven’t been buying or even playing much vinyl of late (only having access to a turntable on weekends) and because if I want to buy something, I’d rather do on a quieter day. The only specific release that I heard about that caught my eye was the Life Without Buildings Any Other City reissue, but I’ve decided I still prefer Live at the Annandale Hotel. I went into the new Tower - which really is excellently placed opposite Hodges Figgis bookshop - a couple of weeks ago, and the vinyl section is very nice up on the cast-iron balcony, but… well, I didn’t actually want to buy anything. I was sorry to hear as well that Electric Witch was closing, although apparently only/mainly because the operator wants to devote more time to playing in his band, but again I only bought a few records there, ones which I could almost as easily have gotten in Tower (with a bit more digging). It’ll be interesting to see if it’s replaced though, because the whole cafe/record store synergetic combination is touted a lot but I wonder if it really stands up, commercially.
After so many years of RSD critiques, I think I’ve become comfortably pessimistic about the whole thing (well, as comfortable as someone not working in a record shop nor with any particular desire to do so). I’m not, and never was, the kind of person that needed or wanted the ‘social’ side of record stores. I’m the guy who walks in and methodically browses through the boxes and picks a couple of things and buys them, with minimal conversation (sorry to any bored shop workers that may disappoint). And I enjoy that, for what it is - it’s qualitatively different from browsing on a computer screen, with the greater element of serendipity and chance, and it’s nice to be able to bring it home and place it on the turntable the same day. Still, those things don’t count enough to me that, frankly, I’d put any real effort into preserving record shops. The people who really dig them, who value the bonhomie and whatnot, I guess they’ll just have to come up with another model.
Maybe the mid-sized independent like Tower will survive, or the odd local shop with a good reputation or good coffee, or maybe there needs to be a more drastic shift towards an essentially non-commercial, community exchange. What really interests me, though, is the stuff discussed here about collective recommendation methods for music streaming online, which is naturally where most of the discussions about music (like this one) have gravitated. Add to that a local element, for artists from a particular geographical area, and online ordering maybe supplemented by, say, stalls at a weekend market, and what do you really need a record store for?
"This project seeks to explore/explode genre and technology, and come to terms with the fact that the modern folk song is probably being made on a computer.”
I’ve been listening to this track, and another, ‘Trouble in Mind’, a lot this week - nearly as much as The Future’s Void. They’re from an unfinished (or at least, unreleased) post-Gowns project that has its own website here; I grabbed the mp3s (for posterity, and personal use) from the streaming source code, which is about as far as my computer hacking skills go, although it sounds kinda Gibsonesque. The other track which has emerged is ‘Kind Heart' (-ed Woman, the Robert Johnson cover), as the digital b-side to 'The Grey Ship' from Past Life Martyred Saints. This track is kind of similar to it, in that I had to cut it down to 128kbps to fit it within the Tumblr 10mb limit, although it’s not as long. It’s an interesting journey, though.
The most characteristic part of EMA’s music for me, guitar-wise at least, is the contrast between acoustic strumming and gathering drone; light and dark, although I’m not really sure which is which, since the first often expresses anguish and pathos as much as the second gives a lift and a swell to the music. ‘Moonshiner’ starts with plucking banjo strings, resonant and slightly distant, which after the opening few bars is gradually overtaken by a building drone, and it’s only when a further layer of tone scythes in that her vocals start, slow and deliberate. At around the 6-minute mark, about two-thirds of the way through, the word ‘skin’ lengthens and refracts like a phrase in a My Bloody Valentine song, and the gradually increasing wash of guitar switches over into harsher noise, that nevertheless rise and falls over a gentler cadence.
I went back to these tracks while reading this NYT piece on female blues musicians and and writing my own post on it, and because I’ve always been fascinated by how EMA uses ‘the blues’ in her work. One thing that particularly struck by in the video interview with the collectors in that piece was the statement by music historian Chris King that the “deepest mystery” of the music is how the artist can take an emotion “and graft it on to a voice, or […] an instrument, and thereby communicate to the listener that same sense”. That’s pretty much my view of music, and what I look for in a great song or record. It’s there in the heaviest, crushing catharses and in the most delicate moments of affect.
The sprawling, almost punishing ‘Kind Heart’ cover is astounding, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where it’s too much to listen to - it’s become more powerful, not less, with repeated listening. Or maybe it’s that it hits the same receptors over and over again that they overload. It was getting to the point with these tracks this week, too. However, I was also reading my way through Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy - prompted, of course, by The Future’s Void - and one of the things that really got me thinking was the idea of ‘sim-stim’ technology - essentially recording and replicating, directly, sensation (but also feeling more broadly) between people. In Neuromancer it’s introduced more or less just as a functional tool; but in the later two books, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive (which I haven’t finished yet) its use as an entertainment vehicle is expanded upon considerably. But its effect on art isn’t really dealt with - instead it’s the usual dystopian vision of mindless consumerism, with a side plot of high art. What if the blues were the original, analogue sim-stim?
'Moonshiner' is a traditional song (although apparently its origins are disputed between America and Ireland - which makes little sense to me, since I’ve always associated ‘moonshine’ with America; it’s poitín here) - Bob Dylan’s version is I think very good - but with the lyrics substantially reshaped. ‘Some hollow’ where the whiskey still is, becomes with a slight vocal twist the “some dark holler” of the collection’s title. Most of the ‘traditional’ lyrics about moonshine being a way of escaping women, to “.. drink with my friends/Where the women can’t follow/And see what I spend” seem to be, understandably, absent.
'Trouble in Mind', which is maybe the song I should have posted here, is a subtler affair. Here the accompaniment is a mysterious, vibrating series of tones that put me in mind of a Jew's harp. Or maybe, just perhaps, they're meant to be the wobbly, 78rpm sound of the piano chords in the original 1924 recording, sung by Thelma La Vizzo with the songwriter Richard M. Jones accompanying her. The cover to his sheet music is beautiful and depressing all at once:
The ‘seminal’ version by Nina Simone is wonderfully expressive, but EMA’s interpretation seems intent on stripping it back. Yet compared to ‘Moonshiner’, the vocals are more melodic and less breathy, and the background drone less insistent but somehow more ominous. The opening verse is the same as in Simone’s rendition and the original:
Trouble in mind, I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always
'Cause the sun's gonna shine
In my back door some day
Other lines in the original, but not the later interpretations, are achingly simple, like “Sometimes I feel like living/Sometimes I feel like dying”. EMA sings, perhaps a tad overdramatically, “Oh Lord, the blues overtake me”.
