Choose Life. Choose unit sales.

Trainspotting is one of the few films that I’ve bothered to watch twice at the cinema because I enjoyed it so much.  It’s a great film.  So much so that everyone seems to forgive the surreal sequence tucked away in the middle that could be straight out of a “GREAT Britain” marketing campaign.  You may have forgotten it (or removed it from your memory).  It’s a series of short clips of people in Edinburgh, set to music.  It may only last 30 seconds or so.  It’s to set the context (as far as I can remember) for the scene in which Begbie mugs the American tourist after he stumbles into the wrong bar and opens his mouth in a loud sports jacket.  Perhaps it’s ironic – showing the difference between tourist Edinburgh and the grim toilet-bowl reality experienced by Renton and co.  But if it is, then there is no shred of irony whatsoever in the sequence: it really could be straight from an advert.

And 20 or so years later, Trainspotting has probably done its own fair share of contributing to Britain’s “image” – the reputation, the imagery, the modern mythology, the material for posters and the milieu that Lonely Planet writers and newspaper travel columnists get invited to feature.  That sounds like a more interesting irony – that the ironic “Visit Britain” sequence turns out to have been far more effective at attracting visitors than shit-stained toilets, dead babies and heroin addicts were at putting them off.

This “soft power” explains the rush for selfies in front of the Hollywood sign, and the clamour from politicians for new concert venues or to attract the cameras for the next Game of Thrones.  The steps before – the market research, the visioning, the planning for the infrastructure and attracting the finance, is called “boosterism” – bigging up London more than Paris to win the right to host the Olympic games, for example.  Boosterism is almost the opposite of market forces: investors and capitalists are meant to interpret signals to make predictions, from which they take risks and then reap the rewards of success.  But where there is no data, they’re vulnerable to boosterism – also known as bullshit.

Some of the biggest boosters were in Soviet Russia, or modern-day China.  It’s not simply a Capitalism con.  And the boosters appear everywhere: the BBC runs the New Generation Artists scheme, supporting talented young musicians from across the world.  One of those previous artists is the Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani – and I listened to a radio programme where he discusses the different musical traditions between Armenia (European-influenced) and Iran (not European-influenced), formed by the creation of a new border in 1828.

It made sense – Armenians looked towards Russia and possibly France for their cultural influences.   Or rather bourgeois Armenians with pretentions at government positions, university educations and emigration.   I’m sure there are bourgeois Iranians with the same pretentions but maybe not so many.  Or they were persecuted or fled.

Ostensibly the programme was a contrast between disparate musical styles between neighbouring countries.  So why did it feel as if Iran’s lukewarm interest in classical music was as a problem?

I blogged previously about the effect that the drive for unit sales atomises us into thinking our personal relationship to music is unique and special, when in reality it is entirely commonplace.  But if something is commonplace, why bother spending money on it?  Similarly, the need for selling tickets for big-name soloists or conductors, such as Esfahani, drives the format.  Form follows function, after all.

Music that takes a communal and improvisational form can’t be easily sold.  It’s music to dance to, to celebrate to, to pray to.  The “artist”, the auteur, the composer are all irrelevant: or rather, they’re simply the performers, who in turn are the audience.  Maybe that’s what the problem for Esfahani to solve was – exploring a new frontier for cultural imperialists to exploit.

Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy expands this idea brilliantly: that money corrupts the way we consume things.  Money is such a powerfully simple idea –  translating the value of everything into currency that it’s one of the key steps of our social evolution, along with fire, story-telling, agriculture and industrialisation, as described by Yuval Noah Harari in the equally brilliant Sapiens.  But it has pernicious effects – it corrupts the motives of those other fundamental parts of the human condition: namely love, birth and death.

Soft power is everywhere.  It funds much of the art (through government subsidy) that apparent “progressives” and bourgeoisie love to enjoy (and to display their enjoyment loudly on social media) in their attempt to escape the gravitational pull of the proletariat.  In turn, our need to belong to tribes and movements fuels that the velocity.  Maybe being truly progressive means we admit our snobbery, and put down our wallets when professing our love of culture.

