Sunday, 31 August 2014
The ‘”everyone MUST join in” fever is raging through social media again. “Go on then, I’ll do my DUTY and take part too …Oh, sorry, did you mean the ice bucket challenge? I thought you were talking about the return of Kate Bush – I won’t do the ice bucket challenge. Oh, was that the “it’s for a good cause!” pitchfork I just felt prick against my clothes. Erm, well I did donate to the pressure group Avaaz to help a campaign raising awareness of the magnitude of the response needed to challenge climate change, “coz, yer know, that’s raising awareness about something that matters innit?”(Is it any surprise that a media platform that champions individual expression actually seems to marginalise it? I feel like somebody’s zipped my thoughts up when I go on there these days, hence the reason I write most of what I think on here now.)
Anyway I do have a lot of thoughts surrounding the artist Kate Bush. Mainly from the first decade of music she produced. Not that I dislike her work beyond this point, just that I feel it neither had, nor could conceivably try to have, the ‘strange phenomena’ of her earlier work, for which the only appropriate word could be magical. I really respect her request that no camera/iPhone or iPad recordings be used within her recent performances, she clearly recognises the impact that digital life has had on experience; she has no doubt watched it creep up on us throughout her musical career, and possibly anticipated our coming post- millennial dependency on it in the 1989 track Deeper Understanding. Yet, at least for the talking-husk that is me, I don’t think this would be able recreate that magical essence, and despite its insightful intentions, I’m not sure I could even experience it at all in 2014. I feel it is locked within a certain historical point. However, that her work simultaneously feels timeless is something I try to get to grips with here by looking at what happened during this particular historical point, by also including the recordings by a band whose time-span mirrors this early ‘magical’ period of Kate bush’s music: Joy Division.
Even though I wasn’t born until a few years after the time period of 1978 to the early 1980’s, it seems to have served as a pre-birth milestone. Life has increasingly felt like a stuck record from there-on-after this pre-birth milestone. I was born into the stuck record whilst it was only just starting to relapse at a pace so slow it wasn’t really noticeable, and unique cultural production was still just about possible. Now it is relapsing so massively a quiet panic has begun, as we cling desperately to reunions and comeback tours. When I think of this time, it’s purple, dark red, yet misty hues that I can see – the colours of when your eyes are shut and ready to exit waking life. How do I feel I remember it? As with the sonic sound of synth music by the likes of Orchestral Manuoevres in The Dark from this period, it feels like a stored-up memory from the years prior to my existence. It certainly isn’t the case that I have this feeling for moments of a specific pop cultural aesthetic from say the 60’s or 50’s. What possibly caused this was my earliest memories being coloured by near-past television and radio repeats (The tune to Love Will Tear Us Apart and the Stranglers’ Golden Brown somehow attached themselves to Christmas periods in my mind from my early life).
What made Kate Bush’s music so magical-sounding was the way it felt like a dream-scape that mirrored the real world. The moorland of Wuthering Heights is uncanny, because it could only be the heathlands we know too well that hang above our towns further down the hills, yet with the dreaming folded in on them. The analogue effects on the videos of the time are the only appropriate effect, digital would ruin it. The hills that loom above the towns will always harbour my emotional responses to both Joy Division and Kate Bush.
Because it evokes a dream-like version of the familiar, you are urged to say that her music operates outside the normal experience of time. Yet the music certainly isn’t timeless. It is very much embedded within that late 1970’s-early 80’s era. Precisely the point when modernity fell into itself, rematerialising as a digital no-man’s land of invisible (or internalised) control systems. Yet whilst her contemporaries, Joy Division, embodied that collapse and “day in day out” of life in that control society that emerged thereafter, Kate Bush’s music from this period seems to have caught a dream-scape, an unreal vision, both beautiful and nightmarish (think Breathing), that seems to have been cut off, almost like an air pocket within the passing of time. But the music doesn’t sound dated, it sounds more like a lost world, one we mourn. I don’t think Kate Bush’s music has changed in quality throughout the years – just that there’s something about the sonic quality, and the analogue effects of the accompanying videos that seems impossible to recreate once digital reproduction began to take over. The entire period of the movement from the 70’s into the 80’s, into Thatcher’s TINA (there is no alternative to capitalism) and the accompanying digital that spread like the DNA of the new ruling agenda – it all feels like a period locked in an air pocket within the passing of time, as if things could have gone another way.
Today’s depressiveness, yesterday’s seductiveness
Both Joy Division’s and Kate Bush’s music feels like it belongs on the bleak, barren hills that hang over my town, and all the other towns that rest on the pennines for that matter. These hills, dark shapes that rise in the background, haunt us. Kate Bush’s and Joy Division’s music haunts also. It is all very much to do with death – the hills, the music, they all seem to bring inner attention to a deep impulse to escape the tightening coils of the 21st century world. There’s a seductive impulse running through Kate Bush’s earlier music to free oneself from the world that succeeded the dark but magic time pocket the music seems caught in, as if you’d fall back into that very world; that maybe it still exists under the bleaching of digital capitalism.