Another crucial verse, shared in all three:
I’m gonna lay my head
On some lonesome railroad line
Let the 2:19 train
Ease my troubled mind”
At this point the original recording ends (and, like in EMA, the last line is I think “pass [by?] my mind”. Interestingly, also at this point in the EMA version - the song hasn’t ended yet - the sound of fireworks play over the track, prefiguring ‘Dead Celebrity’ at the close of The Future’s Void and its repurposing of the US military bugle call ‘Taps’ (h/t to Mark Richardson for pointing that out - as he says, EMA “is a genius at making obvious musical references sound strange”, and I knew I knew the melody from somewhere. It’s also, well, very American, but emotionally and tenderly rather than brashly so, and puts me in mind of how Dan Deacon explored those ideas sonically in his last album - a further thread I’ll have to pick up).
The final verse of the song isn’t completely decipherable, but there’s something about going to, I think, a bar-room and
wait til they play my song
with the revenues in pocket
I won’t be here too long
(“revenue” is also sung with a sudden, jerky up-tick that reminds me of the sped-up tape manipulation in her Little Sketches on Tape)
Interesting piece by John Harris, but also pretty light and arguably even intellectually lazy. Particularly in the idea (which may even be partially true) that RSD is inherently rockist:
"… I also wonder if the day has a larger meaning: as rock’n’roll enters its seventh decade, might it actually be about the defence of the music itself?
Hickman parries this by pointing to such non-rock Record Store Day releases as a 7-inch single by One Direction and three albums of classical music conducted by Herbert von Karajan, but it seems to me that the point is almost incontrovertible: to use the vocabulary of the 1980s, much of the energy that goes into the event is unmistakably rockist, and the festivities often feel like a day-long benefit for an entire musical idiom: Live Aid meets the Antiques Roadshow, with the aim of keeping the guitars ringing out for another year.”
I think the curious thing about those two releases isn’t that they’re not rock, but that they’re from genres peculiarly unsuited to vinyl - at least when there are other alternatives. Unless One Direction fans - teenage ones, at least - have surprising access to turntables, possibly via badgering older siblings or parents, the format mitigates against mobility and accessibility; for classical listeners, vinyl is either a product of strong nostalgia or odd ideas about sound fidelity. In other words, vinyl isn’t a logical pop or classical format anymore, vs. digital and CDs, for much the same reason that there is that appeal, among some, for rock: in between the two, rock fetishes the experience of the record in a way that is neither instantaneous nor crystalline. But there are other genres than rock, like dance and electronic, which value vinyl for their own reasons.
The discussion with Jon Savage is interesting, if a bit Retromania-lite:
"He talks about the historical gap that separates our own time from rock’s mid-60s heyday – as long, he points out,
as the gulf that separated 1977 from the 1920s. We talk about what he calls “the exhaustion of the form”, and the profound changes in how we consume music that have been caused by the internet. Record Store Day may be a collective rejection of what technology has done to music, but it is not immune from its effects: indeed, in the panoply of specially reissued records that puts the Sex Pistols next to the Grateful Dead, there is a very modern sense of music being completely uprooted from its original context.”
I mean, there’s much more to think about there, but clearly not space to do it in. The final part I can identify with quite a lot, in that it almost describes me in certain ways:
"Back at Jumbo, I meet 26-year-old Antonia Lines, a loyal customer who now works full-time as the shop’s ticket co-ordinator, and is busy preparing a one-off fanzine for Record Store Day. Though she has a Spotify account, she buys music exclusively on vinyl, a habit she inherited from her dad, a lifelong fan of punk rock. "I borrowed a lot of records from him," she says. "The Undertones, the Clash, Gang of Four – stuff like that." The two of them went to see the latter band, one-time residents of Leeds who reformed in 2004, a couple of months ago. "I took him," she says."It was great. We’ve seen a lot of gigs together."
So does rock music feel like it has anything to do with generational tension and causing offence to one’s elders? Is any of that still there? “I don’t know if it’s an offensive, stick-it-to-the-man kind of thing any more,” she says. “I don’t know if that will ever happen again in music, really.”
I think on the last part, it’s not an issue with music specifically as much as culture as whole - the ‘sticking it to the man’ attitude (which is doubtlessly an oversimplification of varied youth and counter-cultures) was broadly a product of a certain generational conservatism, itself a productive of rapid relative technological and social change. And that change has become so ingrained and cyclic that, okay, there aren’t the sharp, bright lines any more between cool and uncool, radical and staid. But ever since punk itself, the very feeling that rebellion has been sold out on has been a powerful motivating factor for youth movements. If we’re saying that’s gone too, it’s a very pessimistic moment. On the other hand, we are at this moment feeling the first burning of the empty rage of the ‘Millenial’ generation against those who would define, describe, disenfranchise, disempower them. It’s not ‘stick it to the man’: it’s to stick it to those who claim not to be The Man.
Life Without Buildings - ‘Sorrow’ (Any Other City, 2001)
like an even more minimalist Velvet Underground (especially ‘Sunday Morning’) except Sue Tompkins is both Lou Reed and Nico, and that troublemaker John Cale isn’t around (okay, I like the drone stuff, but the laid-back feel of the latter two VU albums with Doug Yule is - almost - equally sublime)
also, “eyes like lotus leaves, no not even like” is possibly my favourite line of theirs, in that it’s an energetic, skipping alliteration and a profound quasi-Buddhist truth.
IDK, it doesn't take much digging on that blog to realise that it's pretty venomously transphobic (along what I'd guess are fairly standard TERF lines) - so while I haven't dug into the specifics myself I'm certainly not LESS suspicious of a "debunking" which seems obviously agenda-driven. And not even in a liberal finger-waggy "using distorted figures does your cause no favours" way but in a way that barely masks a more general attack on the legitimacy of trans* experience.
I considered adding a caveat, but I think the specific post is relatively straightforward, i.e. there’s an argument there on the figures to counter, even if the conclusion is rather forceful. As for the rest of the blog, I actually read quite a few of the posts and while I definitely twigged the radical feminist part, my previous experience is that I have a hard time reading them, so I found it surprisingly thoughtful by comparison. I’m not particularly well-read in trans* issues/debates - I had to look up TERF - so I can’t judge whether or not it’s transphobic or trans-erasing (or at least that’s my Pontius Pilate internet-discourse position).
There are othersources querying the veracity of the statistic, I just chose the most obvious and concise one. That debunking is no less ‘agenda-driven’ than the original context of the statistic, which appears unsourced wherever a (valid) point about violence against trans* people is being made - and I think more than liberal finger-wagging is applicable given how emotive it appears as against the complexity of working out what it actually signifies. Insofar as I do understand the specifics, this is flat wrong:
"On average, you have a 1 in 18,989 chance of being murdered
A trans person has a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered”
Regardless of whether the second statistic is correct or not, it’s not the correct comparison to the first - if it’s a lifetime risk, then the average American has approximately a 1 in 150 risk of being murdered (i.e., out of a 100% risk of dying). That figure is also calculated as about 1 in 50 for black men. Plausible arguments are made for why the existing statistics on murder of trans* people do not support a higher risk than that, and there is no solid source for believing that they do.
