A conversation with the music writer and acclaimed author of Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life on our perpetual past, music and mainstream culture, Popular Modernism, the struggle for time and the dizzying prospects of a political “new.”
Thank you for your time Mark. I wanted to start by asking, since the publishing of Ghosts of My Life, what are some of the responses you have encountered in your travels and lectures?
Well, from the point the book was published last April to around April this year, I was out of action in a major burnout episode, which meant I was on a strange hiatus from the book and its reception. It almost felt as if I had cursed myself by writing a book about depression that I just fell into a major episode, the worst since I’ve become a writer and lecturer.
I think the book has fended for itself since it came out but I guess there are certain, common negative responses to some of the arguments that I have, one of which is, “we’ve heard this all before, isn’t this the same old argument that every generation has?” That things aren’t what they used to be…” To which my response is— no, this is actually a new situation. My complaint is not that things aren’t what they used to be or that they’ve changed out of all recognition— it’s just the opposite— my complaint is that things are exactly what they used to be, which in a different sense also means that they are not what they used to be.
Having come to a consciousness of music culture in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I was habituated to perpetual change, what I call Popular Modernism— the continuous reinvention of things, a paradoxical standardization of surprise. This has really disappeared in waves from the mainstream of popular culture, I think. There’s clearly a glorious era, developing from the post-war period and really peaking from the ‘60s up until the early ‘80s, to around 1982 or 1983. After that point, I think there was a catastrophic decline in popular music but there were still all kinds of rich alternatives available. So, if mainstream popular music didn’t have that same Popular Modernist, experimental verve that it possessed up until the early ‘80s, you could nevertheless still find the elements of that in other music scenes, particularly in dance music and electronic music. If we look back to the early 2000s, there was still plenty of quite exciting and new-sounding popular music for example in R’n’B, with Timbaland at his peak. But after about 2003 that really started to disappear until around 2006, when there would really be nothing significantly new for about three years. And it’s right around that time that this phase of— no new…ever— this perpetual present…which is also a kind of perpetual past…really kicked in for me.
I’ve heard you use the word “temporal chauvinism” to describe the push back to that idea, could I ask you to elaborate?
Yeah, what I think is interesting is this attachment and defensiveness for the present moment amongst people, saying, “our time is not bad, it’s good, it’s as good as any other time.” As if they are personally being attacked for what I call, the aesthetic poverty of the present. It’s not anyone’s fault and certainly not the fault of musicians and artists. Nor is it just one generation— there’s nothing special about generations and there is nothing special that our current generation lacks in terms of personal characteristics or talent. It’s successions of generations from the ‘60s through to the ‘90s.
It’s the same with punk— now punk is looked back upon as this wonderful moment of rupture that we could scarcely imagine in the current moment. The whole pitch of punk was that this was the worst time ever: no future, dreadful, a “blank” generation and it was that negativity about one’s own moment which actually— and seemingly paradoxically— fueled what was positive, transformative and energetic about those times.
So, the reverse of this “temporal chauvinism” was the discontent and disaffection previous generations had with their own time in which they lived. People in the ‘60s often didn’t think, “this was a great time.” Expectations were so high at that point that they thought, “this is not good enough, we want more!” It’s the same with punk— now punk is looked back upon as this wonderful moment of rupture that we could scarcely imagine in the current moment. The whole pitch of punk was that this was the worst time ever: no future, dreadful, a “blank” generation and it was that negativity about one’s own moment which actually— and seemingly paradoxically— fueled what was positive, transformative and energetic about those times.
I think it’s hard for people to recognize how bad things have been because the only reference we have is the past and that falls prey to the argument that, “you’re just nostalgic for a previous period.” No— in a culpable way, this is simply a critical judgment that those periods were richer and more generative of new cultural forms. The last ten years have seen a kind of diminution of that innovation— that is a critical judgment. It’s not personal nostalgia like, “wasn’t it great when I was young?” Things didn’t seem that great at the time, to be honest.
Things seem better now because expectations have been lowered and that’s what I’ve really tried to talk about in terms of this cultural depression, which I think is absolutely pervasive. Not everything was good in the past and so it’s not like one can look back at any period and say, “these conditions were absolutely perfect in music culture.” Nobody was saying that it was an ideal situation with record companies but there was a point, from the early ‘60s onwards or maybe even before, when the music industry knew something big was happening, they knew they had to throw money at it and much of the control was seeded to musicians. They didn’t know what the next Beatles would be so they would throw money at things in what for them was a fairly random way.
