In Jennifer Diski’s recent review of CUFOS board member Thomas Bullard’s The Myth and Mystery of UFOs, she notes how stories of underground worlds, parallel to our own, have comforted and terrified us for centuries — not just UFOs, but ghosts, giants, Jesus: anything unusual is available as an article of faith; sign, signal, and evidence. To read 2011 through its pop music is to track just such a narrative, a Dreamland-ish plate carrée of fantastic traversals joining grids of lewd, weird material.
This folkloric dynamic is a black market, a cipher through which another 2011 can be read — one where the UN Security Council didn’t, under pressure from the US, the UK, and France, subvert its own resolutions to effect violent regime change in Libya; where the louring autonomic terror devices that have rattled around Pakistan all year long are not the bleeding-edge of a hardcore post-digital technocracy on the warpath; where Macho Man Randy Savage and Steve Jobs didn’t die (or die twice).
Rather, 2011 becomes a tripartite permutation in which a variety of (frequently abstract) existential encountersi are transformed into new, figurative outcomes. In the tales of the civic, the sublunary, and the supernal, three modes of epiphany find expression in the likes of DJ Diamond and Kangding Ray, Oneohtrix Point Never and Hype Williams, and The Caretaker and Chris Watson, respectively. These tales are not topoi, operating pars totalis, but instead work as sigils, registers of concealment, a means of establishing a relationship with an audience, with distinct properties granting certain functions. They express the truth of Bataille’s solar anus: “the world is purely parodic… each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.”
THE CIVIC: CHICAGO, CITY OF THE YEAR
The streets of Chicago are brick-and-neon dancefloors, where to walk is to dance, “to take the step for a long walk,” in the words of Brandon Labelle. The glittered high-rises of the Loop (business-and-culture district) bounce gazes out toward the lake, while the diffuse, ‘hoodish Low End sneaks in around the back. The kindle of its Caribbean heatwaves and the chill winds of its Canadian snows mimic the tension between afterhour slow jams and post-dub eschatological dread. It was here where Ron Hardy’s Dionysian reduction of disco’s machine music to a pithy, mindbashing corporeal psychedelia took place; it was here where footwork cloudburst a glossolalia of fricative basslines and sibilant snare crunches into a febrile syntax of phase-shifting phonemes grounded in the geographopathic hyperstasis of a dirempt cityii.
Why this architectural misdirection? As early as 1893, H.G. Wells visited the Chicago World Fair to report “gauntly ugly and filthy factory buildings, monstrous mounds of refuse, desolate empty lots littered with rusty cans, old iron and indescribable rubbish.” Could it be because to conceal is also to start afresh, and alone of US cities Chicago — grounded in the fire of 1871, builds and rebuilds itself from the indicatrices of its citizens’ desires; an unprairie of abgrades and hexware — starts again? Is this why footwork DJs Diamond, Rashad, T-Why, et al. understand implicitly that the rhythm is the figure of its own disruption? Dance crews like the Legends Clique understand that the sonic is as dependent upon their thigmotactic momentum as it is upon Chicago — a feverish counter-rhythmiii.
If Chicago is always already starting over, that is because it is always already rubble — the figure of civic pop in 2011 — to the extent that the US, perhaps the greatest empire of junk yet known, waged a struggle for its soul over a sordid, sacred bomb site. In the Duncan Jones movie Source Code, the nuclear bomb-toting villain is asked why he wants to destroy Chicago. A Chicagoan himself, the villain replies: “The world is Hell. We might have a chance to start over in the rubble. But first, there has to be rubble.” Rubble is the means by which the Hardyan psychedelic reduction fuses with the glitch-dream of abgrading electronic sound into its most formal elements — those moments of error or misrecognition when the machine bypasses musicality in order to salvage speech for itself. House music is fascinated with rubble, both as sign and consequence — we’ll bring down the walls, you and me, as we smash through the barriers of everyday life. Rubble is the dual, belligerent core of post-disco dance music — both world-to-come and what’s-left-behind, both the New Thing and the remainder of a tradition. So if people spoke about a strong year for house, they also spoke of a strong year for rubble: the effects of which were felt in other domains.
Kangding Ray’s Or (raster-noton) could abandon contingencies like place and reference because of the producer’s lyrical sense of socio-political angst. This was technocracy-as-dissent, a search for post-human universalism that brought an intensity of unease, largely absent from DJ Diamond’s Flight Muzik (Planet Mu), into sharper focus — as if the hyperactive tech-flecked funk of the Night Slugs stable had withered into vectors of rust and lichen. So much of the logic of concrete — the material face of the civic — speaks, in one way or another, to a bricolage of holes. Abutment, reinforcement, interception, extrusion: mute blockages in space, dreams of total power that break up surfaces. TMT’s James Parker described how the civic is interested in time as extension, division, irruption; an opportunity for cutting. With Or, we can go further and say that the Eurozone contingent, intolerant of Iceland’s lead, employed the civic as a machine for the repression of time, a shackled weightlessnessiv.
