Much delayed by pandemic disruptions of international mail, here’s a transcript of a heretofore unpublished J G Ballard interview, originally done for an Italian VHS video zine (!) in the Nineties. Comes in both Italian and English, with an accompanying essay by yer man Simon Reynolds… which is presumably where I heard about it, shortly after (or was it before?) relocating. Copies still available, it seems.
Harbingers of middle-agedness, #836: your journey around/along the dialectical Möbius strip of culture brings you to points when echoes of multiple previous moments thereupon reflect back at you at the same time. Point in case: Kieran Press-Reynolds on the phenomenon of the virtual rave [via Reynolds Senior].
I’m old enough to not only recall the earlier (though admittedly far clunkier) precedent of partying in Second Life, plus the rather lower bandwidth but nonetheless plausible possibilities of a PHPBBS party tied to a streaming radio station… but also the mid-Nineties commodification of rave, to which I arrived too late to realise just how tawdry an imitation it was of its seed culture. I suspect it’s my now-more-informed awareness of the latter that allows me to feel myself wanting to do the standard middle-aged Kids These Days routine, and to catch myself before doing it. What was once authentic and vital and NOW to me was always-already a copy of a copy of a copy. Virtual raving isn’t meant for me, and nor should it be; it’s for young folk in a world that lacks the space—cultural, economic, physical—for them to go wild in the Actual. More power to them.
But man, the echoes… and the indicators, perhaps, of the pendulum’s backswings yet to come.
… can computer-mediated events ever live up to real-life ones? One of the obvious downsides to virtual raving is the lack of secondary experiences. You can’t meet up with friends and journey to the venue. You can’t mosh, you don’t get that delicious after-feeling of dizzy bliss, and you can’t grab a post-show 2AM pink-frosted donut from Dunkin. It almost feels too easy: You plop in front of a screen and click on an app or type in a URL. Even though going to clubs requires effort and discomfort, there’s seemingly more payoff for that investment of energy.
I vaguely recall someone—I want to say Irvine Welsh, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t him?—observing that a significant percentage of the thrill of drug-based subcultural activity came not from the drugs themselves, but rather from the obstacles overcome in the adventure of acquiring them, distributing them, getting them into the venue, sharing them at the afterparty in the basement of a crumbling four-storey terrace… you get the picture. Point being, it was an embodied experience—collectively embodied. Your McKennas and your Shulgins (and, IIRC, commentators like Reynolds Senior) pointed out the long paleohistory of the party as a shared and (sha)manic letting-down-of-the-hair, and I suspect the urge for that meatspace shindiggery will be harder to kill off than many are assuming right now… just as I suspect that the much-discussed and purportedly permanent upending of sociality due to the pandemic will be a far more temporary thing than is commonly claimed.
Perhaps I am just letting my nostalgia cloud my judgement? More than possible. But how’s this for an echo of post-rave clubland:
The culture surrounding an event is practically as important as the event itself. Club Q, for example, is one of the largest queer clubs on Zoom. Creatively misusing the videoconferencing app, Club Q has devised its own set of freaky features. One of these is what co-founder Andres Sierra calls “the jumbotron,” a sort of virtual rave equivalent to a sports stadium screen. Zoom allows the host of the room to choose which webcam to stream in the middle of the screen, making it both the biggest visible image and literally the center of everyone’s attention. When a club participant’s webcam gets selected, they become a momentary celebrity and freak out — just like with the blown-up shots of surprised spectators at a baseball match.
“It’s less about the celebrity who’s playing, and more a whole entire experience. The hierarchy between performer and audience is gone, and now the audience is part of the show,” Sierra says. “You have to see it in a different way from a real-life club… people come in and say, ‘I didn’t think it was going to be like that!’ Or, ‘Oh, this is way better than reading about it.’”
It was already a hollow fiction by then, of course, but the clubland mags of the mid-Nineties still regularly recited the catechism that contrasted DJ culture to the hoary hero-worship of rockism: The audience was the star! The hierarchy had been defeated! All this even as Cream and others were spearheading a return to the hierarchy, just with a new pantheon installed, their sticker-strewn flightcases now cradling rare vinyl instead of vintage Fenders and Gibsons.
That said, scenes such as Gatecrasher sustained a sense that the audience were a big part of the show. But you could say exactly the same of rockist culture at various points in its history. To pick just a few obvious examples: UK punk, 1976-77 (and arguably beyond); the Blitz Kids and New Romo; even 1990s Britpop and Britrock, to some extent (which I recall as being very dressy and performative things, at both gigs and clubs alike). That tension between the hero on the stage and the hero on the dancefloor will likely oscillate for as long as there’s a music culture to pluck at it… and each new generation will believe that it’s invented the latest inversion, just as it should.
