29/07/2021

Life and Death in the Library

(Previously)


I was wandering through the upper floor of the library, cleaning spray and damp cloth in my plastic gloved hands, when I noticed a small bird flutter down from the ceiling and land a short distance in front of me, on a walkway between the biography section and the study area. I stood still so as not to alarm it, and looked closely to make sure I didn’t imagine it. Sure enough, there it was, a sparrow, as quiet and timid as I was. I looked around, but no one else seemed to have noticed it (the library wasn’t that busy). I was wondering whether to just leave it to its own devices when I spotted one of the caretakers, a gentle, rotund man in his sixties, on patrol a few metres away.

I motioned him over and whispered, ‘There’s a bird in the library.’ I pointed out the tiny visitor, gesturing round the corner of a bookshelf.

It took him a few seconds to see it. Then he stepped slowly in front of me. ‘Pass me that cloth,’ he said, quietly but purposefully. I did so. He moved closer, then jumped forward onto the floor, throwing the cloth over the creature and holding it there. It wriggled but didn’t seem to put up much resistance. Although dramatic, the moment passed almost entirely unobserved. The main floor was near-deserted and no one in the study area looked up from their laptops. The caretaker got up and walked briskly to the lift, cupping the trembling bundle in his hands.

I found another cloth and resumed my cleaning duties.

Later I saw the caretaker in the staff kitchen. He told me they knew the sparrow was somewhere in the building; it had been inside for a couple of days but hadn’t been sighted for a while. Birds sometimes fly in through the front doors or the windows in the roof, and get trapped. This one would have been imprisoned without food or water for at least 48 hours. Trapped in this glass cell with no opportunity for nourishment, it would have got progressively weaker, until it could barely move. 

The caretaker had taken the bird outside and unwrapped it, but it didn’t take off. It just stood there. When he went back after a couple of hours, it had gone.

28/06/2021

My daughter is hiding under the living room table because she doesn’t want to have a bath, because she doesn’t want to have the plaster taken off her forehead, because she is scared it might hurt.

After a minute I say, ‘I have to tell you something. Remember that new scooter we looked at? Well, I ordered it and I got an email to say it’s coming today. But they said they won’t deliver it until you’ve taken the plaster off.’

She comes out from under the table. ‘But how will they know I’ve taken the plaster off?’

‘They know everything. They know everything we do, everything we say, everything about our lives. The driver has the scooter in the back of his van now and he’s waiting for a message to say your plaster is off. Then he’ll deliver it.’

She weighs this up practically. ‘OK.’ She gets into the bath. After a while I wash her hair and take the plaster off. It hurts a bit. I tell her she is very brave. She gets out. Just as I am drying her hair the intercom buzzes.

She gasps. ‘It’s here!’

21/12/2020

[wakes up] 

Siri, what Tier am I in today? 

'Good morning! Today you are in Tier 5b. Going outside is prohibited except for essential work purposes. This will be reviewed at 3pm. Would you like me to update you if your tier status changes?' 

[goes back to sleep]

13/10/2020

Essays 2014-2019

The Black Dog (from The Work Cure, ed. David Frayne, 2019, written 2017-18)

Against Employability (from Mapping Precariousness, ed. Emiliana Armano, Arianna Bove, Annalisa Murgia, 2017, written 2013-15)

The Uncomplaining Body (commission for Manual Labours, Jenny Richards & Sophie Hope, 2015) 

Every Day Matters™ (from Lo Squaderno No.31, ed. Emiliana Armano, Elisabetta Risi, Cristina Mattiucci, 2014)

06/03/2020

Thoughts on 'Acid Communism'

[Full version of the final part of my contribution to the Sydney Review of Books discussion of the blogosphere, Mark Fisher and the k-punk book, focusing on the 'Acid Communism' fragment. This was understandably edited for the article, but the original (written in July 2019) is more of a self-contained blog-style piece so I thought it was worth putting up here.]


