Sunday, 27 November 2011

Other Brothers Can't Deny

In the spirit of Phil's project of an alternative pop canon, IMHO the above could be the greatest hit single of the 90s. For starters, I defy anyone to name a better U.S. no. 1 from that decade. If you want to get all 'cultural theory' about it, there's myriad social conflicts, historical vibrations, defiant affirmations and contradictory anxieties at play in this ditty; but I can't be arsed elaborating all that much. Let's just say it forms part of a continuum stretching back to vaudeville and the 'jelly rolls' of Delta Blues, recklessly throws itself into the thick of the culture wars, perversely reclaims American capitalism's traumatic origins (whip-crack), and even has a blink-and-you-miss-it flashback to the Vietnam War. It manages to throw in all these allusions while (literally) grounding the listener with its celebratory theme. In four throwaway minutes, it manages what Oliver Stone couldn't pull off with a hundred million dollars, a six-month shoot and a crew of thousands.

But for now, I'll conclude with a Zen defence: What makes it so very wrong may be the very thing that makes it perfect. Surely the a posteriroi justification for all the best 'low-brow' art, no?

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Olympian Spirit

Lovely bit of Spenglerian iconography in this advert for British Telecom's new broadband service, BT Infinity (!). Here we can see The Singularity raining its holy manna-jism over man-machine cyber-athletes, clad in the increasingly ubiquitous Union Jack. This is patriotism not in the blood, but worn as a second skin purely for abstract, ritualised competition, and easily shed to reveal the globalised, pan-national corporate leviathan beneath.

The accompanying soundtrack is by Coldplay, whose hesitant, tentative, optimist-pessimist, wave-that-never-crests sound ever suggests a goal that is in sight but that can never quite be reached. Philosophically, Coldplay have always seemed to suggest the impossibility of communication, and perhaps our culture's last idea will be to accommodate the impossibility of reaching infinity as a kind of achieving infinity by default - that the gap becomes the prime symbol of our civilisation rather than the goal itself.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

That Good, Old-Time Religion

This is an absolutely fascinating interview with Peter Mandelson, on the subject of the Euro and the future of the EU. It's chiefly fascinating because it shows how unhinged the "moderate" common-sensical mainstream of British and European politics is, and how resistant they are to the mandates of reality.

Very few people understand what the European Union really is, which is not a trading bloc, or a standardising bureaucracy, or a political attempt to nullify Germany, although it became these things accidentally. What the EU actually is is a Revitalisation Movement, by which a morally and culturally decrepit civilisation, physically shattered by the rampages of the quasi-barbarian ancestor cult known as Nazism (itself a bizarre attempt at renewal), tried to reinvigorate itself by the creation of a mission-myth of a New Europe, born again to dazzle the world with its enlightened, endlessly evolving cultural dynamism. It's this essentially religious vision that explains the keep-voting-until-you-give-us-the-right-result fanaticism of the Europhiles; why the likes of Peter (actually a typical member of the British political class with regards to Europe) still believe.

But behind the facade of social democracy with which the EU pretended to distance itself from the "Anglo-Saxon" model of neoliberalism, it was up to the same late-Faustian game of agnotological voodoo-finance - the only way that the West can continue its progress-mythology: by inventing the (no longer plentiful) resources that enable the "progress" that is its very world-soul.

The Euro is dead. The EU is dead. But, like the banks, expect them to continue to stagger on in the standard zombie half-life that characterises the decline of the final institutions of The West.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Noughties Poem Including History

Before we came to this country,
We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys,
There were empires in Africa called Kush,
Timbuktu, where every race came to get books
To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans,
Asians, Arabs, and gave them gold.
When gold was converted to money it all changed,
Money then became empowerment for Europeans;
The Persian military invaded,
They heard about the gold, the teachings, and everything sacred;
Africa was almost robbed naked,
Slavery was money, so they began making slave ships;
Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went,
(He was so shocked at the mountains with black faces)
Shot up they nose to impose what basically
Still goes on today, you see?