But it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t go all infrastructural on it, right? Right—and here’s the crux:
… but virtual fashion has one big thing going for it: sustainability. It proposes a pixel-sized alternative to the over 32 billion pounds of textiles generated every year, 22 billion of which end up in landfills, according to the EPA in 2017. “Virtual clothing is a product of information technology, which means it’s made out of data and uses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running,” explains Florian Mecklenburg, co-founder of the design studio Goys & Birls. He recently formed NEW FORMAT, a digital group dedicated to exploring virtual fashion. “Once a piece is created, it can be multiplied—limitless. You can copy and paste the data, and everyone has access to it. If people accept digital clothing, they will rethink their consumer behavior.” Obviously, virtual clothing could never outright eliminate the need to wear fabric in real life, but it could help reduce the mammoth waste caused by empty, vacuous practices like fast fashion.
“[U]ses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running”… that “except” is doing a whole lot of work, there, just like the server farms and power stations keeping the networks alive.
To be clear, this is not me making an old-man argument against virtual raving, but rather an argument against this shrugging away of the materiality of the virtual. Stuff happening on the internet is not inherently more sustainable than stuff happening elsewhere; in many cases, it’s quite the opposite. Likewise, I’m all for the end of fast fashion—but the connection between rapid and consequence-free swapping of digital outfits and the seductiveness of brands and image on the one hand, and the disposability and effaced consequences of fast fashion on the other, is being rather conveniently waved away here, in much the same way that the materiality of the virtual is waved away with the comment about electricity. All that is solid melts into hot air blown away from a processor chip, as someone didn’t quite say.
As long as humans fetishize commodities and care about appearances, a sizable portion of hypebeasts and shoe fiends won’t care if the items they buy exist in solid form. If a brand like Supreme or Saint Laurent creates enough mystique around an item, consumers will lap it up. The hallucination of cool that comes with owning a rare item from a chic brand has always been what these people were really purchasing — virtual fashion simply keeps the image and jettisons the solid product.
And I just don’t buy this argument at all. I’m reminded of the Gibson riff in (I think) Mona Lisa Overdrive, where a character observes that, in a world where idealised telegenic beauty via elective surgery is a commonplace, the uniqueness and cachet of an individual’s unaltered features ends up being amplified rather than muted, at least for those who can afford not to perform the signifiers of the center of the bellcurve.
Point being: if everyone can get that virtual Kanye-designed Supreme plaid bucket-hat (or whatever it is), the kudos in having the thing is erased immediately. Style (as opposed to fashion) is about scarcity, the search, the time and effort and money expended on the self-curation of the image—it’s about uniqueness, and the aspiration to such. Endlessly duplicable virtual threads, rather than killing off the desire for material threads, will serve only to increase demand for them—and where there is demand, there will be production, because capitalism. The virtual rave is thus not an alternative to fast fashion, but a new captive-market platform for marketing it. (I could probably do a side-bit on the low barriers to duplication and IP piracy here, but I’m supposed to be working…)
The virtual rave isn’t a fad — it’s a point on a much larger, longer timeline, a timeline tracking humanity’s slow, hazy descent into becoming totally techno-human, where everything we do in real-life can be done online with equal efficiency and enjoyment level, and we never have to move or leave our bedrooms at all.
Well, we were always-already totally techno-human… but that’s a theoretical quibble (and personal hobby-horse) that this piece doesn’t really merit. The bit that matters here, and the bit that makes me feel old (and more than a bit sad), is the second half, which describes the retreat into a Matrix-esque existence of virtual thrills experienced from isolated pods in terms which, while not exactly utopian (notwithstanding the word “efficiency”), nonetheless suggest something more enthusiastic than mere acceptance.
Maybe it’s too much to expect a sense of dispossession from a generation who’ve never really known the access to public space and shared experience that mine was privileged enough to get? I dunno. But my hope, nonetheless, is that the virtual rave marks the peak of the pendulum’s swing in that direction, and that in a handful more years, the kids will come raging out of those bedrooms and find a way (and a space) to make noisy, colourful chaos in the Actual. Speaking only for myself, growing old in a world where that isn’t happening is perhaps the most depressing version of late adulthood I can imagine—a world where the forces of order have triumphed totally.