“If Joy Division matter now more than ever, it’s because they capture the depressed spirit of our times. Listen to Joy Division now and you have the inescapable impression that the group were catatonically channeling our present, their future. From the start their work was overshadowed by a deep foreboding , a sense of a future foreclosed, all certainties dissolved , only growing gloom ahead.” (Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, 2014).
Both Joy Division and Kate Bush would be the music I wanted to listen to when I required the barren, even desertified, empty hill-scape above my home town. For the aforementioned comforting seductive lure of escape of Bush’s music, but with Joy Division is was much more in the way that the music and landscape seemed to work in unison to exhaust the painful 24 hour blend of fear, paranoia, and depression that I began to find constituted this new ‘always on’ life in the 21st century. Joy Division confirm and makes space for the nauseating feeling that isn’t really allowed to acknowledge itself in a 24hr anxious social landscape of networking, self-promotion, and the resulting emphasis on ‘being positive’ all the time: that of occupying a wasteland, and really-existing dysphoria. The barren, empty hill-scape, with its lack of landmarks, and long-straight roads that appear endless, compliments this just-beneath-the-skin outlook. After all, when the depressive spells do catch up with you, when the non-stop digital world exhausts you and leaves you in as a drained-husk of a person, more positive music, more feature-full landscapes can often being dangerously painful.
For this reason I’m not certain I totally agree with Mark Fisher further on in the Ghosts of My Life essay of Joy Division, when he says their seductive world can be dangerous for young men. I think it isn’t an healthy world to dwell in long term, but regarding the short-term, I’d argue that Joy Division, in confirming what I was already sensing, actually contained it, made it manageable – possibly even saved me at points. However, I have to keep returning to them, I need it like a prescriptive drug, the music really does ‘catatonically channel our present’.
“They keep calling me”
“feel it closing in, day in day out day in day out” – Digital
“There’s a ghost in my hall just watching you, but I’m not here” – Watching You Without Me, Kate Bush
Back to the ice-bucket challenge and other MUSTS…
I can’t stand the word fan, because I don’t feel like my need for music as a prescription pill is like that of a fan’s (I wasn’t subscribed to the Sertroline-Fanclub for a large part of my 20’s); likewise it does injustice to real fans, who seek out for new music every day. But anyway, I thought I’d listen my favourite Kate Bush and Joy Division tracks in no particular order; here ISN’T my ice-bucket challenge.
1. Wuthering Heights (The original version)
4. Deeper Understanding
5. Watching You Without me
7. The Big Sky
9. Never Be Mine
10. Army Dreamers
3. Dead Souls
5. Heart and Soul
7. Love Will Tear us Apart
10. The Eternal
Wednesday, 27 August 2014
Tuesday, 26 August 2014
“And teenage tears sting my eyeballs, in a town where I wasn’t born” – A New Decade, The Verve
Yeah yeah, I’m aware that what can constitute a human is an incredibly plastic thing, shaped by many factors. But here I just want use it to refer to the ability to show feelings, except just fear and anger.
For some reason this only seems to occur later on in the evening. And seems to be bubbling up far more frequently of late, like air bubbles from somebody finally submerged in water.
One recent evening springs to mind. Because on this evening I was reminded of why I have found it so hard to feel human/part of the species (rather than merely knowing I am) throughout my adult life.
This scenario was on a train heading back from Manchester, anesthetized by drink, after a boozy meet-up meeting a friend there being rounded off by a can of cider for the tedious local stopping service back to Sheffield (any excuse to reach the required level of numbness).
Manchester will always be a funny place for me; like London, it gives me a feeling of part of my life being left incomplete; not just the degree courses I left incomplete in these cities, but also a potential life I never managed to live in them. Something was in the way.
Whilst in Manchester, the something in the way was one year through materializing as Anorexia Nervosa, or something that most closely resembled it.
However, catching this train, now far less introverted, 11 years older, and drunk, I was some distance away from these days (for better or for worse? well that’s not as clear cut a answer as you’d think).
Northern Rail had provided us with one of their Northern Fail trains, where you can’t hide a single facial expression from the rest of the carriage.
I found myself sat behind a young female student, probably in her late teens, the same age I was when trying to complete a course in Manchester. She had a book which I couldn’t help but notice the content of without either staring at my feet or out the window into a pitch black landscape.
The book was titled Overcoming Anorexia. Then I noticed she had an all-too-familiar look: that of the slow healing of starvation, of being painfully thin but with the bruised and beaten look of the half-skeletal anorexic body finally disappearing under rehabilitated flesh.
I began to feel a lot of empathy for her (not something my general fearful, frustrated goldfish bowl-self usually finds easy) when I saw that she had stuck a sheet of white paper over the book cover. She was clearly so ashamed or frightened about the world finding out she had been inflicted with this destructive thing. So much for it being ‘fashionable’ to be anorexic, it can often feel extremely humiliating.
However, despite this, it didn’t feel intrusive and disrespectful that I was more or less reading the book with her. Quite the opposite, because it was a shared world, a world we both inhabit, although it was one shared in silence – you can never break that silence, if broken the response would be incredibly defensive and dismissive. The anorexics world is an incredibly lonely one. A self-made tomb between life and death.