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Music is over-rated

When I was in my early teens it seemed like only me and two similarly awkward friends liked The Cure.  Forever dismissed as “goths” and derided simply for the size of their hair and apparent miserablism of Robert Smith’s lyrics, we knew that they were far more than just a band.  In the early 90s, roundabout the time I saw a packed stadium concert for their Wish album, I realised their influence was becoming more and more apparent: not only musically and lyrically, but how expressing emotions like love, anger and fear in metres usually associated with hyperbole and cliché could be carried off reverentially and imaginatively.  Now the unique sound and imagery of Robert Smith’s (and Simon Gallup’s) oeuvre are widely recognised – NME, Brit Awards and the rest of them have given out their gongs of belated “lifetime achievement” approval.  What does this journey from freakshow to main attraction mean?

I used to think I alone experienced the rapture of the opening drones of Plainsong, or could hear the music between the layers of instrumentation in Lament; Simon Gallup’s pulsing basslines seemed to be singularly tailored to reverberate in my gut – and the relentless monotony of Boris Williams’s drums on Disintegration (and that’s a live recording – the man is a human drum machine!) seemed to make only my spine tingle.  I spoke to more and more people over the years: I discovered that other people could hear those ghost notes, interpreted Smith’s whispers and croaks the same way, and who had more than one tear in their eyes at the end of Faith.  Now, some 30 years later I realise that this ability of music to really move us – and to which we relate our most fundamental experiences – is universal.  It’s not me that has superhuman sensitivities, nor The Cure’s music that’s anything particularly unique.  We all seek emotional earthquakes: Christian suburbanites, graduates, teenage dirtbags and pin stripe suits together.

Which sets the scene for my thoughts about Sebastian Faulk’s book Another Life.  It’s one of five loosely connected chapters, about a folk musician in North America from the late 60s to late 90s.  Her talent is supposedly singular, her audience grows from tiny folk gigs to sell-out crowds after her discovery by the narrator and his co-producer.  The narrator’s engagement with her music is tied up of course in his attraction to her (and of course, she’s beautiful), and vice versa.  “We love you”, cry the audience at her farewell gig (much like the lovestruck cries of “ROBERRRRRRT” from the young women on every single live recording of The Cure).  But talent, and this entwining of soul and song, are not singular and rare, and neither should they be – we trick ourselves into thinking we alone are sufficiently sensitive to hear those hidden notes (spoiler: they don’t actually exist).  Music is universal; the solidarity we feel when singing our lungs out on football terraces is very real and powerful stuff.

Why this rarefication of what should be a universalising force for human solidarity?  Money changes everything, of course.  Unit sales, mainly: tickets, downloads, merch, followers and clicks.  But more than that: our drive for narrative with heroes rather than faceless armies (cf. Kahneman and Taleb, if you don’t believe me).  Smith and Gallup are certainly two of my heroes – but I’m sure even their egos acknowledge the effort of countless engineers, producers, marketers and roadies in their success.  Music going mainstream isn’t redeeming more souls: it’s making more money.

The power of ideas to take hold of collective consciousness rests in no small part upon their novelty, and the networks of their proponents, as well as their utility.  In art, what part does ability play?  Music conservatoires produce dozens of supremely gifted musicians each year, but which of them has the X Factor? There seems little correlation with ability.  Difference from what went before, and the creation of a narrative that can shift units seem to have a far more significant role.  Is there that much difference between the romanticism of, say, Lord Byron’s poetry, and The Figurehead?

