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Ghosts and autonomy

Author: joe

Friday, 20 September, 2013 - 08:16

Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal - from, for instance, sociality as much as from pre-existing cultural forms but the currently dominant form of socially networked cyberspace, with its endless opportunities for micro-contact and its deluge of YouTube links, has made withdrawal more difficult than ever before.
Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (extract)

Mark Fisher summarises one of the reasons for a certain kind of malaise in contemporary society, in a recently published extract of his upcoming book, 'Ghosts of my Life'. Fisher calls on the supporting concepts of 'retromania' and 'dyschronia' (Reynolds) whereby popular music is dominated by reproductions of existing forms and styles and culture itself seems to endlessly recycle varieties of historical modes until they lose reference to their foundational context; the 'slow cancellation of the future' (Berardi) which captures the failing sense in which the passage of time is experienced as progress towards new social formations and possibilities; 'nostalgia mode' (Jameson) which is less a yearning for a lost past than a phenomenon established precisely because the past is constantly recreated in pastiche and parody; and 'polar inertia', concomitant with accerelating speeds of communication (Virilio), which describes the bloated immobility that seems to take hold when everything that we might wish to experience and consume is always instantly summonable: the mediated, home-delivery sensory and experiential universe available without effort.

There is little to disagree with here, in particular Fisher's diagnosis of Britain's sky-high property prices as an influence on how people who might otherwise spend some of their lives being temporarily autonomous are forced to become part of the economy which usurps any time they might devote to the sort of self-expressive creativity that fosters the production of music, art and writing, and the freedom for experimentation and discovery. There are two aspects of the argument Fisher makes that arouse if not disagreement then at least further thought, though: does creativity really need withdrawal from sociality and existing cultural forms in order to flourish and generate the newness that Fisher mourns in his piece? and is it is really true that contemporary society suffers a sort of anachronism and unrootedness that is genuinely different from the experience of previous generations?

I can distinguish between two kinds of withdrawal which might clarify the first question. If I do not withdraw from sociality, cultural noise, norms and practices then I am enmeshed in a world of endlessly intricate calls and demands, needs and responses. To withdraw from these things I must unarticulate myself from them, and allow them to lose purchase on me. I do not feel the need to honour every call made on me or to commit myself: I can be autonomous, because I can feel as though I choose my commitments - to people, subcultures, ways of life, social formations and cultural practices. In these circumstances - which are most commonly experienced when young, unemployed, feeling life as a threshold of possibilities as yet undetermined - I can try things out, be one person or another, iterate, fail, simulate, play, and pursue a form of self-discovery and self-invention. Those external pressures which seem to impinge on my ability to experience autonomy and self-determination in these ways, and which inhibit my withdrawal from a world of commitments which limit my freedom to experiment, all curtail and circumscribe the space available to me to move in directions of my own choosing. Whether they are the economic practicalities of the sheer cost of existence in a world of workfare, benefit caps and housing bubbles, or the social pressures associated with being accepted into subcultures and peer groups, from body-image to anti-intellectualism to class-distinction to misogyny, such external pressures are factors in the extent to which anyone might understand themselves as freely choosing who they want to become.

This is a different kind of withdrawal than one which limits exposure to cultural forms and ubiquitous media, which Fisher seems to suggest is also necessary for the production of new music or TV programming which might either be felt as genuinely new or satisfy a hunger for a certain kind of quality. All production is necessarily a form of reproduction: from Plato's allegory of the cave to DJ Spooky's analysis of sampling, the postmodern idea that there is nothing new is nothing new. The very act of communication is achieved because humans learn to speak with the same words rather than each inventing their own language; comedians make us laugh because they blend the familiar with the unexpected and absurd; musical styles, notwithstanding their wildly divergent surface qualities and genres, share structures and scales developed and maintained over millenia. The greek work 'poeisis' from which we derive our word 'poetry', and which we often translate as 'production' might well be better understood as 'transformation' - after Heidegger, the bursting of the blossom into bloom, the slow thaw of a frozen waterfall, the metamorphosis of the chrysalis. The creation of the new is the remaking of what already exists expressed in new forms and making new articulations possible. The use of a concept such as withdrawal here, is as a component of the autonomy necessary for someone to choose to be creative, iterative, experimental and productive: that autonomy then provides the opportunity to engage, rather than withdraw, from the world of influence and affinity that will provide the inspiration and raw materials for making music and art.

Our contemporary world certainly seems to offer dwindling opportunities for this kind of autonomy, despite the prevalent view that we are in a society that enjoys freedom on an unprecedented scale. The prevailing economic situation seeks to colonise every space of life with financial accountability. Idleness must be converted into leisure, the consumption of enjoyment; childhood must be supplemented with the right play products, activities and lessons; schoolyears are assessment bootcamps; gap years must result in transferable skills rather than the experience of being alive. Adolescence ought to be the threshold time of self-discovery, but increasingly it is either consumed by chasing employability criteria or blackened by the sense of unemployable uselessness. There is no corner of life in which the imperative to be an economic resource has not infiltrated. The hard-won gains of a post-war settlement which brought universal welfare, social security and free healthcare have been hollowed out and either marketised or demonised. It is hard not to see the 21st century not as merely dyschronic, but even as a world without time. Days counted in productivity and capital rather than living and being, the temporal counterpart to Auge's non-place, imposing contraints on where and when we can and cannot move, demanding we comply with the economic expectations placed on us.

