Never Once Reflect

There’s no ‘No Future’ anymore

[the following is a working extract from a forthcoming article for the French-language journal Revue Audimat, as well as a sequel of sorts to my end-of-2010s roundup, Nothing Shocking]

“Modernity invented the future, but that’s all over”, wrote Nick Land in his 1995 essay. “In place of a way forward they deliver a hypermedia product, telling you it’s about Georges Battaille.” “A brand new Radiohead jigsaw is available to purchase from the W.A.S.T.E. Store”, reads a 2021 dispatch from the band’s merchandise webstore, “now that you have completely run out of things to say to each other.” Sneering cynicism nonetheless prophetic.

In a number of ways in the 20th century, new sounds ruptured: generic borders; creative communities; circulatory modes; media themselves. The searing distortion of a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo in 1969 was only conceivable, technically, through overloaded circuitry and saturated magnetic tape, a breach of media’s limits, modernity’s true excess. Capitalism always seeks to refold that excess into recaptured value. The danger of excess is necessarily in the margins’ spilling-out, or spilling-over, a vital technical assemblage incapable of managing sudden surges in signal, abrupt deviations in direction. The contained uncontainable by virtue of containment, always striving for escape. Though, the idea of a freer future was replaced in the 2010s with an ambient hopelessness, intended to stretch through and smooth over every possible rupture, and to make the most of the appearance of instability in an otherwise entirely stabilized economic environment.

The notion that cultural objects should exude aesthetic newness on par with consumer products, or more accurately with vintages, or provide commentary upon contemporary subjects as might a late-night chat show, betrays the capitalist productive model’s absurd arbitrariness. But it is not enough to say that art supersedes capitalism’s unsentimentality; rather it is wholly reliant upon it. Hence, Radiohead’s bleak brand identity just as easily adapts to climate change or pandemic-themed products. Taylor Swift in 2014 can release eight seconds of noise on iTunes and in so doing blur the boundaries between pop and noise audiences. Disguised as anthropology, the culture machine — distanced, objective — barely bats a lash.

Reality itself in the 2010s was becoming too complex, too diverse, too unmanageable, to represent with a single artist, genre, or even a cluster of them. Concurrently, the idea of something so radical as to entirely upset the dominant cultural order became less palatable in the midst of an increasingly uncertain quotidian climate. In the face of this complexity, genre ceased to be the organizing principle around which scenes and movements formed. Around this explosion of generic homogeneity came a circumscribing streaming industry seeking to enfold all of recorded music’s history, present, and future, into the cloud. Quickly, playlists replaced albums; moods replaced genres. Moods implied affective manageability — nothing to disrupt the apparent simplification of complexity. All music is hypothetically Muzak under this model, nothing so extreme that it cannot be tamed by curation. The curatorial turn is a kind of cultural compression, maximizing value by minimizing shock, the 21st century’s Big Unwanted.

We can think of compression more generally as a technical method to smooth out outliers of frequency and amplitude in order for sound to adhere to the standards of recording and broadcast media, and ultimately to protect equipment from damage and destruction. The automation of risk in the market at large is reflected in the automation of side-chain compression in musical production, the compression algorithm always anticipating sonic attack, apparently predicting the unpredictable, meanwhile obscuring its regularity, its inevitability.

The collapse of musical genre was naturally preceded with the analogous collapse of literary genre described by Fredric Jameson in his analysis, Postmodernism: “…the older genres, released like viruses from their traditional ecosystem, have now spread out and colonized reality itself, which we divide up and file away according to typological schemes which are no longer those of subject matter but for which the alternative topic of style seems somehow inadequate.” Enter technics as typological scheme; Mumford’s clock, giving structure to the unstructurable, imposing the human schema upon Heavenly order. Just as MIDI’s clock inscribed standardized time into electronic music’s initially tenuous architectures, side-chain compression removes the immediate shock of time as a variable from music’s experimental aesthetic equation.

There are two examples of compression that, I believe, transcended the order of function, and do more than simply represent some disparaged deceleration of cultural zeitgeist, to become a form of aesthetic critique of capitalism’s numbing shock-absorption impulse. The first is intentional, in the work of James Leyland Kirby, aka The Caretaker; the second is unintentional, in Colin Stetson’s 2016 reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony.

Mark Fisher in his kpunk entry entitled “Running on Empty” correctly identified Kirby’s reappropriation of obscure Ballroom and Big Band-era recordings, decrying, “We can’t hear technology anymore.” But, through no fault of his own, Fisher might have been listening for too obvious markers, for some self-evident traits that would make themselves insistently apparent. Rather, technology in The Caretaker’s recordings is obscured not least in its volumetric compression. By extremely squeezing the dynamic range of these archival recordings, Kirby thrusts the record’s surface noise above and beyond the material superficiality of the recording. Noise haunts these recordings devoid of historical context, collapsing the past and the present onto the same unbroken groove.

Conversely, the volumetric compression on Stetson’s recording is sheer function over fashion. The compression’s attack is uniform in time — it manifests ostensibly inaudibly but regularly at somewhere under 100ms — which produces a kind of repetitive breathing rhythm that comes to dominate the recording, much like negative space vies for attention in black-and-white imagery. As the sound pressure level approaches the compression’s threshold of attack, the auditory impression is akin to a speedboat skimming very quickly over choppy waters, making superficial contact only when the wave crests to meet its fleeting bottom. The technology of compression, and its aesthetic blueprint, not only evade a sense of future shock but furthermore deactivate shock’s most powerful ally: surprise. Figuratively and literally, aesthetically and technically, time itself was under attack in music over the past ten years. Technology may not have delivered new forms of culture, but technology nonetheless revealed the imperfections, the cracks, shocks — that which culture through recording (that is, through selective memory) seeks to suppress, deny, and erase. No longer any thing outside time.

