Genius Glitch

Those Pants You Like Are Going To Come Back In Style

Happy anniversary, David Letterman, Paul Shaffer, Barbara Gaines, and everyone who worked on what was pound-for-pound the greatest late-night television show. Better than everyone. That is not to diminish anyone else’s nocturnal accomplishments. But Dave bent the aerial.

Thank you for following this extremely niche account. I created it for something to do, and as an artform. Like Marge Simpson’s Ringo Starr studies reimagined by Gerhard Richter. Or Lucy’s character in Fear & Loathing, who takes LSD and paints portraits of Barbara Streisand from the television. It started out as a hare-brained hobby and quickly evolved into a hare-brained hobby.

This account peaked, culturally, in early 2019 when it was mentioned in a very important thread on the blog Hipinion. Just like Orson Welles, we started at the top and worked our way down. Exactly like Orson Welles.

David Letterman attracted a select audience of awesome weirdos on TV. And @geniusglitch has gathered together a similarly select audience of awesome weirdos on the Internet. As Stewart McLean of Vinyl Café wrote, we’re not big but we’re small.

It is both wonderful and strange that the followers of this account have been largely kind, in a sea of negativity, throughout the Trump era and global pandemic. I think our followers are a testament to the kind spirit of David Letterman. That’s the energy that I’ve tried to bring to this project. Thank you for smiling back.

On this auspicious anniversary of Letterman’s 33 years of service to the light side, I am excited to announce that we are going away for the summer to make a Show for you to watch.

It will be a small Show. But we did, after all, graduate from Show school. In the Melman Productions spirit, we are going to put our Show heads together and Show you something.

In September, this Show will premiere from the greatest city in the world. No, not New York, Montreal. There will be clever segments, and interesting interviews, and live musical performances. We are going to laugh, too, so hopefully you will, with us, @ us.

That’s the “idea”, in the loosest sense of that word.

I’ll be your “host”, in the loosest sense of that word.

My name is Ryan Alexander, and the Show is called Genius Glitch. Our cameraperson is called Andrei Khabad. He is Russian, I am Ukrainian, we live in Canada, and we get along. So far.

Wish us luck, send us money, letters, but good vibes only please!

Thank you, David Letterman, for teaching us whatever it is we “know”, in the loosest sense of that word.

Have a safe and delightful summer, stay tuned to @geniusglitch for updates, and see you in September.

Play Recent

Play Recent archives on Repeater Radio

The good people at Repeater Radio have created an archive for Play Recent episodes after they’ve aired live. There’s no reason to tune in live anyway, it’s pre-recorded. Although I do. Yes, I’ve been known to listen to my own show because the music is so great. Hey, if you can reach just one person, right?

find your favourite Play Recent episode >>here<<

Word Virus

Cut-up experiment #111

What follows is an excerpt from my 2020 work, The Limits of Control. I wrote the book entirely on a Brother Activator 800T mechanical typewriter. At regular intervals, I chose pages at random, alternately cutting them lengthwise, horizontally, diagonally, as well as digitally, and reassembling them to produce the sort of experimental textual cut-ups proposed by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs. I transcribed these cut-ups onto new typewritten pages, scanned them into the computer, and ran the images through optical character recognition software.

According to Gysin and Burroughs, splicing into written records from the past can potentially cut into the future, too, revealing ruptures in the flow time. As with any experiment, there is a temporal lag between conducting the experiment and observing its result (I chose one solar year). Furthermore, there is no expected or anticipated result — anything could manifest. Nor would it be known to causally or correlatively follow the experiment. Therefore, the fruit borne of these experiments could be categorized only as items of interest or disinterest.

This extract was submitted to but not included in the Unsound Intermission edition.

The Limits of Control is available here.

cut-up experiment excerpted from The Limits of Control
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?


Pike’s Hollow (scene 1)

Randolph Pike, 77 and silver-haired, sits shirtless in his doctor’s office. He breathes. The fresh sanitary paper spooled out over the examining bed crinkles under his frame, cutting through the sterile silence. Pike looks up at the ceiling tiles, the fluorescent lights, the air ducts. He scans the counter — jars of cotton swabs, Q-tips, tongue depressors, a plastic model of the human brain, cut into removable sections. On the wall an eye chart, a biohazardous refuse receptacle; on the back of the door, a full-length mirror. Pike’s eyes rest now upon his own reflection.