On average, you have a 1 in 18,989 chance of being murdered
A trans person has a 1 in 12 chance of being murdered
The average life span of a cis person is about 75-90
The average life expectancy of a trans person is 23-30 years old
75% of people killed in anti LGBT hate crimes are poc
Think about this the next time you go crying over “cisphobia” and “reverse racism”
I’ve actually always meant to find out what the average cis/straight person’s chances of being murdered are compared to a trans person. I knew it would be BAD, but fucking hell…
The statistics of lifetime chances, etc., make my head hurt, but this seems to be a pretty convincing rebuttal. Which I found by Googling the last time I saw this statistic here, because if something on Tumblr seems unbelievable… it probably is.
“For Jace Clayton, as digital files give way to streams—dictated as much by the everyday activities of fans and artists as well as the top-down logic of the corporation—music is returning to its originary, pre-industrial form. “What we saw in the 20th century was an anomalous blip when music had a physical form,” Clayton surmises. “That was very unusual in the course of human history and it will soon be very unusual again. Music has this intrinsic pull towards the dematerial, towards the unbuyable. It’s a slippery, ghostly thing.””—
This is a very good piece, but this point - which I’ve seen made elsewhere a few times - got me wondering, are people really thinking this through to what seems to me to be a logical conclusion, that either this is a kind of meaningless point or lots of modern life might well be considered ‘anomalous blips’? Things like labour rights, mass literacy, much of women’s liberation, a broad franchise - innovations for the most part of the 20th century, or at least the ‘long century’ back to 1870 or so. Most aspects of modernity are ‘very unusual in the course of human history’ - that’s why it’s called modernity. Is there a difference, though, in how we think we about social/political and technological change in terms of inevitability, or of conscious, collective control? Are optimism and pessimism applied differently to each on the assumption that progress in one can be objectively measured and referenced, even if its ultimate effects lie in the same subjective sphere that constitutes human relations? Does it make sense to say that we have a ‘choice’ to pursue liberal democracy as much as we have of using digital media, or does each represent a change in an overarching structure that determines the superior course of action?
I guess the standing point of techno-optimism is that the capabilities engendered by technological change sooner or later, and to a greater or lesser degree of predictability of outcome, override political or social inertia. But what is perhaps less considered is the extent to which social and political factors warp technology, determine the form of our engagement with it, and produce a hybrid result (implicit, indeed, in the first sentence of the quote above). All of which is by way of saying that, although I’m not really opposed to the broad shift away from physical media, its existence purely in the period of late industrial capitalism is a pretty weak argument for its distinctiveness, and an even worse one for accepting its disappearance as an inevitability. Because if something else starts disappearing, something you really want to hold on to, there needs to be a better justification available for its continuity than just ‘it existed before the gramophone’…
Alongside this excellent longread about R&B charts (which is great not least as a comprehensive backgrounding and update of something I’ve read about in fragments on Tumblr already) I think this (also long) piece - h/t katherinestasaph - about music discovery and streaming services is a valuable companion. Both have a strong emphasis on the role of musical communities, and a strong scepticism about what the abundance of digital data actually does for the listening experience.
Although it’s made clear in the Pitchfork piece that analysing or sorting (profiling, essentially) by demographics is not the solution to the chart problem, this is definitely an issue in the data-driven streaming world, to some rather unsettling extremes:
According to a report by Elizabeth Dwoskin of The Wall Street Journal, Pandora just introduced a new advertising service designed specifically for political candidates and organizations. Pandora has allowed political advertisers access to their ZIP-coded user base since 2011, but this new service will now fine tune their targeting of an individual listener’s political leanings by tailoring their previously held ZIP code information to specific election results – then combining those results with a comparison of an individual user’s musical tastes to those found more frequently in Democratic or Republican areas, thus identifying the user’s political affiliation (and making Pandora’s pool of individual user data far more valuable). Moreover, the service’s free listeners won’t be able to opt out of Pandora’s political ads – at least not without a subscription. (This sounds like an outstanding way to piss off your listeners.)
All in all it’s a very good overview of the mechanics of recommendation ‘engines’ and the implications for ‘discovery’ in the digital age. It’s an issue I had with Spotify from the start, in its relatively poor browsing mechanisms and irritating - to me anyway - recommendations:
Another, larger part of that context which Spotify - unlike say eMusic - obliterates is the label of each release and artist. Rather than following some computerised algorithm of ‘related artists’, I prefer to browse through the human connections of other label signings and releases, on the basis that the quality of music is not simply a function of similar listening habits (40% of people who listen to X, also listen to Y) but some sense of a physical scene or a shared artistic goal. Possibly this is a stronger thing amongst punk/independent labels - on eMusic I went from Epitaph (everything from Rancid and Bad Religion to Hot Water Music and the Black Keys) to Lookout! (early Green Day, Operation Ivy, American Steel), Dischord (Fugazi, Hoover) and then Gravity (Mohinder, Clikatat Ikatowi) and Temporary Residence (Envy, Grails). These connections are all invisible on Spotify, except as the appear through the neutral, dehumanised and displaced algorithm of ‘Related Artists’. More sinisterly, Spotify thus erases the notion of music as a collective production - it’s just a list of atomised commodities swept together by the commercial vagaries of a market the service itself undermines, and collected under a computer-manageable identity.
There’s more to be said in the article above about creating an organic, group-discussion-based recommendation service on the digital plane - which for me is what Tumblr and Twitter is at the moment - so for now I’ll just recommend that you read it.
On the trail of the phantom women who changed American music and then vanished without a trace.
This is a fascinating piece about two female blues musicians, attempting to trace their personal history, and in that respect it’s very timely. I’m not as interested in EMA’s The Future’s Void as cyberpunk artefact (although I did just read Gibson’s Neuromancer for the first time over the past couple of days, while B. Michael’s piece here on that topic is very good and something I’ll return to) as much as a continuation of her earlier genre- and gender-bending work, with the blues. Actually the two aren’t very separate, as I tried to suggest in my previous post - it’s just a matter of whether you’re looking backwards or forwards. For example, the article above is very particularly concerned about finding personal details of the two women, albeit with nods to a larger historical narrative - “the Blues Mafia doesn’t always come off heroically in recent — and vital — revisionist histories of the field, more of them being written by women (including two forthcoming books by Daphne Brooks [Princeton professor and author of the excellent 33 1/3rd book on Jeff Buckley’s Grace] and Amanda Petrusich)” - or more sceptically, the Casaubon-like Mack McCormick:
"He began to intuit a theory of “clusters,” that this was how culture worked, emanating outward from vortices where craft-making and art-making suddenly rise, under a confluence of various pressures, to higher levels. Elaborating that theory would be his great work, or part of it."