As the world endures through the coronavirus crisis, cultural production is not just metaphorically in a state of perpetual suspension. And the previous decade, in retrospect, looks an awful lot like cultural preparation for a term of arrested development. This, too, works in capital’s favour, neutralizing another potentially revolutionary site, forcing meaning further into the subconscious of technical aesthetics, making it that much more difficult for the analyst to tease out any new truths. The duty of culture has ceased to be to determine and posit coordinates in response to the question, “where are we now?”, and rather to simply assert a perpetual “now, we are.” If there is no future, neither is there space nor time. “’So, it’s all over,’ you mumble weakly”, Land, that is, mumbling on our behalf: “He shrugs, emptying his glass, and refilling it.” Who is the ‘He’ here? He who creates that which we call new?

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End of Year, Never Once Reflect

Nothing Shocking: was side-chain compression the sound of the decade?

I like Simon Reynolds. His writing is precise and compelling. And he usually draws insightful conclusions from his compulsive consumption of culture. Which is why I followed with interest as one after another of Reynolds’s end-of-decade articles appeared over the past few months, each more contentious than the last. First was a piece on the portmanteau “Conceptronica” for Pitchfork in October. Next came an article in Resident Advisor on the rise of Ambient and New Age, a piece that was itself a counterpoint to another of Reynolds’s 2010s compendia, a prognostic article about “Maximalism” written in 2011. Finally with a December dispatch for The Guardian, Reynolds concluded that he couldn’t actually remember what came out in the 2010s, or precisely when, because of the sheer onslaught of mass culture: “The reason that it feels like nothing happened in the 2010s,” explained Reynolds, “is that too much happened.”

Ten years ago, Reynolds published a clear-eyed book-length account of a certain nostalgic, hauntological tendency in pop culture which he smartly called “Retromania”. Now, he’s given us three separate stories in three separate publications about three discrepant and not particularly monumental cultural currents. Is he losing his critical edge, his fingers falling off our proverbial pulse? Surely not! Or, is it possible that there really was no ripple effect that swelled to a fully-fledged tidal wave, no discernible cultural high watermark for the past ten years?

As we dip into the 2020s, we can safely say that there wasn’t one particular defining sound or genre of music that characterised the last decade to the extent, say, that Alternative Rock did for the 1990s. Nor was there even a pervasive creative tendency apparent in the Zeitgeist, like Retromania haunted the 2000s. The biggest story of music in the 2010s was that there was no biggest story of music in the 2010s. But why not? And will there ever be a big story again? And should there be? In the absence of big stories — that shock of the new — where else might we look to answer the questions of how music characterises our times, how it gives song to our collective dreams, our nightmares, how music concurrently mirrors and invents our culture?

Conveniently, Reynolds offers us a clue in yet another of his comprehensive roundups, a cultural history of autotune. In lieu of a genre that coalesced the 2010s, autotune could be a worthy candidate for the decade’s characteristic sound. Importantly, what Reynolds points to is not generic but technical. If we shift our perspective on sound and music to include technological criteria — not what musicians create, but how — we will see that there was indeed a sound of the 2010s, just not a generic one.

The sound of the decade was … processed. That’s to say, the electrical signal of almost every recording, across every genre, by every artist (save perhaps Jack White) was to some extent rendered synthetic. Pop music of the 2010s was dripping wet with all manner of effects, plug-ins, pitch correction, equalization, delay, reverb, time manipulation — you name it. Even the cleanest of recordings — something like, for instance, Paul Simon’s 2018 album In The Blue Light — employed some degree of digital processing, some dressing-up of the singer’s naked voice. Autotune is likely the most ubiquitous form of signal processing in pop. But another equally omnipresent and comparable form stands out as well. That technique is called side-chain compression.

What follows will proceed from the assumption that music, and particularly music that aspires to art, can be interpreted, deciphered, that it means something. I also assume (as my PhD supervisor Jonathan Sterne always reminded me) that technology is performative. In effect, technologies enact, technically, analogous cultural logics. Put more simply, technologies act out our shared understandings and expectations about how things could or should be in the world. From those assumptions, we might then begin to interpret music and technology along two vital and overlapping lines: aesthetic and instrumental. We might say that the aesthetic is generally affective, while the instrumental is generally semiotic. Aesthetics deal with what sounds feel like, their immediate qualities of tone and timbre; instrumentality addresses what those sound-feelings can do, what they could mean, and how, in their particularities, they might reflect something more universal about us and the world around us.

Side-chain compression, also called “keyed” or “gated” compression, is not a novel production technique. But its use in the 2010s became more mannered and pronounced, extending especially from the avant-garde of electronic music scenes. Side-chain compression is a method of dynamic range compression — that is, it squeezes the volume of a given sound between its quietest and loudest parts. Side-chain compression is distinct in that it compresses a specific instrument or track (let’s say, the bass guitar) to the input of another instrument or track (say, the kick drum). So, whenever the kick drum kicks in, the bass guitar’s volume is compressed. Side chain compression is time-based, too. Which means that whenever the kick drum is absent, the compression fades away; the bass guitar’s volume returns to its full capacity.

The reason producers used side-chain compression in the analogue recording days was so that two loud sounds in the same frequency range wouldn’t double up and saturate the tape. Nowadays, producers tend to use it as much for aesthetic and instrumental effect as for function. We might recognise the bouncing, breathing, signature side-chain sound in tracks like Actress’s “Bubble Butts and Equations”, from the 2010 album, Splazsh. Note that this particular song’s kick drum controls the volume of the rest of the melody.

Once we identify this distinctive sound, we’ll hear it cropping up often throughout the decade — from Tim Hecker to Holly Herndon.

The aesthetic effect of side-chain compression is a remnant of what is commonly called pop music’s “loudness war”. Kyle Devine, Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Oslo, in a 2013 article entitled “Imperfect sound forever: loudness wars, listening formations, and the history of sound reproduction”, explained: “generally loud and heavily compressed recordings prevail because they fare best in the situations in which most people listen to music.” Compression gives the impression that music is louder, therefore sounding superior to the ear. And louder music is more legible in non-ideal listening conditions, like on headphones in transit, or in a nightclub where the room’s ambient noise competes with the music.