Recession chic already augured at year’s end by Streep-clone Thatcheristas, the next year — when green will turn blue — may witness the rebirth of civic success stories (something like this is already discernible in the besmirched opulence of 100% Silk and Shabazz Palaces). But if the ascendancy of footwork and the outstanding Or are accepted as civic pop’s annual documents par excellence, it is because they snapshot system failures and not successes — failure alone can be interesting, because success is only available at the level of a mainstream that has waxed out-of-touch and out-of-reach, accessible only to a uniformity of reverie that barely fills the space of wish-fulfillment; to kitsch, which is the shadow of the civic in a post-scarcity of information. Civic pop in 2011 spoke of the city’s search for its ground — for its rights, a cause, some support — and of a fanatical walking on the spot and a cartoonish treading of air.
i Check my forthcoming analysis of Sartre’s The Emotions: Outline of a Theory for more on abstract existential encounters.
ii Why should hyperstasis apply only to pop?
iii For the relation of the dancer to the city, see chapters 3 and 4 of Labelle’s Acoustic Territories, which are definitive.
iv Interestingly, the only way the hero of Source Code can save the day is by not repeating the same 8 minutes over and over again (a ministerial professor tells us “source code is not time travel, rather, it is time reassignment”).
THE SUBLUNARY: SURRENDER, STRATEGY OF THE YEAR
If the civic was a panic for the ground, a bass-and-drum scramble, the sublunary — a contact point between the earth and the sky — contemplated the outside. The movement of the civic was from the outwards in; the sublunary simply stargazed from a cozy cranny, its big toe in the mud. The civic sought obscure/d surfaces; the sublunary staked all on the insulating projection of a privileged inner core (what Barthes, in another context, called “the ceaseless action of secluding oneself”). It was this seclusion that was the truth of what Gang Gang Dance on Eye Contact (4AD) called “everything time” — an unpredictable, unstable unraveling of stylistic possibilities in place of the certainties of the civic’s concept brand model.
Terry Eagleton said “the sublunary is where souls and fortunes are made and lost.” It was in this respect that Oneohtrix Point Never and Hype Williams deployed the stylistic confusions of the sublunary to greatest effect, articulating the belief, widespread in 2011, that there is an absurd disjunct between pop and reality. Anti-realism — produced by a surrender of agency, a distribution of engagement within the passive register — transformed pop in a series of proleptic reversals, returning to pop a sense of wonder and loss. Kitsch was not off-limits, but then neither was grief. Privileging the lost, the sublunary concealed its sources (from the smudge of sample-smidgeons weaved to the fractal caverns of reverb and delay) — making of tradition, a cardinal ideational absence, spaces that only the future can colonizev.
This ethic of directionless transmission was one of communication spurned. If the civic valorized system failure, it preserved the notion of communication. The sublunary surrender of reality was a surrender of communication generated by a suspicion of correspondence. The defining popument of 2011, 0PN’s Replica (Software), suggested but did not complete a surrender of public meaning, the coherence of which is only possible in the world of universal commodity brands where the local bootleg has more claim to authenticity (in different ways, the conceptual nemesis of Daniel Lopatin, James Ferraro, Sun Araw’s Cameron Stallones, Ina Cube, et al.) than the global replica. Hype Williams’ One Nation (Hippos in Tanks) and Kelly Price W8 Gain Vol 2 (Hyperdub), meanwhile, celebrated impossibility, fusing the illusionist’s desire for spectacle with the provocateur’s appetite for sabotage. With Hype Williams, in particular, there was something Švejk-like about these gyrations, this peerless numbskullery.
With the bulk of its revenue going to its primary producers (the Rough Trade/Factory model of independence), it was here that pop most closely resembled a state capitalist fantasy of an infinite project of improvement in monopoly conditions — evidence that the appeal of the future is strong even when competitors are absent (who else are Hype Williams but Hype Williams?). At the industrial level, the sublunary register was where pop in 2011 was most furiously active: brand-as-monad as monad-as-scene. The economic logic was one of compression, of private out-signifying public (dissent seemed monolithic), and even when politics was a putative theme, it turned out to be solely as a means for talking about something else (tUnE-yArDs, John Maus). It is useless to speculate what energies this closing of ranks suppressed. Instead, the wildest efforts at the pitch of the sublunary surrendered claims to the civic, tolling routes to the material: it was neither clear at what point diffidence became dissent nor where independence-as-strategy lapsed into vanity publishingvi. Some pop was so occluded with idiosyncrasy that its interventions and analyses seemed impossible to build on.
What this developed world tactic of cultural surrender says about the future of collective liberty in the post-scarcity zones of the OECD is not comforting; not in a year of predominantly pyrrhic victories for left/unionist activism, when a draconian bureaucratism — London, Athens, New York, and Santiago were just the highest profile examples of the state’s desperate, hedge-funded malaise — staged its own occupation of a moribund mainstream media’s responsibilities of representationvii. Surrender is a fitting ruse to nominate as the defining strategy of 2011, when — outside of northern Africa and, to an extent, the five members of BRICS and their satellites — a chorus of suburban sadnesses came close to drowning out the atonal skronk of civic resistance.
v It was in these spaces that the boundaries between the sublunary and other modes achieved their highest expression.
vi In a folklore of 2012, one would expect the bilateral antagonism between labels and distributors, against the backdrop of an emerging narrative of ‘cost-consciousness,’ to attempt an occupation of this zone.
vii Compared to which the sentient supergraffiti of social (k)notworks was a sideshow.
