In Gratitude

Nowhere in Ten Songs

“L.A. is like nowhere,” says Dark, the brooding, angst-ridden, teenaged protagonist of Gregg Araki’s criminally underrated 1997 film, Nowhere. “Everybody who lives here is lost.” Being adrift, perpetually searching—for a partner, for a party, for oneself—is indeed the movie’s central theme and animating force. Its misfit characters seem to wander aimlessly through their super-modern, post-industrial world, a citywide non-place. And we follow them in fascination. Yet, unlike Marc Augé’s notion of non-places—spaces void of personality and permanence—Dark’s L.A. is laden with significance and symbolism.

Much of that excess meaning comes courtesy of the soundtrack. Araki—whose previous features The Living End, Doom Generation and Totally Fucked Up included music from Curve, Ride, Nine Inch Nails, and Coil, and cameo appearances by Babyland, Perry Farrell, and Skinny Puppy—was well known for stacking his scripts with musical references, and soundtracks with unreleased songs, remixes, and other rarities. With the film turning twenty this week, it is high time to rediscover the music that made Nowhere an American cult cinema masterpiece in the salad days of pre-millennial nihilism and twilight capitalism. Whatev.

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Stranger in a strange land

Daniel O’Sullivan – “HC SVNT DRACONES” – VELD – O Genesis Recordings

Taking Latin in University isn’t completely useless. You get to read inscriptions on buildings, decipher fancy college degrees, perform etymology, and translate obscure song titles. This one means: “Here are the dragons.” One could also say “Here be dragons” if one wanted to sound more like King Arthur. Who says it’s a dead language?

 

Regis – “Maxi” – Blackest Ever Black

To me, the Holy Trinity of Techno is still Silent Servant, James Ruskin, and Regis. I am not finished mourning the demise of Jealous God, the excellent if short-lived label that released some of the musketeers’ classiest late-night stompers. But this too-short teaser from a forthcoming single on Blackest Ever Black will have to do. For now. One for the bloody dancefloor.

 

False Witness – “Revolt” – The Art of Fighting – GHE20G0TH1K Records

I knew I’d heard this before.

I have a strange affliction—some might call it a gift, others a curse: I am able to recognize aesthetic similarities across various pieces of music. Useless, perhaps. It’s an acrostic kind of memory, akin to perfect pitch: recordings inscribe themselves permanently and irrevocably into my mind’s ear. (I may have missed my calling as an intellectual property attorney.)

For example, I can sing a song in the precise key in which it was committed to tape. I can also immediately identify little phrases, licks, riffs, or passages in songs. Let’s do some comparative analysis:

Blur’s “Boys and Girls” bass line is a direct facsimile of David Bowie’s “DJ”;

 

“I don’t like the drugs” by Marilyn Manson is Bowie’s “Fame”;

 

Supergrass’s “Jesus came from outer space” contains a descending phrase reminiscent of “Star”.

 

Come to think of it, all these examples are David Bowie-related. Here are some that aren’t: Radiohead’s “Decks Dark” = “Teardrop” by Massive Attack;

 

Alicia Keys’ “Blended Family” = “What I am” by Edie Brickell;

 

And L-Vis 1990’s 2009 banger “Compass” = “Revolt” by False Witness. Listen to them side by side, or at once for all I care:

It’s the same Soca rhythm, at the same tempo, in the same key. And don’t be alarmed, but it even features the same air raid sample.

AIR RAID!!

 

Yally – “Dread Risk” – Diagonal Records

I’ve been working on a theory of music akin to Thomas Schatz’s “whole-equation-of-pictures” method of cinema analysis. In contrast to Classical film scholarship like André Bazin in France, or Andrew Sarris in America, both of whom advocated for auteur theory, Schatz believes that films are in fact a product of what he calls “the genius of the system”—a more media-ecological or even proto-intersectional approach. For Schatz (and me), cultural texts are just as much shaped by complex structural forces as they are authored by an individual artist’s voice and vision. I find this to be especially evidenced in instances of historical revisionism.

Artists naturally want to pay homage to their greatest influences, and at various points set out to emulate the feel of their favourite masters. Liam Gallagher made a career out of trying to perfect John Lennon’s slap-back delay, which was itself modeled after Elvis Presley’s vocals. But Lennon’s was as far away from Presley’s as Gallagher’s is from Lennon’s, because certain elements in the equation—everything from media format to microphones, cables, effects processors, and sound dampening materials—have changed. Even when a band goes as far to emulate a long-gone sound as, say, Arcade Fire did with The Suburbs—using 1940s gear; pressing each song to a dubplate before digitization—it still comes out sounding like early 21st century Indie rock.