I said inhabit rather than inhabited because I never really left it, even after 10 full years of not being properly anorexic. I still usually experience the world from within a lonely goldfish bowl (from which I watch the commencing and departure of human interactions, but as something unobtainable). Yet, the train scenario made me feel overly emotional in a way I’m not used to. Despite the drunkenness maybe having a part to play I felt momentarily human. I saw her reading the chapter on how the disorder damages relationships with family and friends, I thought about the stress/worry this disorder puts families under up and down the land, and silently wished her luck with it all as she got off the train.
The same fears that caused it still form the self-made tomb between life and death (you can never really feel alive – you drive through life, but it always feels like it’s through a window). A fear of so many things webbed so seamlessly together by the bullet-pace of the world. And an impulse to avoid the hell of empty/dead time, when you suddenly run out of ‘tasks’ to complete. Once I ‘gave in’ (as it felt) and could no longer keep the regime up, after a brief spell when I felt life could be properly felt too emotionally turbulent to maintain, I merely re-channeled my compulsive behaviours into the way I made art, my increasingly politicised way of thinking, even the way I walked, and (unfortunately) the way I do social drinking. It can’t go on, I need to become human again. But the longer you leave it, the less you have to go back to. I don’t believe we maintain a ‘core-self’. Yet, the emotional response I felt to seeing this student reading the book was a sort of affirmation that there is still something there that isn’t just fear and anger.
“I am twiggy and I don’t mind the horror that surrounds me” (4st 7lb, Manic Street Preachers)
Anorexia is both a response and an embodiment of the dark side of society’s unspoken demands of us. It isn’t a timeless human condition, but a reflexive response to a certain type of world, a world of pressures, demands, fears and horrific inhumanity that we are forced to witness through our media-pummeled eyes. It is intrinsically bound up with our cultural values of hard work, the good citizen, and the pure/innocent person who abstains from ‘indulgence’, which has still persisted, and even intensified under an era where ‘greed’ was claimed to be virtuous. But it’s persisted because these days thinness is also associated with success, as the richest, most successful generally maintain lifestyles that keep them at a socially-approved level of thin. To be skinny is bound up with success – to be unsuccessful in our ‘X-Factor Society’ is be a non-person.
In addition to ‘hard work’ need to feel ‘pure/innocent is a crucial factor’ to kick-start the spiral into anorexia. To be conscious of the horror in the world, and our unwilling participation in it, is to feel guilty; guilty for being tainted with the knowledge of our unhappy planet. Whilst to be overweight, ‘lazy’, gluttonous, is to be guilty in the eyes of society. To be alive, to sweat, defecate, smell is to be guilty in the eyes of society. Sacrificing ones life to the pursuit of the model of ‘innocence’ that is skinny, becomes an unacknowledged impulse and inflicts many unfortunate sensitive (still mainly young female) humans.
This is the violent age of global financial capitalism. It’s media technologies are a concrete realisation of its ideology of market individualism. We are pitted to compete against an increasingly fast, violent and unstable world, and our response is to wage war on ourselves, make our bodies the world, a world we (feel we can) control. The writer Laurie Penny puts it well in her book Meat Market, saying ““when you are anorexic, your world shrinks to the size of a dinner plate”. Regarding the invisible flows of financial capitalism, and the flow of digital media, which is an expression of this dominant system, I’d go further with the violence it deals out, and say that the bruised, crushed-tin look of the war-against-the-self of anorexia, is in fact a concrete abstraction of the violence of capital flow.
Yet, inspite of this I have a life to live. And I cn’t ignore it anymore as it’s bubbling over in the only way it can do so when it is repressed – destructively. Suddenly you realise 10 years has gone, and you begin kicking and screaming to get out. I can understand the political implications of Anorexia down to every last electrical node attacking the psychological state, but when I saw this student reading that book I realised “it’s nowhere near enough – life has to be lived”.
Sunday, 24 August 2014
Call me dictatorial for scrutinising responses to my large drawings, but the most common reaction of “how many pens do you get through?” doesn’t bother me one bit, to argue against that. It’s just one response in particular I find troubling: “Do you/have you suffered from mental illness, mate?”
Maybe, to cut a tirade short, it is my own fault. Maybe the nature of my work makes it look as if it’s only about my ‘screwed up little mind’ (although thanks to those who say it depicts how they feel about the world, helping me stand my ground here). Maybe, paradoxically, this is merely an argument with myself, that my paranoia has conjured up a phantom from a collaged-Other, and I’ve just massively proven the response in question to be utterly true?
However, I would say it is more of convenient utterance; that it is convenient to locate things such as my artwork as originating from entirely within the individual, in a time of hyper-individualist dogma, where to consider the porous nature between what’s behind one’s flesh and blood is hazardous to the maintenance of a belief in a concealed lucrative, original product, that is “I”. Mental illness may be a rising subject of concern on our contemporary agenda, but we still see it largely as lots of people possessing it rather than lots of people sharing it.
