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Thought Projectors 8

May 9, 2017

It’s been over a month since the last of these so I guess it’s time to look back through all of those captured hyper-links and see what stands up to a second reading…

In the meantime, my thoughts have been divided between my on-going duties as part of the Shadow Clarke Award jury and my recent visit to London. The primary reason for the visit is that the wife and I had booked ourselves onto an organised ghost hunt, which I very much enjoyed but she found almost impossible tedious. I may yet write something about my experiences so I won’t go into too much detail on what I saw but I will say that while it’s one thing to know that the human brain abhors ambiguity and to be familiar with concepts like pareidolia and the autokinetic effect, it’s quite another to find yourself in a situation where those systems are making their presence felt. I didn’t believe in ghosts before going on the hunt and I still don’t but I can totally see why you would.

 

Having stayed up almost impossibly late, I spent the following day wandering around central London and realising quite how many of my old haunts have been torn down, gentrified, and turned into either expensive flats or beautiful restaurants with rents so large as to be unworkable for all but a narrow range of restaurant chains. This purely practical disappointment aside, I consider my trip to have been a real success as I went to Tate Modern and saw not only the Radical Eye exhibition of Elton John’s collection of modernist photographs but also  Wolfgang Tillmans’ 2017.

I’ve been to the Tate Modern a few times over the years and never really enjoyed myself all that much as — frankly — I’m not that hugely interested in the world of modern art. However, seeing an exhibition of artworks from a form you’re really quite invested in turns out to be a *completely* different experience as I found myself having quite visceral reactions to almost everything I saw.

I was initially quite disappointed with the Radical Eye as while it was fascinating the see early experiments with techniques that are now included in every ‘how to take cool photographs’ book, the exhibition is long on conventional portraits and works by the visual artist Man Ray. The portraits are obviously something of a fudge as while they feature a number of modernist and surrealist artists, they are not actually modernist works themselves. Similarly, while Man Ray was an early pioneer of ‘art photography’ I’d say that he was a surrealist rather than a modernist and I found the archness and obvious art deco influences in his work to be quite affected and distracting. Conversely, being able to see real-life works by Dorothea Lange (including the really famous one) was a real privilege and when placed next to a load of conventional portraits and Man Ray pieces their rawness really leapt out. In fact, one of them literally took my breath away and even googling it just now resulted in my staring at it for about ten minutes.

I didn’t really know what to expect going into the Tillmans exhibit as I wasn’t at all familiar with his work but I was rapidly overwhelmed by his means of production. The Radical Eye exhibit is drawn from a private collection and private collections tend to be of prints drawn by the original artists. Given the period favoured by Elton John and the limits of photographic technology at the time, most of the pictures in the Radical Eye are really no bigger than a standard photo you might get back from Boots. Tillmans, on the other hand, is a contemporary artist and his exhibits are made up of very high quality prints that are all at least 2 metres tall. Moving from one exhibition to the other was quite striking as you move from a situation where you’re leaning very close to tiny black-and-white prints to a situation where you’re looking at very colourful pictures that are literally larger than life. Some of the most interesting pieces were distinctly postmodern such as the room made up of nothing but huge monochromatic prints produced using clapped-out printers resulting in so many weird shadows and imperfections that the prints not only become beautiful but also start resembling works like the famous monochromatic pieces by Rothko. Another interesting thing about Tillmans is that he seems to work in quite a relatable way. For example, when you’re learning to take photos, your first attempts at being creative tend to involve a limited range of ‘moves’ such as decontextualising mundane objects or body parts and simply capturing moments in which the real world has naturally and quite accidentally created something beautiful. Tillmans’ 2017 includes a number of these kinds of pictures but they’re  good examples of the form that look really quite impressive when placed in the right context.

My problem with the Tillmans is that while it was ‘well hung’ in the sense that it made great use of the space, it seemed to include pretty much everything the artist has ever produced despite the artist moving from field to field and form to form with very little in the way of on-going themes. As a result you move from collages, to enormous pictures of Asian people selling things by the side of the road, to pictures of car wings, to enormous monochromes, and then to a huge picture of an arse crack and balls that seems to have been included purely as selfie-bait. Then there are a series of rooms given over to an art-installation comprising fake leaflets and then it’s back to more pictures. I got through Radical Eye in about an hour and left it wanting to learn more about that-kind-of-thing, I spent two hours in the Tillmans before having to leave and I’m really not sure I ‘got’ what it was that the exhibition (or indeed the photographer) was trying to get across. At first, I responded quite viscerally to the sheer size of the art but now that the effect has faded, few (if any) of the images have stayed with me and that’s partly my fault for not being critically sensitive enough and partly the fault of the exhibition for failing to say anything about the meaning of the work.