Back when I used to live in Velcro City’s original namesake, I remember being told many times over, by many different sources, that difficult cases of social exclusion or dysfunction were often tagged by overburdened social workers in the area with the acronym NFP—“normal for Portsmouth”.
Quite how normal (or not) those cases actually were—and quite how true the story was, given that I don’t think I ever heard it first-hand from a social worker—is not the point. (Though I would note that little I have learned since about Po-town or the rest of the UK has given me reason to suspect it of being a complete falsehood; it was always a troubled polis, in a lot of different ways.) The point is that I’m getting a stark lesson in the situated subjectivity of normality right now, and struggling to process it.
To be clear, there are many worse struggles I could be facing; this is not a call for pity, by any means. Furthermore, I suspect everyone’s getting some variant of the same thing, whether on top of other more vital struggles or not: the pandemic is global, but the way we experience it is predominantly local, even as we are plugged in to various sources of news and opinion and experience from elsewhere. Coronavirus is throwing all sorts of new light on the world, and not much of it seems to be flattering in terms of institutional preparedness and honesty.
Things are particularly weird for me right now because I have little precedent for what normal looks like in my current location. I’ve been living in Sweden for a few weeks, and one of those weeks was spent in the Netherlands. I’ve stayed in Lund and Malmo before, but not enough to have a feel for what a busy day or a quiet day looks like. As such, how normal things are now is something of an open question for me. It’s definitely quiet here on campus at Lund… but there are people chatting in the corridor outside my office door right now, and there are students in the common areas downstairs, though perhaps fewer than one might expect even this close to the end of the semester. There were people on my train in to work, though again, fewer than I’d expect for the time of day. There were people at the bar I went to last night, but not many, and the vibe was subdued. There was plenty of food in the shops yesterday, and at present I have no reason to suspect that won’t be the case this evening, too.
All of which is to say: when I open up my channels of news and experience from the UK and the US, I’m slapped with a huge wave of cognitive dissonance. Things are looking pretty panicky in the Anglosphere right now, to say the least.
I have various thoughts and feelings about all of this stuff, but I’m largely keeping it to myself—not least because I’m not an expert in epidemiology or disaster management, and furthermore I’m not sure that anyone needs or wants my lukewarm takes on how things are being handled by anyone, anywhere. There’ll be time enough for that after the pandemic—which, for the sake of total clarity, I very much believe to be a real thing.
But I can’t help but be drawn to the differences between the public vibe here in Sweden and elsewhere—particularly that of the UK, where most of my experiential accounts are coming from. The Swedish government has recommended self-isolation to those with symptoms of respiratory infection, and there’s a recommendation also against gatherings of more than 500 people which is not, AFAIK, actually a thing with any legal force so much as a polite suggestion from the powers that be (albeit one delivered with a justified confidence that it will be followed without significant protest or argument). Lund University is carrying on pretty much as normal, modulo the afore-mentioned self-isolation (my PI, bless him, has had a fever for over a week, but is sat at home grinding out impact evaluations for an ongoing project), and the inevitable uptake of the opportunity to work from home by knowledge workers in a country where working from home is a very easy ask, and where sick pay is decent and unlikely to be quibbled over. And as already mentioned, trains are running, shops and bars are open, toilet roll and teabags are still obtainable without recourse to black-marketeering.
But just across the water, the Danes have closed their borders. Well, they’ve closed them to anyone but Danes… or anyone with a really good reason to be there (e.g. caring for a sick relative), or people going between Kastrup (Copenhagen Airport) and Sweden without stopping anywhere in between… or people involved in mantaining supply chains, such as truck drivers. A lockdown with that many exceptions is likely to be fairly unsuccessful… and it’s been suggested to me that this might be reflective of a long-standing anxiety about borders and infection that is endemic to Denmark.
(Though that suggestion has mostly come from Swedes, who do rather pride themselves on not being the Danes, in what I can already tell is one of the most epic nation-state-scale cases of the narcissism of small differences one might wish to encounter. Heck, it may well be that the Swedes are sticking with a calm and open-for-business attitude primarily as a way of differentiating themselves from their Scandi cousins. It’s probably quite handy to be able to point at your more performatively racist neighbours when you’re a polite, tacit type of people who don’t want to talk about your own problems with a rising far-right movement.)
And as for the UK… well, I’m too distant to get a good read on it, and I’m staying well out of social media as usual. My decision to quit the platforms has never looked wiser, to be honest—and that outsider’s perspective makes it all the easier to agree with Ryan Diduck when he suggests that “[i]t’s almost as if the media were the virus”.