As the author points out, it was his particular focus on Robert Johnson that in part undid him (in a video contribution, McCormick also talks more frankly about his experiences with bipolar illness), and McCormick himself further raises the question of how reliable any of the information on that particularly mythic figure is, but here we have a pursuit of two apparently even more obscure figures. And in the sausage-making of historical investigation, there are tentative personal contacts, with potential living relatives, as well as inquiry into historical documents. Is this so far from the world of EMA’s ‘3Jane’, about privacy, identity, celebrity in the age of mass information, which opens with the simple question “Can you believe all they say”? A single, solitary photograph turns up - a phone copy of a Polaroid - of an elderly woman. “She was already dying when it was taken”, we are told. “[T]here was no doubt that her eyes were full of profound melancholy”. I’ve seen my face/and I don’t recognise/the person that I feel inside.
That’s not to say there isn’t a genuine warmth to the tale of the family reunion at the end, the shared memories constructing an oral history of the blueswoman, after the music, in her adopted community. It’s just that it’s (with one particular exception) not really connected with the life before. Which is a point the piece wants to make, the disconnect, and references partly the why - giving up the blues and its lifestyle for church and gospel music - without really giving it much consideration. Save for a tantalising hint at the end, at the edge of human frailty of memory, it can’t penetrate back beyond what they know of what happened after; or beyond the limited vision of census and police records, recording physical existence within the legal-political sphere of America, rather than the cultural one. Of course in a general sense there presumably is - as referenced above - a history of the latter written, and being written, but in this specific case it seems to be too late for the original, personal story to emerge, as distinct from what personal details can emerge from records and knowledge after-the-fact.
What I found most interesting about the piece, therefore, were the different levels of information it presented. It is a multimedia piece, with snippets of songs linked into the text of the lyrics, and video pieces spaced throughout the article. As a starting point, there are the (musical) records: they exist, although physically rare. One of the videos is a discussion about the concept of having an isolated recording, a fragment of a performance without much or any other details concerning the artist - apparently in sharp contrast to today’s media (I’m not so sure - it only takes so many digital links to go dead, to much the same effect). The physical record is there, spinning (at 78 rpm) on a turntable, emitting its characteristic hiss. Yet, in Amanda Petrusich’s words, “all that static, all that noise, all that stuff that sort of separates us from the song itself, she just cuts through that”. Don Kent says ”whatever performances we have are certainly more important than any information we may or may not have about the artist”. The record is a thing, inviolable, superior to other forms of information - and visually fetishised accordingly (as I do myself, albeit usually in different contexts).
The act of recording, however, is also itself a distortion, something Greg Milner in Perfecting Sound Forever is very good on in relation to the blues and the collectors of American folk and the accompanying cultural politics - something which EMA is consciously a further stage in, with her Some Dark Holler project (not, it seems, fully realised to the point of release, but enough to create the amazing Robert Johnson cover and also the track ‘Moonshiner’, which melds fingerpicking blues with the growing hum of guitar drone and pushes it on into shoegaze and beyond).
One personal detail with relevance for L.V. Thomas’s prior life that does emerge is that she was seen as odd for wearing pants, which suggested she was lesbian; and going back to the record, a gospel historian and producer “knew ‘Motherless Child Blues’ well and said he was confident that any black person listening to it in the late 1920s would have recognised her delivery as ‘butch’”. The record has a context, which can be interpreted with a broader knowledge of the period, to illuminate (or at least speculate on) sparse details from a personal life. But is it context we need more, or biography?
According to Petrusich, Geeshie Wiley “came out of the ether and went back into the ether” - a line which could equally have come from a review of The Future’s Void. That album, however, is in part about the oppression of too much knowledge (‘Neuromancer’ - “they know more of it than you do, about all the things that you do”) whereas this whole story is about not knowing enough. Yet there is already the tension within the article with the record, the recording, as knowledge and experience enough in itself, and never quite justifying - except as a quixotic research project and/or a benefit to family history - the pursuit of the person behind the music, back through all those dark and forgotten years. What does it say about the blues, in particular - that raw outpouring of emotion, or rather its transmutation into music - to try and tie it down to personal events? To tell the story of women in the blues, do we need to have their particular stories - or does history allow a right to privacy, to be remembered only in song?
"There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”
I think this might be my personal favourite on this album, a decision I came to today prior to reading Mark Richardson’s Pitchfork review which identifies it as a weak patch in the album: “the noisy “Cthulu”, “Smoulder”, and “Neuromancer” never hit the intensity they’re going for, and these three songs in sequence in the middle of the record drag it down big time.” Admittedly, ‘Neuromancer’ is rather heavy-handed in its symbolism and sonics, and ‘Cthulu’ somewhat the same (I like its echoey punches, though). Even ‘Smoulder’ varies between ember and flame, but at least some of the time I think all these songs do hit the requisite intensity, and ‘Smoulder’ most of all.
Moreover: “There are no memorable hooks during this run, and the pinched filter applied to Anderson’s voice wants to evoke a Nine Inch Nails-style blown-out intensity, but it never reaches that pitch.” I don’t think I’ve ever knowingly listened to NIN - industrial per se isn’t my thing, but a lot of my listening has involved punk bands pushing their own styles towards nihilistic orgies of disintegration, which is I suppose de facto industrial, and EMA seems to do the same thing from a more catholic rock taste. At this stage, and with such a digitally saturated album, shouldn’t we really be talking about post-industrial? As with ‘Satellites’, the pinched voice and static-y distortion seem more an attempt to evoke a past form of distance, in recognition that our current hyperconnection has made this at best, quaint, and at worst, ironic (see the various comments about the lyrics and reactions to the use of phrases like ‘interwebs’).
There’s another critical line, in the otherwise quite favourable Guardian review, that I think is quite telling: “A crass phrase like “the future’s void”, meanwhile, misadvertises a thoughtful album that owes something to the blues as well as science-fiction dystopias or the negativity of industrial rock.” For a start, I don’t think the phrase is crass at all - although decapitalised and phrased in ordinary speech, it may actually appear that way. But as a title, I think it’s brilliant - “with its odd, homonym-like instability” as Ann Powers described it for NPR. Is the - or has the - future a void, empty, colloquially speaking (how I interpreted it first); or is the future void, worthless (as a grammatical reading suggests)? Or is it simply inscrutable and/or contradictory on first glance - a verbal glitch?
Anyway, my real point was that of course the blues - in some mutated, distorted form - are going to be central to an EMA record. That’s the genealogy of Past Life Martyred Saints, back through to the experimental folk of Little Sketches on Tape and the Some Dark Holler project, with the Robert Johnson cover I’ll never shut up about. The industrial noise is like another grimy layer, after tape-deck distortion and guitar feedback, placed on top of a more fragile core that alternates between sunny pop (most obviously, ‘When She Comes’) and more astringent balladry (inherited from Gowns). ‘Smoulder’ is that point of destructive catharsis which EMA so often gravitates to, feeling the pull of that archetypally primal genre.