Regarding revision, electronic music is no different. Take Yally’s “Dread Risk”, a faithful nod to the brooding 1990s Drum ‘n Bass of Photek or μ-ziq, and the comparatively maximal belter that I always suspected (hoped) was lurking in the Raime arsenal. It sounds like Jungle, but different, simply because the whole equation is different.

 

Delia Gonzalez – “Horse Follows Darkness” – Horse Follows Darkness – DFA Records

Speaking of nostalgia, here’s one to tug at the old melancholy cord. In this vintage synth hymn, Cuban-American multidisciplinary artist Delia Gonzalez dreamily conjures the uncanny air of feeling like a foreigner at home. At a time when Trump and Brexit have become all too real, I think that many of us can relate.

 

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Hum along with me, along with the TV

Sylvia Monnier – “Theresa Russell” – Stock Shot & Addictive Sling – Sacred Phrases

This winter, there has been a mysterious and persistent hum in my house. It is a low frequency noise, lower than the 60Hz hum normally heard from buzzing home electronics or the baseboard heating. At times, usually at night, it fills my ears with a sinister resonance that is neither natural nor purely automatic. In pajamas and slippers, I repeatedly go on midnight excursions around the block to try and identify its source. To no avail: as soon as I leave the house, it disappears, submerged beneath the din of the city. But there is it again when I’m back inside, humming away, driving me a bit madder with each humming moment.

I try music to drown it out. But because it’s such a deep tone, it is not easily masked. It’s a sound that you can feel vibrating through the floor, a fundamental wave that tunes and transforms everything in the vicinity. Bassy music helps. Still, as soon as it’s done, the hum resumes its oppressive dominance over the sonic space.

The only things I find truly effective are sounds—not music per se—that blend in with the hum: drone music, durational tones, field recordings. For instance, Nancy Tobin’s 2007 CD Duo Des Aigus—an improvisational dance and sound installation based on audio feedback—works especially well. And so does “Theresa Russell”.

I have yet to discover the true origin of the hum in my house. Alternately, I have hypothesized it to be mechanical, electrical, industrial, or perhaps even imaginary. But I now fear that living with this hum is going to be the new normal. I’ll just have to harmonize myself with it, or be condemned to days of incessant discord.

 

Biggi Vinkeloe Band – “Jag Lyfter Mina Händer” – Aura Via Appia – Omlott

There is an unabashedly celebratory mood to this track—a virtue missing from almost all forms of music right now. It sounds like Scandinavian Gypsy Drum n’ Bass. I like it. And I can’t help cracking Biggi “Smalls” Vinkeloe jokes. Call it value added.

 

David Kanaga – “Go On / Salt & Scab” – Oἶκoςpiel OST pt. 1http://www.oikospiel.com

Like some cruel Pavlovian torture, the Québec brain is hardwired to immediately recognize Celine Dion’s voice. Nonetheless, Kanaga’s jump cuts in the first movement of this piece paradoxically reprogram a clandestine soulfulness into Dion’s otherwise antiseptic operating system.

 

Jlin – “Nyakinyua Rise” – Black Origami – Planet Mu

In the mid-1960s, Kenya’s first president following British colonial rule, Jomo Kenyatta, bestowed upon the Makadara Nyakinyua women dancers 1,000 acres of homeland, in gratitude for their entertainment—the president’s personal favourite. But the Nyakinyua and their descendants were forced from their homes near Nairobi in 1988 by predatory property developers. Bulldozers destroyed their houses, scattering the dancers to live with relatives in neighbouring communities. Those that stayed remain squatters on their own land.

As of January 2017, there has been no permanent resolution, with the Nyakinyua holding frequent protests and threatening to boycott elections in attempts to persuade the administration—Kenyatta’s son and current president, Uhuru (Swahili for “freedom”)—to either oblige their land claims, or resettle them elsewhere. Even if you haven’t heard this story before, you’ve heard this story before—from the Palestinian situation to urban gentrification in major metropolitan centres. Jlin’s track is a battle cry that renders the Nyakinyuan plight universal.

