A guest post from Sam Keeper, normally of Storming the Ivory Tower. Sam’s great and worth supporting, and I’m totally not just saying that because she pitched me a guest post that’s in part about my own work. Though speaking of Articles of Secession, the auction for the last physical zine copy ends today.
“We secede from all secession that does not secede from itself.”
The dadaists would be proud of this line, as would, famously, Groucho Marx. Of course, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that a movement that pronounced its own negation–DADA IS ANTI-DADA!–should find parallel in a comedian’s words. It is after all just another way of saying we don’t wish to belong to any club that would have us as members. (Whether or under what circumstances Groucho actually said that is pretty irrelevant–we’re in the realm of the mythic now.)
This is one angle one might take in tackling the Ithica Psychogeographic Liberation Front’s manifesto, a musical composition from Seeming with voiceover contributions from Meredith Collins and oh hey Phil Sandifer where have I heard that name before? It’s just one angle thought–the manifesto, like its cosigners, is “polymorphous, multitentacled, pandimensional, and incorporeal strobelights of blood and supernova,” particularly in video form where the barrage of dense, poetic text is accompanied by a large number of sometimes striking and unexpected images. The result is something that, among other things, it’s really hard to write about while listening to, at least for someone who struggles with multitasking as I do.
So the question becomes, how do you do criticism to this piece? And the answer I think is, it’s too late for that, bucko, they’ve already seceded from criticism.
Not that we have a lot of great techniques for critically engaging with humor anyway, at least criticism oriented not towards questions like “is this joke problematic” but towards “how is this joke functioning semiotically and affectively.” And even less common is criticism engaging something like this, which presents, deadpan, lines like “We secede from pants. Seriously, fuck pants.”
This is an aesthetic of rupture, mutation, misdirection, and surprise, and I think it’s worth our time to start thinking seriously about how we address this aesthetic, simply because we’re seeing such a burst of it in just the last damn week. In the text accompanying my attempt at analyzing one of these pieces–Neil Cicierega’s new mashup album Mouth Moods–I laid out a number of guiding principles that I think might be used to whip up a kind of pathology of this aesthetic, a kind of diagnostic manual.
The qualities I’m really interested in here are the treatment of existing culture as something to be plundered for raw material freely, a complex affective experience that pairs delighted humor, disgust, and anger all at once, points of misdirection, unexpected juxtaposition, sudden stops and swerves, floods of information that are difficult to assess or even to hold in working memory long enough to fully understand, a reorganization of how we curate culture (the gutters of culture rise up and the texts consecrated by the culture and critical industry are brought down, all treated as worthy of pilfering), and techniques such as litany-like repetition and aesthetics that borrow from religion and the occult to create a sense of ominous spiritual portent.
That’s a hell of a lot of stuff to jumble together, but that’s kind of the game: lots and lots of stuff all kind of happening all at once.
That’s the experience of listening to the Articles of Secession, certainly, and watching the video. The multiple uses in the video of Escher and Bosch stand out to me because they mirror in their contents the overall construction of the video: strange scene after strange scene, staircases winding in and out of one another. The song is eminently listenable, and the text and images are enjoyable to look at, but it’s also overwhelming, exceeding my perceptual grasp.
This makes it an example of its own argument, form matching content. This isn’t just a declaration of secession on the level of what it’s saying, this is a stylistic secession from popular culture, no matter how much it takes from electro-pop in its musical underpinnings.
That’s not just fun (though it totally is–weird recursive structure is always fun), it’s also pretty significant I think, because it represents the collision of a technological reality with an aesthetic need.
On the one hand, we have the spread of technologies that turn everyone into a one-person Front 242. I’m sharing this through free (gratis) software and produced yesterday’s audio experiment and accompanying image on free (libre–open source code manipulatable and copyable by the end user) software. I don’t happen to know what software was used to create Seeming’s video because I’m writing this at one in the morning like the jackass I am and Phil is asleep, but I could probably do a passable job producing a similar video using my open source video editing software, using images from a quick google search. And, notably, it’s easy to produce something relatively rapidly that is flooded with such images–the cost of creating a semiotically overtaxing work is very, very low now.
Meanwhile on the other hand we have compelling reasons to secede from culture, then turn around and invade it again, pillaging it for raw materials. It’s only fair. Our culture’s been doing the same to us. Or at least the Internet has: according to a report from German paper Das Magazin, translated courtesy of Antidote Zine, Brexit and Trump’s election were both effected in part by a mass campaign scraping people’s Facebook data in order to tailor messages for micro-demographics. Not that we haven’t known stuff like this was happening for a while, but there’s something particularly pulpy about this being carried out by someone now calling himself, apparently, Dr Spectre. There’s a real sense that culture has gone well and truly bonkers, so we might as well adopt this rupture with the normal for ourselves.
This seems to be some of the logic underpinning Alan Moore’s Mandrillifesto. “In times of national demise, speaking historically,” Moore intones at the beginning, “the mulch of crumpled dream and culture is a laboratory.” The sense of the Mandrillifesto seems to be that if we’re in decline anyway, and we’re bound for some mad demagogue introducing a hard break with history, we might as well take the opportunity to seize the moment and elevate “a dictatorial baboon in makeup.”