'Primal' is also, however, a racist adjective; appropriate then that the preceding song, 'Cthulu', references a racist science-fiction writer who feared for the swallowing up of white American civilisation, on which EMA sings “I get down”. If, as Mark Richardson suggests, '3Jane' is a reprise of 'Coda' from Past Life Martyred Saints, then ‘Cthulu’ for me has echoes of ‘Red Star’, the closer of that album. “There is that notion of redemption/I’m searchin’ redemption with my eyes” versus “Got a strange fascination/I been holding on the one/For that straight revelation”. Revelation, redemption - Christian imagery of the blues, wrapped in spare guitar rock building to almost spiritual climaxes (‘Cthulu’, however, muddles its purity with the addition of gothic synths - the horror, deliverance from heaven into hell; our revelation will not be straight, but twisted).
In this context, ‘Smoulder’ addresses another deliberately awkward trope and latent racial issue in EMA’s work: hip-hop. Like ‘California’, there is a sing-spoken approximation of rap, but this largely disintegrates in favour of a spacious beat and rhythm before re-emerging like a plaintive Kanye West on the rockier parts of MBDTF. Instead of swagger, it’s stagger: “I staggered in the club/I staggered to the stage/it’s all the bright lights filled me up/with nothing, empty rage”. Not that EMA is trying to say anything about rap, but within her limited and circumscribed capability to say something through it, as an adapted and adopted mode of expression. Another line says “lost my diamond spine again”, which suggests present vulnerability but what before - hardness, value, beauty?
In my previous blog I used as a tagline a quote from another blogger about post-hardcore as the “steady soundtrack of discordant suburban whiteboy blues”, partly in reference to the enthusiastic adoption by Fugazi-era punks of dub reggae (and even rap, in that one Fuel song). To my mind EMA is a good candidate for “whitelady blues”, insofar as the issues turn on particularly feminine experiences, and indeed insofar as whiteness still operates as a cultural as well as political category. Post-internet is almost as much of a misnomer as post-racial, in that we are still trapped in the same web of categorisations, (dis)connections, structural inequalities and heavy, ancient histories as we were before: only our potential ability to navigate them has increased. but coupled with an increased anxiety about the whole system and the disparity between reality and rhetoric. The Future’s Void is that abyss into which our varied pasts flow, heedlessly and endlessly…
“In effect, the European Court of Justice has set out a position which directly rejects the type of indiscriminate mass surveillance carried out by the US and UK governments as being unacceptable in a democratic society.”—
A very interesting (and long-ish) interview, not in the least because of discussing fashion from a feminist/punk perspective for much of it (as an aside, the question above struck me as odd, since for me hardcore - or at least post-hardcore - is very much about visual aesthetics. But how much that is really typical and is engaged with critically, I can’t say)
I totally understand where Meredith is coming from, but what she’s really talking about is not a lack of aesthetic but very much “the aesthetic of no aesthetic,” which is to say, a scene in which the party line is to appear as if you don’t care how you look or what you wear. But if people REALLY didn’t care about their aesthetics, having the members of Perfect Pussy show up in unusual outfits wouldn’t be an issue. Instead, it becomes a stance to be enforced: “If you’re not wearing plain black clothing with a short, unobtrusive haircut, we’re gonna frown in disapproval at you.” And that was (and is) an aesthetic of hardcore in the more orthodox, less innovative scenes within the movement.
Look at the late 80s youthcrew scene that produced Youth Of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, for example—athletic clothes and crewcuts were de rigeur, and anyone that stepped outside that style was looked at askance. And yet, all those bands would probably have told you that they weren’t going for any particular visual aesthetic. They perceived themselves as being sincere and not conforming to any particular aesthetic principles, instead wearing “whatever they had on that day.” But in taking that stance, they unwittingly enforced some pretty strict rules about what it was “acceptable” for a hardcore kid to do with their fashion sense.
It’s funny that I’m talking about this, actually, because it’s been an issue for me pretty much my whole life. I’ve been straight edge since I was 15, but I’ve always preferred to have long hair, and I never hid the fact that I was into stuff like metal and alternative rock even when I was going to pretty straightforward sXe shows in the early 90s. Kids used to think I was lying about being straight edge because I had long hair; the funniest thing that ever happened in relation to that was when a younger kid I knew, who met me when I was in my mid-20s and he was still a teenager, told me I would be “more straight edge” if I shaved my head. I told him I was pretty sure that by not drinking, smoking, or doing drugs, I was already as straight edge as was humanly possible. He looked at me like I was crazy.
I could also tell some pretty funny stories about the last couple of years Tri State Killing Spree were together, when I got it into my head to start playing shows in hotpants and glittery fishnet tights. I shaved my legs at the time, too, and we did several out of town shows with me dressed like that at which the kids in the crowd were visibly recoiling from me because my gender presentation was so unlike what their idea of a hardcore singer should be. It was glorious, I must say.
There was another response which I don’t really trust myself to respond to fairly (or at least productively), but I think the substantive point is pretty much the same as yours: hardcore as “anti-aesthetic”, or the aesthetic of no-aesthetic (I’d further suggest ‘negative aesthetic’, since it sounds the most like a hardcore band name). There’s both an effect in terms of discouraging atypical forms of expression and, despite itself, a style - harsh, frequently violent, derived from cheap photocopying and the fetishised lack of technical skills in punk - which ironically is the punk ‘aesthetic’ most easily incorporated into modern fashion through band t-shirts, etc. But what I want to unpack a little is why the idea of aesthetics in relation to punk and hardcore means something rather different to me, and in many ways in opposition to that: ‘emo’, post-hardcore and even progressively-inclined punk/hardcore (from Refused to Fucked Up) seems to strive away from that limited, often literally black-and-white aesthetic. I realise I’m talking about subsets of a genre, and it’s not meant to disprove Meredith Graves’ statements - which seem particularly valid both in relation to local scenes and to a persistent trend in hardcore more generally - but my ‘experience’, for what it’s worth, and which is essentially as an outsider perusing a genre and its history from a distance, choosing which styles to follow, is that a “strong aesthetic” is perfectly compatible with both punk and hardcore (which is really implicit in the beginning of her answer, anyway).