The door suddenly swings wide open. Dr. Ranieri, a gentle-faced young man in a white lab coat, stethoscope stuffed into one of its pockets, enters brusquely.

“Good morning, Mr. Pike, how are we today?”

“Never better.”

“Excellent,” Ranieri says swiftly, scanning Pike’s chart. “I see we suffered some chest pain overnight.”

“I did. I had some chest pain overnight, yes.”

Ranieri wraps an inflatable black armband around Pike’s bicep and begins pumping. He removes stethoscope from pocket and places the buds in his ears. “Breath normally, Mr. Pike.”

Pike inhales and exhales in mannered, measured breaths, noticing the mixture of rubbing alcohol, chlorine bleach, and a waft of Ranieri’s cologne in the air.

“Blood pressure is fine, 120 over 80. Perfect, actually.”

Ranieri moves the stethoscope around to Pike’s back, stopping momentarily as he respires.

“Have you been to the mall yet?”

“No, Dr. Ranieri, I haven’t been to the mall yet,” a hint of laboured sarcasm in Pike’s voice.

“I thought we had an agreement, Mr. Pike.”

For a moment, Pike holds Ranieri’s scolding eyes before blinking.

“Yes, I was going to go, but my daughter-in-law, Kiva…”

“No more excuses, Mr. Pike. We talked about this. You need regular exercise after your heart episode. Nothing strenuous. We agreed that you would walk around the mall in the mornings.”

“I remember.”


“I will.”


Pike climbs down from the examining bed.

“You may have been a big bad cop once upon a time, Mr. Pike, but you can’t play bad cop with your doctor,” Ranieri says, a smile breaking across his face.

“Yes sir … you young sonofabitch.” Pike salutes, putting one arm back into a shirtsleeve.

“How are Kiva and the kids?”

“Just fine. They come once a week to visit their old grandpa.”

“That’s good, Mr. Pike. So many of my patients don’t have anyone. You’re a lucky man.”

Pike’s eyes flash back at Ranieri.

Ranieri stops himself, a little embarrassed: “I just mean…”

“I know what you meant, Dr. Ranieri,” Pike says, “and you’re right,” retrieving his slacks from a chair in the corner. “But it wasn’t all just luck.”

“Of course, it wasn’t, Mr. Pike.”

“Some of that luck I could give back to the Indians, let me tell you.”

Ranieri frowns. “But you’re here now.”

“There were lots of times I almost wasn’t.”

“Maybe you should write a book.”

“What do you want me to do, write a book or walk around the mall in the mornings? I won’t do both.”

Ranieri smirks. “Let’s start with the mall. Promise me, Mr. Pike. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, yes, I promise.”

Word Virus

Fight Virus with Virus, or: Fear & Loathing in a Time of Pandemic

A Problem With Fear, or Laurie’s Anxiety Confronting the Escalator is a quirky 2003 sci-fi-rom-com by Canadian filmmaker Gary Burns — and useful for thinking through this moment. The movie revolves around protagonist, Laurie, a young man crippled by his multiple fears. When he is alone, he is incapable of using elevators, escalators, of crossing the street, taking public transportation, without succumbing to paralyzing panic attacks. Laurie’s sister, Michelle, an executive at a tech company called Global Safety Inc., chaperones him through these necessary quotidian travails. Laurie’s girlfriend, Dot, a fashion-conscious and sympathetic sociology student, worries that Laurie’s phobias will prove too much to bear and put an end to their relationship.

Global Safety Inc. manufactures a kind of predictive wristband that warns its wearers, including Laurie, of impending danger. But a computer virus has infected Global Safety’s software. Suddenly, all of Laurie’s anxieties, each more gruesome than the last, begin to manifest before his very eyes: a man’s backpack gets caught in the subway doors; a woman’s scarf becomes entangled in the mall’s escalator. Soon, everyone’s fears are coming true. The film’s fictional TV media, covering the string of events, refer to it as the “fear storm” gripping the city.

One of Global Safety’s engineers, an unlikable grunt called Erin, is the first to discover the virus. But Michelle and her team deliberately suppress Erin’s evidence. Knowing that Laurie’s fears are causing the storm, and crazed by his company’s efforts to silence him, Erin confronts Laurie and commands him to commit suicide. Faced with this shock, Laurie surmises that he needs to overcome his fears — the final fear being his commitment to Dot — to stop the chaos.