Formulating thoughts about this unfinished introduction is not easy as it was obviously meant to be the beginning of a large project, expanding historically and theoretically in parallel with the buried collective consciousness it was going to bring to the surface and set free, and we have to imagine how it was going to get there. It is also desperately sad. The fragment is bubbling with optimism much more so than most of Marks other writing - and however sceptical I am about some of the claims made in it I am sure that over the course of a whole book Mark would have argued me around and made me realise how my horizons are being limited.
To throw a deeply uncool pop reference into the mix: although the focus of the intro was the culture of the 1960s and 70s, the group that came to my mind while mulling over Marks idea of a new form of psychic and political consciousness-raising was indie-dance act The Shamen. You could even imagine them dropping the phrase acid communisminto an interview circa their album In Gorbachev We Trust. Way before blogs, from 1989 to 1991, The Shamen were my first almost-political awakening: they talked about hallucinogenic drugs and altering your consciousnessin a very contemporary way (they only got really hippyish about it later, when they teamed up with Terence McKenna and lost the plot somewhat) and En-Tact was a sort of Iain M Banksian program for a psychedelic techno-socialist utopia. These days of course The Shamen are remembered as a cheesy novelty act (culminating in 2015's Peepshow Super Hans debacle), but they were a huge influence on me and not in the way youd expect. They were also one of the few acts at the time to try to intellectualise rave culture and connect it to broader social and political trends.

And this reminded me that Mark wrote an essay called Baroque Sunburstsfor an anthology in 2016, which I havent read as disappointingly it isnt in the k-punk collection or available online, but its been discussed and quoted, for instance here. In the essay Mark apparently applies some of the same arguments made in the Acid Communism intro with regard to 1960s-70s counterculture to rave culture: the latent utopia glimpsed in the otherworldly club environment; the spectre of collective freedom exorcised by a process of psychic privatisation, the loss of that freedom and its incorporation by capitalism.
The writer of the piece linked above has some reservations about Marks utopian reading of rave, which on the limited information available (like not being able to read the original article!) I suppose I share. On this topic the Jeremy Deller documentary Everybody in the Place thats been mentioned on here was indeed a breath of fresh air, but what was significantly underplayed in it, beyond the cautionary tale of Paul Staines, was the entrepreneurial side of acid house which was actually the embodiment of Thatcherism. But at the same time rave was maybe the last instance of a genuinely transformative and disruptive, rather than reactionary, positivity.

Ive always been wary of calls from political activists that revolutionis probable or even possible, and I am not sure I agree with the assertion that material conditions are more oriented towards revolutionary change now than they were in the 1970s, especially if you include time as a materialelement. Nevertheless, the suffocating effect of the present existential and emotional atmosphereis crucial. as well as being immersed in pop culture, as Owen says, another thing that distinguished Mark from more conventional theorists was his grasp of how the external, material environment created by neoliberalism has in turn cultivated a particular interior, emotional state a sort of overstimulated misery and resignation which, while individualised and for the most part unspoken, is still experienced collectively. Part of how the regime exercises its power is to shut us off from each other in the guise of connectingus. This is obvious in any workplace. It is also noticeable at home, when ones digital device lists all the other wifi connections in the vicinity: technologically a minority of these connections is probably powerful enough to supply everyone in the building, and yet capital dictates that we each buy our own packageand keep our neighbours out. Uninhibited, the signal literally travels through walls, between households. Its there, were just not able to collectively utilise it.
Given the reasons why the book never got further than this fragment, the ending of the introduction is heartbreakingly poignant, pointing as it does towards a subsequent section which would analyse Capitals machinery of consciousness-deflationas a first step towards reversing it and igniting a collective desire for action. And this is one of the areas where we should concentrate our energies, because the liberation of psychic space is a necessary precondition for any attempt to dismantle the system of power which threatens our material survival.

04/11/2018


 ‘...and it was arguably here, in this position of wretched seclusion, detached from any cultural movement, without institutional support or camaraderie, with no readership, no media profile or publishing deal, no outside interest whatsoever, and with no economic independence, no definable role or status, no energy for writing and no time or space in which to write, with no desire to write, no material, no plan, no words, in this inescapable state of intellectual abjection and terminal exhaustion... it was here that his best work was produced.’