When the desire to simply daub atomized screams onto canvas felt insufficient to express how I really felt (nor was I particularly talented at doing this either), I needed to somehow express the wider landscape which I always felt set the co-ordinates for for misery and fear to foster themselves inside me. It felt useless to focus entirely on myself, as much as it felt useless to draw a world lacking my own injuries staining its streets. My work is an attempt at a cognitive mapping of the emotional mindfield of the 21st century world.
Mental illness is a very difficult diagnosis to pin down. I can often agree with the claim that all humans are mentally ill – after all isn’t consciousness (or the belief we have it?) a form of mental illness? But arguing this when there is clearly an epidemic of people finding their psychological state in turmoil, dysfunctional, manic, paranoid, thinking suicidal thoughts makes a universal human nature-case out of something specific to our historical period and our society; at worst such a speculation is a philosophical game that becomes totally self-serving and pointless. The more reactionary response that people are faking it because it’s become ‘fashionable to be depressed these days’ deserves to utterly ignored here.
On the grounds of the psychological state in turmoil mentioned above, it’s evident to anyone who’s ever read my blog, that I have indeed suffered (and suffer) from mental illness (for some reason it seems to spike – on my blog – around the time of seasonal festivities, and bank holidays, which is annoying as I wish these things didn’t have any impact on me whatsoever). But it often seems like giving people the nod to your own mental illness prevents them from seeing the wider map of distress within which you originally place the words saying “i am mentally ill”.
My drawings are the closest thing I’ve done to interpret the world as it seems to me. Of course they’re an illustration of my subjective experience. But that experience has to come from somewhere, it isn’t born in me. In this case, everything has to be subjective to some extent, even the most fact-based accounts given of current affairs. Yet the “are you mentally ill, mate?” response to my work seems to completely bypass this. But there again, I am putting my work into the arena, titled as ‘by John Ledger”, an original piece made completely by John Ledge; So perhaps there’s as much fault with the artist, or in trying to be viewed as being one…
Saturday, 23 August 2014
“I’ve seen what people are capable of when they’re in desperate situations. Are we really so far from that point already?” – Philip Carvel, Utopia, episode 6
I won’t dispute that the recent second series of Channel 4’s Utopia ( Dennis Kelly) was gripping. Nor will I dispute the fact that what made it more gripping was its use of overly homely locations around Barnsley and Wakefield in the final episode – fusing two of my obsessive pre-occupations: place, and our collective future in this century (the crucial issue within the drama). After all, I have a clear memory of reading Slavoj Žižek’s Living in The End Times in the very of bus aisle used for the beginning scene of the final episode.
Yet, Žižek’s approach to ‘the end times’ is in itself a critique of a cultural infliction that I argue is critically played out in Utopia’s ‘end times’. Žižek’s book deals with the civilisational dead end we have found ourselves at. That although a capitalist reality can only deepen the problems we face in the 21st century, we are incapable thus far of imagining an alternative reality. He, like many other take heed, and deepen the assertion from the famous quote made by theorist Fredric Jameson that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism”. A cultural infliction that theorist Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism‘ prevents a civilisation from imagining a way out of the mess it has found itself in.
Utopia’s artful web of conspiracy ideas, all set up within the drama to enable a secret sterilizing-causing-vaccine called Janus to greatly reduce the human population, is greatly imaginative within the narrow realms of what is currently imaginable, but it goes no further. Whereas a film such as The Children of Men (set in the aftermath of mass sterilisation) dealt with the fallout of the inability to overcome a dead end, Utopia provides only capitalist realist solutions to it. Nowhere within the drama’s message is there room for contemplation that a more equal distribution of resources, and a more democratically planned growing and using of foods and fuels could perhaps be a solution, because this is far harder to imagine ever happening than the end of the world. Thus, the only option in such a reality is to greatly reduce the population.
(Wakefield’s Hepworth gallery, one nearby location used in Utopia)
Utopia graphically shows to us what we already know is unfolding around the world due to the fucked-up-ness unravelling from being psychologically-trapped in a reality of exploitation at all costs: psychotic violence, by state and by individual to reach the only ends given. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi said “If capitalism is to go on in the history of mankind, then the history of mankind must become the place of total violence, because only the violence of competition can decide the value of time” and aren’t we seeing such measures being exerted in both non-physical and physical ways to reach these ends/means? When another gruesome act occurs in Utopia, although it shocks us and gets the blood racing, isn’t it what we kind of expected to happen anyway though? That in our narrow Real that’s the only extreme-result we can imagine?
Utopia was a great series, but due to its ‘capitalist realism’ it gives us a deadly solution to the threat to survival we all try to forget about (hoping it will go away). But the problem with picking and choosing in an already vastly unequal and selfish reality could result in the most ghastly ethnic/class-cleansing imaginable. But nobody watches Utopia thinking they’d be the unlucky ‘chosen ones’ in such a scenario. The infliction of ‘capitalist realism’, in pitting all against one another, intensifies our subconscious belief that we are more equal than others, an instinct that less reckless societies throughout time have realised needs to be tamed for our good. Utopia does a great job of showing what human beings are capable of doing to each other, but I find it severely problematic that it just leaves it at that – a foregone conclusion.