Instrumentally, though, side-chain compression in effect protects the overall sound of the music from individual sonic shocks. Each time any sound too aggressively enters into the sonic field, other sounds drop out to absorb the potential trauma of a distorted signal. Most often, this interplay is automated, too, causing a complex chain reaction of logical, if-this-then-that operations across the soundscape.

It is difficult not to draw analogies here with the algorithmic, artificially intelligent, and ideally automated functioning of global capitalism. Our system is built to absorb, redistribute and even to foresee shocks of all stripes: economic, political, social, environmental. Mark Fisher wrote in 2004: “… the frontier zones of hypercapital do not try to repress so much as absorb the irrational and the illogical …” Global capital would like to perpetuate the narrative in which global capital is never-not assured: “Capitalist realism is not about people positively identifying with neoliberalism; it is about the naturalisation and therefore the depoliticization of the neoliberal worldview.” So, like side-chain compression, global capital seeks to always-already absorb, to incorporate, and to make the unexpected the already-anticipated.

Slavoj Žizek, in his 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology, noted: “… the Real is a shock of a contingent encounter which disrupts the automatic circulation of the symbolic mechanism; a grain of sand preventing its smooth functioning; a traumatic encounter which ruins the balance of the symbolic universe of the subject.” Global capitalism has sought to minimize those contingent encounters — the shock of the Real — and thus minimize the disruption to the global circulation of the Ur symbolic mechanism: capital.

Adam Curtis described this risk-averse inclination in his 2016 documentary HyperNormalisation, citing the German economist Ulrich Beck’s work. “In developed civilization,” Beck wrote in his benchmark 1986 book Risk Society, “which had set out to remove ascriptions, to evolve privacy, and to free people from the constraints of nature and tradition, there is thus emerging a new global ascription of risks, against which individual decisions hardly exist.” Side-chain compression can therefore be read as a kind of sonic risk management system. It designates the traumatised and precarious subject in an era of limitless acceleration of information — Fisher’s “semioblitz”.

Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Richard Grusin goes one step further, articulating the anticipatory turn of mediation in the 21st century. He calls it “premediation”, or the proliferation of pre-emptive mediations of events. The goal of premediation, though, is not to accurately predict future events, but rather to minimise shock and sustain the status quo. The newsreader’s favourite 21st century expression — “In the coming days…” — exemplifies premediation.

Grusin explains: “What premediation strives for is not to prevent future catastrophes but to prevent those catastrophes from having been unanticipated to protect us from being caught unawares and shocked by future catastrophes as we were on 9/11.” Musing on the early 20th century’s ultimate shock, the sinking of the Titanic, Žižek clairvoyantly wrote: “…’the time was waiting for it’: even before it actually happened, there was already a place opened, reserved for it in fantasy-space.” With this in mind, let’s listen to Kaytranada’s 2016 single “Lite Spots” and notice how its prominent side-chain compression symbolically anticipates the song’s disruptive, shocking, traumatic rhythm – in Grusin’s words, “to antedate the sound of the gun.”

“Could it be,” wondered Mark Fisher in his essay “Coffee Bars and Internment Camps”, “that there are no breaks, no ‘shocks of the new’ to come? Such anxieties tend to result in a bi-polar oscillation: the ‘weak messianic’ hope that there must be something new on the way lapses into the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen. The focus shifts from the Next Big Thing to the last big thing — how long ago did it happen and just how big was it?”

This is a proposition that writers like Simon Reynolds and I — those of us who want to tie together cultural currents that are necessarily disparate and asynchronous — must confront as we all move into another ten-year period that may prove to be the most divisive (or most unifying) yet. Is it possible that the Real will increasingly dip and bend and deform and compress to absorb and distribute any possible threats, any imaginable shocks? Or is there a shock that cannot be conceived, much less compressed, yet to come? And so what if there is never another Nirvana, or Sex Pistols, or Beatles? The void of widely popular and overtly revolutionary music does not necessarily negate the possibility of revolution’s potential for wide popularity.

Is it conceivable to see something positive in side-chain compression’s structural homology with wider society? There is also an inherently communist aspect to it — each sound giving and taking and adjusting according to its transitory needs. Still, another interpretation could be that side-chain compression understands the finite nature of life, and that we all must continually strive to negotiate and share our limited place on this metaphorical magnetic tape we call planet Earth.

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Never Once Reflect

If you’re alright, then say something. Something.

Commodification now means not the appearance of a world of things but the appearance of a world of information about things, including information about every possible future state of those things […] – @mckenziewark

Algorithms and data aggregation refined brand’s control over their supply and demand chains in spite of the real world human aspects of a labor and capital-based marketplace while also acting as an agent or representative for music and creatives. Media brands through platform capitalism have repurposed the use-value of music to fit the lifestyle and productivity of young millennial white collar or freelance workers in an increasingly tech industry influenced work/life environment. – @dfnbrown1

Meanwhile, deindustrialization of industry and the financialization of the economy has led to the massing of young people in urban centers as jobs dry up elsewhere. Dance music’s rise in popularity has mirrored that post-recession population inflow, becoming the soundtrack for a gentrified nightlife in the process. – @gabeastralplane

 

You are not a gadget. But you need a gadget. Somewhere, a gadget needs you. It is a nightmare from which we can only awaken, I believe, by holding on to one another more, and gadgets less, in real life.

Like the Australian bird mimicking the squawk of an air raid siren, or Colin Stetson playing acoustic music that sounds electronic, we now interact socially as if we were algorithms, emulating post-capitalist currency and circulation, gathering information about one another not out of genuine interest, but rather, in an effort to premediate — mediate every possible future state of — our professional and personal relationships. The outcomes, however, are not capital but cultural. We no longer make love or even desire love. We cannot stand to face one another. Instead, we process each other in the midst of an all-pervasive melancholic longing. (See High Maintenance, Season 4 ep 2.)