I’m not saying talent doesn’t exist.  There’s a definite arc in The Cure’s output from 1978, dropping off sharply after 1991 when Smith and Gallup hit their mid 30s – the same can be said of athletes and mathematicians.  Creativity is exhausting, and those rare talents usually have stories that explain their early hunger: once success sates them, the creativity seems to dry up along with it.  Once we’ve been through the trauma of love and loss, who wants to go through all that again without taking out some form of insurance?  I’m not trying to explain why some artists make it to the bigtime.  I’m simply saying that music is over-rated.  We are not alone in our solitary prayers to the heroes of popular culture – how else are they popular?  Rather we should stop the hero reverence and give each other more credit in our ability to relate to each other, and to simple cultural pleasures – which is all music (and art, and drama, and stories) is.  The difference is that the need to sell tickets and books has reduced the universalities of culture to individual transactions.  Sing out loud, and sing together instead.

“Cause the world needs more lawyers”

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Image: Summit Entertainment 2016

Have you seen La La Land?  I found it profound.  It speaks about capitalism itself, and a thought experiment I’ve been trying out on friends:

Imagine an Ayn Rand-inspired world where there is no public subsidy or taxation to incentivize or disincentivize purchasing, and where employees keep 100% of their wages.  Would the resulting purchases be a complete reflection of what society valued most?  If we wanted something, we would buy it.  If we needed something, we would buy it.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t.

What would become of art?  Museums and galleries, concert halls, theatres and opera venues would close overnight.  Those institutions are usually heavily subsidized, even despite expensive ticket prices.  We don’t value the high production costs highly enough, despite our bourgeois pretentions of sophistication.

Yet the message of La La Land is “follow your dreams”.  In response to Mia’s protestation that she should have done something useful with the last six years of life rather than chase an acting career, Sebastian tells her sarcastically, “’cause the world needs more lawyers”.  Whatever the word is for irony that isn’t ironic – fact? – Sebastian is spot on.  Actually, the world does need more lawyers, and it needs fewer actors.  Why?  Because administration to manage the complexity of protecting capital has ballooned with the concentration of wealth.

The real irony is that the very ubiquity of art and the very glibness of messages such as “follow your dreams” has cheapened it so much that it has become commonplace.  Art is free: on Spotify, on Pinterest, on YouTube and everywhere: it has been reduced to background for our conspicuous consumption.  It’s clickbait, it’s ‘send us your email address with your competition entries’.  It provides context for our purchases – I’m a goth, so I must buy these clothes and wear my hair this way, not that way.   Art is dead other than the high-end kind, which is more about capital and tax efficiency than supporting aspiring art graduates.  Published writers make far less than the minimum wage on average – “follow your dreams” is a route to starvation, and freezing on the streets.

We seem determined to ignore the ugly realities of capitalism, or turn those ugly realities into beauty, because the alternative is acceptance that Things Can Certainly Not Get Better.  From the opening dance of drivers stuck in a traffic jam, La La Land shouts capitalist realism – if only we workers opened our eyes and saw traffic jams, unemployment and poverty for what they are: failures of our democracy and of our society, of an unsustainable increase in living standards for two generations paid for by fossil fuels, colonialism and exploitation that we pretend no longer to tolerate.  We understood that workers in the Soviet Union were fed lies and propaganda, so why is it so hard to accept that Hollywood is our equivalent?  La La Land hides this message in plain sight.

 

 

 

Silent blogging, coming to a cinema near you.

What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.  – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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I didn’t want to write anything in this blog as it’s about vanity and silence – but how does one blog about silence?

All utterance is ego: I want, I need, I think.  We speak to fill silence and awkward pauses, we speak to demark our territory as if it’s temporary aural graffiti.  We attach so much importance to utterances (“but you said!”) and yet silence is also unforgiveable.  Chat and the ability to hold an interesting conversation is considered “good value”.  Conversely, someone who turned up to a dinner party and sat there in silence would be considered rude.  As a result, it’s an endless game of non-fatal Russian roulette – condemned to speaking to avoid the rudeness of silence; condemned to be an egotist, talking about ourselves, speaking words, words, words.

Theodore Zeldin wrote a book called Conversation about the power of conversation to break down barriers, explore new territory, realize new things about ourselves.  Zeldin’s organisation has spawned “conversation dinners“.  But in my experience, most conversations are 80% talking and 20% listening from one person – in other words two people in a conversation ends up wanting to squeeze 160% talking into the available space.  We don’t do a lot of listening.