However, that is much less so if hardcore is taken to mean ’80s hardcore’ or is limited to a scene where that is the case, rather than as a genre that has fractured into at times heavily aestheticised scenes (Three One G?) or split off into post-hardcore in order to create space for that aesthetic expression (Husker Du, Revolution Summer-era Dischord, anything 1990s Dischord especially Nation of Ulysses, and basically anything in the screamo/skramz/whateveryoucallit field). Bikini Kill and Riot Grrl are one further splinter in that, which perhaps focused more than anything on reappropriating the visual and linguistic aesthetic of punk towards explicitly feminist ends. Whereas the emo/post-hardcore aesthetic is not necessarily as progressive - there’s a whole thing about Moss Icon using Central American imagery I’m not wholly comfortable with - and tended more towards an abstract, post-industrial feel (though compared to earlier punk/hardcore it was often more humanist - e.g. Rites of Spring), but it was I think consciously an aesthetic in a way which strict hardcore negated. And I think missing out on this history also plays into the idea that Perfect Pussy are merely a revitalisation of some hidebound genre rather than a further flourishing of what is has been a long expansion of punk aesthetics, notwithstanding the constant challenges of conservatism within the community itself.
It def warrants a longer post, but my biggest probs with poptimism:
1) It has a tendency to equate rock with white dudes. This erases all of the POC and women who have contributed to and love an entire genre of music (rock). (As if white men aren’t the puppet masters of the major label/pop music…
Just a quick add-on to 3), and this is a point I’ve tried to emphasise before - there always seems to me a tension within poptimism over whether something is popular because it’s good, or whether it’s good because it’s popular (and, of course, how those two qualities are defined). To me that necessitates a critique of commerce and art - or the ‘culture industry’, to be slightly old-fashioned about it - which ought to be a cross-cutting thing with inquiries about race and gender (and class itself, in terms of the differing values placed on tastes).
Does your strong aesthetic presence conflict with being in a punk band coming from a hardcore scene?
I have a lot of friends in the punk and hardcore scene that are really into beauty and aesthetics, but they’re not from Syracuse. And this goes back to the larger societal trope of anything feminine being somehow less important. Aesthetics are deemed feminine, which is ridiculous. Because “women” are the biggest consumers of fashion, but the world’s biggest fashion designers are men. It’s like cooking — it’s seen as a feminine act unless it’s done for large sums of money, and then it belongs to men. Syracuse is the rust belt, it’s very poor. So for men in our town, not coming from money, aesthetics are not really championed there. The people in our band, we all kind of stand out anyway. We do it purposefully. For a long time, I was the only girl in the hardcore scene, so I automatically stood out. A couple of people in our band stand out for being queer, because there are no out people in our scene. To differentiate yourself through aesthetics is kind of like the ultimate fuck-you, because we live in a place where it’s all black fleece and buzz cuts. And it also helps us identify with one another and we enjoy it. It brings us closer together. Most of our clothes are from thrift stores, and I cut people’s clothes up and sew them back together. We try to take it as far as possible.
A very interesting (and long-ish) interview, not in the least because of discussing fashion from a feminist/punk perspective for much of it (as an aside, the question above struck me as odd, since for me hardcore - or at least post-hardcore - is very much about visual aesthetics. But how much that is really typical and is engaged with critically, I can’t say)
“When the last dotcom bubble burst at the turn of the millennium, Ireland rode it out because we had a property bubble, a consumer-spending bubble and a government-spending bubble to take up the slack. Now, we have none of those. If there really is a tech bubble and it bursts, this time Ireland is far, far more vulnerable.”—
"Meanwhile Just-Eat, the online restaurant ordering service, floated in London this week at £1.6 billion. It doesn’t even have any proprietary technology – it is just a listings website – and its valuation led the Financial Times to muse about the risks."
(There’s also a very interesting piece in the latest New Inquiry, ’Disgorge the Cash’, about the role of IPOs and investment, not in funding productive activity, “but to ensure that productive activity eventually takes the form of money”, i.e. capital for capitalists.)
“Are you still there? His voice tiny diamond cutting strips out of air. I want that to swim in, not pestilent here. I want us to sin so I may survive this, so I may hold onto my bandage of self if I can if I need.”—
Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
This is an amazing book. It’s an obvious comparison, but I can’t get Joyce, or at least his textual style, out of my head when reading it - the staccato rhythm and flow of thoughts, the absent grammar, the vernacular turn - though in a form that’s distinctive and original. It’s not the musings of Bloom, but it’s more than the simple solipsism of Donal Ryan’s characters too - it’s a visceral, interwoven and interpersonal current, sparking off inner frictions and lost in a wider ocean of the world. Really really powerful stuff.
What about this GAA ethos then? Given that bishops used to throw in the ball at the start of big matches, and given that the GAA is another institutional mainstay of Irish society, is the GAA ethos similar to that of the Catholic Church? Perhaps, but only superficially. This ethos is said to entail things called ‘volunteerism’ and ‘amateurism’. ‘Volunteerism’, in this context, means giving of your time freely, as opposed to getting paid for it. ‘Amateurism’, in this context, stands in opposition to ‘professionalism’, that is, those who play the sport do it for the love of the game, not because they aspire to hold any particular status or make lots of money.
However, I do not think either of these words in accurately characterise the ethos of the GAA. I think the ‘volunteerist’ and ‘amateur’ labels are actually cover for something a lot more profound.
This is a very good post, and in a way it’s similar to the argument that American football is actually socialistic (despite having Super Bowl ads). I’d add though that the connection to the Catholic Church and the volunteer ethos could also be seen as congruent with the former’s social teaching and the political theory of ‘corporatism’: that is, the quasi-fascist 1930s idea of a society made up of vocational sectors that each control their own actions outside of either the pure capitalist market or the socialist state, which has always been at least toyed with in Irish politics. The corporatist/vocational ethos is what sustains the separation of state and the market (at least in its unadulterated form) in Ireland from a certain social sphere:
"I am always suspicious about the word ‘ethos’ when I come across it in Irish public discourse. Normally it refers to the Catholic Church, and elements of the Catholic Church marking out their territory on the terrain of education and health care. This ‘Catholic ethos’ has more to do with the defence of privilege – the right of social elites to exclusive schools funded by the State in preservation of the ‘ethos’, or to hospitals that exclude people on the basis that they haven’t enough money. This ‘ethos’ is, at root, about cold hard cash, property, speculation.”
That is as may be, but it’s not the full ideological justification: it’s the materialist analysis of a culture, money-grabbing as it is, that defers to social rules to sate what spiritual appetite it has. The stick of austerity has the carrot of exhortations to community, and insular pride in a society that can’t be written off no matter how many scandals or recessions must endure. Is there a tension between this communal vision and the atomised economy it overlays? Of course (rhetorically, it’s expressed in an interminable variation of ‘a society, not an economy’ without ever getting closer to determining the kind of economy that would allow the desired society to flourish or even exist)
"So, there is a dimension to the GAA that operates outside the logic of money, and then there is the other dimension, overseen by a different social constituency, that wishes to subordinate the GAA to the logic of money altogether. It is this latter constituency that is happy to laud the GAA’s ‘volunteer’ status, its ‘amateurism’, because it sees what the GAA does in terms of something that can be commodified and eyes it up as something it can get its hands on, practically for free. As GPA spokesman put it, “people were saying, ‘Ah, if you could only bottle it, if you could only expose it to the outside world.’” This is precisely what the Sky deal is intended to achieve.