If the truth is told, the youth can grow,
Then learn to survive until they gain control.
Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes.
Read more, learn more, change the globe.
Ghetto children, do your thing,
Hold your head up, little man, you're a king.
Young Princess when you get your wedding ring,
Your man is saying "She's my queen".

- Nas, "I Can" (2002)

Monday, 7 November 2011

Recovering from the opportunities of 1980s or, "There is playdough in the chill-out room,"

Operator: Here we are, I have this connected for you now, it should run fine at least for the next few days.

[undoes cap and wipes finger around run and re-covers, smiling to no one in particular, a little C shaped gesture of the head]

Recovery is usually straight forward, there might be a few odd sensations here and there but don't worry. The medication you're on now will dull any pain, but more importantly it will subdue that feeling your getting.


Yes, the pins and needles. I spoke to a lad the other day described it as being like his nerves trying to make a fist or a shadow-puppet or something. Obviously that's  not what is really happening, and the sensation is all wrong because the signals can't be coming from where you think they are. Obviously.

[Wipes upper lip and sits down carefully, as if this action, of all the others that will be performed today is the one that will be observed, marked]

[Takes a small breath and allows features in face to wind up in a familiar way that comes before beginning the routine, speaking the words that have worn their way through time and observance. Familiarity is not comforting, not in this case, but it drives time and responsibililty as if on a belt and that does make things easier, one it's started it's as predictable as the morning news.]

[Does not say anything]

[There is a restaurant nearby, it is nearly full, only a few tables in awkward places between walls and fixtures, next to the toilets and beneath a speaker are empty, or at least occupied only by inanimate objects, possessions, shopping.]

Narrator: so where is it, where are they coming from?

Operator: Somewhere else, that's all the matters, some Other place. That's what is most important, they come from outside. It's a binary thing.

Narrator: But surely there is a gradient?

Operator: Not in this situation, not in most in my experience, the cut makes it pretty clear.

[A young couple are standing in the doorway of the restaurant, not yet committing to entering as if they can hang onto the moment before that decision is made, before the social armature swinging like a boom comes round. They stand in that dead space at the top of the arc, assessing whether it will work to enter this place to eat, whether it will be awkward, perhaps sharing a table, at least having to excuse themselves as they step past people already in mid flow of conversation, and food, protecting themselves further with protective laughter, fork gestures, protecting against an elbow in the back or a scarf knocked from the back of a chair. To enter into all of this is so much. The wind tips, the boom swings over and they enter, uncertain as to whether this decision is their own but by then it hardly matters, reflexes kick in and they are enveloped]

Operator: You're going to have to learn to let it go.

Narrator: let it go?

Operator: Yes.

[wipes lip again]

There's something that was there, but now it's elsewhere, it's in the Other space.

Narrator: That's ridiculous, it's in a space here, it's in a bin at the back probably, in a yellow bag and on a trolley,waiting to be moved again.

[Begining to obviously sweat, looking damp]

It's more active than me, and that's the problem, it's still part of me, the gap means nothing. I'm full of gaps, you're full of gaps! The thing that's me is monster.

Operator: ...

[shifts weight as if to get up, then repeats action in reverse, brings it back. Like a man in a bar racking the pool balls, that little flourish, getting more pronounced as the evening moves on, the more pitchers, the more won games, the more hopefully threatening stacks of 50p's on the edge of the table]

Now, look self image is a delicate thing, but you can't dwell on it, you need to understand...

Narrator: I do understand, you don't understand at all. I have gaps all through me same as you, that object out back, making its way in the world, that's still part of me, just like my primary school education is part of me, the way I learnt to form letters on those exercise books with the extra horizontal lines.

[Tries to stand but can't, sits down, sits up. rubs hands together, looks down at the beads of sweat on the backs of each hand. Watches one  droplet of water run off one way, and then another a different way. Blinks.]

There's just a blur that gets thicker in places, has some dense points, collision points, tight enough that I can sit on a chair with them but it's still all a blur, there's no line that says this is one thing and that's another.