Faced with this horror it is tempting to escape into nostalgia mode, and immerse ourselves in another, happier time: the good honest hard-working time of post-war Britain's austerity years, the courtly excesses of Tudor palaces, the buttoned-up passion of Georgian gentry in search of wives, or even the time-bending isolation of air-crash survivors or the travels of timelords. It is easy to project our phantasies onto earlier historical periods: times when we lived closer to nature, or had more opportunities for adventure, or could fulfil a pioneering spirit, or be masters of an empire. Even just a few decades ago, Berardi and Fisher seem to say, we could believe in the future in a way we no longer can: the spirit of the times has been crushed under the weight of neo-liberalism, and our reaction to the deluge of hypermassive catastrophe - financial meltdown, unending warfare, ecological devastation and global climate change - can only be paralysed apathy. After all what can we do but carry on watching, reduce the enormity of our calamity to a managed, prepackaged spectacle, narrated with the odd mixture of sincerity and utter alienation that news channels seem to have perfected?

It is therefore difficult to imagine that earlier generations whose circumstances were not like our own could understand us and our predicament, nor we theirs. To read a three thousand year old book is not only to read the stories of the time, but also to encounter the very social conditions in which it could exist: the commitments to which its authors chose to respond. The interpretation of that work entails a meeting of our own horizon with that of the world of the text. We might look to investigate the words historiographically and reconstruct what meanings they would have had to the readers of the time; we might search out the writers and their biographies, in order to better understand the contexts in which they wrote; and to understand those contexts we would have to get to grips with the social realities with which their existence is caught up. At each step we must cross the gap between their world and ours. As Gadamer puts it, we must read the 'great dark book' of the world in order to understand the works that are made within it. The body of culture past and present represents 'the collected work of the human spirit, written in languages of the past, whose texts it is our task to understand'.

Is it the case that our current economic situation and cultural inertia have pushed our own horizon of experience too far from the horizons of past generations? A particular way of thinking about how the self is caught in the structures of society suggests it is: the Foucauldian argument is that we suffer ruptures in history, Kuhn's paradigm shifts, which render the past unintelligible. Just as the death of a loved one marks a watershed boundary between their presence and their senseless absence, so such shifts make the worlds of the past not only foreign, but somehow halcyon - a lost world in which something authentic is left behind. When we encounter the traces of these lost worlds - the writing, the music, the historical records and the social attitudes so far as they can be scryed - we might as well be marvelling at alien civilisations, and any sense we have of familiarity or nostalgia for such times is a form of deception. In this view, the notion that we can ever recreate the felt meaning of their lives, or the texture of their experience, is an illusion: we have been caught up in an epstemic shift, in which the very conditions of our own knowledge have broken with the past.

The alternative to this view must rely on some sense of continuity with the past. Our horizon is constituted not only by our present conditions: our conditions were already there before we found ourselves within them. Certainly dramatic episodes can render it unimaginable that we could return to these worlds as they were, but every horizon we encounter, every world that is recreated for us by artefacts of the past is an ancestor, cousin or sibling to our own, and there is always the chance that we can work our way across to that consciousness. While languages evolve and words change their meaning, they are not unmoored from the world in the way the deconstructionists would have us believe. As Latour put it, only linguists could believe that words only associate with other words, rather than the complex boil of material, social and cultural practices that make up a person, a people and their world. Our cultural lives are haunted by the surviving echoes of the past, with some voices louder than others. Many stories of the past boom loudly, and others are fainter and force us to strain our ears or find ways to tune in. The very faintest might never be restored, but they are not lost: the voices of travellers on an ancient dirt road perturbed the air and left traces in the soil like the voice of Edison on a wax cylinder. Centuries of walkers, soil, stone, concrete and tarmac might have covered over those traces in ways that make it impossible for us to hear them again, but nevertheless they are there in the strata of the ground beneath our own feet and in the very fact that we walk the same routes today.

Reading the 'great dark book' of the past is a way to experience fellow-feeling with the people of worlds which seem to have disappeared - indeed the recycling of the past about which Fisher worries is a way of doing so, however shallowly. Future historians, if they are sufficiently attentive, perhaps to things which we ourselves may not be able to comprehend, will strain to grasp the texture of our world and divine something of our contemporary consciousness from our artefacts, the endless recycling of an immediate past, the re-imaginings of other times. I wonder whether they will detect that our malaise is not that our lack of musical adventure has made us empty, but that our sense of solidarity and fellow-feeling has dwindled as we are ever more persuaded that we are powerless against the tides of state surveillance, global capital, unending warfare and climatic disaster. We are failing to find fellow-feeling with one another as the shallow populism of our politicians and media corporations inculcate enmity for the disadvantaged, intolerance towards migrants, and a bruised entitlement that encourages us to begrudge anyone seen to be in more need than ourselves.

Mainstream entertainment has done everything it can to detach itself from any kind of political consciousness. But it is hard to believe that a generation of burgeoning minds is not confronting the world with 'diamonds in their mouths' and wondering how to make it their own in the face of such exclusion, coercion, financial temptation and artistic banality. A world in which a small group of wealthy power-brokers hoard and squander their riches, demonise the poor, engineer conflict, foster divisiveness and inculcate hopelessness is not a new one! However, to an opening mind I hope it is an offence worth resisting. Perhaps if it is difficult to imagine a musical movement producing a genuine edge of excitement and jeopardy into the establishment in the way that punk or the raves did, maybe that's because what we need is not new musical genres, but new diggers, Jarrow marchers and revolting peasants. We can't demand that young musicians or film-makers provide our glimmer of hope if we ourselves are mean-spirited and supine. How do you encourage people to nurture a strange blend of fellow-feeling, generosity and rage? What ghosts should we invite to haunt us to invoke such shared anger and kindness?

Categories: fisher, ghosts-of-my-life, ghosts, autonomy, creativity,
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