But the ‘volunteer’ and ‘amateur’ status of the GAA is also celebrated in wider Irish society, particularly by Irish elites, because it corresponds to a vision of the world where money rules, everything gets privatised, and the fallout is dealt with by what the Tories in Britain described as the ‘Big Society’: the elimination of social rights and their replacement with charity and work for free.”
The corporatist mindset allows for the avoidance of social conflict because different groups are bottled up in their own spheres, co-ordinated according to a shared (religious) philosophy. If private business oversteps its bounds, the model collapses - or perhaps illustrates that it never worked in the first place. The tension in Irish society is also about whether those boundaries still exist, as with the GAA, in terms of ‘community interest’, or if they have dissolved into the neoliberal soup of market-based assumptions. As someone I discussed this with said to me, ‘it’s a free market’ (with the implicit assumption that Sky’s actions are therefore unequivocally fair) but what I didn’t get to say in response was: yes, but who decides how free?
Political freedoms are luxuries that can be enjoyed once not-explicitly-political means of social control (like markets) have adequately supplanted inferior technologies of suppression.
The new New Inquiry issue, Money,is knocking it out of the park (at least if you like thinking about economics and politics as much as I do). You should buy it!
On a similar line, this post from the Fixing the Economists blog:
"It seems to me that this sort of totalitarian mindset is tied to the entire of marginalist microeconomics. Marginalist microeconomics, through its doctrines of rationality, seeks to describe the supposed behavior of every actor within the economy."
I don’t know if the title is a deliberate nod to Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, but it’s interesting to turn that critique on its head: rather than the planned economy leading to political unfreedom, the ‘free market’ not only supports oligarchic power (in the standard left critique) but also restricts meaningful choice at the individual level - “in marginalist economics people are nothing but calculating machines — not actual decision-makers.”
"The insights gleaned under the influence of psilocybin often lead to lasting changes because participants seem to experience spiritual awakenings and substantial shifts in their perceptions of the world. When Gina Baker (not her real name) underwent a psilocybin session, like Nick Fernandez, at NYU in October 2012, she was riddled with constant worries that her ovarian cancer would return. The anxiety, along with her tough childhood, had caused her to lose control of her emotional eating, but during her psychedelic session, she was able to get past both. ‘I spent my entire life feeling like an outsider and that the world was a hostile place,’ said the 67-year-old Brooklyn native. ‘But under the influence of the drug, I saw my fear as a big black mass and I felt like I was going to be eaten alive. And then suddenly, the fear just disappeared and I felt enveloped in intense love, more deep and profound than I have ever felt, and not just for my family and dear friends but I felt at one with the universe. It was a moment of complete peace and lack of self consciousness.’ These changes in her perceptions endured. ‘It liberated me from my anxieties, I stopped overeating, and I even made a whole new group of friends in my neighbourhood, something I never would have done before,’ she said. ‘It was a transformative experience.’"
"Come on Kemp, you know I can’t use that; Rubber Sacks, The Fear.’
'Goddamn man, I tell you it's the fear of the sack! Tell them that this man Kemp is fleeing St. Louis because he suspects the sack is full of something ugly and he doesn't want to be put in with it. He senses this from afar. This man Kemp is not a model youth. He grew up with two toilets and a football, but somewhere along the line he got warped. Now all he wants is Out, Flee. He doesn't give a good shit for St. Louis or his friends or his family or anything else… he just wants to find some place where he can breathe… is that good enough for you?”
Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary
Reading the very interesting article above (h/t likeapairofbottlerockets) I started wondering what it would be like if the ‘psychedelic experience’ became part of mental health treatment in the same way as, say, SSRIs. Obviously we’re along way off that, and the article, while giving pros and cons in a decent overview, is really only a snapshot of a particular circumstance. Cancer despair is not quite the same as existential despair (though I’m sure it can provoke the latter) - it has a concrete basis in something not amenable to change on the social, personal/psychological and often even medical levels. So really my question is: what would happen if psychedelic drugs were used to accommodate people on an individual, profound level - not just chemical-emotional - with the external pressures of life, a kind of pharmaceutical (psycho)therapy? Would that even work? And if it did, what would be the ethical and sociological implications?
I was struck by the similarity of the fear image with that in The Rum Diary, from a passage where the narrator tries to explain the vague, inchoate emotional responses of emigrants interviewed for his newspaper - with the ultimate message that The Fear, notwithstanding its currency now as an expression of gonzo journalism, represents something largely incommunicable at the social level. The idea that some of its tensions might be resolvable in the personal pharmaceutical experience is not new to us, nor would it be to Thompson, and has obviously been explored at the communal level (hippies) or in the settings where psychedelics originated. But what if advancements in neuroscience bring the formerly mystical into the realm of the clinical - how do we sustain the individual if there’s a chemical cure for isolation?
"That social networks may remain free—both costless and infinitely flexible—depends on an assumption similar to the one that underlies [Pay-Per-Click]: that your digital engagement indicates commercially viable interest.”
A.E. Benenson, ‘No Purchase Necessary’ in The New Inquiry #27, Money
This point - in itself not particularly new or original - deserves repeating in the context of the idea that we’re approaching the age of a ‘near zero marginal cost’ economy: not just that it’s important to separate out digital reproduction from physical and human labour; but also the extent to which technology is in itself efficient to the point of costlessness, from the extent to which it is offered to us ‘free’ by commercial companies with ulterior goals.
Also interesting in this respect is the environmental cost of the cloud which - although the article is lacking on metrics of actual power use, which may or may not be significant at the individual level - illustrates how the choices by these digital companies have real-world physical consequences (and/or tie in with local political practices, e.g. coal in Virginia).
“Sex and love fed the central confusion on EMA’s raw, heartrending first album Past Life Martyred Saints. The Future’s Void is as emotionally intense, but its concerns are more foundational: the nature of the self, enabled but also limited by being a body, in ways now challenged by technology that replicates, enhances and possibly destroys individual identities. You know, cyberpunk stuff.”—
Just on my second listen now, so I’m not ready to say anything much yet. Apart from that I really like it so far - it’s a good combination of eerie and comfortingly familiar. Cybergrunge, perhaps.
Also, fair warning, if/when I do start talking about it at length I may be folding it in with my reading on the neoliberal self and Foucault (already have a Mirowski quote I was going to put up now, but it doesn’t really say anything all that new).