Though perhaps more muted than I would have liked, the experience of viewing some proper photos turned out to be quite inspiring as it engaged not only my creative muscles but my critical ones as well. So my picture-taking continues…

 

 

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This recent piece by Adam Curtis expands and unpacks the idea he floats at the end of Hypernormalisation, namely that the kind of self-expression and self-curation that drives online culture is fundamentally incompatible with the kind of collective action and solidarity required for real political change. He also raises the (considerably more interesting) possibility that the current moment’s fondness might be an attempt to re-enchant the world by allowing individualists a means of thinking their way into a form of collectivism based on the idea of large groups of people being subject to the same vast political forces.

I think that Curtis is absolutely right to note that the vogue for conspiracy theories are signs of a change in popular subjectivities.

Back in 1995, a bloke called Iain Spence published a book linking forms of youth culture to particular solar cycles. Entitled the Sekhmet hypothesis, Spence’s book argued that mapping solar cycles to trends in youth culture suggested a link between solar energy and the form that youth culture was likely to take at a particular time. Obviously, this is a load of New Age bullshit but strip away the astrological bollocks and you have the idea that the evolution of youth culture is governed by a series of reactions to that which came before: First you get hippies, then you get punks, then you get ravers. Each movement reacts against that which came before and so friendly mysticism was replaced by an angry reductionism that was then replaced by another form of drugged-up friendliness.

I would argue that, as during the early 1990s, we are entering a period of expansive romanticism where people stop seeing themselves as isolated individuals and start seeing themselves as parts of broader systems. Back in the 1990s, there was a moment when the systemic turn seemed about to give rise to a new wave of environmentalism as people’s desire to see themselves as subjects of the system encouraged them to identify with the environment and take against the governments and corporations who were threatening the Earth. Unfortunately, this wave of collectivism was snuffed out when the burgeoning Gaia mythos was replaced by a far darker UFO-based mythos that encouraged people to view government as not just oppressive but also supremely wasteful. Why should anyone want to pay taxes when they know that the government is just going to spend that money on black helicopters and alien autopsies?

This time around, the attempts to capitalise on the collectivist turn in the popular imagination have been far more obvious as right-wing figures like Alex Jones have been encouraging people to view themselves as subject to a ‘globalist’ conspiracy that can only be stopped by a form of rugged economic nationalism. However, the rise of figures like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn and the resulting battle between an individualistic woke liberalism (like ‘lean in’ feminism) and a freshly inclusive socialism suggest that the left are still very much in the game.

Conspiracy theories are almost like training wheels for thinking of the world in systemic terms. If you have read about how the world is run by alien lizards or the illuminati then you are ready to see the world either in terms of capitalist vs. proletarian interests, or in terms of Jewish bankers stealing all the money. The right-wing turn of the last collectivist moment resulted in people failing to make the final imaginative leap towards systemic thinking and the conspiracy theories deployed both by the right (Globalists!) and the neoliberal centre (Russia!) are intellectual traps that prevent the collectivist moment from yielding true solidarity and understanding of the social forces that actually govern society. Once this cultural moment is passed, people will go back to thinking of themselves as isolated individuals because that is how the ebb and flow of culture tends to work but the question that Curtis is pointing to is what will be done with the collectivist energies that are currently beginning to form.

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This recent piece by Alex Nichols is one of the bleakest things I have read in ages. I live somewhere very rural and the catastrophic state of the local telecommunications infrastructure means that I rarely spend very much time at all on YouTube. However, according to this piece I haven’t been missing very much as YouTube is evidently full of people either unboxing recently-purchased devices or displaying their recently-purchased bits of media. In truth, I was sort of aware of this phenomenon already as someone in genre culture made me aware of ‘booktubers’ and a casual search rewarded me not just with videos of people pointing at visibly unread books but also with videos of people pointing at videos of people pointing at visibly unread books.

The thing about people is that every social group other than your own invariably seems weird, affected, and unhealthy. Why are people videoing themselves opening boxes of branded tat? Well… why do people do anything? All social mores seem alien and arbitrary until you become psychologically invested in what those actions represent… at which point anything from genital mutilation to two people giving their relationship a legal underpinning suddenly seems both meaningful and important. You could write a piece like Nichols’ about literally every aspect of human behaviour and so its value lies not in what it tells us about the sub-culture in question but what stepping back from our psychological investments can tell us about the things we think and do.