The devil cares not if you believe in him. Your limited credence or understanding is irrelevant. Your personal perception of late-capitalism — whether to view it as a wonderful, liberating force, or Marx’s worst nightmare mutated, or a compromise of the modern world that you and I are more or less willing to make — is itself regulated by the social, media, and technology bubbles that late-capitalism produces and propagates. Frictionless, we can see a person on Twitter recommend a book about political philosophy, a book that aligns with our own views on political philosophy, which in due course shapes our perception of that particular Twitter user, and of Twitter in general, and so forth. Others’ activities spur us to action, and our respective actions in the virtual-public sphere in turn stimulate others’ productive impulses — producing and reproducing capital and information, and if not, then arranging, rearranging, and parsing capital and information. And this post is part of the problem masked as part of the solution.

There is something worse than capitalism: Control.

Here, we must posit (remember) something else, a force beyond and more powerful, more pervasive, eviler, for lack of a more elegant term, than capital. (But fuck elegance!) We must acknowledge and confront Control as Burroughs and Deleuze and Galloway understood it. Control is Control. There is nothing in- nor outside of it. Remembering Control — i.e. noting it, recording it — is the perpetual project of reawakening. Relinquishing Control — i.e. sharing it, making it more equitable, smashing capital’s control over Control — is the communist project.

Yet, I might submit that there has never-not been capital. (Never-not as distinct from always-already in that it precedes the conception as well as perception of phenomena.) We have never-not placed value upon things. Those things include material thing-things like laptops and bicycles and lawn furniture, but also immaterial things like time, labour, ideas, and information. Necessarily, those values fluctuate, have proven uneven, artificial, contested. Exceptionally though, capitalism equates value with capital and capital alone.

Communism did not “lose” the 20th century’s ideological battle, because communism has yet to exist. Communism is not a system of economic organisation or governance or evaluation or vector that stands in opposition to value itself. It is meant as an ethical system that redistributes value and capital along moral rather than capitalist vectors. We do not need to redefine communism to conform to hyper-capitalism. Nor must we invent new jobs for ourselves pinpointing and sub-partitioning capitalist energies — jobs that we’ll have inevitably lost anyway, to someone else in a fundamentally privileged position. We need only reiterate and oppose over and over the capitalist impetus to quantify and wring out and even invent all forms of value within any given economic system, rendered as surplus value for the elite few. A common misperception is that we ever even had communism — in the early part of the 20th century, in the Soviet Union. Or national socialism in Nazi Germany, for that matter. Rather, what we still have, what we have always had, is global capitalism, full stop.

“The evil genius of the postbroadcast-era media is that it not only holds our attention, it also records it. A lot more information can be extracted as to who we are, what we like, and which punk rock goddess we want to be.” (Wark) Information technology and data collection is not a new category of commoditising. And cultural criticism is indeed just as much a part of the political economy — often just as subject to similar legitimising institutional forces. That value’s maximum extraction is automated and honed on information and data in the 21st century is the logical if not natural progression of Control. We might prefer Patti Smith or Kim Gordon. Or Viv Albertine. But we all need to be some punk goddess now.

Control seeks to eradicate the rare. This is why the binary, on-off, either-or logic of the digital world is the best metaphor we have for it, and why Galloway chose to write about Control’s existence (persistence) into the virtual. At the time of Galloway’s writing, it still seemed as though the virtual-online world could prove to be a portal of liberation, a means of transcending the old, institutional disciplinary forms: family, school, church, prison. Other Control-affiliated institutions and infrastructures arose meantime: the shopping mall, the movie theatre, the food court; the trade conference, the festival, the rave; NASCAR, Oprah Winfrey, Late Night With David Letterman. Donald Trump. What we now see in hindsight (it is 2020, after all) is that, after broadcast media, the decentralised internet was precisely the “stack” that Control was looking for. Like any good needle. It could sink into the hay, recede into the interface, beneath the screen’s glossy veneer, behind the breezy urban lifestyles of mobile devices, the seamlessness of apps, the natural authenticity of streams, the weightlessness of clouds, the internet’s interconnectedness.

How do we fight a force that resists representation, defies definition, eludes identification, subsumes its own opposition? Dissent is among Control’s in-built design features. Even the most disruptive form of protest — i.e. terrorism — is part of the architecture, the 21st century’s general ambience. Ideological death is the opposite of exceptional. Revolution at its most banal.

Our rarity is deleted in the performance of commoditised interconnection. In aspiring amongst ourselves, in public, toward unique cultural experiences, or nuanced political opinions, or marketplace tastes — performing those things that not long ago signified the modern, educated, cultured, western, enlightened, liberal, broadminded, individual, free (white) subject — we at once divide and subdivide our subjectivities and social relations and risk our diverse (racial, cultural, economic, linguistic, &c.) multiplicity by submitting ourselves to privatised repositories of information. The archive as weapon. Anyone who’s seen Schindler’s List knows that we test our ethical limits when human beings become raw data. We are susceptible to the awfullest abstraction and vulnerable to violence’s ultimate manifestations.

First as conspiracy theory, then as Black Mirror episode, then as bare-naked reality. First as tragedy, then as farce, then as documentary series.

Totalitarian states, law enforcement and paranoiac fantasies once fueled the fear of surveillance. We were worried that our phones were being tapped, our rooms bugged, our movements recorded, to catch us revealing something incriminating during a domestic moment of intimacy and honesty. Corporations have far more information than any government ever dreamed of collecting, and most of it we have given up willingly, gleefully — on Facebook, Twitter, Google. Left and Right-wing media have all widely reported Edward Snowden’s revelations, the Cambridge Analytica leak, the Panama Papers. It’s not like we didn’t know.