Full marks for entertainment value, acting, and the plot, for sure. Just no marks for feeding our imaginations with a reality that often was indistinguishable from the brutal world we see unfolding when we switch channels to see blood almost dripping from the TV set on Russia Today and Al Jazeera.
Friday, 22 August 2014
I'm pleased to say I will be showing my work …Coils Tightening as part of Our Corner – Art as Political Expression, a 3 day exhibition to be held at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield. I will be showing my work a long with 15 other artists, in an event which also includes workshops and open mic nights in the evening.
18/09/2014 – 20/09/2014, 11am – 4pm
Our Corner – Art as Political Expression“The Crick Centre at University of Sheffield http://www.crickcentre.org/ and Ignite Imaginations www.igniteimaginations.org.uk are collaborating to produce a three day exhibition for the Festival of the Mind http://festivalofthemind.group.shef.ac.uk/2014-festival-mind/ on the themes of Discrimination, Inequality and Sense of Place. The Festival of the Mind is a collaboration between the city and the University of Sheffield. It’s an 11-day festival where the University shares its most exciting research in inspiring and creative ways. This exhibition is part of the second Festival of the Mind that will be held from 18th September 2014. It will bring together research staff of the University and Sheffield’s cultural and creative industries to create a magical series of events for everyone to get involved with.”
Tuesday, 19 August 2014
I’ve begun including a few photographs within my (what I still reluctantly call -as I’ve not found a better word for them yet) psychogeographical maps.
13th May 2012
“Street Art-clad entrance into Victorian storm tunnels, before they descend under central Leeds. Perhaps the element of urban decay is what prompts us to talk about the rise of capital flight from urban areas in the future, alongside the rise of ‘disaster capitalism.”
17th June 2014
“Waiting to cross the road and notice man stumbling down Huddersfield Road. He looks severely distressed. Can’t tell if it’s emotional, pyshical or both. He looks extremely impoverished, possible addiction problems. He stumbles onto road, rush hour traffic has to stop, and he stumbles onto the next road. I turn around dreading I’m going to see him run over. It’s as if he’s lost the will to care. Can’t help feeling that I’m seeing many individual tragedies of neoliberalism’s race to the bottom.”
24 June 2014
30 June 2014
“Large juxtaposition between aspirational, digitally-utopianised imagery, whilst old men sit and watch the demolition [going on] beyond the imagery. Is there really enough people in this area [who can afford to shop at extortionate upmarket shops] to justify this total gentrification of Leeds?”
8 July 2014
“Trees growing from disused railway line momentarily give me impression of a city abandoned by humans, and lush plant life taking over”
12 July 2014
Pro-Scottish independence sticker of gas/electric meter (?) at bottom of Victoria Road. It says ‘End London Rule!’ My first thought it “we’re all [as in the rest of England] with you on that!” I’ve noticed a lot of pro-Scottish Independence stickers posted around this end [north] of Barnsley – a Scottish/Yorkshire link trying to be harnessed maybe?”
15 July 2014
“Aspirational poster of good-looking couple pillow-fighting next to private apartments. I always find this advert offensive, even as its believability fades as it gets bleached by the sun.”
19 July 2014
“Can’t ignore rolling news bulletins flying past on big screen in Wetherspoons. It’s all about responses from nations regarding the Malaysian passenger plane being brought down by a missile in Eastern Ukraine. It starts to make me feel unwell – the unending possibilities of consequences that can crush your well-being.”
1 August 2014
“6 Chimneys Wetherspoons, Wakefield. The only place I found to sit and have a coffee. Sit across from young man, wearing vest, on his laptop. [See him] trawling his Facebook and Hotmail accounts, no doubt feeling the need to keep up to date with things and search for opportunities. It is something an increasing number of us are familiar with, including myself; the low-paid, precarious, or unemployment mass all trying to better their predicament through the network – an endless, relentless searching and (virtual)door-knocking.”
5 August 2014
“Listening to the Louder Than Bombs compilation, The Smiths, in roads/landscapes akin to the ones I used to walk/cycle through whilst I was in my early adulthood. It reminds me of how, despite it being a difficult time, I still had hope for life/the future.”
11 August 2014
“Head to Baby Jupiter, a pub [I frequented] often in the early recession days. Near-past friendship groups. There’s a little glass jar on the bar; “help us from going bust”. This is the most ‘Retromania’ bar I can ever imagine. Yet, right now it feels like a comfort blanket, immune from time”
12 August 2014
“The long urban walk begins to [blend together] with my long urban walks in South East London. I think about how Manchester is portrayed as ‘Coronation Street’, but is experientially very akin to gritty South London.”
16 August 2014
“Suddenly notice cars, and realise the seeming ‘place of safety’ is within grasp. Forests, especially dark, near impassable ones, warp [your] sense of time and distance. My wrong turn [within] it has felt like an hour, when in reality it’s only be 25 minutes. I have sweat dripping from my forehead.”