Although, the issue for me is not money, I think the major cultural crisis that we’re living through is a crisis of time. If musicians had advances, that meant they had time…time to be absorbed in their art. They had time to absorb things that would feed their art and they wouldn’t have to rush around working two or three jobs in order to pay rent alone, which is the fate of anyone trying to be a musician in London now. Even without a typical record contract, if someone wanted to be involved in music culture in the ‘60s or ‘70s in the UK, there was a much wider support network than there is today. They might have gone to art school as many of the major musicians in the ‘60s and ‘70s did. What did that give them? It gave them access to all of the resources, which included significant amounts of high culture, and it gave them time because their fees were paid. On top of that they had a maintenance grant and that’s definitely a reason why so many bands or collectives were formed by art school students.
It’s also the circuit of art and pop— of pop into art, and art into pop, and back again. Students wanted to transduce some of the intensities that they received from visual art into sonic art and they had the time and space to do that because of the conditions around them. Even if people weren’t at art school they still had an unemployment or housing benefit in the UK. If they didn’t have that, they had squatting. And this capacity to substantially squat large areas of the city was a key condition for punk and post-punk in London and New York and has since been cracked down upon. When you look at it like that, it’s not surprising that the rate of innovation has collapsed in music culture. It’s just 100 times harder to be a musician now in the 21st Century than it was in the late 20th Century.
In Ghosts of My Life you pose the question, “Why did the arrival of Neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospective and pastiche?” Are you still working on an answer?
Well, I tried to answer that question because of what I was just describing— it’s really just the point that Neoliberalism systematically destroys the conditions for innovative culture to be produced. It takes away the resources necessary for cultural production and fundamentally that is the resource of time. Even though innovation was also coming from straight-up, publicly-funded projects like Stockhausen, Musique Concrète or the BBC Radiophonic workshop, it’s not as if this social democratic system in England was the only way in which music culture could be funded. That’s not the case, but what that system certainly did allow was large pockets of time, of unpressured time outside of work to become available.
What we’ve also seen with Neoliberalism is that the conditions for former high culture— or what used to be called high culture— are also gone because of the attack on public funding. And broadly, we’ve now got the production of a new kind of time— entrepreneurial time. Franco Berardi is very good on this topic. The reason it was acceptable in society to reward entrepreneurs excessively was because they were taking more risks than others in standard forms of employment, which were more secure. But now everyone is required to be an entrepreneur to one degree or another. We’re all required to sell ourselves even if we are in stable jobs— and what is a stable job now anyways? There is this frenzied activity of promotion and of self-promotion— and Baudrillard was really a prophet of this— which I think is a final and decadent stage of capitalism and so I titled a chapter in Capitalist Realism, “All that’s solid melts into PR.”
I really liked that title…
Of course it’s a play on Marx and Engels but this seems to me what’s happening with the social media obsession and it’s something Baudrillard would have anticipated. If you listen to the radio or watch TV now, it seems they are endlessly promoting Twitter feeds rather than the other way around. Wasn’t the point of the social media feed to promote the radio or TV show? It’s sheer promotion for its own sake now and everything gets sucked into this vortex without any possible end. I use the word “frenzied” because it’s producing this constant sense of overwhelming urgency that there is no time to settle on anything— “there’s no time to read this book properly, there’s no time for me to listen to this record. Maybe I’ll be able to snatch a few fragments of it. What I want is a quick summary because I’m under pressure at all times from multiple platforms and even on those platforms my attention will be dispersed across multiple windows.” And this is not some strange or marginal condition for those straining themselves to the limit but becoming required of practically everybody. And the final deadly element is that this is not just some duty imposed on us by work or our employers but that this requirement has become libidinized as something we will enjoy. So I think along with Baudrillard, Burroughs is also a key prophet of the current moment. We are seeing addiction and compulsion— not the kind of lyrical addictions of heroin but precisely the Baudrillardian kind— addictions to the banal and the boring. I mean, is there anything more boring than being addicted to smartphones?!
Apple and Microsoft have been incredibly successful at imposing their model of cultural time over all of us. Indeed, the modernist conception of time has been taken over by Apple and Microsoft’s business model of built-in obsolescence and now, we’re all on Apple time.