For a long time, we have known and done nothing. We have lived with ambient violence since 9/11 but have mounted no revolution. The momentum of the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and various uprisings around the world (including the Maple Spring-student protests of 2012 across Quebec) has all but entirely dissipated. It is not enough to indict and convict ourselves for this. It is not entirely our fault. Dissipating momentum is part of the contingency budget that Control accounts for in advance. It is possible that these movements were, in addition to legitimate and spontaneous insurrections, highly informative data collection exercises to monitor and map the spread and circulation of potentially radical action. (How many of us confirmed our coordinates via an app, or posted social media updates from inside the protest?)

Most of us are not going to do terrorism, or infrastructural sabotage, or symbolically self-immolate, or anything remotely close. Nor are those viable strategies. (See Control’s contingency plan for dissipating momentum.) Most of us are not going to join blockades along Indigenous lands to halt trainloads of oil. Most of us might not vote or even sign a petition.

We-must-this! and We-must-that! is to 2020s critical theory as Did-you-ever-notice-this? and Did-you-ever-notice-that? was to 1990s stand-up comedy. A book like Capital Is Dead fits neatly inside its own tautological narrative — a book for its times, the time for this book. It needs to be published via a press like Verso with a cover in that font, with that kind of au courant design, for it to fill the necessary number of orders. (How many of us routinely purchase our hauls of anti-capitalist books from Amazon dot com, let’s be honest?) These signifiers validate the story both for us and the status quo, whom are implicated. The damned enemy certainly does not want to be immortalised within the back pages of some obscure blog post. Bestsellers or bust!

The difference between ordering your pile of radical literature on Amazon or directly from the Verso webstore is insignificant. It serves the same productive model. Your order will still pass through the “stacks”, that connective web — through your ISP, the cable plugged into the wall, the fibre optic line that runs to the end of your street, maybe underground, maybe over radio waves from then on. The order still gets filled in some warehouse, packed into a box and taped shut with a purchase order inside. It still ships and gets delivered to your doorstep by a driver earning a low wage for some delivery company or another. In all likelihood, taking this stand against The Man will cost you more capital than dealing with Amazon. The upshot is that Amazon’s finely oiled machine is never-not the ideal to which the independent bookseller must but never will measure up. UberEats and Skip The Dishes are rapidly replacing traditional urban food delivery models for similar reasons. (How can each restaurant be expected to have their own city-wide fleet of delivery drivers?) The choice between an independent bookseller and Amazon, or the local restaurant delivery versus UberEats, or Airbnb versus a hotel, or the buffet rather than the daily special, is made inherently political. But capitalism under Control shapes the fields of play and makes (and breaks) the rules of the politics game. Whichever choice you make, the game remains the same. It’s the old Coca-Cola-or-Pepsi routine for the 21st century.

It is not a case of identifying what iteration of the game we are forced to play at any given moment, but rather of remembering and re-remembering that it is a game, and the game is fundamentally the same rigged capitalist shell game it has always been. That is what Control does. Control controls. It seems so stupid to write down, to say aloud, and yet it could not be more profound! Whether we say, “this is not capitalism, this is something worse!” or “this is still capitalism and it’s gotten worse”, it is still much fucking worse, and there are few things Control would rather have us do than argue amongst ourselves whilst things worsen further.

Narratives like Capital is Dead or High Maintenance instruct us on how to navigate the playing field. They update us to the new rules of the same old game — the new terms and conditions, the new license — as would Apple with a new operating system or Microsoft with a piece of software. (This is the latest 2020 version.) Our attention is trained on deciphering the meaning, reading, critiquing, interpreting, getting to the heart of this inviting and familiar narrative. Familiar enough yet never-not strange, this seductive, instructive narrative. But deciphering Control’s terms is a misdirection of our potent critical energies. Assume terms! And assume that the terms are against you at all times, because they either are now or will soon be.

There are no alternatives to making things better. Dropping out is not an option. Escape is impossible. But trying is. The only thing within our control is what might be described as temperament, or timbre: our distinctive resonant vibrational colour — however harmonious or discordant — with Control. This is the opposite of a binary with-us-or-against-us relation. Upon this spectrum, there are infinite frequencies, infinite rhythms. And so, we always must dance.

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Never Once Reflect

Ten loosely connected thoughts on Tiny Mix Tapes and FACT’s demise, being an inquiry into the premediated shock of the Real

2020 has so far been the bearer of bad tidings for experimental music coverage: Tiny Mix Tapes and FACT have both announced that they will no longer publish editorial content.

Ten thoughts on that, below:

 

1: algorithmic engines and AI have replaced humans in media search and recommendation

Industry, not the state, is the engine of capitalist production. And industry, not the state, is the seat of power. So, corporations, not the state, are the sites of capital and power. As such, they lead the pursuit for data collection, not necessarily (or primarily) for social control, but for the ignorant pursuit and growth of wealth. The largest media and technology corporations have been watching and listening to us, the watchers, the listeners. And they have noticed certain patterns in our behaviours. Patterns that can be repeated and turned into capital — “if you like this”; “listeners also bought”. For better or worse, we have built and trained algorithmic recommendation through our consumption habits. Apple and Spotify, Amazon and Google silently survey us. Social networks encourage us to “share” everything. We have allowed and even participated in a serious erosion of privacy, and the potential privatisation of everything we make public.

 

2: streaming has replaced MP3s in the second great digital switcheroo

Remember when iTunes first opened, and artists complained that they only received nine cents for every 99-cent download? Those numbers, which significantly undercut CD royalties at the time, now seem lavish. On average, one would have to stream a song on Spotify between 20 and 30 times in order to equal the value of one iTunes-circa-2010 download. Where did the money go? The value of music has seemingly evaporated, but it is the tech companies and platforms that are rapidly reconstituting all that melts into air back into solid capital. Just as CDs artificially inflated the recorded music marketplace in the 1980s and ‘90s, streaming is artificially solving the problem of digital reproduction in the 2010s and ‘20s. Tech companies are like the mafia: they create a problem (“it would be a shame if someone ruined your nice business”), and then they offer up their own proprietary solutions, for a price (“You’re with us now, but we may call upon you for a favour…”)

 

3: streaming is still artificially buoyed by the major labels and their back-catalogues

The most-streamed artists and genres are not the obscure artists or genres. They are still label creations like Drake and Adele, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. After that, it is the Fleetwood Macs and Pink Floyds, the Madonnas and Princes, the legacy artists that we listen to. The legacy is the leverage. The more we mythologise, the greater the legacy’s value to capital and power. It is possible for independent artists to upload their music directly to streaming services, and also to trade their wares through platforms like Bandcamp. But hyper-specific currents and trends are more easily ignored on the major streaming platforms, and just as often absorbed — scaled up incrementally — by the corporate colossi.