26/10/2018


(Sometime in 2016)
I am instructed to assist a team leader by assembling motivational banners for him to place around the offices. The posters roll out to a height of six feet and are designed to be displayed in groups of three, spelling out the latest organisational slogan: ‘transform’, ‘together’, today’.
We only meet for a few minutes, but behind the usual initial synthetic enthusiasm the team leader is surprisingly phlegmatic. As we carry the stuff across the car park he explains that the campaign the banners were created for has finished, but they are still being put around the building “to keep it in people’s minds.” Keep it in people’s minds? “To make them work harder for less,” he says, “And make it seem inspiring.”
We reach the area where he is due to install this particular triptych. He walks along the aisles eyeing up possible gaps and corners. The staff know him and their exchanges are friendly, but as I follow with the tall corporate sails, a definite tension emerges. His approach is that they have to go somewhere, but every suggestion is met with hostility. He proposes putting a banner in front of a wall display, in front of pigeonholes, cabinets, desk drawers. Every spot is in the way of something. The workers, already cramped for space, make it clear that they don’t want the things. As he attempts to set them up someone mouths to me, “Take them away.” “I wish I could,” I silently reply. Finally, having exhausted the appearance of negotiation, he imposes the things on the staff, regardless of their objections. We push them into position. The buzzwords loom over the office workers, literally standing over their shoulders and obscuring their views. There is a sense of resigned inevitability about the exercise, although one could still imagine the workers rolling the banners up as soon as the team leader has departed. Sadly on my visits to that area in the days afterwards they are still visible. 

12/03/2018

Unread Books (2018)

03/04/2017

Recurring Dreams

Pauline Murray on The Invisible Girls


[Unedited version of article published in The Quietus, January 2015]  




Formed in the north-eastern town of Ferryhill in 1976 in the wake of the Sex Pistols, Penetration were an enthralling burst of punk energy. Led by singer and lyricist Pauline Murray, their songs of military conflict and domestic servitude attacked the dictators and firing squads of polite society, and as they gained momentum they threatened to invade the mainstream.

By their time of their second album Coming Up for Air, however, Murray was finding the rock format intolerable. “I felt I was drowning in some ways, hence the title.” She ended Penetration and began writing new material with bassist Robert Blamire. “The dynamics of the songs had changed since we weren’t writing around guitar riffs.” A new, more abstract studio palette was provided by the decidedly un-macho sounding Invisible Girls, consisting of Murray and Blamire, keyboardist Steve Hopkins and Factory producer Martin Hannett (who had previously played under that name with John Cooper Clarke), with contributions from Vini Reilly and others. The result was a futuristic but highly accessible record which didn’t adhere to the industry conventions of group or solo artist, major or indie, pop or post-punk. It was sublime.

Originally released in September 1980, Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls is an extraordinary work of art, a treasure not just of its own time but of any era. Yet soon after completing it the singer followed her own backing band and disappeared. Long unavailable, the album has now been reissued and hopefully will be discovered by a new audience. Interviewing Pauline Murray by email, I encountered a unique performer still striking a vital oppositional note in today’s no-alternative culture of commodified rebellion, digital passivity and talent show banality.

What does punk mean to you? Does it mean the same thing now that it did in 1976? Is punk still possible today?

At the time it meant opening your eyes and seeing things as they are. It was about questioning tried and tested methods and doing things in a different way. It was about not caring whether you could do something but more about having a go. It was about contributing rather than passively consuming. It was about having the courage to break away from the stifling confines of a society that bowed down to “superiors”. It was about the youth of the late seventies turning their backs on the middle class hippy generation. It was about thinking for yourself and expressing your individuality. It was outside the system for a very short time and showed what people could achieve with focus and direction of energy. The raw music, anti-fashion, photography, art and design, writing, fanzines, the 7” single and animated audiences. Exciting stuff! It was as if a window had opened and real primal expression could emerge. It felt that you could collectively change the world and it certainly changed the lives of those involved.

Punk now means a certain category where products of a certain type can be marketed. It has turned into a stereotype and has no power to change.

I don’t think it’s possible today to have the black swan that was punk as young people have lived in a different world. They have been distracted and pacified from an early age by video games, mobile phones, computers, the internet, fast food and the American hard sell.  They are surrounded by unmotivated people, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that brings them together.  The culture of music and art has been hijacked by the clean people and karaoke singing appears on prime time TV.

Despite your achievements you rarely feature in the endless BBC4 documentaries on punk and post-punk, which are usually quite Londoncentric (or at best Manchester). It seems that if you lived outside these places and there’s no stock footage easily available you risk being edited out of history. Have you noticed this, and if so does it surprise or annoy you, because your work might not be getting the recognition it deserves?