You’ve said that capitalism can deliver the next iPhone but not the next Public Enemy or Wu Tang Clan. Has this not caught anyone off guard that a pride of the capitalist system— novelty— has, culturally-speaking, downward spiraled into a model of ordinariness?
I think that’s really key to it. The book I’m currently working on starts with Apple’s famous advertisement, which was used in the 1984 Super Bowl and was controversial at the time, even their Board of Directors nearly didn’t approve it because it didn’t feature the product. This advertisement, I think, established so much about the current moment in which we live and was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We know the commercial is a play on Orwell’s 1984 and we can all recognize the dream conflation of IBM and the old, big players of mainframe computers as Cold War dystopians and totalitarians. In a single stroke, Apple put authoritarianism and their rivals in the industry in the past but also politically, they’ve broadly associated the traditional Left wing as backward-looking and resistant to modernization. Who would be on the side of the “old” and who would be against modernization? This was really successful because this has now become the cultural default in which all we can do is adjust to this new realism.
Apple and Microsoft have been incredibly successful at imposing their model of cultural time over all of us. Indeed, the modernist conception of time has been taken over by Apple and Microsoft’s business model of built-in obsolescence and now, we’re all on Apple time. That is, “You will not have an iPod for very long because even if you don’t want to replace it, it will malfunction because of built-in obsolescence.” So what do we mean by the future now? The graspable future for us is whatever Apple or Microsoft invents next. That’s the only possible future and we now count cultural time in iPhones and iPhone software updates or whatever we imagine would supersede the iPhone. So in terms of our social-economic conditions, we experience ourselves as constantly on the edge of obsolescence unless we continually upgrade ourselves.
In culture, we accept that we can listen to something released only two years ago and that it can sound like something that was released twenty years ago. We don’t even blink anymore when we hear that, we don’t even notice that it’s the same. This is very interesting. Marshall Berman, in his writings on modernity, described this self-erasing temporality as that impulse which will burn away any certainty at any time, a sense of permanent impermanence. Our experience of modernity has fallen under terms of technological upgrades and it’s been nearly the opposite in culture— there is now little criteria for obsolescence in culture. For me, there’s a strong relation here: when stability and security are taken away from people’s lives it does not mean that they are compelled into all manner of creative responses to those conditions— on the contrary— it’s very clear now and unequivocal that if you deprive people of all forms of security and if you impose this panic-temporality on people then they will not be able to create anything new. They will just default to what has already been there. So that’s another way of getting to the same point of how Neoliberalism has destroyed creativity.
You wrote in Ghosts of My Life that nostalgia exists today at a “formal level,” what did you mean by that?
I meant that it’s not a psychological nostalgia, it’s a nostalgia of form. So let’s say when people my age hear “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk they think about Chic because they remember when Chic came out the first time. For people who genuinely liked this song and may not have heard of Chic, it’s not a case of psychological nostalgia, there’s nostalgia in the form of the music itself.
Like it’s embedded…
Yeah. I got there from an extrapolation from Frederic Jameson which I think in earnest, was very powerful— his classic analysis of the film Body Heat. The film is forgotten now but I think Jameson draws out formal features which have actually become features of practically everything now. Jameson notices that although the film was set in what was then a present-day early 1980s, the film felt like a film noir so the picture had all the style, tone and feel as if it had been made in the ‘40s yet it was made in the early ‘80s. I think that is the key to what I’m calling “formal nostalgia.” Although there may be a present day reference to things like social media or the iPhone in cultural production today, the formal qualities of the cultural product clearly belong to an earlier era, and this is our current postmodern anachronism which is now so naturalized, we don’t even call it postmodern anymore.
The music honestly captured what it was like to be in London in the 21st Century: a kind of sadness and mourning for the ‘90s, for the vibrancy of the multiplicity and of the endless self-reinvention of the dance music scene that existed in London in the ‘90s. And then, a recognition that all of that had disappeared. There’s a sadness about it and it’s the honesty of the sadness rather than the false smile— that’s the appeal of…
One of your exercises for readers is to imagine a futuristic sound. Kraftwerk is often referenced and while they are still active today, we all know their sound squarely fits in the ‘70s and ‘80s and this is still considered futuristic even though it was over 30 years ago…could you elaborate?