 

4: increasingly more individualised self-identification and taste has destroyed consensus, and further subdivided communal affinities

Postmodernism and the omnilegent critical regard have levelled all cultural manifestations. There is no high nor low art now, neither hot nor cool medium. Everything is of equal importance: film, TV, music, fashion, visual art, text, talk, even politics and commerce. (Especially politics and commerce have come to replace art.) It is in the corporate interest to make us believe that if we don’t attend to everything, we haven’t heard anything. Through curation of cultural production, we cultivate the idea of ourselves. Yet the Left is divided further against itself by the very technologies and platforms (Twitter) that seem to unite and solidify the Right. The cost of our plurality is a lack of unity. The hope is that this is only temporary.

 

5: increasingly fragmentary temporality online has de-historicised the narrative(s)

In his 2010 book Retromania, Simon Reynolds was already documenting the effects of YouTube and the long historical tail on cultural production, arguing that the ability to plumb media’s historical depths made it easier to ignore the present, much less to orient toward an unwritten future. His was a voice in a growing chorus including Nicholas Carr (The Shallows), Sherry Turkle (Alone Together), Jaron Lanier (You Are Not A Gadget) and others attempting to conceive of the future and warn us of it at once. The sheer volume of simultaneous historical media disorients a sense of context and causality. In Reynolds’ end-of-the-2010s round-up for The Guardian, he writes: “While the clock and the calendar continue to plod forward in their steadfast and remorseless way, what you could call ‘culture-time’ feels like it’s become unmoored and meandering.” Writing for The Wire in 2012, Terre Thamlitz observed: “today’s widely embraced model of the ‘internet as context’ is a sign of new heights of refinement in selling the Western humanist model of a ‘shared human experience’ to a diversely destitute world — albeit only at the expense of denying every material circumstance facilitating one’s entry into cyberspace, ranging from the realities of our crap little rooms in which we sit with our personal computers to the massive social and ecological destruction caused by server facilities and power plants…” To date, I’ve never heard it said better.

 

6: the internet’s pliability and ephemerality distort history

The ability to write, rewrite, amend, redact, and delete things on the internet weakens its textual authenticity and authority. Note the rise in prominence of Twitter “watchdogs”, like the accounts that track and document edits made to Wikipedia and The New York Times. The restless revision of history — reissues, reboots, lists, commemorations — has become the most reliably profitable productive form. (See #1) An artist no one had ever heard of becomes the forgotten pioneer. The contested terrain of history becomes the archeological site for ever-new discoveries. And these exist beyond criticism’s reach. The lack of consensus means that evaluative critical distinctions like “good” or “bad” are rendered meaningless. Truth no longer requires permission.

 

7: affect rather than (or in addition to) the subconscious-subliminal is how capital-power constructs and enforces the Real

In Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary series Century of the Self, he argued that Freud and the subconscious characterised the 20th century’s cultural zeitgeist. Advertising appealed subliminally to our hopes and fears. And we felt mediated interactions as if they were real. Power and capital deploy arcane, resonant symbolism to communicate with us and amongst themselves through a sprawling and increasingly dreamlike media constellation. Jung more than Freud gives meaning and shape to media in the early 21st century. The sensorial immediacy and illusion of media’s endless availability guide — and misguide — us online. Every stimulus is effectively an interrupt request.

 

8: the internet is about appearance and experience — about media and its mediation, not about objects

As vast as it is, and as obvious as this sounds, the internet only houses an extremely limited number of things — obviously, it cannot transmit “things”. Thus, it masks its own materiality. The “thing”, the object of capital and power online, is attention. The ability to command and scatter it at will is currency. Michael Tausig, in a recent Critical Inquiry essay entitled “Unpacking My Library: An Experiment in the Technique of Awakening”, describes what he terms “Erlebnis”, a new “genre” of understanding: “a rapid-fire mode of experiencing in which an experience, so long as it is not extreme, burns out as soon as it is born. And it is scattered — [a] perfect reflection of our neoliberal age of tweet consciousness …” It is therefore understood and expected to regard and disregard in near simultaneity.

 

9: premediation (not remediation [the transubstantiation of old into new media] nor premeditation [the accurate prediction of future events]) is the cultural logic that governs our relationships between what could be and what is, the virtual and the actual

In his 2010 book of the same name, Richard Grusin defines premediation as “proliferating multiple remediations of the future both to maintain a low level of fear in the present and to prevent a recurrence of the kind of tremendous media shock that the United States and much of the networked world experienced on 9/11.” I would extend the logic of premediation to the cultural sphere: we are constantly braced for the next publication to cease operations, for the next cynical branding exercise, for the untimely deaths of artists and thinkers, for the planet’s general devastation. Cultural premediation is born of the critic’s impossible desire to stay one step ahead of the imminent future, while existing in the present, of observing without altering. (See #5)

 

10: shock is the ambient texture of experience

Control, as Burroughs or Deleuze or Galloway knew it, exists after decentralisation precisely because of the premediated shock-doctrine; rather than imagine ways out, we are too busy reacting, like cornered soldiers, firing off in all directions. For evidence, see the rise in prominence of the phrase “the new normal”. The New Normal implicitly means the shock, the lack of an anchor on bumpy seas, that we are now expected to simply live with. Is it possible to shock ourselves out of this? Through Acid Communism? Communist Surrealism? The thinkers I keep returning to — Water Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Mark Fisher — all took their own lives. Self-sacrifice certainly suits power and capital just fine. Another job they don’t have to do. But it’s clearly not the answer. Is there somewhere a shock that is not yet death, the useful shock of a new kind of consciousness?