Journalism and the media have become very lazy and would rather print a press release than analyse something themselves. The same old story and names have been repeated again and again without any depth of research and it has become stock footage. We weren’t part of the high profile London crowd and didn’t have hit records so it’s easy to get overlooked. We are sometimes more noticeable by our absence. It’s just one of those things - the powers that be, write and re-write history.

How do you view the second Penetration album now? The year after it came out you said it left a lot to be desired but ever since I first heard it in the ‘90s I’ve loved it.

Obviously I was too close in the making of it at the time. I felt that we were rushed into it and could have come up with better songs with more preparation. We worked with the fledgling producer Steve Lillywhite who had a different approach to the producers of the first album. I know we gave it our best shot as we always do. I was becoming uncertain about where the music was going and things were pulling in different directions. Listening to it now brings a tear to my eye, to hear such young kids taking on and generally succeeding in a monumental task. There are some great tracks on there. Come Into the Open, Shout Above the Noise.

From Penetration to the Invisible Girls, from Shout Above the Noise to Screaming in the Darkness - was there a deliberate connection between these two opening tracks?

There’s no conscious connection at all between these two tracks. I had put Penetration behind me and was writing new songs. Shout above the Noise is very external whilst Screaming in the Darkness is internal.

Over what period were the Invisible Girls songs written? Did any ideas date from while Penetration were still going, or was the split the starting point for them? Were some written in the studio?

Penetration finished their tour at the end of 1979. I had nothing planned after the split but somehow Rob and I gravitated towards each other. We bought a Teac four track and set up a recording studio in his parents’ house. By March 1980 we had recorded a John Peel session (with a temporary band) and soon after that teamed up with Martin and Steve to record Dream Sequence as a single. None of the ideas were left over from Penetration.  We came up with them all as new. I had also written some on my own - Sympathy, Dream Sequence, Drummer Boy, which I had never done with the band. Most of the album was written before going into the studio. Only Time Slipping was worked on at the time. It was a backing track idea of the Invisible Girls. I took it away and wrote the tune and lyrics and we re-recorded the backing track though none of us can remember doing that!

How would you describe the experience of recording the album?

We were living in Martin Hannett’s house for the duration in Manchester recording at Strawberry studios. I remember Martin playing Atmosphere by Joy Division, which was very poignant at the time. The first week was backing tracks with bass drums and piano moving through the process in the conventional way. As it progressed we were working late into the night then starting later each day. I began to become more withdrawn and couldn’t speak to anyone and had to go home after the second week. When I returned, I felt disconnected from the album and did vocal tracks again and again without guidance. I think Martin did an amazing job with the production but the content and playing by all of the individuals involved should never be overlooked. There’s something magical, deep and intense.

The lyrics on the Invisible Girls album are so strong but rarely appreciated. The album is lyrically very intense - I’d say it’s as poetic as, for example, Joy Division’s Closer - but the depth is deceptive, because rather than announcing their profundity in a rock type way, the words are encased in this kind of blissful pop exterior… What were the chief influences and experiences which inspired them?

I have never made a big deal of my lyrics though I do spend a lot of time working on them! I have to be happy with what I am singing and they have to fit the feel of the music. The lyrics are usually inspired by the structure of the music. An idea has to inspire me in the first place. I can’t really say where they come from as each song is quite different from another. I spend time in quiet contemplation and concentration until I settle upon a subject that can unfold into a song. Something like Thundertunes reflects upon the village where I was born and grew up - a place that no longer exists. I try to look at things from all angles but ultimately the subject matter has to fit the framework of a song and flow with the vocal melody. I think my lyrics are quite deep but the tunes and singing are accessible but perhaps unsettling to the casual listener! Many of the lyrics were written through the night when everyone is asleep and there are no distractions.


The mixing up of dreams and reality is a recurring theme; not just in Dream Sequence, but in Sympathy, “imagination seems to be real, reality is just a dream”, and elsewhere. Was this a ‘conscious’ decision or did it just emerge? Was it a case of real life seeming unreal and the creative rush of the imagination?