Honestly, this piece hit rather close to home as I am aware that (except for the photography) virtually everything on this blog might be placed in the ‘Love, Record, Share’ cycle: I encounter a piece of culture, I have an emotional or intellectual reaction to it, I share the nature of my my reaction by writing about it. Does this make everything that I have produced worthless? Well… no because a) all creative activity is a reaction to something and b) I would like to think that my reactions are a bit more complex than rolling my eyes at a Judge Dredd figure or throwing a tantrum about the rubbish animation in the new Mass Effect game.

A lot of book blogs are nothing more than a series of book reports written by people quite content to continue trading unpaid PR work for free books, but that doesn’t mean that all book blogs are like that. A lot of videogame-related YouTube channels are Norwegians in dressing gowns screaming about their failure to have sex but then you encounter something like the Electron Dance channel and you see how the form can have style, wit, intelligence, and real artistic substance. Look at it in the wrong way and even great art is reduced to smiling women, flowers, and lines on a piece of coloured paper.

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This recent piece by Jonathan Crowe says some really important and insightful things about the role of conventions in genre culture and the fandom that sustains it both socially and financially (I also recommend clicking through to this piece by Tim Cooper).

I remember one year quite early on in my engagement with genre culture when a number of people who were writing about genre stuff had successfully found each other online and were bouncing ideas back and forth. Many of these people were already established in genre culture but many were not and the year sort of built towards that year’s Eastercon when a lot of UK-based people who were regularly interacting online finally met in real life. I didn’t go because that was the period of my life when I was serving as my mother’s live-in carer but I remember that everyone who went to Eastercon that year without a tangible link to British genre fandom seemed to return with either a new title, a new role, or a new gig doing something vaguely cool. So when Crowe talks about conventions being the places where fans exchange online brownie points for real-world social status, I think he’s bang on the fucking money.

Many problems in science fiction fandom stem from the fact that its institutions and structures exist primarily to collect and circulate social capital. A few years ago, I wrote a piece in which I compared the short fiction market to an enormous ponzi scheme but I am increasingly coming to view those dynamics as universal in science fiction fandom as everything from awards and panel discussions through to interviews and jury-selection seems to be geared towards the well-connected celebrating the famous while the great unwashed are expected to sit in the dark dutifully clapping and paying bills in the hope of someday being invited onto the stage. This is not to say that I think genre culture is inherently unjust or self-serving, I just think that too much of the fun and prestige in genre culture is being hoovered up by people already sitting at the cool kids’ table (which is pretty much exactly why I removed myself from consideration for any and all genre awards). Cooper’s piece is very strong on this issue and I think there’s genuine grounds for concern as to the nature of the social contract being offered to today’s potential fan: Hey kid… Come hang-out in our corner of the internet and if you’re not bullied into exile or sexually molested by a well-connected hog-monster then you too might one day wind up crying in an over-priced hotel room because you’ve travelled hundreds of miles to attend a convention where nobody knows your name.

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This recent piece by Carole Cadwalladr looks into how political campaigns are funded in Britain today and how legislation designed to protect the integrity of the British political system is effectively powerless to stop a new generation of political organisations grounded in data-analysis and funded by billionaires with far-right political sympathies.

It is easy to read this type of piece and leap to the conclusion that there is some sort of conspiracy afoot. As I mentioned further up, conspiracy theories are the training wheels of systemic thinking and viewing this article in terms of the personalities and companies involved is going to be far less fruitful than looking beyond the names to see the processes at work.

One of my favourite books about political culture is Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe’s The Road to Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. The book describes how the political consensus of the post-War years was deliberately undermined by generations of right-wing thinkers using a network of publishers and academic think tanks designed to argue the case for neoliberalism in every space and at every opportunity. The book is fascinating for the way it analyses how the so-called Overton window was shifted to the right by hundreds of clever techniques that systematically excluded all left-wing voices and re-framed the political discourse in terms of a battle between a theatrically evil ‘hard right’ and a ‘sensible’ liberal centrism that shuffled further and further to the right with each passing year.

Indeed, despite the right arguing for freedom and individualism while the left constantly talks about solidarity and the need to organise, the right out-organised the left and built a new political reality by cultivating a sense of solidarity amongst a wide array of right-wing groups with sometimes radically different agendas.

While there are a number of cultural factors explaining why the left has so comprehensibly failed to maintain its position in public discourse over the last 5 decades, the most pressing factor is that touched on by Cadwalladr’s article: Money.

