The Quarterly Report

PhD update Winter/Spring 2012:

The initial reason this blog was created a few years back was to catalogue what I had been up to in terms of my PhD, but that clearly fell by the wayside in favour of random bits of music and discussions about memory. That’s not really that off topic. Still, I felt that now I am around 18 months in to my PhD (I started in 2009, yes, but was part time for the first year so it only counted as six months – I am temporally confused) I should perhaps write a little something about where I am with it all. Today, I’m going to focus largely on the idea of ‘resistance’, and will expand in later weeks to look at identity (a chapter which I have already written), spatiality (a chapter which I am currently writing) and technology (a chapter which I have not started). I haven’t really begun to discuss resistance in the thesis yet, as it is my final empirical chapter where I hope to link hauntology in to ongoing practices in the wider avant-garde, but I am also considering submitting a paper to conferences based on new (old) forms of resistance, so I’m treating this as a warm up.

The caveat here is that, as ever, it is a work in transition. There is nothing set in stone in terms of the outcome of the research I am doing as I am attempting to offer an emic approach and see how categories and discussions emerge from the swirl rather than imposing my own misunderstanding – this is largely impossible, but I muddle onward.

So originally the title of my thesis was a bit from Hamlet, via Derrida – ‘The Time Is Out Of Joint: Space, Place and Sonic Hauntology’. I thought that sounded cool. However, I have nwo turned it in to something that better reflects the broader themes of the research; although hauntology is being used as a case study, I think what I am trying to explore is the way in which the avant-garde develops its own forms of resistance to predominant cultural forms, and whether or not there is any kind of tangible response to the collapse and reterritorialization of capitalism. Big. The title is now something like ‘The Contemporary Avant-Garde: Identity, Spatiality, Technology and Resistance’, which I think sounds leaner despite being more verbose. Not sure how this works, but it does. Also avoids the Derrida, which is turning out to provide as many insular arguments between audiences as the subcultural theory I’m seeking to avoid…

Speaking of subcultural theory, I’ve been attempting to work out a way to reconfigure the useful parts and throw away the trash, of which there is much. The original raison d’être of subcultural study at the CCCS was the highlighting of marginalised groups, with a definite bias towards The Left (recognisable as it was back then) and I think the move towards the neo-tribalism as forwarded by Andy Bennett, while offering an interesting take on the heterogeny of what are ostensibly becoming virtualized communities, is akin to what Jameson calls ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’; in this case ‘late’ means ‘dead’. Capitalism is the revenant in this equation – simultaneously the threat of destruction and the salvation from it. How do you attack something like that, which offers via the proliferation of cultural types no in-road for insurgency. Look at the choices, and we can move from place to place without attachment. Neo-tribalism is a boon to capitalism, in the sense that it presents myriad opportunities for branding, re-branding, for cultural co-option (often with the complicity of ‘counter-culture’), with the results being sold to the same people over and over again. This fluidity, while indicative of wider trends in technological dispersal, offers not more freedom but less; as Bauman suggested, the dwindling of the public in favour of increasingly commercialised private space – virtual or non-virtual – traps people in a much more insidious loop of imaginary want fulfilled through consumption and the complete inability to fight. Paralysed by choice. As Lyotard discussed; in critiquing a thing, you become ensnared by it¹. This is the case for Bennett and the application of Maffesoli I think, but there are still nuggets of gold in the shit in terms of Thornton’s tentative discussion on the changing nature of recording technologies and localized time/space events, and Hebdige’s expansion of hegemony in terms of (what was then) a fracturing working class. It’s never as simple as class versus identity creation.

The difficulty here is the alternative. The hegemonic structures suggested first by Hall and then expanded upon by Hebdige in relation specifically to subcultural style are still present, but are now fed by an increasingly complex structure of interrelated technologies and networks. How is this pulled apart and analysed? Can such structures ever offer a means of riposte? This is, I suppose one of the central struggles – one approach is to look to Deleuze. The idea of the contemporary avant-garde could perhaps be conceptualized in relation to the rhizome.

 “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance.”

This chimes with the notion of relationships to imaginary pasts and unfulfilled futures I think. I should say that rhizomes and neo-tribes are not the same, if the lack of tangibility or rootedness is an issue. Neo-tribes suggest semi-stable cultural entities where the membership is mobile – like viruses moving from host to host. There is still structure there and that structure allows for the subjugation of specific practices and artefacts in to the larger whole of capitalism where they can be repackaged and offered up as ‘new’ again. The final stage in this process is where a fluidic membership moves between different sites of ownership (but I think we’re straying in to discussions of ‘originality’ here, so I will stop immediately). Ultimate commercialisation.