This theme of dreams and reality was something that just emerged. Dream Sequence and Sympathy were written before the album. The line “somebody wake me before I go to sleep” just popped up of its own accord but the song was inspired by recurring dreams.  Sometimes dreams and reality can come together. Creativity is opening yourself up to bring dreams to reality. Pulling ideas out of the air and arranging them into solid matter for a while.

Another theme is suspicion of fame and celebrity, in Shoot You Down and most obviously in Mr X. Does this reflect a pressure for punk or alternative culture to become part of the showbiz machinery? Was it something you feared happening to you or saw happening to other people? What are your views on fame, then and now?

Punks generally steered away from the showbiz machinery. I’m quite a private person and would struggle with the pressures of fame. We are in a society where people will do anything to be famous. This celebrity culture is driven by the media and to stay famous you have to be in the public eye on a regular basis. Everybody watches everybody else, passes judgement and projects their thoughts onto who they think someone is. I’ve always preferred to be myself than be famous. Fame means everybody looking up to you until you fall from grace and are fed to the lions!

When Will We Learn is interesting: “This restless feeling falls upon the humble/stupid people”, “Mother Nature’s face is scarred to death...” Is this about a general frustration with humanity, or is there a sense of some wider threat - environmental disaster, war, even nuclear annihilation (the track ends with a sound like missiles falling...)?

When Will We Learn is a comment on the ignorance of the human race and how people never take responsibility for their own actions. It has gone on for forever where the majority don’t question anything and are led into the next drama. People will only notice that something is wrong when it is all too late and wonder how this has happened. We have used and abused nature and it will always have the last say. I see the breakdown of structures that hold everything together.

The album seems to move from a mood of personal or existential anxiety towards a feeling of impending doom, through the warnings and wilderness of Thundertunes, and When Will We Learn where “the end is coming”, to the ominous bassline of Mr X, and finally Judgement Day. It is as if the people making it thought it might be the last record ever made (and what a record!). Is that theme and direction something you were aware of during writing/recording, or am I imagining it?

There was no conscious theme to the album. The songs were written separately and put together at the end. It was a very organic process. Maybe subconsciously I felt all of those things you mentioned, as my life was about to change and we were about to enter Thatcher’s Britain which can never be underestimated. I could maybe sense that I wouldn’t get a chance to make another album. The songs and production came together at a point in time, never to be repeated. There’s lots of intensity in all the records I’ve been involved in. I’ve always felt that every album could be the last.





Listening again to Judgement Day; “You have no possessions, you have no illusions, no arrangements and no future plans…There’s no breathing space inside this place, there’s no escaping…” It is an extraordinary set of images and an astonishing cliffhanger on which to end an album. Can you say anything about where that song came from and what it was pointing towards?

My grandmother had died while I was still with Penetration and Judgement Day was my observations of the final scenario. She was in hospital, had given up her home and had nothing other than the fact that she was leaving this world. It’s very close up. We will all be in this position one day and I have seen the same with parents and friends. It came last on the album as it’s really intense and definitely a final song.

Was there much encouragement from other people in the indie sphere after the album and follow-up single, when RSO went out of business? After such an innovative but still commercial-sounding album, you’d think that some of the established labels would have been keen to get involved. Or did you decide, after this phase of intense activity, to take a step back for a while?

None of the singles were hits, which makes a big difference. There were companies interested but at that time I was going through a massive personal crisis. Everything around me had changed and I couldn’t focus on anything. I was perhaps mentally and physically burned out as I hadn’t had a break for five years. I got half way through a vocal take and just gave up, walked out and turned my back on everything and everyone connected to music.

Later with Robert you set up Polestar Studios, which is still going strong, and the Storm Clouds album came out in 1989. Did you get involved in the technical side of production, and have you been pursuing other interests and doing other things alongside music?

Polestar was originally set up as a record label to release our own material in the early ‘80s. In 1990 I took on the lease of a building and set up music rehearsal studios and a recording studio. Robert is the technical maestro in the recording studio as I have never had any interest or ability in the production side of things. We bought a derelict building almost four years ago, undertook a massive building project and relocated the studios. I have managed bands, promoted gigs, studied reflexology, formed a community choir and brought up two very fine children! I am always busy with one thing or another.

In recent years you have reformed Penetration and also played some solo shows. What has that been like?