I cannot be the only one right now feeling like Laurie, watching in horror as my worst fears come true: there is now the terror of totalitarian control, on top of the terror of the virus itself.

Social measures that only weeks ago seemed unthinkable are becoming realities that we cannot ignore, nor oppose. Italy and France have decreed its citizens indoors, while the US considers similar policies. For me in Canada, our borders are effectively closed to anyone who is not a Canadian citizen. Social distancing practices in effect in Montreal mean that mass congregations are cancelled; the province has banned gatherings of more than two people, the strictest restrictions on Quebec’s cherished civil liberties since the 1970 October Crisis.

In 2012 during what has come to be known as the “Maple Spring” student uprising across Quebec, which took place in context of the global Occupy Movement, the provincial government implemented a temporary measure (called “La Loi Speciale”, the special law) outlawing groups larger than 50. This was an attempt to stifle demonstrations that at the time were attracting participants in the tens of thousands. Protestors saw the law as an egregious breach of the right to protest and disregarded it, chanting: “we don’t give a fuck about your special law.”

Under any other circumstances, Quebec would be the first place to mobilize resistance to the limitation of freedoms we have come to think of as fundamental. In 2020, though, in the face of a global pandemic, no such protests are taking place; Canadians are largely accepting with grim resignation that a dark cloud has set in over our sunny ways. It is a living nightmare, though, to which, I argue, we have been acclimating culturally since 9/11, through mediations — in popular music, and in disaster films like A Problem With Fear.

Commentators have noted Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, Contagion, as a prognostic Hollywood script for Covid-19: “it is not surprising that Contagion has been one of the top trending movies on both Amazon and iTunes since January” say the behavioural researchers A.T. Kingsmith and Patrick Ciaschi in a recent CBC op-ed. Another article published in The New York Post calls the movie “basically a blueprint for 2020.” But fear of disaster has more broadly underpinned the fantastic imagination in the 21st century. Think of Justin Timberlake’s 2018 single “Supplies”, in which he croons to a prospective lover: “Some shit’s about to go down, I’ll be the one with the level head, the world can end now baby, we’ll be living in The Walking Dead.” Or Grimes’ current album Miss Anthropocene, in which the singer aims to make ecological destruction “fun”, casting herself as the “Goddess of climate change.” The Swedish musician Leif Elggren in 2003 released an album entitled Virulent Images/Virulent Sound, which claimed to contain “micro-recordings of eight different samples of highly potent viruses.” Why even imagine such things?

Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Richard Grusin articulates this anticipatory turn of 21st century mediation. In a book of the same name, he calls it “premediation”, or the proliferation of pre-emptive mediations of disastrous events. Premediation is similar to, but not the same as, remediation (the enfoldment of old into new media) or premeditation (attempting to forecast the future). The goal of premediation is not to accurately predict the future, however, but rather to mediate in advance every conceivable outcome of an event, in order to minimize the trauma of media terror the likes of which the west experienced immediately after 9/11. 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.” Grusin stops short of suggesting that premediations might have some effect on the outcome of real events. But what is implicit in Grusin’s claims is that one of those premediations will come true. The filmmaker Adam Curtis advanced this notion through a montage scene of disaster movies in his 2016 BBC documentary, HyperNormalisation. Is it possible that, somehow, we are inviting disaster simply by imagining it?

In a recent article for Philosophical Salon, Slavoj Žižek, citing Tolstoy, likened Coronavirus to a meme — a viral mediation: “The basic category of Tolstoy’s anthropology is infection: a human subject is a passive empty medium infected by affect-laden cultural elements that, like contagious bacilli, spread from one individual to another.” Žižek notes Coronavirus’s “stupidly repetitive” nature as a neither-living-nor-dead organism: if Covid-19 were a meme, it might be “CTRL C + CTRL V = HOMEWORK FINISHED!”

Still, I find that turning to William S. Burroughs’ notion of media virality is more useful right now, against the backdrop of the kinds of social controls of which even the Nazis never dared to dream. Across several texts, Burroughs traces the history of the Mayan calendar as the ultimate control mechanism, with which the priests exercised an almost absolute authority over the peasants’ everyday lives. “The Calendar was predicated on the illiteracy of the workers,” Burroughs explained in an essay called “The Limits of Control”: “Modern control systems are predicated on universal literacy since they operate through the mass media.”