The problem with other peoples’ problems is that, sooner or later, they become your problems, too. So you might as well make them your problems sooner than later.

 

TCF – “C6 81 56 28 09 34 31 D2 F9 9C D6 BD 92 ED FC 6F 6C A9 D4 88 95 8C 53 B4 55 DF 38 C4” – mono no aware – PAN

The first-ever MIDI sequencer—the Sequential Circuits Model 64 MIDI sequencer—in addition to velocity, pitch and modulation information could record and store up to 4000 individual notes. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony contains over 135,000 noteheads producing more than 70,000 separate notes. TCF’s obscurely titled track featured on mono no aware, a new ambient compilation courtesy of Pan Records, reportedly consists of 150,000 MIDI events, pushing this ostensible drone composition into Georges Seurat / Black MIDI territory.

It is easy to forget that digitally recorded music—indeed everything digital—is in fact composed of discrete, granular events that our brains then smear back into something apparently continuous. A standard CD, for instance, reconstructs an analogue sound signal by taking an audio snapshot 44,100 times per second. What we hear sounds uninterrupted, but in reality, it is an auditory illusion—like a flipbook. This is an excellent metaphor for life: what appears smooth on the surface is invariably violent and unpredictable at its most fundamental constituent level.

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A loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires

Avec Le Soleil Sortant De Sa Bouche – Alizé et Margaret D. Midi Moins Le Quart. Sur La Plage, Un Palmier Ensanglanté II – Constellation Records

There really are no words for what is going on right now. Even before Donald J. Trump assumed the office of the US president, in Avant-Garde-level efforts to inveigle the pubic, he entangled the media in the world’s most dangerous ever game of “I know you are but what am I?”

Still, there is no alternative to fact. With one of his first cabinet nominations, Trump installed the former CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, as secretary of state, clarifying his administration’s priorities for anyone still in doubt. He has since signed executive orders to construct a border-spanning wall between the US and Mexico, and at the same time to build an oil pipeline connecting Canada’s tar sands to refineries stateside. He has frozen new research grants to the Environmental Protection Agency, and directed it and other federal agencies to restrict their public communications. It is full-time work just keeping up with this shit. And I’m not even American.

It all makes me want to throw up my arms and howl nonsense at the heavens from the island of Montreal. Which is what Avec Le Soleil do, chiefly. As Samuel Johnson understood, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

 

Gnod – Bodies For Money – Rocket Recordings

If it is words you want, though, you cannot do better than Just Say No To The Psycho Right-Wing Capitalist Fascist Industrial Death Machine, the title of Gnod’s recently announced upcoming album. The MC5 might have been proud of how this Salford ensemble mightily riff through politically-charged lead track “Bodies For Money.” It bashes unabashedly.

I recently saw someone tweet something like, “We’ve now entered the realm of by-any-means-necessary.” One of those means, an ideological imperative, I argue, has always been to unconditionally rock the fuck out. “When we become crazed in our obsession with idiotic enjoyment,” wrote the always-provocative Slavoj Žižek, “even totalitarian manipulation cannot reach us.”

 

Slowdive – Star Roving – Dead Oceans

I have no emotional space left for nostalgia. Fortunately, this is not a trip down memory lane. Slowdive are simply a band that stopped making music together for a while, and recently started again. It’s actually a boring story, and a welcome one.

 

Happa – Bum Trance – PT/5

One hallmark of a great tune is that it immediately makes you want to listen to it again. “Bum Trance” manages this. Operationally, it seems like the track, which represents restraint as much as maximal over-indulgence, wants to go back in for one more drop. The fact that it doesn’t—that Happa winds it down rather than back up again—bestows the banger with a charming if false modesty.

 

Open letter to Brian Eno – Re: The Guardian interview, 23 January 2017

Dear Mr. Eno;

Long-time listener, firsttime caller. I hope this note finds you well.

I have always held you and your music in the highest regard. But I am concerned by some of your views expressed recently in The Guardian. What dismays me, as a music technology historian, is your misguided notion of music’s structural homology with social organization. You describe the orchestra as a top-down, pyramidal model of power (bad), as opposed to the “more egalitarian model of a folk or rock band” (good).

In reality, however, neither of these models broadly characterizes music nor politics. It is, rather, rogue dictatorships that we now witness rising in all forms. We can read Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and their ilk as political incarnations of the contemporary musical studio sovereign: the producer. Today, (usually lone, often male) producers, of whom you are one, more than anyone else prescribe, transform, and regulate the musical landscape.