If you’re an aspiring right-wing political activist then there are dozens of bursaries and organisations that will fund your career as an activist. Want to become a theorist? No problem… there are bursaries for that. Want to become a full-time activist? No problem… there are jobs in think tanks and lobbying firms. Want to become a politician? No problem… Your allies will pull strings for you and if you happen to get voted out, a think tank will pay you a salary until you find your way back into public life. Try being a full-time activist for the left and there are virtually no jobs and funding is so thin on the ground that you’re in direct competition with people who have almost identical politics to your own. This creates a climate where leftists are forced to keep attacking each other in order to land some of the few available left-wing jobs, making solidarity and cooperation ever-more difficult. To make matters worse, even if you do make it as a professional left-wing activist then chances are that you will spend most of your time either chasing institutional funding or trying to get your base to donate more from their ever-shrinking pay packages and reserves of free time.

Simply stated, right-wing political activists keep beating left-wing political activists because they have more resources and more time in which to be politically active. Money gives the right a reason to work together while giving the left a reason to be at each other’s throats. It’s very hard to imagine the left building a network as effective as the one described by Cadwalladr… the resources do not exist to allow the left to do so. The problem is neatly demonstrated by the extra-parliamentary British left where sometimes strikingly-sound analyses of political reality habitually build to conclusions like “what is needed are disciplined, but flexible cadre who are bound together by a kernel of correct theory”.

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This recent piece by Adam Roberts deserved a broader circulation than it received. Ostensibly a look at the novels of John Green, the piece tries to dig down into what it is that bothers Roberts about the novels and he concludes that Green’s books are set in a place of perpetual adolescence where the characters are forever in the process of growing up, never quite able to get there, and very self-aware about this fact.

I think Roberts is onto something when he talks about the appeal of Young Adult literature stemming from the increasingly precarious relationship that most adults have with the concept of ‘adulthood’. YA has become the dominant form of popular culture because all works of YA are about the coming-of-age process but not the experience of adulthood itself. In practice, this means that readers and viewers move from book to series, from series to book, and from book to game without ever encountering culture that talks about what it is like to be an adult. Encouraged to identify with the media they consume, most readers think of themselves as being in a de facto state of ‘growing up’ rather than as ‘grown ups’ and when they think about what it means to be a grown-up, they draw on images they know to be out of date, hence the weirdly self-aware nostalgic tone that Roberts detects in Green.

My favourite example of this is the evolution of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk: Go back to the original series and Kirk is every inch the patriarch and figure of moral authority. As a captain, he not only shoulders the responsibility of putting his crew into mortal danger, he also makes literally world-changing moral decisions without any kind of oversight. In the original series, Kirk is so grown-up that even the mildest admissions of friendship and sexual tension are viewed as major displays of vulnerability. As Erin Horakova catalogues in her excellent piece for Strange Horizons, Kirk the Inhuman Patriarch transitioned into Kirk the Morally-upstanding Rebel as part of the low-key reboot that happened in Wrath of Khan and this rebellious persona was collectively re-imagined as that of a libidinous manchild as cultural attitudes and models of masculinity began to shift.

For my money, the most interesting thing about the (frankly appalling) rebooted Star Trek franchise is the producers’ decision to position their Captain Kirk in a state of perpetual adolescence. For example, the first post-reboot film is about Kirk struggling to live up to his father’s expectations. Rather than presenting us with a grown-up Kirk, the second post-reboot film introduces another father figure against whom Kirk relentlessly compares himself before finally overcoming. By the time Star Trek Beyond rolled around, Kirk is an experienced starship captain with as much command experience as the Kirk of the original series but despite manifestly being a grown-up, the film’s Kirk finds himself struggling to choose between retaining the free-wheeling — apparently adolescent — autonomy of a starship captain and assuming a ‘grown-up’ position as admiral in command of a city-sized space station. Predictably, the film ends with Kirk turning his nose up at the boring life of an adult and returning to the ridiculous space high school that is the cinematic Star Trek universe because the producers have no interest in making a film about a grown-up captain Kirk.

The reason these characters are both ubiquitous and appealing to today’s adults is that today’s economic realities are significantly harsher than those faced by the previous generation. As recently as the 1970s, an adult male would have not only been able to find full-time employment but full-time employment well-paid enough to allow him to support an entire family. This is a model of adulthood that is now completely out of reach for all but the most supremely wealthy people. Compared to even the 1990s, today’s adults not only struggle to find full-time employment but even those that do still wind up struggling to make enough money to live independently of their families. The closest Hollywood has come to recognising these changing social conditions is having films in which teenagers earn money working shitty jobs whilst living at home with their parents.Meanwhile, the standard model of social interaction is not exhausted adults struggling to find time to spend the odd evening with their equally exhausted friends but high school kids hanging around in cliques with nothing to do but wallow in sexual tension. Little surprise then that most of today’s adults think of themselves as kids not quite ready to grow up.