OK, just what do we mean by the term “futuristic”? When the word futuristic is used in sonic terms, we’ll probably think of Kraftwerk but it’s plainly not futuristic anymore. The “futuristic” is not something we connect with time anymore, certainly not a time that will be any different from now. Culturally, we cannot conceive of breaks from the present so “the futuristic” just becomes a style within the grasp of the present. The “futuristic” has become a fixed style with certain stylistic traits, which is why I compare it to the Gothic typeface.
A somewhat rhetorical question you’ve posed in your writing is, “Nostalgia compared to what?” Are you saying that there isn’t a present to grasp anymore?
Yeah, exactly. That came up with some of the music that I had discussed in Ghosts of My Life which plainly refers to an earlier era. Two of the major references are the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Burial, who conflates ‘90s British dance music genres like jungle and garage.
I first started thinking about this in a systematic way in 2006. Since it really wasn’t possible to sound new anymore, the question became: was the debt to the past articulated as a problem within contemporary music or was it ignored by contemporary music? It seemed to me that the difference between an artist like Burial and other music at the time was the degree to which the past became an avowed problem. That was at the heart of Burial’s aesthetic and was presented as such. Whereas other music— which of course was equally indebted to the past— disavowed and ignored that indebtedness. It seemed to me that this was the only difference in music culture from the mid 2000s onwards. So then there is this flat, atemporality— as Bruce Sterling has called it— which became very naturalized and it seemed to me that Burial denaturalized it by partly saying, “well, there was a future once, what happened to it?” That’s the implicit question of Burial’s music for me, and that’s what I was trying to point to.
Along with Burial, you’ve also shared your enthusiasm for some contemporary artists like the recently departed DJ Rashad…
Well, I think the obvious candidate for new music in the 21st Century would be footwork. Tristam Adams pointed out on his blog that footwork is compositionally new. Sure the sounds of footwork are familiar but the way in which they are composed and combined is new. Part of the enthusiasm is when you first hear it you think: “what the hell is this? This doesn’t sound like music,” and that’s what you want whenever you encounter something new! You think— this isn’t music, this is re-combining. And that’s part of the appeal with Burial too because the music honestly captured what it was like to be in London in the 21st Century: a kind of sadness and mourning for the ‘90s, for the vibrancy of the multiplicity and of the endless self-reinvention of the dance music scene that existed in London in the ‘90s. And then, a recognition that all of that had disappeared. There’s a sadness about it and it’s the honesty of the sadness rather than the false smile— that’s the appeal of Burial.
In your audio essay for The White Review you commented, “a secret sadness lurks behind the 21st Century’s smile.” You ask, “What is the saddest sound of the 21st Century?” and answer with, “When Drake says, ‘we threw a party…we threw a party.’”
I think Drake and Kanye West really are the most important artists of the 21st Century because they highlight that even if you’re rich, things are terrible. Both Kanye and Drake show, perhaps Drake even more than Kanye, that no matter how wealthy each of them has become, there’s still this deep ineradicable sadness. It permeates Drake’s music. And on the track “Marvin’s Room,” which I think is really quite sophisticated, the verbal level is simple— it’s yet another boast. It’s all me, I succeeded on my own. Yet the music production is just very melancholic, mournful, extremely sad and that draws something else out from the verbal level which is: if it’s only me that means it’s only you. That means you’re isolated and no matter how rich you become, you remain alone. That’s what I meant by the secret sadness of the 21st Century.
You wrote in Capitalist Realism that at the level of cultural production there is a “refusal of gatekeepers to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear to) want.” What are your thoughts on gatekeepers today?
We’re now in a time without gatekeepers and that’s really good but I also think it’s important to mention Jodi Dean’s critique of Communicative Capitalism here. In brief, how this image of the internet as a peer-to-peer communication network and of culture being produced laterally is completely at odds with the reality of the internet which is its domination by major hubs, most of which are connected with corporate power.
So, the best kind of gatekeeper would give people something they didn’t know they wanted yet, create expectations in audiences and would produce culture as a gift, and at a risk— as risk is a supposed basis of capitalism and the justification for entrepreneurial capitalism but it seems to me exactly the opposite has occurred. The more deeply embedded Neoliberal-style capitalism has become, the less risk we see in culture and the less capacity there is for taking risks. So something like the BBC, when it was good, allowed risk to occur because it protected cultural producers from market pressures. The further irony of that is the culture produced by those producers was ultimately more successful culturally, and even in commodity terms.