Industry standards like CDs or MP3s, technological protocols like MIDI, and computer platforms like ProTools have facilitated this shift, allowing one person with little to no traditional skill necessary to create entire musical works from start to finish. Comparing today’s musical and social organization, the respective fields reveal increasingly decentralized societies recklessly helmed by defensive amateurs. That’s about as far from egalitarian as one can imagine.

Best-case scenario: one of these dictators, either of the political or musical variety, experiences a profound awakening, turning out to be benevolent instead of tyrannical. This might manifest in selfless acts, incongruous with capitalism. For example, lending your considerable talents to assist someone more overtly radical than, say, James Blake or Owen Pallett might get that ball rolling. How about a Brian Eno-produced Godspeed record? Better yet, the next Solange. Just a thought.

Respectfully and sincerely yours,

Ryan Alexander Diduck

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Walls and bridges: how to break the media mirror and reclaim reality

“Is this … really happening? Is this … an act?”

Through the nervous, refocusing lens of an unsteady camcorder recording, an increasingly worried young girl verbally processes the scene before her. She’s witnessing the entertainer Meat Loaf moments after he collapses on stage at a performance in Edmonton, Canada. But this is not part of the act; this is really happening.

The camera briskly zooms out, revealing a confused and restless crowd. Audience members begin to vacate their seats. A roadie calls reluctantly for applause from the stage. Panic rises in the girl’s voice: “Oh my god, mum! Mum, what happened?”

 

At some point during this foul year—whether after the Brexit result in Britain, or Donald J. Trump’s US presidential election victory, or simply at a Meat Loaf concert—we were all various versions of that terrified girl, watching in shocked disbelief, grappling for a parental figure to assure us this was just a bad dream while something that wasn’t supposed to happen happened right in front of our very eyes.

Reality as we knew it broke down in 2016. All artifice revealed. Finally, ignoring or wishing away our collective situation would no longer suffice. But what is our situation?

It’s proved futile to establish “reality” today: television shows like Mr. Robot and Black Mirror blur the lines between cultural verisimilitude and speculative fiction; bogus news items propagate virally online, only to be revealed as such by “real” news organizations—publications and networks of which we have become progressively more distrustful; social media act as echo chambers, containing and reflecting our own images and opinions and desires back at us, reinforcing the perception of societal stability and normalcy; even comedy and farce have failed their critical duties, in part because reality itself seems evermore ironic, satirical and absurd.

How did we get here?

This peculiar account begins in July of 1892, with an obscure American philosopher and logician called Charles Sanders Peirce. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Peirce attended Harvard University in the early 1860s, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in chemistry in 1863. Peirce held only sporadic academic appointments, but his ideas on pragmatism and the nature of mind would have a profound influence upon a century of Western thought.

One of Peirce’s key philosophical contributions was called “synechism”: “the tendency to regard continuity” in all things. Peirce believed that we mistakenly perceive the world as a series of binary operations: utterances and interpretations. The medium of consciousness then wants to smoothe them out, and makes them appear uninterrupted and endless.

Peirce outlined synechism in an article called “The Law of Mind,” published in the journal The Monist. Radically, he argued further in 1893 that synechism implied the illusory nature of independent identity: “the selfhood you like to attribute to yourself is,” Peirce wrote, “the vulgarest delusion of vanity.”

But this notion of unified existence and consciousness found itself at odds with another, more lucrative view of the individual—one that would come to dominate the 20th century: the idea that each of us is utterly unique.

In 1925, the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud authored a brief but important article called “A Note Upon The Mystic Writing Pad.” In it, he likened perception consciousness to an Etch-a-Sketch-esque device made of wax and cellophane. Freud noted: “the appearance and disappearance of the writing” is analogous “with the flickering-up and passing-away of consciousness in the process of perception.” For Freud, consciousness was a discontinuous and malleable activity.

Peirce died in poverty in 1914, with many of his later writings going unpublished. Synechism was incongruous with the anthropocentric, Western notion of the individual’s supremacy. However, another of Peirce’s concepts would prove consistent with Freud’s imminent individualist ideology: pragmatism.

Peirce also thought that the best way to perceive reality was through logic and scientific inquiry—by data gathering. All objects had practical consequences, argued Peirce, and those consequences constituted the whole of our perception of them. It was the beginning of a results-based, utilitarian conception of reality.