 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2017 10:57 am

    Another good collection of pieces. I was surprised to find ghosts in here, but that’s the joy of this kind of blogging, I suppose!

    Like

  2. May 9, 2017 1:49 pm

    I was well into ghosts and the paranormal as a kid and I think I’m benefiting not only from my distance from academia but also from the fact that many of these things are cycling back into fashion. I love ghosts and Bigfoot and stuff like that (not least because it annoys my wife whenever I try to argue for the existence of chemtrails).

    I definitely have another ghost hunt in me. It’s just a bit of a shame that it seems to be more popular up north than it is down here in the South East :-(

    Like

  3. Lorenzo permalink
    May 11, 2017 2:07 pm

    Great selection as always. The Curtis piece seems especially interesting. I haven’t read it yet, but I’d like to add a couple of things since conspiracy theories are my… specialty? Don’t really like the term, but whatever. I’ve done some research on the local/conversational use of conspiratorial rhetoric. Careful, reductionist argument incoming.

    What I find particularly interesting about conspiracy theories, and conspiratorial thinking in general, could be summed up in your “training wheels” argument, but I find the expression itself troubling. There’s interesting literature in anthropology and sociology that argues that this kind of “postmodern” conspiracism is a way of rationalising an increasingly unreadable world, where the trajectories of power are so far removed from everyday life that they could be considered almost transcendent, metaphysical. And so, conspiracy theories reconstruct rational representation of the world, where there’s no randomness, no incompetence, and everything can be explained if you look hard enough. You could argue that it’s after the end of the Cold War, when we lost our ultimate Enemy, the root cause of all evil, that we also lost our ability to narrate our place in the world. And thus, conspiracies, from aliens to the New World Order, to black helicopters. It’s sort of reassuring.

    There’s also some interesting parallels to be drawn with classical representation of sorcery and witchcraft in anthropology, and how these apparently “irrational” beliefs are not trying to be literal in their view of the world, but symbolic, they are not trying to explain events mechanically (I know that the house collapsed because of rotting wood), but rather morally (it collapsed exactly when I was inside because my envious neighbour has bewitched me). So, an explanation that is socially situated, and morally connotated. But now I’m even more out of my field, so I’ll avoid embarrassing myself further.

    Like

  4. May 11, 2017 9:33 pm

    Hi Lorenzo :-)

    Nothing embarrassing here at all!

    I get your point about the world becoming unreadable and people reaching for post-modern theoretical models but in truth, wasn’t it always thus?

    People aren’t stupid, they know that the theories they learned as kids don’t work. Middle-class kids know that doing well in school, working hard, and trying to be nice is no guarantee that you’ll ever be able get a job let alone a career. Even older working-class people can see it as they see their kids being abandoned by the system while the rich get richer.

    They know that what they’ve been told is a lie but society presents them with no alternative. Socialism has been systenatically excluded from the media and many academic settings and so people cast around for the stuff that makes sense emotionally… The stuff that’s compelling and fun and makes sense. That’s where peopke lije Alex Jones live

    Like

  5. Lorenzo permalink
    May 12, 2017 9:31 am

    I’m not 100% sure it was always this way. Maybe it’s the classic fallacy of attributing a “special” quality to the period you live in, but it seems to me that after the end of the Cold War, something broke. Without a doubt, the world was big and scary and unknowable before, I mean, that’s what modernist literature was all about. But you could always have “faith” in something, call it God, Reason, the Revolution, Progress, whatever. Even after the shattering of the global imperial order with the First World War, grand narratives could still flourish. Nowadays, I don’t know. Obviously, we don’t trust the system we’re in; but we also can’t see many alternatives, not systemic, not on the scale of communism. I think Stuart Hall had it right: the biggest victory of Thatcher was convincing the entire western world that there’s no alternative to capitalism, and even in the period of its worst crisis, that beating is still in the back of our minds.

    One final note: I think you’re very right about the “fun and compelling” part of conspiracy theories, and it’s a facet that is too often ignored when we talk about the phenomenon. It’s fun to talk conspiracy. It’s fun to “connect the dots”. And it’s even more fun because it can really be a collective effort, a way of building community, I don’t think you can understand Reddit/4chan conspiracism without this “playful” dimension. Consequences can still be damn scary, though.

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