Simply, if you put someone under relentless pressure they become more conservative. They become dominated by fear, more likely to behave in a more mechanical and habituated way and lose any of those features you would expect of somebody who is producing something novel.
Right now we have this “unpopular populism” by which I mean, lots of popular culture is produced but nobody really likes it. It’s no longer popular, but it’s still populist. Well, what is populism? Populism is a guess at what people will like based on what they already like and sometimes it’s necessary— culturally and politically— to be populist but what we had with Popular Modernism was the reverse of that. Right in the heart of popular culture there were experimental things going on that went far beyond what would be expected or what predicated a popular audience or popular producers. I think a key to the current moment is the organized forgetting of that.
So there is this return of music industry puppets, the likes of which we haven’t really seen since the ‘50s and there’s also the deification of the business mogul figure— it’s really a sign of the way popular music culture has been subdued and had its libidinal core replaced by business.
For example, if I taught Adorno’s famous essay from the 1930s, “On Popular Music” in the ‘70s or ‘80s, in particular the ideas of industry moguls and a standardization of music, it would look ridiculously out of date at a time when the music industry and even major labels had lost control and seeded much creative autonomy to musicians. But today, Adorno’s essay doesn’t look out of date anymore— the moguls are really back now.
The re-emergence of a figure like Simon Cowell, who is the cliché of the current moment, is significant because it’s about putting music culture in its place. Nobody, including Cowell himself, is going to make any artistic claims on his behalf. The reason that Cowell has assumed this centrality has to do with the subjugation of everything by capital business. The success of Cowell is saying, “Look, this is all music is now, and it’s all it ever was really, it’s just this form of capitalist business. What you need to succeed is a capitalist business and to succeed as a business…you have to do what Cowell tells you to do.” There’s no pretense of entrepreneurialism or innovation there. So there is this return of music industry puppets, the likes of which we haven’t really seen since the ‘50s and there’s also the deification of the business mogul figure— it’s really a sign of the way popular music culture has been subdued and had its libidinal core replaced by business. Even though business is fucking boring! All it’s saying is that everything is boring now and that’s how things are— and nobody likes the music on The X Factor anyways!
So, your title Capitalist Realism is a play on Socialist Realism, an art movement I can quickly exemplify through paintings glorifying the proletariat or the peasantry working in wheat fields, or children rallying around the great leader. In your audio essay for The White Review you cited David Guetta’s “Play Hard”— would this global hit track along with Cowell’s TV show be exemplary artworks in these times of Capitalist Realism?
Oh, I think they are in lots of ways. When I first started using the term “Market Stalinism” I think the reaction was that it was a kind of joke, or a tad extreme. Part of the depressing, corrosive quality of Capitalist Realism is this sense that, “other people believe stuff whereas ‘we’ just see things how they are.” So, take Stalin as an example…“he was oppressive and totalitarian and also an idiot because he, and his cohorts, actually believed in those ideas, and even if they pretended to they were idiots, but not us! ‘We’— the implied audience of these cultural products— believe all kinds of nonsense! ‘We’ believe that business people are really creative and that they’re going to dominate things and that we have to listen to and do what they say.” That’s the point of the show The Apprentice, which I think is much bigger here in the UK. I know there’s the Donald Trump version in the US, but it’s really a big deal on the BBC, and the fact that the BBC is making it at all tells you a lot. The show is really just about a performance of subordination and so the major lesson you’re taking from this show is that you have to prostrate and subordinate yourself to whatever the host Alan Sugar says, even if it’s totally contradictory from one week to the next.
We know that shows like The X Factor are not about music but really about an affective subjugation— a performance of subjugation and the manipulation of peoples’ innermost hopes for their lives. Clearly, celebrity has replaced religious salvation for people in the 21st Century. If you become famous, if you become a celebrity, that is a form of redemption. It’s partly the randomness of it— it’s not everybody, only you as an individual will become a celebrity. Those who want it enough get it, which is the key question on these shows— “Do you want it enough?” Why does that even matter? You know, Bob Dylan didn’t want to become world famous…would that have made him less important? It’s this weird form of emotional exploitation and subordination. Certainly, wanting to be famous means that you must be willing to give up your whole life for it.
This is partly what I was saying about boredom. Nobody is bored but everything is boring and we can’t experience the boredom of things because we’re endlessly interrupted.