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Never Once Reflect

The Sinking of the Titanic: 7 final thoughts on RBMA’s demise

1: This was not investment. It was an advertising budget. These are similar but not the same. An investment requires a direct return. An advertising budget also requires a return, but less direct, more diffuse. Just as any company would, after finding that their advertising campaign wasn’t reaching its market, or that that market had already been tapped out, they reallocate it elsewhere. It’s very 20th century thinking, actually. If a company figured out that their radio ads weren’t reaching enough of an audience, they’d put more money into print ads. An easy way to think about RBMA is to replace the word “Academy” — or “event” or “lecture” or “radio broadcast” or “historical essay” — with “ad”: Red Bull Music Ad.

2: Although it employed and advanced the livelihoods of many people who were passionate about music, and excellent at their craft, Red Bull was not a benevolent patron of the arts. (See #1.)

3: It was not about building local communities. Otherwise, they would have used local venues with local employees, hired local PR companies, grips, riggers, sound engineers, and ultimately respected grassroots local scenes. They did none of these.

4: The vast archive of RMBA materials is historically significant for at least two reasons: A: superficially, it is a repository of often interesting, often important, and often informative talks, essays, and the like. B: subcutaneously, it is a repository of what a corporate brand regarded as interesting, important, and informative, as well as how those narratives were subtly curated and sculpted to reflect and represent Red Bull’s brand identity. Examples of this include their history of Montreal’s Post-rock scene, Montreal’s Torn Curtain history, &c. Here, they de- and re-historicise to suit their own narrative, aligning their product with things that had nothing to do with Red Bull — scenes that were in direct ideological opposition to everything Red Bull stands for. In this respect, an archive is all the more necessary, as a cautionary tale, if nothing else, against anything like it in the future.

5: There is a question about whether or not the loss of RBMA will be a loss for culture at large. Some of the music RBMA rubbed up against existed already (Iggy Pop, Bjork). Some of it was concurrently emergent (Flying Lotus). Some of it was produced from the ground up, and/or immediately co-opted into the Red Bull brand ecosystem. This goes for their journalistic arm, too. Some people who wrote RBMA materials (Will Straw) had other careers, and didn’t really need the gig. Others (talented freelancers like Chal Ravens or Harley Brown) are likely more dependent upon an RBMA pay cheque. So there is a continuum — from co-opting and infiltrating already-existing cultures, to producing an artificial bubble — upon which everything they touched can be placed. Of course, Iggy Pop and Bjork won’t really suffer from RBMA’s demise. What Red Bull “made from scratch” is most at risk of disappearing, and most in need of immediate attention.

6: Here is a sinister thought: what if RBMA was really an assassination attempt of an entire scene on the part of a corporate conglomerate? I would argue that electronic/experimental/dance music communities are among the most progressive, most radical, and ultimately most dangerous cultural waves to come along since the illegal rave culture of the early 1990s. Did the corporate brands figure out how to nip these movements in the bud by sponsoring them from the get-go, and then pulling the plug just as they were gaining momentum? How calculated this nefariousness was, or if it even existed at all, is up for debate. But it’s possible. And if you consider the scale of wealth and power at play, it almost seems plausible.

7: This is a time for sympathy. If you’re in an abusive relationship and your partner dumps you, it’s you who has won, even though it might not seem that way for a long time. Unfortunately, in many instances of abuse, the victim continues long afterward to make excuses and apologies for their abuser. Hostages eventually feel pity for and even solidarity with their captors. A drowning victim will often fight and sometimes take down with them a would-be rescuer. Love, empathy, and healing are what we need now. We’re on dry land. We’re safe. Where we go from here is entirely up to us.

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Never Once Reflect

They Filled the Ears with Fear: The Horror of Noise in 2015

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Prurient performs at Screamscape (YouTube)

Something went quite awry at a party I DJ’ed this past Halloween, at Montreal’s beloved Casa del Popolo. Over the course of the evening, one of the guests in attendance—some guy wearing a green plastic mask—became progressively more aggressive. During the second set, by a goofy local band called World Provider, plastic mask guy began jostling through the crowd, knocking into people around him. At the apex of legendary Toronto camp act Corpusse’s headlining performance, plastic mask guy started a minor fight at the foot of the stage with someone dressed as Kit Fisto. It was all very surreal, and I, of course, noticed along with everyone else.

As Corpusse finished up, I nonetheless started my closing set at top volume with a noisy track from a recent Shapednoise EP. Less than halfway into the song, I looked up from the turntables to see that masky badman had cleared the entire room. I immediately stopped the record. Like a tornado of one, he was in the middle of the dance floor screaming at us to fuck off, which we couldn’t hear until I pulled the plug. After threats, swinging punches in the air and an ultimately heroic intervention by Sebastian, the house sound man, green plastic mask finally exited the venue. Still, I couldn’t help but notice with horror that my Shapednoise track had been playing at the moment of such a lunatic freak-out – that the noise itself was covering up and maybe even fuelling a violent outburst.

2015 has been an especially horrific year, and that is evidenced in its noise. Sure, Shapednoise—whose 2015 collaboration with Black Rain Resident Advisor’s Holly Dicker called “a horror-techno workout”—might well be an easy target. But a wider array of notable albums this year has been shaped more broadly by noise.

Selim Bulut of Dummy instantly identifies Oneohtrix Point Never’s “heavier, noisier energy” on his 2015 album Garden of Delete. In his review of Rabit’s debut LP entitled Communion, Bob Cluness of The Quietus notes the record’s “militarised outbursts of noise”. Writing for Tiny Mix Tapes, Birkut claims that Prurient’s 2015 watermark Frozen Niagara Falls is characterized by “a crushing arsenal of noise”; Andy O’Connor at Pitchfork reassures that Dominick Fernow “brings back much of the harsh noise that faded away from his more recent works”.