Here is some attempt at describing the rhizome. Think of it in terms of cultural organisation in whatever stage of modernity we might currently be passing through. First up, there is the connectivity of any point to any point. Second up it is composed of numerous dimensions, meaning it is neither one or many (brain churn). Third: its operation through variation, conquest and offshoots – as in botany – instead of simply via reproduction. Number four: it pertains to a modifiable map, infinite  entrances and exits are produced. It is the map rather than the representation. Fifthly, it is acephalous and lastly, it is not amenable to any structural or generative model (Buchanan 2007). Baffling. Numerous possibilities. No tracing. Produce a diagram. There is a David Tudor version later on…

The reason the rhizome is of particular interest is because of its relationship with structures. It has structure, but operates on its own internal logic, improvises (always crucial in avant-garde practice) and throws up new shoots at random – though these are connected to the horizontal world beneath if we use the botanical distinctions for the sake of a certain level of stability. The exciting thing here is that there is no possibility of the rhizomatic culture, movements, whatever you want to call them, being subsumed by capitalism; the lack of origin point, or clearly demarcated conclusion, make this impossible. Capitalism still operates under a fairly simplistic economic logic, regardless of what you think of its pros or cons, and spreads its mutated arms in new directions grasping at innovative technologies to further itself (an aside: I lectured on Social Media and Informatics last week, and presented some of what I’d been looking at albeit in a stupidly remedial way – they were Masters students so big mistake – and I think I came across as little more than some English eccentric who is interested in men making music by pitch shifting the sound of forks. The main application of new technologies in the room was not, as I am using it, to look at new forms of organisation and resistance, but to create more effective ways of trawling the net to target advertising at users) and the continuous engagement with theoretical debate and ahistoricism makes hauntology and the wider avant-garde able to resist this symbiotic feeding that so many others have entered in to. Tiny Mix Tapes offered an example of this spread in to ‘all-realms’ in their review of Paul McCartney’s latest offering. Bloody Starbucks.

So if the rhizome is a way of looking, structurally, at the organisational aspects of cultural practice in this socio-technological epoch, what about the act(s) of resistance. Here, I think that the notion of ligne de fuite may be of use, though jumbled up a bit. Without delving too deeply in to the philosophy of multiplicities, the notion of action based around the leaking and melting of territories, and perhaps their eventual reconstruction elsewhere, is quite appealing, a sort of guerilla attack. Am not sure. Hernandez suggests that ‘the development of the processes of mediatization, migration and commodification which characterise globalized modernity produce a considerable intensification of deterritorialization, understood as a proliferation of translocalized cultural experiences’ which I think I broadly agree with, but I also see this as an opportunity for deterritorialization to be used as a positive force. Deterritorialization as praxis maybe. Please fit Messiaen and birdsong in at this stage. Rhetorical request. Perhaps it is in fact more to do with reterritorialization, or the act of detournement as resistance.

The question here is how/why resistance is approached or codified, and whether or not it is being done consciously – are artists, critics and audiences developing this method of attack liminally, or is it something more overt that is masquerading as the mysterious revenant. More clearly defined, and firmly a part of the avant-garde in terms of his approach to the de-localisation and reconfiguration of sound, is the approach of Matthew Herbert. His talk at Netaudio last year offered up 17 crises for The Left in terms of musical practice – the culmination of which was how modern music served only The Right; think Beyonce performing for Gaddafi. How do you go about changing things? Is some confusing theoretical approach of any use if the goal is to transform understandings of culture in the 21st century?

Derek Bailey was offered as an alternative to the standard mode of commercialisation – his improvised pieces for guitar were an ever-present, existing in one moment and gone the next. The recorded version was never the same, the only version is the one that happened and you missed it.

Bauman’s work on the collapse of the public, as we touched upon towards the beginning, is echoed in Auge’s work on non-places, the commercialised space that is seen as public but is in fact a transitionary arena between sites of consumption; these spaces (airports, shopping malls) are eternally unnerving – see Ballard’s Kingdom Come for a further elaboration – as they are effectively designed to draw us in, but keep us from staying. Move on, nothing to see here. Oh look, an Apple reseller opened over the way.

Can this interpretation of space be used to make a political statement? I thought about this in relation not to the specific non-place that Auge develops, but rather the historical spaces that non-places increasingly destroy in the process of being built. Luton built a shopping centre over the top of a number of older streets, and reminders hover about, not just in the memories of anyone born before the 1970s, but in the spaces I briefly occupied in the past – the Dislocation Festival in the Old Shop. This also brought to mind Janek Schaefer and Chris Watson’s collaboration on Vacant Space, which offers a kind of deterritorialized exploration of the world of the empty – inherently creepy as these are spaces that are supposed to be filled, but again it depends on your outlook on what these spaces are supposed to provide as to how they are meant to be occupied: occupied in the sense of an invading force.

It’s all about the place as you can probably tell…but that’s the exciting part isn’t it – taking a rhizomatic approach where things coalesce and descend out of sight as and when;

This is how it should be done: lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times.³

I Have Been Listening To:

Hanne Hukkelberg – Featherbrain

Ernest Gonzales – Natural Traits

Oren Ambarchi – Audience of One

Windy and Carl – We Will Always Be

Matt Elliott – The Broken Man

That is all for now. Another report in due course. I will come back and see what I can do with this stream of consciousness another day, when my head is not so fuzzed with sleep and vague concerns for the future.