In times of Capitalist Realism, if you tell your parents you want to go to art school, what’s going to be the response?
Exactly. In conditions where everything is super-competitive, why would you waste your time with art school? But in the ‘60s young people wanted to go to art school and if their parents said, “No you can’t,” they would respond, “Fuck off— I’ve got a full maintenance grant, all of my fees are paid, I’m going to support myself and there’s not much you can do about it!” But sadly it’s not even parents imposing this on young people anymore, and not surprisingly, given the harshness of the environment in which they find themselves, many young people themselves are starting to think that way. Why wouldn’t they?
You’ve alluded to the point that capitalism has solved the riddle of boredom with the internet, but that now we have a new riddle: anxiety. You’ve also referenced the Katy Perry song, “Last Friday Night” because it depicts a life of no restraint, maxed-out credit cards and “breaking the law, always saying we’re going to stop” as if recurrent in daily life. This makes me think of the interims between feed-refreshing and how the compulsive checking can be a bit hedonist. When you said that fame has replaced religious salvation, I thought about the purgatory before the salvation…
I think purgatorial is the appropriate term to capture the state of what is happening in the 21st Century and the song “Last Friday Night” perhaps says more than it intends to. In Capitalist Realism, I called it hedonic depression because depression used to be defined as anhedonic— the inability to enjoy anything. What you get with this Katy Perry song is the condition that captures more of where we are now, which is the inability to do anything but enjoy— but the enjoyment is at quite a lower level. This isn’t delirious or psychedelic transports of consciousness, this is just…OK, we’ll “do it all again,” next week…the same thing…exactly the same thing.
What about a Sisyphean dimension, might people see it as subordinated?
I think this goes back to what we were talking about earlier— no one can see anything because we don’t have overviews of anything. You could say we all have “underviews” because we’re overwhelmed all the time and this is the point of being in an online environment which is inundating us with unmanageable levels of stimulus. If you ask, why don’t people notice that this old stuff keeps coming back around? We might notice it but we don’t have the time to notice it.
This is partly what I was saying about boredom: nobody is bored but everything is boring. And we can’t experience the boredom of things because we’re endlessly interrupted. We know boredom requires absorption and today we’re in such a perpetual state of anxiety that we can’t even notice that everything we’re experiencing is boring. So that puts us at a comparative to the punks on an English Sunday afternoon. Nietzsche said in the 19th Century that the English were genius to make Sunday so boring that people wanted to go back to work on Mondays. The acres of vacant time that a Sunday in England represented in the ‘70s, with barely any corner shops or newsagents open, posed an existential challenge which you had to meet. The old kind of existentialist challenge of dealing seriously with a finite amount of time in the face of mortality as in, “how can I possibly be bored if I’m going to die?” The capitalist cyberspace environment is set up to make us ignore that so we’ll happily…or not so happily…or secretly sadly…waste hours of time because that’s the nature of this form of stimulus. The profile of the insomniac is similar to the purgatorial.
I’d like to bring up one of your references to Berardi, “the intensity and precariousness of late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and over-stimulated. The combination of precarious work and digital communications leads to a besieging of attention. In this insomniac, inundated state, Berardi claims, culture becomes de-eroticised. The art of seduction takes too much time, and, according to Berardi, something like Viagra answers not to a biological but to a cultural deficit: desperately short of time, energy and attention, we demand quick fixes. Like another of Berardi’s examples, pornography, retro offers the quick and easy promise of a minimal variation on an already familiar satisfaction.”
Exactly, but we already know that. And we all know we can stay online for just one more click…forever…
You also made an example of Kurt Cobain in Capitalist Realism, writing that he was self-conscious of this predicament of no escape…
Yeah, in retrospect I think Kurt Cobain still belonged to a rock-romantic period. Kurt Cobain still wanted to believe in rebellion even though he knew it wasn’t possible. He knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, and that nothing ran better on MTV than a protest against MTV. That was his moment. He realized it in the punk, post-punk and new wave music that he liked, which was still sufficiently within recent cultural memory to be haunting.
And now, to reference a more recent piece of popular culture, the book Taipei by Tao Lin demonstrates this predicament on another level where there is no question of the outside anymore, there is no memory of it, it’s all so bleak it isn’t even provisioned as bleakness, there is no consciousness of what it would be like to be outside of these purgatorial conditions, and no recognition that they are even purgatorial— that’s true purgatory!