Another track released within 24 hours of the inauguration, this piece really ratchets up the absurdity part of our pathology, at the cost of some of the culture-pilfering aspects. Not that there isn’t some solid reference here: the pilfered audio over the end of some nature documentary on mandrills reads to me like a hilarious takeoff, in the context of the hard synth beats, of the long Industrial tradition of sprinkling tracks arbitrarily with random, ominous-sounding film clips. But the focus primarily seems to be on the tongue in cheek invocation of “a monkey in a devil mask” to be our semi-benevolent dictator of art.
More than any of the other things analyzed here, Moore’s work is text-driven, which makes sense given his background. Phil has remarked that the Mandrillifesto is no Articles of Secession and that’s fair enough. I think it’s notable, though, that the Mandrillifesto isn’t really trying in any sense to be that… good musically. The interest instead is in the cod-industrial aesthetics underpinning Moore being very clever and dropping jokes like “I’ll lead you to a fluorescent utopia if you’ll let me:/love me, worship me, obey me – but never pet me” that play with the material.
And if perhaps the Mandrillifesto offers a less compelling political future than the IPLF offers (the IPLF, after all, urges the listener to demand “a bioluminescent thorax” and while I too love Art Nouveau I love the prospect of becoming a Queer Outer God much, much more) it seems significant that in embracing an aesthetic of humorous, shocking, strange rupture both these pieces offer a political vision that is unabashedly impossible. It’s not even utopian–the IPLF all but explicitly secedes from utopia in its secession from the ideal past, the liberating future, and itself, and Moore’s monkey in a devil mask is as terrifying as he is compelling–it’s just outrageous.
This suggests an interesting possibility: once we make a radical break with culture and turn back to stare at the wreckage we left behind, can we start to build the impossible from the resolutely mundane materials we’ve broken from?
Not that we have to do that, of course. We could go in exactly the opposite direction, diving deeper and deeper into culture, the way the Mouth trilogy does, to reveal its inner strangeness, the ruptures and breaks already present within. This is more the strategy of the new single from the Gorillaz, the third piece of music to drop in that dense 24 hour period. “Hallelujah Money” doesn’t so much break with aesthetics as lean into them as hard as possible. The video starts, after all, with a simulated Trump Tower elevator presented as a pulpit from which Benjamin Clementine sing-preaches, accompanied by a wide range of appropriated video.
And the sermon? Why, it’s right in the title! Hallelujah, money. Hallelujah! Money. Repeat, as Alan Moore says, until indoctrinated. I feel unfortunately really incapable of doing this song the justice it deserves–I don’t have the background in musical theory to articulate exactly what about this song is so odd, but there’s a kind of wandering, twisting quality to it, a way in which the words never quite go in the direction you might anticipate, or link up grammatically. It is a stream of consciousness sermon, doubling back on itself periodically to reassure us that, really, it’s ok, “it’s not against our morals.”
While there’s quite a bit going on here, some of it quite overt–the mention of walls of course is an obvious pointed satire–on a deeper level I think the way this song functions aesthetically is the way a Trump speech or tweet functions: as a wandering series of non sequiturs and buzz words, a stream of consciousness expression of half-assed justification for whatever passes through his brain at that moment. It’s an aesthetic common to plenty of reactionaries, of course. Glenn Beck of course is a master of this paranoid style, and Alex Jones makes for such a fascinating source of remixes because of this style.
Which, incidentally, speaking of Alex Jones, a number of videos burst onto YouTube immediately decrying Hallelujah Money as Illuminati propaganda. This is pretty fair! I mean, it’s not like the Gorillaz are exactly subtle, they’ve got the all-seeing eye right there, hovering over Clementine’s head, and a bunch of other giant eyes in the background. This is, apparently, part of the Satanic plot… though I’m not really sure whether the actual videos I saw think it’s so because the Gorillaz are targeting Trump for ridicule, or because they are actually running some sort of false flag operation and actually Trump and the Gorillaz are on the same side or…
It doesn’t really matter, in the end. In a sense, the Gorillaz are doing something kind of similar to these conspiracy nuts. They are, after all, hunting through culture for materials that can be used to serve as the backdrop for a mystical sermon, symbols that involve lots of Illuminati symbolism. That’s the joke, in a sense. The Infowars crowd thinks that they’ve got their god-chosen candidate in office (whether Trump, or, as I’ve seen it claimed, Pence, who will be president after God strikes Trump down now that he’s served his purpose) but it turns out that The Illuminati was coming from inside the house all along. Touch, my friend, what the whole world and whole beasts of nations desire: power.
The ending of the song, appropriating a scream from Spongebob in response to Clementine shouting a final “HALLELUJAH MONEY!” is a dramatic rupture of the kind of absurd, funny, bewildering type that is present elsewhere in our pathology, but here the rupture is not with culture but with our previous understanding of it. After the weird wandering music lulls us, there’s that sudden sharp break that serves as a reminder that contrary to the meme, this is not fine at all.