17 August 2014
“Two very tall policemen surround a poor-looking, possibly malnourished teenage male, outside [the train] station. Whatever he’s done, he now looks noticeably scared. A nearby person says “haven’t they got anything better to do than to pick on a boy?”
18 August 2014
“Barnsley library now literally one big heap of rubble. What a waste. It almost looks like a dark monolithic construction. From here [viewed on Shambles street] it is placed right in front of the town hall – it almost looks like an attempt to rebuild Barnsley’s past landscape of spoil heaps.”
Saturday, 16 August 2014
“If capitalism is to go on in the history of mankind, then the history of mankind must become the place of total violence, because only the violence of competition can decide the value of time” Franco Berardi Bifo, Time, acceleration, Violence
But I would fervently contest the tags “egotistical” and “willfully”. Recently I have felt one humongous pressure raining down on my skull as if heavy sedimentary layers were forcing it into metamorphic rock. The pressure to be more, to get beyond my low-paid predicament, my padded-‘precariat’ predicament, humiliatingly often still reliant of my ‘salariat’ parents. Yet a predicament that has thus far allowed me to forge a sense of dignity through any artistic output outside 9-5 hours. But this pressure, the ‘something must break’ pressure, has begun to drown out all other noises.
The ‘don’t let others dictate your life for you’ benevolent call from friends alike is like the sound of a falling leaf next to a trigger-happy fog horn, as I’m certain it is for the many. At 30, an healthy age for a 19th century granddad, I’ve begun to promote my art and navigate the likes of Facebook in more of an attempt to appease the fog horn of social reality rather than challenge it.
But am I being a sell-out for capitulating increasingly to a pressure to “make a living out of my art” (or make a living/better my predicament in some other way by presenting myself on social media in a more conventionally agreeable, and less challenging way)? Or is it more the case, as I talk to increasing numbers of (mainly younger) people who feel the same way as me, that we are amidst a social reality that forces us to increasingly behave in this way in order for social (and, consequentially, physical) survival? And regarding the amount of time we all spend on social media, surely very few people really want to spend so much time checking their Facebook, Twitter, email accounts? Surely beyond the networking (a daily chore that deals like trying to peddle up an information waterfall descending over our threatened social status) there is an ideal destination, an arrival somewhere? A place of psychological stability, of peace of mind, where the self no longer feels under siege? It isn’t anywhere near as simple as to suggest “why don’t you just switch it off?”.
From Selfies to C.V’s, both are driven by the same impulse: to stay afloat; economic survival and social validity. It isn’t surprising that there’s a direct linked being made between the most relentless selfie takers and acute psychological instability. The panic about not being good enough is surely quite normal in an increasingly competitive world where entering the competition ring against everybody else is the only option given to avoid failure.
One thing’s for sure: obsessive selfie takers, or those constantly promoting what they’re doing in life aren’t bathing in a warm bath of self assurance. In an essay commentating on the death of pop music icon Michael Jackson, theorist Steve Shaviro argue that “[self-entrepreneurialism] is [now] a minimum requirement for mere survival”. We have been thrown into the arena, and voices blinded by the blinding floodlights are chanting “dance, dance, dance, faster, harder, better, longer”. We are all in the X-Factor society, but how did we get here? We all desire maximum possible autonomy, freedom of expression (surely), right? But why do we have to take it to market? How did we get here?
The ‘Trojan Horse’ of Neoliberalism:
Market fundamentalism (more commonly known as neoliberalism) allows for only one sort of individualism: market individualism. For those who must play by the rules of the game – that’s nearly everybody – that’s the only character it lets us be.
The writer Will Self suggests an analogy with the Trojan Horse trick from Greek Mythology in understanding how this system was imposed in the late 1970’s, getting ‘inside’, from where to successfully embark on assault, by seducing with offers of gifts. In the UK Margaret Thatcher was the gift-bearer who seduced us into accepting a market fundamentalist system (In 1973 the system was imposed with outright violence on the people of Chile, but Thatcher realised this wouldn’t be possible to do in a then democratic nation like the UK – she would have to entice people into the arena, rather than using it to round up and shoot those who disagreed, as Chile’s General Pinochet did).
The resulting assault from this Trojan Horse has happened slowly; so slowly that people are only just starting to realise that they’re in the middle of a battlefield. But it’s a battlefield where they can’t trust anybody, they have no true ally, everybody is a potential competitive threat. It is every person for himself. Not for the prize of stardom, big swimming pools and immortality, but the means to survive, holding out against the disintegration of self.
The X-Factor society:
Market fundamentalism instigates a race to bottom. If a social system is based on unending competition, it is only a matter of time before a minority begin to accumulate and consolidate a vastly disproportionate amount of wealth-thus-power. It took until 2011 to collectively recognise that 1% of the population owned most of the world’s wealth. But this has in no way slowed the pace of the competition-driven system. The demand on the rest of us to do more and more for decreasing returns grows more intense. “Dance, dance, faster faster” to the tune of more wealth for the few.