Pragmatism would come to govern both public administration and private markets. For the following hundred years, value would be determined through demonstrating practicality.

A problem with the results-based reality arises when it rubs up against Freud’s notion of discontinuous consciousness. Freud supposed:

If we imagine one hand writing upon the surface of the Mystic Writing Pad while another periodically raises its covering sheet from the wax slab, we shall have a concrete representation of the way in which I tried to picture the functioning of the perceptual apparatus of our mind.

Modulating the intervals at which our perceptual apparatuses register experience, for example, could destabilize our observation of time. Bombarding people with rapidly cycling and shifting forms of information could manipulate the development of memory, too.

In the 21st century, almost all of our memories emerged mediated. Even immediate, first-hand experiences were described in mediated terms: numerous eyewitnesses of the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City, for instance, recalled the twin towers’ dramatic descent as “like a movie.” Reality was entirely a simulation.

Suddenly, any practical result could be mass-produced: wide-ranging policies could seem effective on screen when, in reality, they failed. Corporations could appear to produce giant profits when, in truth, they were losing vast sums of money. A game of managing appearances became reality—carefully manufactured, and delivered through increasingly individualized media channels.

By 2016, those media forms completely dissociated: The New York Times and Fox News began reporting entirely different stories; political dissent was officially pathologized; Facebook and Twitter turned into self-reinforcing bubbles; Apple attempted to further circumscribe its ecosystem through new and proprietary standards; reality became a hall of mirrors.

That really happened. It wasn’t an act.

The world today is not a two-sided coin; it’s a 99-sided die, and on each side a problem. What we desperately need now is to tell ourselves bold and original stories about the future, building neither walls nor mirrors but bridges—bridges that revive a sense of interconnectedness, continuity, synechism.

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Red Bull’s Sour Notes

(For Part 1 of this story, please read this.)

It’s not easy to casually surf for information on the health effects of Red Bull, which contains high doses of caffeine (the devil we know) and a shadowy organic compound called Taurine (the bull we don’t).

A 2010 study published in the journal Amino Acids suggests that Red Bull consumption “ameliorates changes in blood pressure during stressful experiences, and increases the participants’ pain tolerance.”

The American FDA collected records of Red Bull-related health problems voluntarily reported between 2004 and 2012. One patient in particular suffered from panic attacks, anxiety, blurred vision, dizziness, decreased appetite, fatigue, adrenal insufficiency, insomnia, confusion, attention deficiency, self-examination and dependence. These side effects are especially dangerous during brutally loud, disorientingly strobing, blindingly smoky EDM events. They’re also potentially deadly amidst sports, Red Bull’s other key branding arena.

In 2013, the family of a Brooklyn man called Cory Terry brought a wrongful death lawsuit for $85 million against Red Bull, charging that consumption of the energy beverage directly caused this otherwise healthy 33-year-old’s fatal heart attack on a Berlin, Maryland basketball court. As of April 2016, though, the case failed making it to trial, suggesting that Red Bull paid substantially to keep the Terry family quiet.

The following year, Red Bull resolved a different kind of lawsuit, a class-action false advertising claim challenging its “Red Bull Gives You Wings” slogan. That out-of-court settlement cost the company $13 million. How anyone would seriously consider that consuming Red Bull could possibly result in spontaneous wing growth is debatable. It becomes conceivable, then, that Red Bull might spend $13 million on a bogus lawsuit simply as a perception management maneuver, linking the search terms “Red Bull” and “lawsuit” with another case that A: has nothing to do with Red Bull’s potential health hazards, and B: makes the company appear favorable under public scrutiny. Indeed, because of the avalanche of mainstream publicity the story generated, this is the lawsuit that Google most commonly indexes to Red Bull today, not the Terry’s.

Managing the perception of whether or not Red Bull is dangerous is beyond big business. In an important way, Red Bull is no different from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, or even other “energy drink” brands. This is because, where it counts, they function in lock step.

In fact, powerful industry associations represent them all—chiefly, the American Beverage Association in the US. Britain and Canada have their own equivalents. These organizations effectively act as muscle for their clients, doing the leg- and sometimes dirty work that individual companies either can’t do alone, or don’t want to be seen doing publically. This work most often involves lobbying efforts to stall independent studies on health effects, fighting new taxes designed to curb mass consumption of sugary beverages, and swaying public opinion whenever possible.