THE SUPERNAL: SUPERSYMMETRY, (QUANTUM) GROUP OF THE YEAR
In the sense that its economic significance was swamped by civic and sublunary ruses, the supernal — the divine and heavenly — was a minor mode of storytelling in 2011. Theoretically, however, the supernal was a demonstration of a route beyond and between the civic and the sublunar, of a contradiction — between the repression of time and the quotidian hunt for hidden sensations — exceeded in the search for Black Holes, ghost trains, missing time, abduction scenes, out-of-body experiences, and the poetry that links them. What matters most in the supernal is the arc of transmission, and the transition from musicianship to listenership contained therein. Just as investor-politicians, financier-legislators, and doctor-militants spent 2011 working on solutions that would save us from the near-future, the supernal tried to imagine a sui generis correspondence that would stand in for a piratical, utilitarian listenership. At the shop floor of the producer, it felt at times as if this was the site of a secret struggle for pop’s soul.
An interest in symmetry lent the supernal a quantum flavor. The concern for correspondence is also a concern for the symmetry of equivalence: first, at the level of a veridical correspondence between an object and its recording; second, at the level of a veridical correspondence between an object and its transmission. At the level of quantum field theory, disorder is more symmetrical than its opposite, in the sense that it is less dependent upon small variations for uniformity. In other words, it takes a more intense concentration of fluctuating details to disrupt the symmetry of disorder. Listener and musician can engage in a balancing act that mimics the collision between a sound and its recording only if they are understood as appropriate knots in the string of a rapidly-accumulating info-harvest that also constitutes the object’s deformation, which is also the act of its transmission.
In their visions of an overarching model of correspondence between the ear and the unheard, the technique and the sonic, reality and pop, it seems clear that supernalists like Colin Stetson and The Caretaker were trying to tell us stories about the electroweak Higgs mechanism, of the kind scrutinized by CERN researchers seeking to undermine the Standard Model of particle physics. These narratives were animated by the paradox — similar to that underlining research into the Higgs mechanism — that it is only with the introduction of a symmetry-breaking element (i.e., the Higgs boson; Kirby’s source material) that the existence of a vast, mantled symmetry can be demonstrated. It was the attempt to communicate this paradox that closely tied the producers of the supernal to their devices and their sources — Liz Harris’ delay pedals in Grouper; Chris Watson’s microphones; whatever happened to be protruding from Colin Stetson’s face — and left some (A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Deaf Center) loitering at the flinching point where the borders of the supernal and the sublunary meet. This technological mastery opened the door to a transmission predicated on bilateral exchange by a light noncommutation — of the sort operative in the quantum group translation of SUSYviii — wherein an anchorage in external devices distinguished the musician from her music but delivered the producer to her product. Given that commutation here is only possible when the degree of identification between sound and producer is absolute (e.g., the disembodied character of the voice allows authority to occasionally take its place), the supernal and the sublunary shared the disguise of the possible by the impossible insofar as they were all bound to establish an equilibrium in the unstable relation between musicianship and listenership. An interest in reality divided them.
The supernal yearned for a reassessment of the correspondence between reality and pop rejected by the sublunarists as much as it rejected the vandalism of the present by the civic. However, pop ceases to be folklore when it manages to bypass confrontation with reality in favor of a direct correspondence. So while reality returned in The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond This World (History Always Favours the Winners) and Chris Watson’s El Tren Fantasma (Touch), it did so only as part of a wider scheme to evade it: in one, reality was a parallel vector signifying elsewhere; in the other, reality was pinioned before a two-way mirror. These are classic narrative/folklore techniques, but what distinguished them in terms of 2011’s pop music is the way in which both albums insisted upon a skewed correspondence between pop (the private) and reality (the public), which nonetheless kept both terms in the game. The civic and the sublunary each favored one term over the other, an abstraction that finds concrete expression in the reliance of both on a residuum of mutation and diversification. For the supernalists, this origin-in-mutation was not left-over but conspicuous by its absence.
The task of pop in 2012 will be to confront, in a suspicious manner, its own understatus within a rich world waking up to the idea that its consumer populace is more reluctant to tolerate the apologetics of power. Nationhood will be crucial if pop is to continue its privileged relation with fashion (it should continue to resist merger bids); attempts to re-think the commodity/information nexus should be watched carefully — pop is far from a craft; no art, its conventions are rarely binding — and centralized distribution initiatives treated with the skepticism they deserve. In the supernal, pop knows that — on the level of the death drive — success and failure are meaningless. This resistance to the law makes for a gallant phenomenology of reaction, obsessed with the minutiae of the present. The utopia of the idle slumbers in a dream of pragmatism: the craftsman’s technique frames a resignation to the false and gloomy notion that things never change, that the present will perpetuate itself ad infinitum.
viii Lest we forget that 2011 was also the year of the OPERA neutrino anomaly.
[Artwork: Raqib Shaw]
[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]