Programs like the X-Factor give us the impression that the most ‘talented’ (well, that’s what they say) will rise up and be greatly rewarded by society. But a cruel inversion of this logic is what most of us increasingly face: an outpouring of emotional labour, and a showcase of the ‘right’ skills is required of us on a daily basis on and off the web now – “the minimum requirement” needed so that the quality of life our parents’ generation took for granted may be afforded us.
But just like the X-Factor and all of the other reality programs, only skills and talents that meet fit the model of market individualism matter. The competition to fit this model for quick profit, for quick ascent from the instability of contemporary existence, evidently doesn’t produce better, more interesting things. When competition, as a social force, dominates everything, it actually serves as a gravitational force on ideas/invention, and drags everything down into a mundane pulp, from where people drop idiosyncrasies and other interesting quirks in order to home in the attributes most valued. From C.V’s to a daily scroll down a daily Facebook feed (with the usual exception of independent news sources/activist groups) the pressure is to arrive at an acceptable mundanity. The desire for light-heartened communication is narrowed to sharing pictures of our food and saying what feel others want you to say rather than what you might otherwise have said, and the words ideas/invention are replaced by ‘innovation’. Social success as a mere requirement, pushes people towards a paradoxical predicament of conforming to individualism. And I’m often fearful I may increasingly be acting in this way.
Regarding this social reality. Some may say “life’s cruel, get over it”. But is cruelty by unpreventable bad luck (such as an elderly motorist dying at the wheel and knocking down your spouse to be) the same as cruelty caused by market fundamentalism? And if we see the coming of such a social system as part of the ‘natural’ course of things, why did it need a Trojan Horse trick in order for it to be imposed? More to the (current) point: we are in the thick of this system now to the extent that I think we have lost the will to even ask such a deeply important question. I say this because this reasoning is something I also feel I lack the mental time and energy to contemplate. I fear I have lost sight of what was once of utmost importance to me – it has been obscured by the imminent anxieties imposed by the X-Factor Society.
The X-Factor Society Logic:
You may have noticed yourself, or others operating a distinctly schizophrenic logic of late. It is an externally imposed way of thinking, noticeably so due to the person who’s speaking’s words, or ones own thoughts, suddenly seemingly getting hijacked by a logic that denies the situation that was just being discussed/contemplated. An acceptance that capitalism is once again ruining the lives of the majority and some vast change has to come about, suddenly flits to an almost superstitious faith in finding a plan, a bit of luck, that someone will suddenly shine a spotlight on your ‘hidden potential'; basically that the X-Factor Society grants you the chance to grasp at least some quality of life. And then you slip back to thinking “we need to work together, start organising” and then suddenly say “why don’t’ I start my own business?”. Your suck and contort your face like there’s something sour that you can’t spit out. A mental conflict. Every day. Drained so drained.
No Solution, just spleen-venting?
Is it not the case that the ravenous impulse to self-promote (be it, fishing for ‘likes’ or trying to sell your ‘crafted’ items) actually sows the seeds of the opposite of what is the underlying aim? Is is not the case that the more we collectively bleed out our energies onto the web, and into the world, the more we intensify the marketised competitiveness driving down the quality of life, and genuine ‘opportunities’ for self betterment for the majority, whilst increasing the wealth and power for a few?
Yet how is it possible to take heed from theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s sliver of light of a solution, that of depressive withdrawal from the outpouring of unpaid immaterial labour, when the survivalist instinct becomes so strong under austerity politics, and much of the mind’s energy is consumed by the feeling that it is either ruthless egotism or die? People are overwhelmed by pressures to do this, do that, in the hope that something may come to fruition – but how can they stop doing this that the other? Yet it leads to a lack of space to even unwind, or socialise, never mind thinking about joining action groups/ideas camps etc. The vitality of Occupy, Uncut (even the riots) in 2011, seems almost unimaginable after only 3 years.
Yet, I wouldn’t be writing about my own predicament, about feeling so trapped in a contracting room, if I felt there was a solution at hand. My remaining mental and psychological energies are given almost entirely devoted to making my artwork, and keeping things like this blog. Maybe that’s taking an easy route, but that’s where my remaining energies are driven, impulsively. Obviously I do feel the need to apologise for this. I always find working in groups knocks all my confidence, and makes me want to return to what I feel I do best, because I feel so alienated, at odds and only able to give negativity. But my negativity is the kicking, screaming secretion from the emotional labour hijaccking of The X-Factor Society. My artistic response is my refusal. But it’s hardly a solution.
Much of the time I believe my impulses are certainly more libertarian. But I don’t see a left-leaning libertarian reality on the horizon. And I think any calls for one would unfortunately turn towards a violent right wing libertarianism; how, after 35 years of social Thatcherism could it go any other way? In fact it is arguable that this is what the market fundamentalist project is anyway. Do more anarchistic ideas unfortunately intensify its hold on the social? Does anarchism conversely need what Eric Fromm said was a freedom from, a support system that lifts all out the hardships which make a free life physically impossible, that a socialist democracy would allow, for it grow and flourish?