The current-day controllers are not priests but rather the benefactors of global capitalism: the world’s trillion-dollar companies stand to benefit the most from this disaster, as we teleconference from self-isolation through Microsoft Teams, search Google to see if we’re experiencing symptoms, and panic-buy toilet paper on Amazon directly from our Apple devices. Credit card companies are profiting as essential businesses increasingly refuse cash; amidst cataclysmic layoffs for small businesses, Wal-Mart and Domino’s Pizza are hiring. Because we are now conversant in the language of “viral” mediation — viral premediation — we are also primed to automatically understand and react in fear to a real virus’s virulence.

Gilles Deleuze took Burroughs further still: “Control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers,” wrote Deleuze in his essential essay, “Postscript on the Societies of Control”: “where the passive danger is noise, and the active, piracy and viral communication.” Coronavirus is a technology oscillating in time against the transmission of its mediations. This has confounding implications for the natural, subjective suspicion of Empire flexing its control, and the leftist impulse to resist it: “not to shake hands and to go into isolation when needed IS today’s form of solidarity,” Žižek argues.

What I read in all of these disaster narratives is the ultimate premediative text. I want to be like “Clippy”, Microsoft Word’s paperclip assistant character, and say: “It looks like you’re writing a suicide note.” Just after 9/11, Jean Baudrillard already identified a kind of subconscious, self-destructive premediation in The Spirit of Terrorism: “The countless disaster movies bear witness to this [suicidal] fantasy, which they clearly attempt to exorcize with images, drowning out the whole thing with special effects.” But it is not our own suicide, the suicide of the leftist cultural project, but rather the suicidal recognition by capital that it cannot possibly continue in its controlling capacity. Even before Coronavirus, the world was already under imminent threat from ecological catastrophes — catastrophes compounded through extreme consumption and equally extreme disparity. If the stupid self-reproductivity of capital is not itself the virus, it has produced the current conditions which complicate the mitigation of this tragedy. Furthermore, resisting control at its most suicidal could spell mutual destruction.

The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher offers us a viable strategy. In an essay titled “Remember Who The Enemy Is,” Fisher writes: “As the two most acute analysts of Control society, Burroughs and Foucault both recognised resistance is not a challenge to power; it is, on the contrary, that which power needs. No power without something to resist it. No power without a living being as its subject. When they kill us, they can no longer see us subjugated. A being reduced to whimpering — this is the limits of power. Beyond that lies death. So only if you act as if you are dead can you be free.” It is eerie reading this advice from beyond Fisher’s grave, but it may offer not only survival but also the opportunity for what Žižek calls “reinvented Communism”: “The present crisis,” Žižek urges, “demonstrates clearly how global solidarity and cooperation is in the interest of the survival of all and each of us, how it is the only rationally egotistic thing to do.”

During this time of imposed self-isolation, we might consider ourselves “playing dead” to control. This enforced downtime might even be characterized by Deleuze’s metaphysical concept of Immanence: “What is immanence?” Deleuze asks: “A life … This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be one to another, but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn’t just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness.” The space of immanence is where the virtual becomes actual, thoughts become actions, ideas become words, and words build the world in which we live.

A Problem With Fear does not end with the clichéd idea of Laurie simply choosing love by overcoming his fear of commitment to Dot. This would be the easy answer: loving those that love you. The film’s pivotal scene is one in which the whistleblower, Erin, and Laurie are trapped together in a freefalling elevator, with Erin again commanding Laurie to kill himself. Instead, Laurie hugs his aggressor, and the elevator correspondingly slows its descent. As the doors open and Erin exits, he looks back on Laurie with wonder, saying, “you just saved the world.”

What I am calling for is not some notion of “the power of positive thinking”, or McMindfulness, the sort of disimagination displayed by celebrities like Gal Godot singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” from the comfort and safety of their reinforced cocoons. No. We must overcome our problem with fear, and, like Laurie, truly commit to moving forward together.

