The arrival of one’s first mail-order second-hand book in a new place is a milestone, right? Feels like one to me… so perhaps I’m not adjusting to this whole voluntary quarantine thing as well as I thought.
Procrastinating this morning by catching up on a stack of as-yet-unread newsletter emails from L M Sacasas. This bit in particular, from 11th March, chimed with a lot of my recent early-morning thinkings-through of The Ongoing Situation:
… it is curious to note again the recent proliferation of conspiracy theorizing, something I’ve previously attributed to the failure of authoritative public institutions and narratives, or, to put it another way, to the collapse of common sense in Arendt’s use of the phrase, as an experience of the world held in common. But now I want to suggest as well that conspiracy theorizing is something like a mannerist manifestation of the detective story. The detective story genre is often characterized as a characteristically modern production in its insistence that even the most heinous and mysterious aspects of human experience can be neatly and adequately addressed by the persistent application of empirical reasoning. Conspiracy theories are simply detective stories that are quite obviously trying too hard, or, to keep with the literary theme, protesting too much, in the face of their increasing implausibility.
So, where does this leave us. I began by asking why this virus had taken on such an eery, disconcerting quality, why it had unnerved us so profoundly. Curiously, as many have observed, one of the recurring features coronavirus discourse is emergence of two camps: those who are accused of panic and those who are accused of reckless nonchalance. The more some appear to “panic,” the more others double down on their cavalier indifference. These reactions, however, are not necessarily opposites as much as they are two very common modes of coping with the same distressing realization: the project of human mastery must always remain incomplete. The unpredictable, the unknown, the incalculable, the capricious aspects of our experience will always be with us. The conquest upon which we have staked our hope will never be complete. And each phenomenon that makes it impossible for us to ignore this fact will mess with our heads and trouble our hearts.
As Sacasas also did, I will state here for the record that this is not in any way to diminish or dismiss the very real challenge and threat of the pandemic. I will further note that our both feeling the need to point that out is a phenomenon entirely tied up with the dynamic of distress that Sacasas is discussing above.
Because, as some observant wags have already pointed out by email, I can’t see Warren Ellis do a thing without having to copy it. But also because I used to write about music all the time, until I didn’t, because my PhD ate my life and a drive failure ate my all-digital music collection (and reminded me, not for the first time, that data which doesn’t exist on multiple pieces of hardware might as well not exist at all)… and because now I’ve finally got to a point where Spotify fits into my patterns of living and working, and where the algorithm has been sufficiently well-trained that it spits up new stuff that I enjoy listening to.
To be clear, I don’t like having to rely on Spotify, which has a very shitty business model as far as paying the artists is concerned… but the prospect of even starting to reconstruct a music collection that once ran to thousands of albums is as emotionally ugly as it is financially untenable, at least at present. And there’s no denying that the ability try out music of all types and genres from almost any era has broadened my listening very quickly, too. It’s been fun for me to go back to the early strata of Western popular music, to which most folk my age were introduced by their parents. My parents were not very culturally engaged; the example I always use is that, with the exception of the safer singles which might have been played on Radio 2 or terrestrial telly in the late 80s, I’d hardly heard the Beatles or the Stones before I left home in 1993, let alone Zeppelin or Fleetwood Mac or the Kinks. So I like that I can go on a bebob binge or a deep dive into the Delta blues, as well as listening to the stuff I loved in my adolescence.
Uncle Warren’s influence manifests in my increased consumption of weird, dark ambient stuff. I’d realised some time ago that postrock—the only genre where I can legitimately think of myself as a player as well as a listener—is good work music because of its lack of distracting vocals. But sometimes even melody is too much for certain sorts of writing and thinking; then you just want soundscapes, kosmiche hypnosis, post-Eno tone-paintings, droning tonal daubings. Of course, a lot of the stuff Ellis listens to is Bandcamp only, but the Cryochamber label is well represented on Spotify, and I’ve been binging on that a fair bit. (Though I note that the unified aesthetic of the label, both sonically and graphically, makes me wonder if it’s not just one or a couple of musicians in a box-room, cranking out album after almost-exactly-one-hour-long album under a dozen different monikers… but hey, if it is, who cares? It’s quality stuff. More power to them.)
This one, though, is a Venn diagram smooshing of [musician whose work I’ve loved for almost as long as I’ve been paying attention to music] with [suitable for getting your head down and working with your thinkmeat]. I actually met Clint Mansell during my period of incarceration in the British public school system, not long after I’d discovered the chaotic collage-work of Pop Will Eat Itself*; we had a brief conversation on Stourbridge high street regarding the merits of different cash machines in the area. (The Midland Bank one was the only one that dispensed fivers.) His first soundtrack, for Requiem for a Dream, is almost as harrowing as the movie itself. The one for Moon, however, occupies a nice spot somewhere between the quieter and more thoughtful bits of late-period Nine Inch Nails, and more typical moods-for-movies material.
I’ve still never seen the film itself, mind.
[ * There’s a very viable argument to be made that this encounter with Mansell made an aesthetic impression upon me that has never faded. Between him, promo photos of Daisy Chainsaw and Fields of the Nephilim clipped from Melody Maker circa 1991, and Craig Charles’s long stint performing the role of Dave Lister in Red Dwarf, the mood board for my enduring look is pretty much complete. ]
The originality of the present situation, it seems to me, is that by remaining trapped at home while outside there is only the extension of police powers and the din of ambulances, we are collectively playing a caricatured form of the figure of biopolitics that seems to have come straight out of a Michel Foucault lecture. Including the obliteration of the very many invisible workers forced to work anyway so that others can continue to hole up in their homes – not to mention the migrants who, by definition, cannot be secluded in any home of their own. But this caricature is precisely the caricature of a time that is no longer ours.
There is a huge gulf between the state that is able to say “I protect you from life and death,” that is to say from infection by a virus whose trace is known only to scientists and whose effects can only be understood by collecting statistics, and the state that would dare to say “I protect you from life and death, because I maintain the conditions of habitability of all the living people on whom you depend.”
… there is another reason why the figure of the “war against the virus” is so unjustified: in the health crisis, it may be true that humans as a whole are “fighting” against viruses – even if they have no interest in us and go their way from throat to throat killing us without meaning to. The situation is tragically reversed in ecological change: this time, the pathogen whose terrible virulence has changed the living conditions of all the inhabitants of the planet is not the virus at all, it is humanity! But this does not apply to all humans, just those who make war on us without declaring war on us. For this war, the national state is as ill-prepared, as badly calibrated, as badly designed as possible because the battle fronts are multiple and cross each one of us. It is in this sense that the “general mobilization” against the virus does not prove in any way that we will be ready for the next one. It is not only the military that is always one war behind.
I keep trying to sit down and write about those extended police powers which, as they’re explained to me by friends and loved ones back in the UK, are scaring me way more than the virus, and to some extent more even than its economic aftermath; from my point of vantage in cautious and (seemingly) hyper-rational Sweden, it’s dizzying stuff. But my mind keeps sliding off the sheer, glassy enormity of it all; I can’t grip it in a way that gives me any analytical purchase. The last time I felt like this was the London riots of 2011. That seems a lifetime ago now.
Maybe Latour is right, and there’s no promise in the pandemic of a better state response to the environmental crisis. But that assumes a continuity of the state as currently constituted, and right now the continuity of any major institutional form seems like a pretty long-odds bet. What’s different now by comparison to 2011 is that the TINA doctrine of neoliberalism has been shown to be the fiction it had always been. I am obliged to believe that’s an opportunity for change, in order that I might work as if it is.