I think the band has been better since it reformed as the songs and playing have matured in a good way. It was perhaps unfinished business as we split up very abruptly but people have had the chance to see us over the past few years. We have always been a good live band and have done some great shows. We manage ourselves, operate independently and still play for the enjoyment and connecting with people. We’ve put out a couple of singles but are reaching a point where we need to make an album to challenge ourselves!

I have been doing solo acoustic shows with new material. It’s a whole new thing for me. The songs are written on acoustic guitar and cover topics such as family history, depression, people going missing and being plugged in to technology. This is work in progress as I plan to write more songs, record them acoustically and then experiment with the music. At the moment I am concentrating on Penetration, writing and recording a new album.

What do you think of music today? Are there any performers who still inspire you and are there any current artists who get the Pauline Murray seal of approval?

Music today is very fragmented. There are so many different genres, labels and specific interests and the mainstream is unintelligible. There’s nothing that brings people together in an emotional way. The digital format means that we can access music very easily but it’s more disposable and doesn’t hold your attention.  I have to say that there is nothing in particular that excites and inspires me at the moment but there are many creative individuals swimming against the tide. I am lucky to have heard, first hand, the great music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which was the soundtrack to my youth. Most things have been done before but genuine passion and energy will always have an impact.
 



07/01/2017


Great new article by Nina Power: From The One to The Many
Rather than identifying what it is that makes us ‘special,’ we would do well to remember what it is we have in common, including all the time and resources that have been stolen from all of us, and given back piecemeal to some. How to divide and conquer those who seek to divide and conquer us? Only a strategic mass identity can save us now.


Coincidentally, in the final section of my forthcoming essay on the naturalised subjugation of 'employability’ I argue similarly that resisting this pernicious and divisive discourse means positioning collective desire against individual 'aspiration'. It also involves discovering a new unemployability, and attacking fake positivity with a radical negativity (aiming for a real social happiness by destroying the coerced, isolated, miserable simulation).


If a genuinely rebellious cultural movement/moment/whatever is to emerge from this era of digital precarity and competitive compliance, it could usefully coalesce around these elements: it would be anti-individual, anti-positive thinking, anti-aspiration, anti-employability. Such a position would also shun self-promotion and maintain a sceptical distance from online hype and revolutionary posturing. This attitude would primarily circulate in places and conversations rather than in tweets and opinion columns. Rather than preaching to the converted, it would directly (or obliquely) confront its targets - the bosses, team leaders and entrepreneurs, the executive guardians who deny responsibility for the misery they inflict - and seek tactical alliances not with verified career lefties but with fellow inmates sentenced to debt in warehouses and call centres, hotels and restaurants, agencies and job centres. Such communication would be concerned not so much with activism as inactivism, actively not doing; refusing, rejecting, withholding, demurring, declining, ignoring. We would prefer not to.


Of course the individual yoked to the mechanisms of i-capital cannot afford to refuse work and the performative labour involved in getting and keeping it, so unless one is in a position of privilege one cannot make oneself literally unemployable, much as one might fantasise about doing so. Rather it is the latent negative energy behind the job interview smiles and the upbeat social media profiles, the shared ecstatic destructive desire to sweep away this vile charade, which is unemployable and irrecuperable, and which, if unrepressed, could overflow into those everyday spaces and interactions of discipline and control*, irritating/irrigating and gradually eroding them, cultivating conflict and channelling dissent through instances of micro-resistance and, to borrow a term of Foucault's, counter-conduct.


Obviously anti-aspiration here does not mean the inane Hollywood slacker stereotype (this would be to perpetuate the post-political entrepreneurial subject position by way of its supposed opposite, in fact its apathetic twin). Anti-aspiration means intense desire, concentrated and collective (in)action which transcends those imposed models of self-help and happification and rejects the bombardments of inspirational gurus, lifestyle pedlars and lying politicians.

 
*I also agree with NP’s point here on societies of discipline and control existing concurrently or within each other, rather than, as is sometimes said, the latter being the sequel to the former. I have in the past noticed this dual effect in the mutually supportive hard and soft discourses of employability, the quasi-police state  of welfare ‘conditionality’, sanctions and workfare, and the language of CV-building, corporate networking and self-presentation which has become a supposedly essential field of scholarly knowledge in university curricula.