(And again, for the avoidance of doubt: I’m not denying the existence of the virus as a thing, and nor is Diduck, as far as I can tell. But there’s a definite medium-as-message element to the discourse around the virus, and that piece makes a damn good grasp for it.)
None of this is to discredit people’s fears or anxieties, either. I suspect it’s easy for me to be a bit sanguine precisely because I’m in a sanguine environment, with little exposure to the amplificatory feedback loops of the birdsite et al. I dare say that if I were still in the UK, and had no expectations of being anywhere else any time soon, I would be feeling a lot more precarious. But therein lies my point: the virus has become a surface onto which all other social anxieties are being projected. As I remarked to someone last week, it’s as if after what must be a decade of those nauseating and bedamned “keep calm and carry on” snowclone posters, and all the lively but nonetheless very stiff-upper-lipped protesting and pushback about The B-Word, the virus has finally cracked the lid on what passes for the British geist, and released a vast cloud of anxiety, fear and anger. Ditto the US—it’s as if in both cases everyone has spontaneously moved on from bargaining and anger about the situation, and finally started focussing on its concrete implications. Here I’m modifying a Źiźek riff from this morning, which is (it seems to me) uncharacteristically positive: now we’ve all been forced to face the truth that can no longer be denied, bargained with or argued away, we’re going to (have to) start working on the problem instead of just shouting or tweeting about it. Sickness as solidairty, solidarity in sickness… the possibility of the pandemic as a force for a renewed and networked internationalism.
I’m plugged in sufficiently well to know that’s not going to be a fashionable take—and presumably even less so, given who I’ve just cited. But if you won’t take it from ol’ Slavoj, how about Rebecca Solnit? A newsletter in my inbox this morning reminded me of her thinking in the years immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which are summed up in this 2009 NYT review of her book A Paradise Built in Hell:
… this same sort of positive feeling has emerged in far more precarious circumstances, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. Disasters, for Solnit, do not merely put us in view of apocalypse, but provide glimpses of utopia. They do not merely destroy, but create. “Disasters are extraordinarily generative,” she writes. As the prevailing order — which she elliptically characterizes as advanced global capitalism, full of anomie and isolation — collapses, another order takes shape: “In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society.” These “disaster communities” represent something akin to the role William James claimed for “the utopian dreams” of social justice: “They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.”
Lastly, there’s the panic myth. A sociologist who set out to research panic in disasters found it was a “vanishingly rare phenomenon,” with cooperation and rational behavior the norm. More typically, panic comes from the top — hence the reaction of officials during the Three Mile Island evacuation: “They’re afraid people are going to panic,” another disaster scholar notes, “so they hold the information close to the vest about how much trouble the reactor is in,” putting the public in greater danger. A weightier charge by the disaster sociologists, one echoed by Solnit, is that “elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy.” Thus, Solnit argues, the official response in 1906 San Francisco — where the subsequent fire caused more damage than the quake — kept volunteers “who might have supplied the power to fight the fire by hand” away, relying instead on “reckless technological tactics.” In the aftermath of Katrina, there were myriad accounts of paramedics being kept from delivering necessary medical care in various parts of the city because of false reports of violence. Whether this was elites defending against challenges to their legitimacy or simple incompetence is unclear; as Solnit observes, the “monolith of the state” is actually a collection of agencies whose coordination may be illusory.
My feelings and opinions about the situation alluded to above might be lightly summarised by my observing that the most panicked populations at the moment would seem to be those with the most dysfunctional and authoritarian governments. (The functional authoritarians, e.g. China, appear to be weathering it pretty well after a bad start.) Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t concerned; nor am I suggesting that a state response is not necessary. What’s interesting here is rather the character of the response, both of (and also between) the dysfunctional state and its public, and the light that the situation is throwing on those governments. If Źiźek and Solnit are right, we may see a new sense of cooperation and solidarity emerging at street level as this thing progresses… and we might also find that a whole cavalcade of emperors are suddenly understood to have been naked all along, by people who will swear blind that they were never duped in the first place.
Gotta find your hope where you can, right? Stay safe, everyone—and try not to give in to the fear. (Especially not the fear of your fellow humans, regardless of where exactly on the planet they may be from, or currently living, or recently returned from.) This handwashing PSA via Damien Williams pretty much nails it, I’d say:
It seems unimaginable, but it’s possible that the next underground will exist entirely off-line.
6: In oral societies, freedom is conformity to communal standards. In the culture of print, to be free is to choose for oneself. In digital culture, freedom is relief from the obligation to choose.