There’s something pretty astute about this treatment of the rupture as perceptual, one of masks coming off and knives coming out. As Jack has described at length, the current crisis should be understood not just through the framework of “rupture”–“this isn’t normal”–but through continuity, with an eye to the way Trumpism or Fascism more broadly has been and is being integrated into Neoliberalism. In this context the aesthetics of rupture and revolt make a whole lot of sense: as shocking as Brexit or Trump might be, they’re shocking in that they represent the mask coming off.
When the response from the establishment is to treat things as, essentially, business as usual, a dramatic rupture from that aesthetic regime seems a lot more reasonable. And make no mistake, it’s totally an aesthetic regime. Think of it like this: what all goes into a news report semiotically? It’s not just the news, it’s certainly not just the facts, though given how much effort is put into the aesthetic of “just the facts” I’d have a hard time blaming anyone taken in. In print media we can look at everything from a masthead to a typeface choice to how images and, in online versions of text, video are presented, and then from there hone in on the way sentences are constructed. We might carry out a similar operation on television and consider stage sets, wardrobe choices, graphics… this probably isn’t too radical a suggestion, yes?
So here’s the next leap from there: what we might call “normalization” is a natural result of all this aesthetic stuff, all these rhetorical, semiotic moves. Not entirely, of course–certainly there’s plenty of outright lying going on, all the time, and not just at Breitbart. And there’s plenty of assistance given in the form of passing on untruths or half truths or nebulous supposition. We had that whole “Iraq War” thing, remember? And while I’m most familiar with US and Canadian media pulling these tricks, we could also note things like the BBC positioning advocates of conversion therapy as maligned maverick heroes…
But there it is, right? It’s not just the passing on of information, it’s the whole narrative frame they’ve constructed here, one that works very hard, and pretty artlessly at that, to push an idea of balance and neutrality. It’s kind of a great example because it’s just so clunky–they spend a bunch of time setting up their clear position (actually trans kids are just little psychos who should listen to The Medical Experts) and then have to stomp around frantically assuring everyone that it’s ok because they present both sides. So what I’m interested in here isn’t just the presentation of various pieces of information but the presentation of the presentation of various pieces of information, the way this is part of a cringingly self-conscious need to not just maintain neutrality but to constantly and aggressively project neutrality.
We can get way more artful than this though. Consider the following passage, captured (and subsequently butchered for its meat) by writer Reed Richardson:
This is great stuff. I mean, Richardson is right, it’s a ridiculous number of words to spend just in order to NOT say “our government runs on conspiracy theories now” but it’s totally in keeping with the erudite aesthetic of the New York Times. It’s obfuscatory as hell but boy don’t you feel smart once you’ve decoded it and chuckled over, presumably, your artisanal coffee? I mean, that’s what I assume people who get the New York Times drink. My fact-gathering on this, however, owes more to wild flights of imagination than to the written word.
My point with this is just that this style, once it becomes embedded as the House Style, is real hard to diverge from. So, because reporters are used to writing biographical human interest pieces on their subjects–a style I’ve always loathed, personally, but to each their own–it’s a natural step to just… keep applying that principle to literal Nazis. That’s how the piece on Cambridge Analytica is framed, of course–through the human interest of Michal Kosinski the man who “showed that [the bomb] exists.” In many ways, this human interest works, if only because it allows the writers at Das Magazin to end with a line that was chilling on its own and is now positively marrow-freezing in the context of the Doomsday Clock’s recent adjustment.
But at the same time, is the human interest style really suited to conveying the transhuman interest of Trump being described as a “machine-learning algorithm” or some nerd renaming himself Dr Spectre and building a company dedicated to turning people’s facebook profiles against them. I’m just not sure it quite does the right job of conveying the sheer howling madness of this stuff, and I’m not sure that anything that COULD would be “journalism” anymore. Certainly nothing in the article was quite as perfectly poised for the unsettling as was the experience reaching the END of the article and a set of ads ominously tailor made for me.
No, to really capture that experience you’d need to rewrite The Enigma of Amigara Fault but with clickbait.
I don’t think, in that context, either this strange culture-mining, rupture-driven aesthetic, or analysis of it, is trivial or academic. This is an aesthetic that makes compelling use of all the available technology–both technologies of production and the technologies of rhetoric, aesthetics, affect, &c that come from culture–in order to express a response to a culture weaponized against us. And it’s an aesthetic that pushes back and pulls forward at the same time, inviting response even as it revels in overload, inaccessibility, endurance, strangeness.
Part of this pull to respond is the need that I tried to express in my Mouth Moods recording: the need to find ways of writing criticism that engages this aesthetic accurately. It’s something of a problem in affect theory: Jennifer Doyle describes, early in Hold It Against Me, her text on difficult art, the frustration that came from trying to express her experiences accurately when often her text would become flat where it needed to be emotive, or frenetic when it needed to be sedate, and so on. And then you have the nature of the difficulty here, the use of humor alongside disgust or anger or bewilderment, the overloading of information, the multiple levels on which jokes work…
We might as well get moving on it, since of course sanity is “a refuge for cowards, pencilpushers, and golfers,” and, at any rate, we’ve already seceded anyway.
This has always already happened.