Halfway through Samuel Beckett’s excellent Malone Dies, the titular character details a highly evocative visual metaphor that quickly gets right to the heart of the Beckettian project:
… I feel it my duty to say that it is never light in this place, never really light. The light is there, outside, the air sparkles, the granite wall across the way glitters with all its mica, the light is against my window, but it does not come through. So that here all bathes, I will not say in shadow, nor even in half-shadow, but in a kind of leaden light that makes no shadow, so that it is hard to say from what direction it comes, for it seems to come from all directions at once, and with equal force. (p.58)
You can picture it in your mind’s eye: a dull light that illuminates basically nothing apart from indiscriminate amorphous pools of dark colour that we can barely perceive, that for all intents and purposes is not “light” at all. And yet, this is not simply darkness either… there is something that we sense, but without any of the clarity that light is supposed to bring…
It is not just Malone’s room that is bathed in this eerie “leaden light”, which he evokes multiple times throughout the book: it is seemingly the entirety of Beckett’s oeuvre. Beckett’s characters are often decrepit, impotent, forgetful and elderly figures that stalk not just at the fringes of society (for example in mental institutions) but also at the fringes of the human itself. Constantly reflecting on and editing the texts which they are purportedly the author, flitting from one topic to the next, his characters seem to lack any of the regularity or constancy that define human interiority. And yet, they stubbornly remain human: with a dark and bleak sense of humour, they continue to think, walk about, and even have sex. Much like the leaden light, we can grasp at “something” with Beckett’s characters, but paradoxically because of this, they remain unclear, dark, “nothing”.
It is precisely this commitment to the eerie, contradictory fringes that makes Beckett’s books often challenging and difficult to read: absent a plot or characters in any substantial or coherent sense, the major footholds a reader typically depends on when reading are gone. For most people, this amounts to a cardinal sin, and an immediate turn-off: why read a book where nothing happens? Where we know essentially nothing about the characters involved? Why are there pages, indeed a whole physical book, when really there should be none? Indeed, for most people these are entirely legitimate questions, and the “common sense”, instinctual reaction to Beckett’s works would be to stop reading after 20 pages and tell everyone you know how boring the book was. But such criticisms, rather than seriously invalidating Beckett’s works, actually demonstrate the radicality of the philosophical claims they make on us. For in order to seriously engage with and enjoy them, Beckett’s works demand nothing less than this: that we adopt a whole new ontology, an ontology right at the limits of ontology itself.
The central philosophical question prompted by Beckett is this: how do we think nothingness without turning it into a “something”? How do we think a being that, paradoxically, is nothing? What kind of “being” is the leaden light?Read More »
Someone at the first session of the k-punk quarantined online seminar series yesterday made quite an interesting slip of the tongue. Discussing how we got into Fisher’s work, one PhD student described themselves as a fan of Fisher’s works, before almost immediately pulling themselves back and saying something along the lines of: “well, not “fan”, fan’s not the right word…”
Said in a moment amidst technical difficulties before the conversation proper started, I didn’t say anything in response to this when it happened. But needless to say, this kind of academic and postmodernist aversion to “fandom” is exactly what Fisher was rallying against in his work (amongst other things, of course). All of Fisher’s work starts from the basic starting point unveiled in different ways by Nietzsche, Freud, Spinoza, and various others: there is no libidinal neutrality. Far from escaping desire for the cherished realm of dispassionate objectivity, anxious attempts to rein back “subjectivist” desire only further demonstrate it through their jittery acts of denial.
Fisher most explicitly makes his case for being a “fan” in two 2009 blog posts, “Fans, Vampires, Trolls, Masters” and its follow-up. Against the idea that fans are simply the mindless zombies of groupthink, lobotomised of any critical faculties, he asserts in the latter:
Far from being uncritical dupes, fans will often be more critical of their object of adoration than anyone else is; in part, evidently, because they care far more than those who haven’t made the libidinal investment. (This doesn’t mean that fans won’t close ranks when their object is attacked by an outsider.) I say ‘object of adoration’ but ‘adoration’ doesn’t really capture the fan’s relation to the object. The object isn’t so much adored as fetishised, elevated into the position of an idol, the figure around and through which libido is organised. But the mistake of anglo-American deflationism is its notion that we can simply dispense with this kind of fetishism and just deal with propositions. Some kind of attitudinal/ libidinal stake is always necessary to get things going; the issue is whether it is foregrounded and affirmed or occulted and denied. Passing beyond being a fan is not achieved by occupying a chimeric position of libidinal neutrality, but precisely by following the implications of the libidinal investment.
The question this poses is: if you like Fisher’s work to the point of being invested in it, why shun the label of the “fan”? Why deny that investment? The idea that being a “fan” of Fisher jettisons one of any critical engagement with his work is patently silly, and far from enlightening the disinterested “truth” of his work, only deadens it into a flat apparition to be slotted neatly into pre-existing categories. Indeed, as Fisher notes in “Fans, Vampires, Trolls, Masters”, “there is a strong relationship between the Fan and the critic”. This is something I elaborated further in my post on Iain Nairn and criticism – good criticism actually incorporates fandom in that it intensively places itself within its object, gives itself over to its mobilisation of the libido. But – and this is something I neglected to mention in that post – this is not enough in itself: the placement of one “within” the object of criticism must then also be matched by a flight or escape from it. (This is demonstrated by the banalities of everyday life: often we only realise the truth of a past situation we were involved in because the passage of time distances us from it and allows us to reflect on it from the outside, having previously been “in” it.) But in order to make that escape, one necessarily must have previously been “within” the object at hand; it’s not enough to simply sneer from the outside.