Everybody wants a record deal. Everybody wants to be naked and famous – Tricky

And everyone thinks they have something to say.  Everyone does have something to say because we’re all individualists now.  I do.  So I blog.  Can everyone read all of what everyone else has to say?  Of course not – we’re too busy saying stuff to read it.  But is any of this content useful?  There must be an immense amount of duplication at any given time, but also throughout the history of thought itself.  In other words, it’s not the content.  We just want to say something.  Say anything.  It’s an impulse, a survival instinct perhaps, against the fear of being no-one: our digital footprints become us, like a CV but with less room to blag.  If it’s not on Facebook, did it happen?  Will an agent stumble across this blog, or someone’s YouTube uploads or instagram photographs and offer us a lucrative advance?

No.  The likelihood of someone using the information we willingly and voluntarily disclose about ourselves to defraud us is much, much higher.  Amazon, Google, Facebook, WordPress and the rest are actively scraping content and scanning sites right now at our expense.  Vanity outdoes reason every time.

I have a sensation of what I want to say – but no utterance I manage ever comes close.  Any utterance is doomed to be a pale imitation of what I had in mind.  It takes concentration and hard work to craft and recraft words, music, painting into that original inspiration.

Are we trying to do too much, be too much?

 

 

The inauthenticity of authenticity.

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The authenticity of failure; or, the inauthenticity of delicatessens in Birmingham.

Is it surprising that what magazine editors and PR people like to call authenticity looks similar across the globe? From Williamsburg in New York to Fitzroy in Melbourne to Peckham in London there are an awful lot of people being authentically artisanal, local, independent and counter-cultural.  There are even more people who can no longer afford to live in those places.  So how can it be? Maybe authenticity is merely a set of tropes to increase prices and exclude the urban poor, hiding behind masks stolen from the urban working class.  Maybe, just maybe, “authentic” doesn’t mean what people use it to mean.

These days we insist on authenticity.  Politicians are told to be more like ordinary people: Donald Trump made his apparent outsider status a key part of his election campaign.  We want to keep it real.  Locally-sourced, “natural”, “traditional” food, drink, clothes and even cosmetics (because 18th century peasants genuinely cared about what they stank of); musicians, event organisers, hoteliers and bookshops all try hard to market themselves as the real deal: “independent” has become a magnet of discerning cash.  The anachrony of all of this authenticity stares awkwardly beneath every advert, flyer and website.

Meanwhile, society simultaneously seeks out ever-diminishing returns on the cheapest rates for housing, transport, fuel bills, insurance, banking – all those invisible purchasing decisions we can keep hidden from view.  These savings free up the cash to buy more authenticity, those purchases that display something of who we are: so we can pay £32 for a 750ml glass of imported beer (At the Draft House in W1, in case you don’t believe me) from a menu written in authentic calligraphy.

Authenticity costs because authenticity is a perverse form of capitalism.  It’s the cost of inefficiency.  Whilst hand-reared cows may be far more sensitive on the environment, may be far more humane, create more pleasant work environments and whatever other myriad benefits it may bring, if we care that much about those things to pay three, four or five times as much as an “inauthentic” equivalent, then why on earth do we carry on in the other 99% of our lives to destroy the environment through our homes and cars, support inhumane practices with the rest of our purchasing, fail to join trade unions and vote for governments that would try far more systematically to regulate for pleasant work environments etc?

The answer is in the same way that no-one actually reads poetry or blogs, no-one actually cares about what authenticity is meant to be authentic to.  “Authentic” is simply a badge that whacks up prices for us to wear on our sleeves in order to display our assumed identities: or more specifically, our purchasing power, and therefore our wealth and status. It has nothing to do with being true to our sense of belonging, identity, personal history or roots. Our real selves are shit-scared, traumatised, insecure and miserable: but to admit that is to be weak, and to be weak makes us prey.  So we create alternative assertive, positive selves through our social media profiles, with our tattoos, with our slogans on T-Shirts, with brands, with our commodities, commodities, commodities, to mask the stench of our real selves.  £32 craft beer is the equivalent of powdered wigs from the 18th century.

