It seems unimaginable, but it’s possible that the next underground will exist entirely off-line.
We no longer recognise brands and commodities as socially constructed, so we want to oversimplify and assign agency to them – agency that is really much more chaotically distributed, structurally prescribed, and historically driven. We tend to say, for instance, that the Walkman changed how we listen to music, rather than saying that home electronics companies changed how we listen to music, or the desire for portable listening devices changed how we listen to music, or an influx of inexpensive Japanese consumer goods into the malls of America changed how we listen to music – all of which are also true.
This interests me because Diduck is approaching a problem with considerable similarities to one of my own long-standing bugbears, namely the absence of a language, or more accurately a narratology, that can successfully portray networked causalities.
It’s recently become apparent to me that, in some respects at least, this is one of the things that Marx was trying to deal with in Capital: the dialectical method is an attempt to describe a highly complex and emergent system in a way that shows that everyone involved is equally complicit in it. Certainly Marx took the side of the worker, and I do as well, but the point is that no one — capitalists or otherwise — sat down and designed capitalism to work the way it does; rather, it has a terrifying bootstrapped autopoiesis all its own.
In my own work, this manifests primarily in what I call the self-effacement of the metasystem: the way in which infrastructure has steadily made its own seeming magicality an intrinsic part of its appeal. Back to Diduck for a bit:
[…] attributing these kinds of immense cultural movements to the purview of products rather than their vast social and industrial dimensions, ascribing them near-mystical abilities to affect real-world changes of enormous magnitude, is the very definition of commodity fetishism. This misidentification of power has disastrous consequences: the subject’s alienation; the transference of fear and desire to things rather than people; and ultimately, the determinist air of it all. As Robin James wrote, “When building capacity and the pleasure in doing so is experienced neither for its own sake nor our own sakes but for the sake of generating profits for the wealthy, the pleasure we feel in resiliently overcoming our prior limitations merely masks our subjection.”
The self-effacement of infrastructure is the expression of the commodity fetish after having metastasised into systems of distribution and provision. The misidentification of power in this case is the assumption that it is the infrastructural system (or, more often, the devices that we connect to it) that provides us with the functions fulfilled by clean water, electricity, etc etc. In fact, it is the world (or what we erroneously refer to as “nature”) which provides these capacities, but that provision has been so successfully mediated — along with our experience of the world, of which that world’s repackaging as “nature” is a crucial and inevitable element — that we think of it as little more than a warehouse through which the essentials of our existence are prepared and dispatched by some unacknowledged but nonetheless vaguely perceived authority.
I’ll probably make a lot of Marxians vary annoyed by saying so, but the problem with Marx’s analysis of capital is that it tends to be read as if capital is the villain of the piece. This isn’t entirely Marx’s fault; he certainly ascribes capital a great deal of agency in the system he describes, and even personifies it a fair amount — in a manner which is very influential on science fiction, as it happens; he was big on the concretised metaphor, which he blagged from the Gothic literature of his own time — but he never makes a moustache-twirling villain of it. Rather, we do that ourselves, because we are trained to a narratology in which villains and heroes stubbornly remain the standard model of linear causality.
Which, you might think, is a long wander away from soft drinks sponsorship in the music industry… though it turns out to be less so than I expected. Diduck talks in his piece about the rise of water scarcity, and the epidemic of addiction to refined sugars, in which the companies which make commodities like R*d B*ll and C*ca-C*la are very much complicit. Of course, they didn’t design capitalism to work the way it does. But they continue to take maximal advantage of the commodity fetish and the self-effacement of systems of provision in order to meet the goal of increasing shareholder value — an autopoiesis of the organism which echoes the autopoiesis of its systemic environment. They’re merely responding to the incentives that surround them.
Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not merely to describe the world, but to change it. My worry is that we can never describe it completely enough that our best-intentions attempts to change it won’t have catastrophic unforeseen consequences.
To be clear, though, that ain’t gonna stop me from trying.
Thanks to the Opus Independents / NowThen Magazine crew for giving me the opportunity to pose some questions the incredible, the humble, the forthright Kate Tempest. Online version’s here if you want it.
I spotted NowThen during my first week in Sheffield, and decided immediately that if I was going to write reviews and similar for a free local rag, then it was this one, or none of them.
Right choice, Paul. Right choice.
Today, social media enables young people to engage with culture and politics in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do with music; from the 1960s to the 1990s, music was pretty much all there was. It seems likely that, in the broad sweep of cultural history, the period circa 1955 to circa 2000 will be a treated as a discrete epoch, and the cultish fanaticism that drove its successive countercultural waves – from Beatlemania to grunge, via punk, post-punk, New Romantics et al – will be seen as an analog-era curio. The regime of production and dissemination was the defining characteristic of the four-and-a-bit decades of its hegemony; the demise of that regime has led, ultimately, to the obsolescence of that particular iteration of pop culture.
(Please read the whole thing before criticising it; one can acknowledge nostalgia without necessarily taking that feeling as an indication that things were actually and objectively “better” during your own salad days.)
Surfacing briefly to note with pride that Now Then is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
I stumbled across Now Then during my first weeks in Sheffield, way back in the autumn of 2012, when I was desperate to make some connections to the local cultural scene, and to find a new venue to write music reviews for. Now Then is basically an ad-funded arts-scene free-sheet, and generally I don’t write for such publications on principle; as a rule they’re awful, full of shamelessly fawning promo passing itself off as commentary, with tawdry production values and even lower editorial standards. Now Then stood out immediately: its print edition (which doesn’t run during the summer, so as to save money) is always a gorgeous piece of printed product, fronted with original art commissioned to purpose; its reviews are written with genuine passion, and are permitted to be critical; it carries poetry, short fiction and humour, and it carries editorial and local-political content that puts both of the local “newspapers” to shame by comparison.
My PhD and other work has meant I’ve not been a very regular contributor to Now Then, but of all the free-to-air venues I’ve ever reviewed music for, it’s the one I’m proudest not only to tell people about, but to show them a physical copy. Perhaps the most solid endorsement I can offer is that I pick up a copy every month, whether my words are in there or not.
Sheffield’s a city with a fair few problems and difficulties, most of which are political in origin. But it teems with people working hard to make a difference, not just for themselves, but for everyone else. Sam and the gang at Opus are solidly in the latter category, and Now Then is product and platform all at once. I’m reyt proud to have contributed to it, in however minor a manner.
(You can read my latest review in this month’s online edition.)