Operator: But there is a line...

Narrator: No, no there isn't! We put the line done afterwards, and then forget that we did so, or at least try and forget. This is why we have courts for example, they spend day after day doing this activity that ends with a line being dropped on the ground and everyone trying hard to forget they just put it there. Day after day telling some poor soul that he transgressed while he looks at his feet and lies through his teeth that he knowingly did it as if there was a sign there.

Nothing categorically ends, well it does, but that category is what we put down. You know what though? that categories have been getting blurrier and blurrier themselves, mixing in with all those things they were meant to keep apart, like you've microwaved your ready made korma too hard and for too long and it just got up off that ceramic rotating plate and ate your face!

Operator: But division is what makes things work, you can't have a machine made out of jelly, the gears have to be distinct from one another, otherwise the energy wouldn't get anywhere.

Narrator: Rubbish! I love jelly, and the energy runs more efficienty through that than it does though the drive on a lathe, all that energy lost in a slipped belt, in the wearing of bushes, and the whole thing is making it self redundant all the time anyway, bringing on it's own obsolescence while continually looking the other way, pretending it can last for ever and it will harness all these kinetic and cultural forces in it's steel for all time. The jelly is far more efficient and it embraces it's own demise with no pretence, with dignity.

Operator: This is a very stressful time, you can't expect to adjust straight away, that's what we're here for, to put these systems in place to ease the transition to your new life. It's not even you new life, it's just your life.

[Wipes hands on down sides of trousers from hips to just above ankles, bending forward with head still looking straight ahead at all times, settling back. Leans forward to fall back on the old phrase]

Everything's going to be fine!

Narrator: I know it will be fine, I know it will be seamless, it's the seams which are false! It's the myth of the seams that are making this so stressful, they make you think you should know where you are but you don't. I mean, one doesn't, not "you" personally. The map isn't bloody there when you look down! I'm going to learn to accept it if it's the last thing I do! I'm going to learn to be overjoyed when people put their fingers in my food and leave them there, I'm going to spread myself out all over the place and just ooze and throb, it's going to be wonderful, I'm Whitney, I'm Chaka Khan, I'm every woman! I'm ready for the dream time, melt me!

How to Be a Retronaut

When Forrest Gump was first released, what focussed the attention of the public wasn’t its appalling caricature of the counterculture of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, nor its reactionary hollowing out of history. It was the digital effects. This may seem quaint now, especially if one considers that so much ground had already been broken – and in more spectacular fashion – by the likes of Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. But maybe it was just that fact: that Gump’s digital effects weren’t overtly spectacular, nor used to depict the extraordinary, but fit in rather within a more classic kind of storytelling in the tradition of great American cinema. Think It’s a Wonderful Life with the benefit of modern post-production: so not a radically changed film, but one that made full use of the available technology of our time – as Frank Capra did in his – in order to achieve maximum photographic realism.

A lot was made in the marketing of the picture about the feather carried by the wind in the opening and closing sequences: a feather that was tracked with uncanny precision and grace by Robert Zemeckis’ aerial shot, except of course it didn’t magically land at Forrest’s feet simply because it wasn’t there when the camera was rolling: it was inserted later by Ken Ralston’s team of digital artists. Somehow, that filmmakers could conjure that feather into existence seemed just as momentous as the coming to life on the screen of Spielberg’s T-Rex the year before. It was a new kind of magic.

That this magic in Forrest Gump served also the very peculiar and far from innocent purpose of rewriting post-War American history from a disconsolately conservative perspective later became the subject of extensive critical attention. However this concerns me today only in passing. I want to show how some of the sequences implicated in this manipulation of the shared historical record were also precursors to a seemingly less politically charged but also far more prevalent relationship with our mediated past. It’s a relationship that has virtually come to define internet culture, and culture more generally.