I am advocating, for instance, the kind of creative solidarity displayed by the musicians’ platform Bandcamp, which last Friday, March 23rd, waived its sales cut, thus transferring to artists — many of whom are especially hard hit through touring cancellations — 100% of their earnings. I am advocating The Saskatchewan Heavy Construction Association collecting 1,300 respirators to protect front-line healthcare workers. I am advocating crawling up inside this in-between time, this immanent space, and playing dead to capital. This means a moratorium on dystopian premediation, imagining instead what utopias might look like through acts of genuine solidarity, not just during times of crisis but every day, from now on. At the end of the world, the limits of control, it is easier than ever to imagine an end to capitalism.

Word Virus

The dog that didn’t bark: silence in the age of virulence

Yesterday afternoon I heard myself whisper to myself: “I wish I could just disappear.” It startled me, as if for a moment my voice belonged to someone else. I was all alone in my bedroom at the time, the most private and intimate of domestic spaces, sitting silently in front of a screen. Indeed, there was no way I could have physically appeared to anyone. “Bedrooms are the private space of silence par excellence,” wrote the historian Alain Corbin in A History of Silence: “It is necessary to them.” And yet I had never felt more awash with noise, the necessary privacy and silence of my domestic space infiltrated. We can quarantine ourselves from a virus, but isolation from information is no longer an alternative.

What is startling about coronavirus is not the virulence of the virus itself, but rather the compulsive proliferation of mediations about the virus — the hysterical whys and what-nows and what-ifs. Media scholar Richard Grusin calls this “premediation” — similar to, but not the same as, remediation (the enfoldment of old into new media) or premeditation (attempting to forecast the future). Rather, premediation seeks to mediate in advance every conceivable outcome of an event, in order to minimize the trauma of media terror the likes of which the west experienced immediately after 9/11.

Premediation is not like a weather forecast, Grusin explains: “To premediate the weather would be to try to imagine all of the possible scenarios that might conceivably arise so that the weather could never come as a surprise.” Anecdotally, I have never seen media channels so singularly devoted to one topic: nearly every headline — from politics to the economy to arts, culture and sport — is dominated by COVID-19 and its premediation. “The real struggle,” a New York Times op-ed claims, “is how worried to be.” Another piece invites us to “play with a model” to chart just how much worse coronavirus could get. It’s almost as if the media were the virus.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”, first published in 1892, contains a potent and frequently cited passage. In the story, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to Dartmoor to solve the mystery of the disappearance of a racehorse named Silver Blaze, and its trainer’s murder. In a conversation with a Scotland Yard detective regarding the facts surrounding the crime, Holmes mentions a “curious incident” involving the stable’s dog. The detective informs Holmes, “The dog did nothing in the night-time”; to which Holmes replies: “That was the curious incident.”

This absurd passage is most often trotted out as a metaphor with semiotic implications. The clue that illuminates the truth of the case for Holmes is that the stable dog did not bark. In a sense, the conspicuous absence of the sign is just as significant as the sign itself. We might even be tempted to say that the absence of the sign produces its corona — the residual halo surrounding its occlusion. We are already socially distanced technically, through social media, confined, self-isolated, in the bedroom. And yet the bedroom is no escape from internet virulence. The quarantined, silent refuge of the bedroom has been invaded by the virus of the word, rendering self-isolation both imperative in one sense, and impossible in another.

Since 9/11, we have effectively been in training — with Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, SARS, Bird Flu, H1N1 — through increasingly interconnected, amplificatory, “viral” mediation to imagine and enact the spread of actual, viral virality — how a contagion could potentially play out and to what magnitude. We have not yet had a true global virus, I argue, because we have not yet had the technical infrastructure for global hyper-virulence. “Control societies function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers,” wrote Gilles Deleuze in his essential essay, “Postscript for the Societies of Control, “where the passive danger is noise, and the active, piracy and viral communication.” Coupled with the premediative impulse, we are now experiencing the peak onslaught of mediations about a virus, mediations which are themselves contagions search-engine-optimized for maximum internet virality. The coronavirus is a technology oscillating against the transmission of its mediations.

“The word is now a virus,” William S. Burroughs wrote prophetically in his 1962 novel, The Ticket That Exploded: “Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten seconds of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk. That organism is the word.” When the viral media event is a virus, we can’t say something, yet we mustn’t say nothing.

The dog that doesn’t bark is no less rabid.

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.