Adorno gives this a theoretical rigour in aphorism 46 of Minima Moralia, which I quote at length because the force of his argument here is lost if one reduces it to a pithy citation:
Naivety and sophistication are concepts so endlessly intertwined that no good can come of playing one off against the other. […] Knowledge can only widen horizons by abiding so insistently with the particular that its isolation is dispelled. This admittedly presupposes a relation to the general, though not one of subsumption, but rather almost the reverse. Dialectical mediation is not a recourse to the more abstract, but a process of resolution of the concrete in itself. […]
The morality of thought lies in a procedure that is neither entrenched nor detached, neither blind nor empty, neither atomistic nor consequential. The double-edged method which has earned Hegel’s Phenomenology the reputation among reasonable people of unfathomable difficulty, that is, its simultaneous demands that phenomena be allowed to speak as such - in a ‘pure looking-on’ - and yet that their relation to consciousness as the subject, reflection, be at every moment maintained, expresses this morality most directly and in all its depth of contradiction. […]
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Nothing less is asked of the thinker today than that he should be at every moment both within things and outside them - Münchhausen pulling himself out of the bog by his pig-tail becomes the pattern of knowledge which wishes to be more than either verification or speculation. And then the salaried philosophers come along and reproach us with having no definite point of view. (p.79-80)
Thaemlitz is a useful figure because, as a musician and DJ (though they, understandably, prefer the term “media producer”) rather than some dreary academic, they represent how coldness indexes not a lack of joy but a higher state of it. The typical image of “being cold” evokes a miserabilism that refuses to accept change or do anything different, which is quite literally frozen into particular habits. But this only holds if one sees coldness as an absence of heat, rather than thinking coldness in itself. The question that Thaemlitz, producer of chilly deep house classic 120 Midtown Blues, thus prompts us to ask, then, is: where does coldness lead us, if not nothingness?Read More »
This is the introduction to what was going to be a longer essay that I started writing about a month and a half ago, but lost its way and I eventually gave up on. It seemed a waste to not do anything with it, though, and I actually think it works better as an isolated fragment. So enjoy…Read More »
I had never heard of Nairn before this, but he comes across as immediately magnetic, eccentric and above all convincing: a character of real passions, or, as Jonathan Meades puts it in his preface to the show from some time in the 80s, the “enfant terrible of architectural criticism”. Meades continues:Read More »
Full on lockdown has finally given me the chance to finish Simon Reynold’s mammoth volume on post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again. I’ve already mentioned the book twice on this blog (#1, #2), and for good reason: it’s an extraordinarily fun and informative read.
Despite being journalistic in style, committed to and bound by the sheer actualities of what happened, Rip It Up and Start Again reads like a loosely-arranged novel, with recurrent characters, motifs, and themes perpetually cropping up, disappearing, and then re-appearing in other contexts. Indeed, it reminds me of anthology TV series such as Easy or High Maintenance: always grounded in one lifeworld – in this case, the post-punk milieu – but always entering (and exiting) it from different perspectives, different bands, different periods, thereby allowing the singular consistency alongside the sheer complexity and multiplicity of the lifeworld to be expressed. It’s precisely this mode of composition that makes Rip It Up such a joy to read: it faithfully expresses post-punk not as some historical artefact bound by chronology and stuck in the past, but as an almost timeless countercultural milieu, sensibility or organism that one can tap into and channel in the here and now. The stories and anecdotes regaled in the book aren’t just thrilling because they express something that, unbelievably, happened (see below for a list of just some of these), but also because they express a potentiality in the present, a set of resources and practices to be simulated and put in motion. In short, the book doesn’t just make you want to read more about bands: it makes you want to start a band yourself.
The book functions through its 26 chapters which simultaneously possess a singularity (each focuses on a particular “scene”, for example late 70s New York No Wave, the rise of British indie labels such as Rough Trade, or the antics of producer Malcom McLaren) while expressing a larger whole (the aforementioned post-punk milieu). Contained within these chapters are some remarkable anecdotes and stories that, as argued above, really fire up one’s imagination, jolt one into laughter, disgust, or disbelief (sometimes all at once). They’re wonderful little nuggets, charged with a countercultural libidinal energy.
At 537 pages*, though, the book is a hefty volume, and it’d be a shame for its countercultural libidinal potential to be blocked because of that. So, both as a tribute to the book and as a way of extending its countercultural archive, here I’m going to retell and recap my favourite anecdotes, characters, and themes from the book in digested form. Hopefully this imparts just a slither of the post-punk energy onto you, dear reader, or even better, it will get you to read the book yourself…
More via the ‘Read More’ button…Read More »