I’ve read this extract from Mark Fisher’s forthcoming book “Ghosts Of My Life,” posted on The Quietus a few times now since last week, and I’ve gotta say it’s been burning my brain for the past week or so. In a way it’s partially scuppered some of my writing, especially what was going to be a fun little review I was writing (Don’t worry, it’ll come out later this week). But when you have chunks of writing like the piece below, then it’s almost guaranteed to make you sit down and think about what is really happening around you….
Rather than the old recoiling from the ‘new’ in fear and incomprehension, those whose expectations were formed in an earlier era are more likely to be startled by the sheer persistence of recognisable forms. Nowhere is this clearer than in popular music culture. It was through the mutations of popular music that many of those of us who grew up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s learned to measure the passage of cultural time. But faced with 21st Century music, it is the very sense of future shock which has disappeared. This is quickly established by performing a simple thought experiment. Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next seventeen years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be. While 20th Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st Century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century, just as Sapphire and Steel were incarcerated in their roadside café.
True, this sounds a little like a lost chapter from Simon Reynold’s “Retromania,” but Fisher tries to take it a stage further, to look harder for causes and answers by looking at the issue in a sociopolitical aspect…
Jameson equates the postmodern ‘waning of historicity’ with the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, but he says little about why the two are synonymous. Why did the arrival of neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospection and pastiche? Perhaps we can venture a couple of provisional conjectures here. The first concerns consumption. Could it be that neoliberal capitalism’s destruction of solidarity and security brought about a compensatory hungering for the well-established and the familiar? Paul Virilio has written of a ‘polar inertia’ that is a kind of effect of and counterweight to the massive speeding up of communication. Virilio’s example is Howard Hughes, living in one hotel room for fifteen years, endlessly rewatching Ice Station Zebra. Hughes, once a pioneer in aeronautics, became an early explorer of the existential terrain that cyberspace will open up, where it is no longer necessary to physically move in order to access the whole history of culture. Or, as Berardi has argued, the intensity and precariousness of late capitalist work culture leaves people in a state where they are simultaneously exhausted and overstimulated.
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.
The other explanation for the link between late capitalism and retrospection centres on production. Despite all its rhetoric of novelty and innovation, neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new. In the UK, the postwar welfare state and higher education maintenance grants constituted an indirect source of funding for most of the experiments in popular culture between the 1960s and the 80s. The subsequent ideological and practical attack on public services meant that one of the spaces where artists could be sheltered from the pressure to produce something that was immediately successful was severely circumscribed. As public service broadcasting became ‘marketized’, there was an increased tendency to turn out cultural productions that resembled what was already successful. The result of all of this is that the social time available for withdrawing from work and immersing oneself in cultural production drastically declined. If there’s one factor above all else which contributes to cultural conservatism, it is the vast inflation in the cost of rent and mortgages. It’s no accident that the efflorescence of cultural invention in London and New York in the late 1970s and early 80s (in the punk and postpunk scenes) coincided with the availability of squatted and cheap property in those cities. Since then, the decline of social housing, the attacks on squatting, and the delirious rise in property prices have meant that the amount of time and energy available for cultural production has massively diminished. But perhaps it was only with the arrival of digital communicative capitalism that this reached terminal crisis point.
You see sections like that just make me think about Iceland’s music/cultural body in this respect. You’ve got a very postmodern cultural mindset that has flourished over the last decade. At the same time, many of the neoliberal policies set in place in the 1990s by Davið Oddsson and the Independence Party were kicking into overdrive, invading just about every nook and cranny of the country, the music scene included.
Iceland still has a lot of state sponsoring of the arts, but with many in the current govt trying their best to cut it off at the knees, then how long before Iceland ‘s culture can hold out?