Additionally, here in the UK, will appeals to individual awakening and activism from grassroots movements ever be able to challenge an established media apparatus, with a power to constantly heal scars and absorb opposing things into it’s ‘reality management’ for the powerful? I can’t see how grass movements can survive and not find themselves repeatedly drained of energy/resources without a kindred voice in the mainstream of politics and the media that can help them, maybe meet them half way.
I’m currently attending meetings to try to establish the Green Party in my home town, a town where disillusioned voters, who feel betrayed by the Labour party, are more likely to be attracted by the scapegoating misleading-quick-fix lies of UKIP/The English Democrats etc. The Green Party’s policies are greatly in the interest of the majority of this town, yet public perception still largely sees the Greens as lacking social policies, and being out of touch middle-class sandal-wearing tree-huggers. The party’s biggest task is to rise into the mainstream arena, and change their perception in the public mind, whilst also, like Owen Jones, being present in the mainstream to challenge to dominant beliefs/prejudices.
In truth I struggle to bring anything to the meetings, except by thus far just showing my support by being there. I don’t think I could ever feel belonging to anything like a party or group, it’s just not me. But rather than treating these things like an allegiance to a football team, isn’t it better to see the Green Party as a vehicle from which to implement actions? To anarchist, anti-reformists and the like, I stress to point out that I don’t see any party as a means to and end, but as a vehicle. Maybe a Trojan Horse vehicle, but maybe that’s what we need: a reverse on Thatcher’s Trojan horse assault on the then social democracy. Theorist Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life writes about how we now look back at the social democratic project (that ran from 1945 to the 1970’s) as a finished project – that it tried, failed and didn’t work. What if Thatcher’s (and Reagan’s across the Atlantic) Trojan Horse trick on the people for the benefit of the capitalist class never succeeded? Perhaps one of the many other routes out of the then-crossroads dilemma of the turbulent 1970’s had been taken? Perhaps it’s time to go back to the future, rather than accepting the future has ended, and that we’ve just got to make the best of it? Because, as our X-Factor society shows, we’re not making very much at all.
Wednesday, 6 August 2014
Whilst We Were All In The Eternal Now… (2014)
The future returns from the past. Yesterday’s future left unchecked, comes back to haunt. Not the great expectations of that high modernist period, but those dangerous potentialities and instrumentalist horror that ran alongside it.
Nothing much feels real any more, at least not in the way I’ve grown to expect real things to feel. Even events that directly concern me are experienced as if they’re behind a screen placed there to transmit the spectacle. The anguish of unreality is most acute when you try to sense the sadness and horror caused by “the planet’s little wars [which are] joining hands” (Sweet Bird of Truth, The The), and the world’s little climate disasters which are joining hands, and yet it somehow doesn’t feel like it’s happening. You know our species has a shared interest in preventing such things, and even as you protest, one banal social media post can distract you and make it feel like it can’t really be happening anyway.
Banality reigns supreme, at the same time as situations that should deeply alarm us collectively unfold. And as information sharing speeds and increases, we find it far easier to share things that reassure us/things that make the world seem childish, a depolitised, dehistorised ever-present of fun/funny/adorable things.
Re-repeats of our alcohol-based social events, which (if all goes to plan) usually result in a -re-laugh and re-listening to old-time favourite songs, now (I would argue) work alongside the social media banality, and life is lived as if in an eternal now. As the dynamic of capitalism requires ever-faster and ever-more intrusive cyberspace technologies mediating life, life feels so fast that it no longer feels like we are moving, just on a stuck record, going round and round. This has lumbered us in the eternal now, or at least, what feels like an eternal now…
The night after yet another heavy weekend night’s drinking in town, feeling more content than usual due to the passivity caused by the numbness felt the day after, I was hit by an unexpected reality check whilst I lay in bed. With the intensification of conflicts in areas in a land mass, generally speaking, between Europe and Asia, bringing all the superpowers into potential conflict, whilst I lay in bed in this supposedly post-Cold War world, I suddenly thought “is it plausible that nuclear war could actually escalate at any moment?”
As much as we know it has always remained possible, it doesn’t feel possible any more, it feels like it fell with the Berlin Wall, and was cosigned to books after Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation that we’d reached ‘the end of history’. But at that moment it did feel possible, I was momentarily jolted from the laughing/sedatory gas of the banal. Remembering the alcohol-soaked walking down a street in a town with the highest concentration of pubs in the UK (at one point, apparently), depicting this reality check felt like a necessity.
Underneath the street-scape is a near past of activity and desire to change the world. Theorist Slavoj Zizek described this period (2011) as the year of dreaming dangerously. Since then this impulse seems to have been covered over, drained and exhausted by the very media-scape from which it gained its initial collective body. There as been a noticeable intensification of information sharing even from 2011 onwards, coupled with the disbelief and apathy the powers that be have brought about, with an ever increasing influence over the shaping of our opinions and reactions in the information age, whilst they the impose an ever-more draconian economics onto us. No wonder we wish to drink to reach the reassurance of passivity, and share reassuring information via cyberspace.Yet, within this depicted landscape, the covered-up near past still offers a glimmer of a way out of this.