To me, authentic should mean indigenous culture.  Working class culture.  Proletarian culture.  As in the contemporary cultural expression of the majority, of the average – not as in authentic jellied eels or authentic folk music from the fields in the 1920s or bread baked in authentic ovens from the 1800s.  Authenticity is not nostalgia, it’s what the kids are up to now.

Authenticity is honesty.   We now – at least in this endless hangover from the 2008 financial crisis – still have access to unsustainable personal debt to mask poverty, decay and catastrophic insecurity.  Car loans, mortgages, credit cards, store cards, student loans, personal loans, inter-generational loans (“the bank of mum & dad”) are all sky high because we can no longer afford the lifestyle we want and the world would experience catastrophic recession if we stopped buying stuff we don’t need.  Debt is dishonesty.  It masks capitalism’s increasing failure to provide education, healthcare, peace, security and clean air and water.

 

Capitalist Realism, Socialist Unrealism

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Raymond Mason, with “Forward” before.
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Sofia? Belgrade? Tirana? No. Dudley.

Britain is dotted with examples of what may be broadly classed as socialist realist art. From frescoes at Birmingham University to Meet the Widwife, they are attempts at celebrating the lives of the real working class.  They’re socialist because they are commissioned based not on customer demand but on moralizing or pedagogic intent.

Famously in 2003 a member of the real working class torched the impressive “Forward” statue in Centenary Square in Birmingham. Afterwards, no one really gave a toss that it was gone. He probably did people a favour.  The kid made out that it was accidental, but who “accidentally” torches a huge, socialist realist edifice?

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“Whoops!”.  After.

In the same way that people didn’t really give a toss about the expenses scandal in Britain because people’s trust in politicians was already rock bottom, I get the impression that most people know that these socialist realist celebrations are nothing of the sort. Real work is piecemeal, temporary, badly paid, ignored and inglorious. It’s not worth celebrating.  Real workers don’t want to be celebrated: they want out.  They don’t even want solidarity – Trade Unions are dead.  The poor know that the odds of winning the Lottery are next to nothing.  That’s beside the point: they are desperate and next to nothing is better than nothing.

People must also know that Capitalist Realism is equally fantastical (For a brilliant discussion, see Capitalist Realism by the late Mark Fisher). They know that the images of modern capitalism bear no relation to reality, and that suspension of disbelief (or anti-depressants and alcohol) is needed to mask the stench of bullshit and get to the point.  There are the pedants who shout “but it wouldn’t happen like that!”, but those are minority voices.  Most people aren’t so far along the autism spectrum.

So let’s call these socialist and capitalist unrealism, and instead leave socialist and capitalist realism to describe the “true” documents of life under those economic systems, away from the finance, the marketing, the tie-ins, the profit-seeking, the political negotiation, the pedagogy, the brownie points.   I’m treading unfamiliar water here, but I think that one modern cultural exponent of life under capitalism in the 21st century is Grime.  My research is entirely down to having to endure young dudes sodcasting on the number 11.  But I do that a fair bit, so I’ve heard a fair bit of Grime.

There’s little celebration or things to celebrate in Grime. There’s a lot of stabbing, gun toting, reefer smoking, posturing, childish insults, sexism, racism, ageism – in short perfect descriptions of how shit modern life is.  It says “I am powerless, you are powerless, we are scared and we have no future”.  The only way for the powerless to gain respect, to beat the fear and to get power over those who already have it, is to outshock them, especially in public spaces. Tattoos. Piercings. T-shirts with outrageous slogans. Ripped clothes. Swearing loudly.  Openly smoking cannabis.  Racism.  Spitting.  Disregard of rules. “Don’t judge me” is a common theme in grime.  “Despite my anti-social behaviour, I’m still a good person – we have to act like this to survive” is the subtext.  It would be quite powerful if it wasn’t so petty and misdirected, in the way that most robbery takes place in poor areas – the poor robbing the poor, because most thieves are too lazy to travel far.  The centre of power isn’t the Bull Ring Shopping Centre or the number 11 bus.