Tom Hanks next to JFK. But also, Tom Hanks next to John Lennon. Tom Hanks next to Richard Nixon. Tom Hanks who picks up the notebook dropped by a black student at the newly desegregated University of Alabama. And so forth. It is in these scenes that Gump’s use of digital effects is at its most self-conscious, inviting the spectator to marvel at the technology that allows the film to literally write its lead character into the country’s history. This leads to an ontological paradox whereby the seamlessness of the insertion from the point of view of its photographic realism should be – but isn’t – negated by the fact that spectator is fully aware of the deception. Or, to put it another way: we admire how real those images look precisely because we know that they have been forged, and the manner in which they have been forged.

Photographic manipulation of course is as old as the medium, but I think there is merit in the argument that with digital technologies there has been a step change, and we have entered a post-photographic era in which the existence of the objective referent that used to be a defining feature of the medium (for instance according to Barthes) can no longer be assumed under practically any circumstance. Gump’s historical mashups have been used to illustrate just this point. However an aspect that is less often remarked upon is how silly and full of bathos these sequences are. Forrest tells JFK that he needs to pee, bares his buttocks in front of Lyndon Johnson, discusses hotel arrangements with Nixon (he’s staying at the Watergate, of course), inspires Lennon to come up with the lyrics of 'Imagine'. In every instance, while it is ostensibly Hanks’ character that provides the comedy, who gets ridiculed are his historical counterparts, and what gets trivialised – for the sake of jokes that are every bit as laboured and unfunny as the technical execution of the sequences is sophisticated – is capital-aitch History.

If there is satirical intent in any of this, it’s hard to see the point of it. It seems to me rather that the object of these sequences is the very act of toying with the past, the demonstration that we can do it, we can alter the record at will. As I say, once the initial wave of critical acclaim for the film subsided, the focus shifted onto its rewriting of four decades of American political and social history. While most of this work is done in more complex and extended sequences, and often quite literally written on the body of the character played by Robin Wright, the manipulation of the archival footage speaks to a disenchanted attitude towards the past that is just as central to its making meaning. 'There is nothing sacred about history' is one of Gump’s core messages, and while it wasn’t a novel one at the time, the newly available digital compositing tools allowed the filmmakers to make it with unprecedented forcefulness.

The author, ca. 1908
Nearly two decades later, that kind of manipulation has become not just routine – it’s everywhere. Every other photo that is put up on Facebook or Flickr has some sort of retro-filter a-la Hipstamatic applied to it. There is no era in poster-art that won’t get cleverly reinvented as alternative past or present. There is no worldwide current event that won’t make Hitler angry, or that cannot be represented as a series of status updates on Facebook. Endless film prequels, the current vogue for period television drama, vintage tastes in fashion and the retromania in pop music described by Simon Reynolds are all manifestations of the folding of the past into the present that defines late postmodernity through the mediation of digital technology. 

A digital artefact has no physical characteristics, therefore cannot be dated independently of its claims as to the time when it was created or posted. What follows – along the lines of what Paolo Cherchi-Usai has written about the moving image, and of one of the main corollaries of the contention that we live in a ‘post-photographic era’ – is that a digital artefact cannot be regarded as a historical document. More than that: we cannot keep time digitally. Not without a commitment to establishing and maintaining common timelines. Not when I can turn around in a day or a year’s time and change the content of this post without leaving a discernible trace.

If you’ve ever played with the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, you’ll have a fairly precise sense of the difficulties that the web has in keeping its own records and historicizing itself. When you’re even lucky enough to be able to access a snapshot of the particular website you’re looking for at a time that is close enough to the one of your choosing, many of the elements of the page won’t load and most of the links won’t work (due to an aggravated version of what goes by the wonderful moniker of ‘link rot’). Yet while the self-styled archive facility works poorly, in many respects the web is nothing if not its own archive, a vast repository of digital artefacts that are always present to the reader – both in that they are in a very meaningful sense produced on the user’s browser at the time they are accessed, and in that their temporal coordinates are often uncertain or missing altogether, so that not only you sometimes find it hard to tell where you are, but also when you are. (In the noteworthy case of Google Streetview images, you know exactly where but not when.)