“At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles - a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other - that kept me going.”—
Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary 'San Juan, Winter of 1958'
I watched the Johnny Depp film of this recently and, after a week or so, gave in to myself and bought the book again (I tried to read it in my teens and found it not nearly as fun as Fear and Loathing). There’s a seething anti-capitalism - if one can be so bold as to pin the ‘bastards’ down as that; no doubt communist bastards would equally abound, however - to it that I wanted to see in the written word. I think the quote above is why the Mahria lyric resonated so much with me, too.
Unfortunately there’s a fair bit of misogyny in it too (and likely more in the original book than the modern film) so I’m conflicted with good intentions. The last thing I read before it was the chapter in Maebh Long’s Assembling Flann O’Brien about his really distanced treatment of women, spurred by some questions I was asked about Irish history and post-colonialism/feminism. Post-patriarchalism, perhaps?
“The society regulated by reference to the market that the neo-liberals are thinking about is a society in which the regulatory principle should not be so much the exchange of commodities as the mechanisms of competition. It is these mechanisms that should have the greatest possible surface and depth and should also occupy the greatest possible volume in society.”—
Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, p. 147 (Lecture of 14 February 1979)
I read this earlier today and this evening I was watching a news report on this story, about the shocking revelation that private UK energy firms are making soaring profits at a time of increased prices. The liberal response , articulated by the regulator itself, is to describe the situation as “weak competition”, with the implication that proper competition would reduce prices. Even the left-wing response, that this shows competition doesn’t work, tends to assume that something like actual (theoretical) economic competition was being attempted, rather than something more socially pervasive.
It struck me that the response of the regulator, Ofgem, coincided with the Foucauldian view quite accurately: it “said it wanted to “clear the air” after confirming evidence of soaring corporate profits and plunging consumer confidence.” Throughout the report there was no indication of any actual constraints that would be put on the companies, and a much stronger emphasis on restoring “trust” and “confidence” on the part of the consumer - in the competition process, or mechanism. (In the Guardian piece, it is mentioned that “The review could take up to two years to complete but Ofgem warned of much higher fines amounting to “tens of millions of pounds” against power companies if they break rules in the meantime” - but whether rules are actually being broken, or whether its a perception - based on profits and prices - which needs to be corrected, is unclear)
On the other side to “consumer confidence” is investor confidence, and the greater power the companies wield against any attempts to fundamentally change the competition mechanism:
"… a research note released by Liberum Capital said the CMA probe would freeze additional expenditure by the large power companies and "dampen investment from those corporates not directly involved in the inquiry."
And fellow City firm Exane Paribas said last week that Britain had moved over the last year from having one of the lowest political risks to the highest “and now ranks above Spain for the first time.
British Gas and other members of the big six have repeatedly warned that the lights could go out – most vociferously when Ed Miliband told the party annual conference last autumn that an incoming Labour government would force companies to freeze prices, break up the big six and dismantle the regulator.”
There are valid economic arguments against a price freeze, in terms of supply and demand - but I think (and following Foucault) the real threat is perceived to the ‘competition’ free pricing allows, rather than the pricing mechanism itself. As for ‘breaking up the big six’, this is both a liberal challenge to a creeping monopoly and a re-substitution of a core neoliberal value of enterprise. To return to Foucault:
"… what is sought is not a society subject to the commodity effect, but a society subject to the dynamics of competition. Not a supermarket society, but an enterprise society. The homo oeconomicus sought after is not the man of exchange or man the consumer; he is the man of enterprise and production.”
"Evidence suggests companies may be engaging in "tacit co-ordination" to limit competition, for instance by announcing similar price changes around the same time, increasing prices when costs rise by more than they cut them when costs fall. These actions do not break competition law but suggest the market may be too cosy for suppliers.
If there is effective competition, a price rise by a company should risk customers going elsewhere. But it is difficult for new, smaller suppliers to compete because of high costs, low availability of wholesale energy, heavy regulation and environmental requirements.”
The market may be “too cosy” because, it is suggested, it is insufficiently regulated - or worse, the law itself is not powerful enough to deal with the distortions to the market. Among these distortions are the fact that energy production is a costly, complex and generally polluting business - but by shifting the focus from ‘wholesale’ to ‘retail’ it creates the illusion that market competition is genuinely possible. And in turn the consumer - but not just the consumer, the (market) citizen who is protected by the regulator - buys into the idea that they are getting, or should be getting, a “fair deal”, from this state-backed mechanism which guarantees their market freedoms.
“The long-sought panacea to human poverty may at last be within our reach in the form of broadband networks that empower all countries to take their place in the global economy, overcoming traditional barriers like geography, language and resource constraints”—
Very good piece by Ciarán Hancock on the telecommunications industry and its leading Irish baron, Denis O’Brien - it’s hard to believe he actually said the above, but it’s perfectly in character as the Irishman most deserving of begrudgery, ahead of Bono. It even takes the biscuit compared to this.
I think the simplest way to explain this is: ‘network’ /= structure.
"As ordinary Britons have got less powerful and less well-remunerated, so they have been encouraged to think of themselves less as workers and more as consumers. They are "aspirers", in Blair-speak, the "squeezed middle" appealed to by Ed Miliband. Such phrases do not suggest that their audience is productive or that their labour is essential to the functioning of capitalism. And God forbid that they should be deserving of power. No, the voters are now merely a demographic. Compare that with Harold Wilson’s Labour party, which promised a "fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families".
You can see the same trend even in radical politics. “We are the 99%”, that key phrase of the Occupy movement, appeals purely on the basis of demographics: the audience it seeks are those at the bottom of the modern-day pyramid scheme. To compare it with the Communist manifesto’s rallying cry of “Workers of the world unite!” is to see exactly what is missing. Indeed, the last mainstream British politician to use Marx and Engels’ slogan was George Osborne this autumn, as he launched his new scheme to encourage employees to give up their workplace rights for shares.
So the very identification of ourselves as workers is now a bad joke to be cracked at Tory party conference by an alumnus of St Paul’s. We are instead shoppers with desires, or aspiring (for which read frustrated) shoppers, rather than producers with rights. We are supposed to gorge ourselves with expensive electronics assembled in China. As for industry, well that’s something we keep in museums for weekend visits, or buy at vastly inflated prices from the high street.”
"Niall Phelan, Director of Emerging Markets and Craft Beers at Molson Coors UK & Ireland, commented, “Molson Canadian holds huge potential for the Irish market. There’s an extremely strong demand within the industry for new, exciting products to stimulate sales and bring some much-needed respite from the recent doom-and-gloom the market has been experiencing".
He went on to state, “This demand for something new is evident in the research we conducted last year which showed that 50% of beer drinkers would be more likely to visit the pub if they had a range of craft beers available.
“In much the same way, with the launch of Canadian, we’re bringing much-needed additional choice to Irish drinkers. We’re going to be investing millions to help make it the success it deserves to be and give the public a compelling reason to support their local pub and off-licence through the trial and repeat purchase of Canadian”