This is what has really made Ghosts of My Life a critique of a moment that is disappearing. In lots of ways it has disappeared for large parts of the population who have rediscovered their capacity to enjoy their own time and the time of others, and who can now use social media but aren’t fully inside capitalist cyberspace anymore.
One of your references to Frederic Jameson reads, “Jameson was writing in the late 1980s— i.e. the period in which most of my students were born. What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture— a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.”
Jameson was talking about this in the ‘80s and you have to think about how much more blipped the culture has become since then. It’s very important that this is pitched compassionately— that’s why this isn’t about generations. This generation has been cast into aesthetic and material poverty to a degree that previous generations weren’t, so it’s not about them doing worse, it’s that the resources available to them are meager and they do their best with those resources. Probably better than previous generations would have done. Again, none of these periods were perfect and not everything has gotten worse but in terms of the provision for cultural production, it has gotten worse. I think we’ve certainly seen things changing over the last year or two but it’s not changing from culture, all of the excitement in the present moment is coming from new developments in politics. I think we’re now seeing breaks with what has happened in Ferguson in the US, in Greece with Syriza, Podemos in Spain or the SNP in Scotland— I think we’re in a new moment.
This is what has really made Ghosts of My Life a critique of a moment that is disappearing. In lots of ways it has disappeared for large parts of the population who have rediscovered their capacity to enjoy their own time and the time of others, and who can now use social media but aren’t fully inside capitalist cyberspace anymore. I think that kind of time is erupting everywhere, here in England with the Jeremy Corbyn campaign for leadership of the Labour Party or in the US with Bernie Sanders.
This is what happens when Capitalist Realism breaks down. Certainly, there is an alternative to it. It has excited young people and so that’s why I think we’re in a new moment and this has sharpened and deepened my confidence in my critique of the previous moment, which we’re still living through. Most of the population is still in that moment of naturalized postmodernism and the end of history, but the fact that now there are these very significant eruptions of a political “new” rather than a cultural “new,” makes me think that the culture will follow from the politics this time. It also brings a sense of relief because it’s possibly the most exciting time in my lifetime. A lot of my life was initially fairly slow because I was born at the end of the ‘60s. Even in my lifetime there was that sense that the best had already gone before I was really conscious of it but now there is a sense of things certainly opening up again, in our way.
Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life partly came out of a sense of melancholy in the early ‘80s from the observation, “Oh my God, things are going to get worse, we’re going to have to get used to this and the best of things is in the past.” And there was a bitter realism to this as in, “just be realistic, you can’t expect those things anymore.” I think that feeling, and the infrastructure that was created by Neoliberalism, is now being rejected politically. When people have the slightest chance of rejecting, they’re rejecting it with all of their being and this is remarkable, it’s remarkable to see this in England— the most depressed country in world history!
To close, I’ll paraphrase the ending of Capitalist Realism, “The long dark night at the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity…suddenly anything is possible again…” Could I ask you to elaborate in terms of the mainstream as an arena? I’ve heard you say that the Left doesn’t compete for the mainstream anymore…
I think what has made that quote true is events like Syriza, right? There are neoanarchists running around saying, “mainstream politics is finished, it’s not interesting, let’s just be in some enclave online and just withdraw.” But the excitement produced by Syriza, even if Syriza fails— the excitement produced not only in Greece but internationally— shows the power of the mainstream because mainstream politics still excites people. You know, the reason we conceded the mainstream was because we didn’t think we could win it, but since Neoliberalism, the Right wing have nothing. They’ve had no new thought since [the financial crisis of] 2008, but the Left has new thought and has developed since then and there’s suddenly this dizzying prospect that we are ahead of them probably for the first time in my life and it feels really good.
In a way, the new book I’m working on is the positive alternative to Ghosts of My Life and Capitalist Realism. If this has been capitalism, what do we want instead of this? This book is partly about the failure of the Left and of the counter culture, which is typically represented by music culture. The question is: why didn’t a stronger, more robust politics come out of that music culture? I’m saying that this can happen now. Nobody wants a lost future, everybody wants the old conception of the future and the old conception of the future is what will give us something actually new.
Consider purchasing Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life, or The Weird and the Eerie at your preferred retailer or via one of these links to Amazon.com:
Ghosts of My Life
The Weird and the Eerie
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