And their collective methods are shadier than Red Bull’s marketing strategies. In October 2016, the American Beverage Association was caught in an intricate scheme that reportedly paid US dietitians to publically oppose a new soda tax via updates posted to their personal social media accounts. Credentialed opinions are not outside Red Bull’s reach. Experts have been bought.

That everyone down the line has a price tag isn’t overly surprising. And Red Bull Music Academy’s operations seem inexpensive by comparison—surely against governmental lobbying efforts: artists and their surrounding scenes are the starvingest of all. Over the past fifteen years, music recordings have plunged in value, and music journalism has slid even further. Investing in these cultural venues is a comparative cakewalk for Red Bull. And it makes clear the reasons why the corporation would go after the elusive music of the underground.

Avant-garde artists are traditionally most resistant to branding partnerships. They also cultivate fierce loyalty among their audiences, who view them to be more authentic than pop stars. Red Bull targets these artists because of—not despite—their DIY, outsider status. Thus the underground becomes a carrier signal for Red Bull’s increasingly murkier marketing mission.

Nonetheless, some of these scenes want nothing to do with Red Bull. But that doesn’t put them out of reach. RBMA can commission a “history,” say, on Montreal’s “Godspeed Generation,” effectively co-opting an especially anti-capitalist movement into the heart of its branded online ecosystem. The same goes for RBMA’s Cadence Weapon-penned account of the city’s “Torn Curtain” scene.

At first glance, these seem like thoughtful and insightful chronicles of significant cultural undercurrents that shaped Montreal’s musical identity. But they are, in effect, reliable roadmaps locating otherwise unreachable would-be customers: those thought to be above the sway of advertising: ad-blockers; cord-cutters; Gen-y’ers; Millennials—anyone deemed impervious to traditional promotional tactics.

Reaching the unreachables is what Red Bull Music Academy is all about. The logic goes: if you can locate them, you can map them. And if you can map them, you can conquer them. Marketing “campaigns” are named for their military resemblance. Red Bull goes further. Its RBMA activities are termed “activations.” Co-opted by Red Bull Music Academy, the spirit of resistance becomes the capitalist’s user manual.

But RBMA operates at arm’s length from Red Bull, right? Not true. According to their legal disclaimer, Red Bull GmbH reserves exclusive intellectual and commercial ownership over RBMA’s domain and content. All Your Avant-Garde Are Belong To Red Bull.

It’s worrying. Especially when you think about what’s in the stuff.

Still, the most abundant ingredient in Red Bull, besides sweetener and Taurine, of course, is water. The company is deliberately vague about identifying its water sources, saying only that it uses “fresh Alpine water of highest quality, which comes from springs nearby the production sites in Austria and Switzerland.”

I’m not a water policy expert. But the World Economic Forum, the influential Swiss-based foundation urges that water crises will become “the biggest threat facing the planet over the next decade.”

What Red Bull wants to do with fresh Alpine water is to add sugar. And Taurine. Put it in cans and sell it to as many of us as possible. Full stop. That’s not good for anybody.

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Who By 🔥

The signs are everywhere: We live in uncool times.

Fossil fuel combustion continues to drive most global economic activity. Human-powered climate changes are irrevocably warming the planet. Devastating forest fires—like those in 2016 that destroyed the oil-slick city of Fort McMurray—are the new normal. The world appears aflame. And it seems that the language we now use to describe culture has transformed accordingly. Hence, the proliferation of the shorthand 🔥.

Over the past decade, things that once might have been labeled as “cool”—chiefly of music, but also more broadly in relation to skills, talents, fashions, events &c—increasingly began to be designated “fire.” Not “on fire,” mind you. Not “fired up” nor any modified variation thereof. Just “fire.” Fire as an adjective was abruptly ubiquitous. And calling something fire suddenly bestowed a kind of hotness beyond any measure of cool.

This year, we achieved peak fire thanks to the 🔥 emoji’s saturation. Two years ago, Jessica Bennett of the New York Times had already proclaimed the emoji’s victory in the war for words. The OED’s selection in 2015 of 😂 as word of the year, as well as the Museum of Modern Art’s 2016 acquisition of the original emoji set (which interestingly contains a bomb but no figure for fire) entrenched these digital icons permanently into the public imagination as legitimate linguistic forms. Aptly, 2015’s “fire mixtape” became 2016’s “🔥 mixtape.” Clever tweets were 🔥. Drake’s Views was 🔥. Even academic papers, NPR podcasts and poutine were 🔥. Everything that was anything this year was 🔥.