¹Lyotard, J(1988) “Beyond Representation”, in The Lyotard Reader, ed. Andrew Benjamin, Oxford: Basil Blackwell

² Buchanan, I. (2007). Deleuze and the Internet. Australian Humanities Review No. 43

³Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 2004 edition, p. 161


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5 Responses to “The Quarterly Report”

  1. Ralph Says:

    “How to escape detournement” is a central question. In the last few weeks before hand-in, my PhD proposal has pulled itself closer and closer to this problem. It is a fairly commonplace assumption now that we cannot operate outside of the logic of Capitalism and although I’m not completely subscribed to that truism the Rhizomatic as structure and as strategy does, in it’s examples offer a view of just had broad the sweep of Capitalist recoding is. The most straightforward image of this is within the avant-garde itself. Deterritorialization strategies, attempts to operate below the radar and outside of the interchanges of commodity exchange and top-down power-relations, whether in the form of art works, events, forums invariably get pulled back into the system. In fact that’s not correct, they never leave the system, they simply expose an underexploited space to the all seeing eye of the market and voila, close it up. The most honest ones are perhaps those that accept this, (perhaps your MA students?) that sell the property rights and move on.

    I think part of the problem is, even those trying to operate on the outside and resist, are still thinking within the meta-logic of capitalism. Here is and example: I organise an event in a reterritorialized space, I disperse music for free on the internet, I operate as the most abstract conduit for anarchic redistribution of information or matter. In doing these things I am not selling my services overtly, I am not setting up a system of exploitation either above or below me and I am operating, it seems on a rhizome model. However, I am still accumulating capital in the form of social currency. I might have the most honest of intentions, but ultimately I’m accumulating second level abstract capital which I can then cash in some time down the road (youtube-fuckup becomes chat show host, pop-up protest engine becomes art gallerist, blogger becomes university lecturer etc etc etc), whether I intend to or not I stay within that system of accumulation.

    This is incredibly easy to spot in art when you consider the central hypocrisy that few artists will admit to being anything other than left-leaning yet art is itself, as an unregulated exploitative exchange of abstract (financial) worth in an unashamedly bourgeois market, the very wet dream of neo-liberalism.

    I’m not actually going as far as to suggest some super-puritanical self-less model of operation in which ego is utterly banished. That would make me a hypocrite for simply leaving this comment in my own name. I do think that the commerce-derivatives need to first be recognised for what they are and then examined to see if one can operate in a way can’t be automatically highjacked by the very system being resisted!

    I believe that the answers lie in matter, but that’s another story for another time…

    Good post Matt, it’s really good to hear an overview of what you’ve been doing.

    • The Institute of Spectralogical Audio Research Says:

      I think your take on the meta-logic of capitalism is bang on, and in being so, also deeply depressing – what next for cultural practice? Eternal subsumption? Resistance is a phenomenal challenge, which as you discuss requires a serious engagement with the intricacies of the system, but nonetheless a pretty fucking exciting one. Any chance we can develop the conversation via a reinvigorated email exchange (apologies for being so remiss of late…am caught up in rewrites though hopefully they’ll be put to rest in the next week)?

      In terms of the MA students, I think their ability to ‘sell the property rights and move on’ suggests a level of self awareness I don’t believe they possess. Somnambulism would be more accurate. Also deeply depressing.

  2. Ralph Says:

    and from the end of the Tiny mixtapes interview with Earth:
    “One of your conceptual goals for Angels I and II was to challenge the rigid binary between reason/unreason and logic/illogic. Were you trying to articulate the grayish area between the extremes that doesn’t seem to fit into Western thought?

    DC: I think many of our present difficulties are the result of the rationalist-materialist paradigm, or whatever you want to call it. I think it’s foundering. I think we’re fighting to reclaim something, and I’m not sure anyone knows what we’re fighting to reclaim. I think people are starting to realize the evolutionary idea of history — that the world is always getting better — is a myth that we started to believe somewhere down the line. Binary logic and whatnot have given us very little in the long run. Some countries are materially better off now than ever before, but we’re bereft in other ways.

    AD: Nothing’s ever as simple as either/or thinking would have us believe. People want to put things in very distinct categories, and in reality it can never be that way. It’s been a struggle for me over the years — getting out of my head, and moving beyond the black and white. Things are always a shade of grey. It’s easier to see things in black and white, but also very fatalistic.

    Musically, people tend to think of rationality as expressing itself in composition, and have seen improvisation as something like a weapon against that. Composition is structure, improvisation is unstructuring. Do you think Angels I and II is challenging this problematic binary, too? Maybe you’re showing that the order=composition and chaos=improvisation construct is misleading?

    DC: Yeah. I’ve always found it strange that when people talk about “free playing” it’s always skronky and disjointed, or vast and crazy. Free playing can also be slow and melodic. If it’s truly free playing, why is it always the same — why do people always have to maniacally blow the whole time? That sort of improvised music has become just as structured as its opposite. I see the improvisatory thing in more of a folk way, like a group of people getting together and playing music with each other. “

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