The internet is always-now and, like cinema, like Forrest Gump, it aspires to subsume history, to represent it and contain it whole, except to an even greater extent than cinema its primary mode of access to the past is not narrative, but aesthetic, and consists in capturing and reproducing the key stylistic features of an epoch. The Hipstamatic app does just that: by changing the look of a picture it writes its subjects into the past; in similar fashion, by giving your current browser the look of the classic Netscape Navigator you can surf the web as if it were 1999 (an experience that can be heightened by giving the visited sites the Geocities treatment).

As for the mode of reception, the past thus conceived is primarily a commodity, albeit one that – as is so often the case on the web – is exchanged and consumed without any money changing hands. The site that this post is named after (motto: ‘The past is a foreign country. This is your passport.’) is exemplary in this respect, being a digest or collection of content created elsewhere, updated frequently and largely without comment, in a format that is ready to be liked and tweeted and linked on Facebook so that your friends too can exclaim or more likely mutter ‘oh - cool!’. The whole thing is like a perpetual hit-generating machine, and each stylistic intervention, each gimmicky idea is not given the time and space to develop into a fully-articulated project and become remotely useful or even – as in the case of steampunk – interestingly loathsome.

Like the faux-archival scenes in Gump ­– which, as Thomas Byers has noted, ‘by being overtly comic […] allow for a kind of "end of ideology" defense of the film, in which critics of the film's politics can be seen as humorless ideologues’ – How to Be a Retronaut pre-empts critique by being light-hearted, clever, technically accomplished. To say bad things about it would be to commit the cardinal sin of taking oneself too seriously, which fact alone makes the site a perfect haunt for the well-adjusted. And in a sense that is fair enough: who would bother and why to take issue with any of the material linked above, instead of pausing to enjoy it for the often genuinely clever thing that it is? Nor am I suggesting that the appreciative chuckle is acceptable so long as it belongs to a critical theorist. The issue is rather what happens when the retronaut becomes the model subject, the index of how to access and understand the past, and thus a figure to work against in order to recover the ‘genuine historicity’ whose loss, as Byers also reminds us, was lamented by Fredric Jameson ten years before Gumphit the screens, when the manifestations of that cultural logic were tame incomparison.

There is little that is comic about the treatment of history writ large in Gump. If it is true that the civil rights movement, feminism and the counterculture dealt a series of blows to the white patriarchal America of Forrest’s birth, in seeking to remove that trauma and undo its effects on society the film puts forward a peculiar idea of memory as disease that comes together in the wretched figure of Jenny: she who will die – after having apologised to Forrest for her past – of ‘some sort of virus’ that the doctors can’t cure, a virus that we are meant to literally associate with AIDS but is also, metaphorically, the morbid manifestation of a lifetime of wrong choices, wrong desires, wrong aspirations. When Jenny finally expires, and Forrest is left to raise alone the couple’s child, he does one last thing for her: he purchases and bulldozes her childhood home, the place where she had been abused by her father: a gesture whose crude intent and brute physicality contrasts with the subtle manipulation of the digitised historical record but reflects the same attitude, the same will to own the past and dispose of it as virtue dictates. It is at that point, having restored the figure of the patriarch and its attendant social and family values, that Forrest can cease to dwell on the past – for he now dwells in it. He has become the Retronaut.

Some useful essays on Forrest Gump (the Byers one in particular is excellent). Regrettably they're all behind steep academic walls at present:

Thomas B. Byers. ‘History Re-Membered: Forrest Gump, Postfeminist Masculinity, and the Burial of the Counterculture.’ Modern Fiction Studies Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 1996

Jennifer Hyland Wang. ‘“A Struggle of Contending Stories": Race, Gender, and Political Memory in "Forrest Gump”’. Cinema Journal

Stephen Prince. ‘True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory.’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3. (Spring, 1996), pp. 27-37.