 

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why poutine is fire.jpg

Social media scholars Luke Stark and Kate Crawford believe that emoji perform a valuable, immaterial form of labour, and “serve to smooth out the rough edges of digital life.” “Emoji,” they write, “were intended to normalize and then capitalize on the collective strength of affect in human social relations online.” Emoji are not productive, but rather affective: 🔥 isn’t a thing in itself, but it encourages an impression of a thing. To call someone’s mixtape, album, podcast or party 🔥 is also to confer symbolic weight upon it, to assign to it a cultural currency. Like real fire, 🔥 needs an igniting spark, and that spark is most often human, classed, gendered and racialized affective work.

Stark and Crawford rightly point out that emoji’s “highly compressed lexicon” is predominantly designed to stimulate social media activity. Nonetheless, 🔥 suggests something deeper, more profound and abstract. Something hotter.

“Hot” as a synonym for “up-to-date” or “in demand” flourished in common North American parlance in the mid-1800s. Before long, its usage in that context thrived: hot topics came hot off the press; hotheads and hot feet were hot to trot; hot hands remained hot on the trail of the latest hot spots. But hot also came to denote something stolen, illicit or illegitimate. “Hot,” as defined by Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of the Underworld meant “too well known.” By the mid-1900s, hot’s usage as a descriptor cooled considerably.

Concurrently, the colloquialism “cool” arose out of predominantly Black lingo in the US to specify a new genre of stylish, sophisticated and sexy Jazz. By the time of the Cold War, cool had turned into a popular term for hipness and general approval. Cool indicated something intrinsically good, but it also conveyed an icy notion of quiet, slowness, calm, pause and reflection. Cool was furthermore associated with acceptability and safety—refuge from the heat. Cool was all right. And so, a generation warmed to cool. That is, until fire caught fire.

What’s chilling about fire’s eruption into popular vernacular use in the 21st century is how consumately it seems to capture the fever pitch of our hellish age. The Book of Revelation ends with a rain of fire that devours Satan’s armies. Death, Hades and the resurrected fallen souls are then tossed into a lake of burning sulfur to be tormented forever—the “second death” of a damned humankind.

Still, aside from fire’s overt apocalyptic connotation is its implication of speed as the operative mode proper to late capitalism. Fire burns quickly, and with passionate intensity. If hot means fast, and cool sounds slow, fire is positively hyper. And the transformation of fire into 🔥 swiftens the economy of an already abridged expression, reducing it further to instant and unambiguous iconography. Cool was neither hot nor cold. 🔥, on the other hand, is unmistakably 🔥.

🔥 in this sense is a super-linguistic incendiary of post-modern abbreviation that strongly gestures toward cultural accelerationism. Accelerationism, the nihilistic It-philosophy of both the radical right and left, espouses speeding up the alienating processes of capitalism. Accelerationism is the underlying logic behind Žižek’s last-minute endorsement of Trump, and arguably the most politically and theoretically progressive strategy to effectively counter the “contradictions and absurdities of capitalism.”

In The Futurist Manifesto, F.T. Marinetti advocates setting ablaze our libraries and “books of today,” replacing them with blunt and crass images. “Our hearts know no weariness,” he writes, “because they are fed with fire, hatred, and speed!” For Jean-François Lyotard, whose Libidinal Economy is considered a formative accelerationist text, fire constitutes the key to Freud’s death drive, and what Lyotard termes “libidinal irreversibility.” Put bluntly, it’s impossible to get un-fucked. And we are now legitimately, properly fucked.

As the dismay, astonishment and disbelief subsided from the news of both the Brexit result in Britain and Donald Trump’s US presidential election, shocked tweets turned to memes. Shortly, a number of posts emerged quoting Michael Caine’s sizzling line from The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

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Doubtless, 🔥 was the hottest buzzword in a year characterized by zero chill. We might not have started this fire, but it’s our charge now. If there was one sunny spot to the spread of 🔥 in 2016, it might be found in the familiar Buddhist proverb: Light a fire for someone else; it will also brighten your own path. Let us continue fighting fire with 🔥.

It’s the fieriest weapon we’ve got.

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