The mistake of Grime and the mistake of the cynics of capitalist realism is that the audience is still consuming the messages – the beautiful people, the nice house, the new car, the organic cotton baby clothes.  No matter how cynical or ironic or resistant: the messages still get the airtime.  And like the dickheads that we are, we still lap it up.

Nostalgia is cultural colonialism

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Piccadilly Arcade, New St, Birmingham.  Just a facade.

I lazily assumed nostalgia was a yearning for the past, evoked during commemorations, re-enactments, restorations, conservation or just remembering.  But it’s more sinister than that.  In its worst form, it’s cultural colonialism – the privileging of a cultural moment that was racist, sexist or just different to now.  It says “modern life is rubbish”.  Whilst modern life may well be rubbish, it’s rubbish not because it’s modern.  It’s the only life we have.  This is important – the vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump, the potential election of Marine Le Pen seem to me to be expressions of the zeitgeist: modern life is rubbish, and what we need is to do things like we did in the 1950s when women were women, men were men, there was no homosexuality or immigration.  Crucially it was also a time when jobs were jobs, and technology was driving economic growth and incomes.

 

Space has an opportunity cost.  A building in one spot means something else can’t go in the same spot.  Attention works the same way: despite our pretence that multi-tasking is efficient, our attention given to Downton Abbey can’t be given to something or someone else at the same time.  This is what I mean by the privileging of a cultural moment.

Let’s take Listed Buildings.  A building (or more often, actually just a facade) is listed.  This prevents the redevelopment of the Listed aspects without the consent of the local planning authority.  It attempts to fix a point in time in perpetuity.  But what about what existed before the building?  What about the possibility to build something even better in the future?

Landowners know too well the economic impossibility this puts them in.  The world, meanwhile, has moved on.  There are now regulations for any redevelopment to comply with.  Thankfully, buildings are safer, more accessible, more energy-efficient.  But often those are entirely incompatible with the listed building.  So they pay someone to torch the building in the night.

The local community is outraged and demands justice.  And yet it was the same community that demanded and benefitted from the same regulations that drove the owner to their desperate act in the first place.  Which is more important to them?  Money talks – we are all complicit.

Today I saw a performance of a piece of music called The Way of a Monarch by Ivor McGregor.  The concert notes by the composer that describe the piece is inspired by “the extraordinary story of this unusual monarch” (Charles II).  It then mentions “Cromwell’s puritan interregnum” that had shut down many of the performing arts.  Another privileging of a moment: what had driven thousands of men to revolt against Charles’s father in the first place?  Setting aside the ambivalence the British have to their revolution, this seemingly neutral position is deeply reactionary.  Cromwell may well have been a despot, but so was Charles I, James I, James II and the whole lot of them.  In an exercise in change management, Cromwell had it pretty tough and failed – that doesn’t mean that the solution is to simply celebrate the status quo and all of its own injustices.

Humans crave narrative, plot and characters.  The heritage industry has a raw deal trying to interpret social history in stately homes that were built by particular families in particular circumstances and the wealth of extant unique artefacts connected to them.  In contrast the lives of the servants were mundane, everday and typical.  I hear very few people who proudly boast of descendants who were domestic servants or labourers.  There are many reasons why this is (most probably because our descendants weren’t defined by a single “career” – which is a more modern and bourgeois invention.  Pre-industrial work was piecemeal, itinerant and casual), but it demonstrates our inability to accept plurality and complexity.

Let’s try and overcome this inability by recognising that Downton Abbey, Meet the Midwife, any other costume drama, every conserved or restored facade, every blue plaque and every fashion revival displaces something else – and that this displacement is a political one.  It says that one is more important that all the others that could exist in its place either in the past, present or future.

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Something happened here, once.