Neither is this upsurge of noise limited to male artists, nor to those normally associated with a specifically noisy palette. Pitchfork’s Winston Cook-Wilson highlights Holly Herndon’s uncharacteristic use of “threatening sheets of noise” on a track called “Morning Sun” from 2015’s Platform. Jim Fusilli of The Wall Street Journal argues that Chelsea Wolfe’s Abyss is simply a modern iteration of Folk “with added noise and ambience”. Spin magazine has gone further, naming “Mutant Noise” the trend of the year.

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Chelsea Wolfe performs at Brudenell (Photo by Al Overdrive)

In his foundational book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, Jacques Attali asserted that the moment when noise entered the modern musical lexicon was the “essential fracture” between past and future, resounding “a world in which brutal noise was omnipresent”. But what sort of criticism is appropriate to these works today? How should we approach this new kind of noise, and what does it signal? In search of answers, let’s travel down some known dead-ends for a moment.

Should we merely describe the work? At a time when anyone with an internet connection can listen via any number of cheap, free or stolen channels, that project becomes more like directing traffic. And nobody wants to write “stabby synths” or “grinding beats” any more than anybody needs to re-read those hackneyed descriptors.

Should we look to a biography of the artist? Does it matter that Daniel Lopatin had an awkward adolescence? The notion that nature or nurture produces artists and works of a certain ilk is one fraught with peril. It simultaneously normalizes those who fit a mold and exoticizes those who do not. There are also countless dead artists about whom we will never know personal details. And yet their works persist.

Should we seek the artist’s intentions in making such a racket? Does Dominick Fernow intend to make us laugh, or instil fear, or something else? Artists’ intentions are just as often uninteresting as otherwise. Once a work is made public, the artist gives up his or her rights to have an audience experience what they intended. Again, decisively, we cannot dig up dead artists and ask after their intentions.

Should we interpret an unintentional intention into the work, or about the artist? Is there something specifically “Urban” to be read into Prurient, or “Rural” to be found in Chelsea Wolfe, or “Digital” discovered in Holly Herndon? In the immortal words of The Dude, “Yeah, well, y’know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”.

Should we build stories around works of art? Shall we construct narratives as to their place in our personal lives, or within culture at large? Is Daniel Lopatin a Rockist? An EDMist? A joker, a smoker, a midnight toker? The idea of a master narrative is suspect, and a number of minor narratives only serve to dilute the message – assuming there ever was one.

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Oneohtrix Point Never performs at Villain (Photo by Maxwell Schiano)

Should we champion artists as innovators? Shall we point out that Oneohtrix Point Never was the first electronic producer to release remixable MIDI files rather than digital audio stems? Is this interesting or important? Not really. Plus, someone will always come along and argue an earlier precedent.

Should we stand to defend artists against attackers, real or imaginary? Shall we insist that Daniel Lopatin is just as worthy of canonization as, say, Trent Reznor, or Holly Herndon as Delia Derbyshire? These equations are arbitrary. And they ignore the historical specificities that have real effects in determining which kinds of cultural artifacts endure.

Should we pull the old switcheroo? Shall we argue that even though Chelsea Wolfe is a marginal, underground artist, that her new album is the one that will truly prove her importance? This can’t work when the margins are constantly being re-enfolded into the centre – at a time when Taylor Swift can top the charts with accidental noise, and when a once “indie” publication can be subsumed by Conde Nast, forever entangling unlikely bedfellows.

Should we eroticize this music? Shall we extol Rabit’s “militaristic outbursts of noise” for their textural qualities, ignoring any potential political agenda? We can’t even. Because noise resists eroticism. Unless that eroticism is intrinsically sadomasochistic.

Should we attempt to study the artist as if she or he is a patient under psychoanalysis? Shall we speculate that Dominick Fernow’s onstage antics reveal issues with intimacy? Or that Garden of Delete is a harbinger of doomsday? These diagnoses often reveal more about the analysts than their subjects. Analysis is accessory to Freud, and a 20th century conception of individuality and authorship. This logic breaks down when we realize that even the works of solo artists—perhaps especially those—are actually products of a whole equation.

An ecosystemic view is more promising. We’d do well to consider each of these variables amidst a landscape modelled by everyone from PR personnel to label management, tech bros to journalists to festival curators, and bloggers to the individual by way of social media as co-constructors of each and every work of art. And this is not to mention the role of algorithms, which probably make more noise about music than anyone these days.

Noise can be horrifying because its opposite is stillness, death. Noise signifies the ultimate horror in that its absence is even more horrible. Doubtless, the attackers who perpetrated the latest Paris atrocities at the Bataclan did so at least in part because of the dramatic shock of silencing a noisy rock show.

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Justin Trudeau pays tribute to victims at the Bataclan (YouTube)

We live constantly amidst noise, making more noise against the noise of the world. Noise is volume, and the volume in our sphere has been turned way up in more ways than one. Post-modernity is at once noisier in terms of its sheer sound pressure, and also because we are never-not overwhelmed by the leviathan volume of continuously flowing information. Noise pushes out all other frequency until any resemblance of signal is lost. Noise insulates us and allows us to continue functioning in the midst of inconsistency and unpredictability. This is horrifying when we turn the noise off and hear what it’s been drowning out. Like green plastic mask guy, noise enables us to scream and still remain silent.

If it stands that we as critics mustn’t add anything superfluous to works of art, our duties now more than ever are to lay bare what is actually before us. We do this in hopes of seeing or hearing or feeling the thing in its inherent thingness, outside of any conceptual framework or value apparatus, but undoubtedly shaped ecosystemically by all of those as well. Sometimes, we must remove even our own signal to hear the noise that surrounds us for what it is. And lately, it’s a horror show.

Rather than a description or biography, interpretation or new narrative—instead of a championing or defence, analysis or location, hermeneutics or even erotics—at last we need a horrifics of art.

Ryan Alexander Diduck

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