Review of Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (2015)

The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press

Excerpt: Prologue, pp.4-6

This book takes up the story of precarious livelihoods and precarious environments through tracking matsutake commerce and ecology. In each case, I find myself surrounded by patchiness, that is, a mosaic of open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life, with each further opening into a mosaic of temporal rhythms and spatial arcs. I argue that only an appreciation of current precarity as an earthwide condition allows us to notice this—the situation of our world. As long as authoritative analysis requires assumptions of growth, experts don’t see the heterogeneity of space and time, even where it is obvious to ordinary participants and observers. Yet theories of heterogeneity are still in their infancy. To appreciate the patchy unpredictability associated with our current condition, we need to reopen our imaginations. The point of this book is to help that process along—with mushrooms.

About commerce: Contemporary commerce works within the constraints and possibilities of capitalism. Yet, following in the footsteps of Marx, twentieth-century students of capitalism internalized progress to see only one powerful current at a time, ignoring the rest. This book shows how it is possible to study capitalism without this crippling assumption—by combining close attention to the world, in all its precarity, with questions about how wealth is amassed. How might capitalism look without assuming progress? It might look patchy: the concentration of wealth is possible because value produced in unplanned patches is appropriated for capital.

About ecology: For humanists, assumptions of progressive human mastery have encouraged a view of nature as a romantic space of antimodernity. 4 Yet for twentieth-century scientists, progress also unself-consciously framed the study of landscapes. Assumptions about expansion slipped into the formulation of population biology. New developments in ecology make it possible to think quite differently by introducing cross-species interactions and disturbance histories. In this time of diminished expectations, I look for disturbance-based ecologies in which many species sometimes live together without either harmony or conquest. While I refuse to reduce either economy or ecology to the other, there is one connection between economy and environment that seems important to introduce upfront: the history of the human concentration of wealth through making both humans and nonhumans into resources for investment. This history has inspired investors to imbue both people and things with alienation, that is, the ability to stand alone, as if the entanglements of living did not matter. 5 Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere. 6 This is quite different from merely using others as part of a life world—for example, in eating and being eaten. In that case, multispecies living spaces remain in place. Alienation obviates living-space entanglement. The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste. Here, attending to living-space entanglements seems inefficient, and perhaps archaic. When its singular asset can no longer be produced, a place can be abandoned. The timber has been cut; the oil has run out; the plantation soil no longer supports crops. The search for assets resumes elsewhere. Thus, simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production.

Review

In her book The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins Anna Tsing investigates alternative models to capitalism, a ruthless economic system which has been subject to ample critique. By this, she moves beyond the conventional trio of production, distribution and consumption, to explore the act of foraging as a way of effectively circumventing the first step of value creation through active human intervention.

Tsing employs the lifecycle of Matsutake (a fungus whose existence depends on the symbiotic relationship with its environment ) as a metaphor to suggest a mode of collaborative survival across global societies which are increasingly determined by anonymity and individualism. Whereas modernisation has purported a life of “standard employment” in a “political economy built from the post-war development apparatus” (p.3), the act of foraging reposes on alternative financial and economic structures beyond the traditional capitalist system of exploitation of labour and resources for the generation of value.

Tsing argues in favour of a new order that proceeds from the possibility of coexistence towards a depiction of human ‘Dasein’ surpassing the paradigm of capitalist-mercantile growth in order to open up potential future scenarios that defy the one-way track of a consumerist-materialist society. In an age geologists have termed ‘Anthropocene’, human disturbance has left its noticeable imprint on an increasingly man-made environment, thereby resulting in economic and ecological ruination which exposes the precarious condition of planet Earth as vulnerable and endangered.

Modernisation and progress have thus led to an impasse that demands rewiring global consciousness for the sake of cooperative existence beyond the self-centred individual. Collaboration, becomes a mode of acting “across difference” (p.28), while survival emerges as the dynamic practice of a mutually constitutive transformation of self and other (p.29), an entanglement that dwells on the recognition of other species as intrinsically woven into the fabric of human life.

It is these relationships, Tsing investigates by tracing the matsutake mushroom as a commodity foraged outside the traditional capitalist setting of active value production. The act of foraging subsequently appears to revert the economic order, circumventing the actual fabrication of things in the set framework of a market industry (p.62). As the mushrooms grow outside the setting of domesticated cultivation, defying human control or intervention, an element of chance is introduced into the production chain. By this, a gap opens up within the economic system of linear growth, which suggests the possibility of life in spite of capitalism. The so-called sites of salvage are “simultaneously inside and outside capitalism” (p.63), a setting Tsing refers to as

‘pericapitalist’. Carefully assessing the structures of production, distribution and consumption, it is these ‘pericapitalist’ economic forms Tsing proposes as sites for  “rethinking the unquestioned authority of capitalism in our lives” (p.65).

Anna Tsing‘s book is a thought-provoking invitation to reconsider alternative economic orders beyond the traditionally accepted forms as she ventures into the wild and crafts a compelling account of the mushroom at the end of the world.

By Sandrine Welte

Review of Graham Harman (2017)
 

Object Oriented Ontology: A new theory of Everything.

London: Penguin Random House.

Excerpt pp.10, 43-44, 10, 56

OOO [Object Oriented Ontology] has provoked strong reactions – both positive and negative – in such fields as African-American studies, archaeology, architecture, choreography, design, ecology, education, feminism, history, literary theory, media studies, music, pol- itical theory, psychoanalysis, social theory, theology, video- game theory and the visual arts, not to mention philosophy itself. Now, this breadth of influence might sound like a familiar song, since numerous philosophical methods deriv- ing from the continental (mainly French–German) tradition of philosophy have already swept through the Anglophone world in the past fifty years. These trends have often been lumped together, somewhat inaccurately, under the general name of ‘postmodernism’ or simply ‘theory’, and in some quarters have been denounced as nothing but glittery frauds. Some of the first names that come to mind in this connection are Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, Martin Heidegger and Bruno Latour – the latter two being my per- sonal favourites in the group. But whereas many of these cur- rents have asserted that reality is something ‘constructed’ by language, power or human cultural practices, OOO is a bluntly realist philosophy. This means among other things that OOO holds that the external world exists independently of human awareness. However bland and commonsensical this point may sound, it cuts against the grain of the past century of continental philosophy, and leads in directions surprisingly alien to common sense. (p.10)

If someone asks us what something is, we might respond with millions of different sentences in an attempt to answer their question. But ultimately there are just two ways of tell- ing somebody what a thing is: you can tell them what it is made of, or tell them what it does. These are really the only two kinds of knowledge that we have about things, and insofar as the human race would wither or perish without large storehouses of knowledge, this might seem to be purely a good thing. The problem is that we humans sometimes convince ourselves that knowledge is the only kind of cogni- tive activity worth pursuing, and thus we place a high value on knowledge (what a thing is) and practical know-how (what a thing does), while ignoring cognitive activities that do not translate as easily into literal prose terms. Among the exceptions to this reign of knowledge, art comes immediately to mind, since the primary role of art is not to communicate knowledge about its subject matter. Philosophy also comes to mind, despite the modern tendency to view it as the cousin of mathematics and natural science. Many people will be willing to accept that art is not a means of conveying knowledge, but fewer will concede the point in the case of philosophy. If philosophy is not a form of knowledge, then what can it possibly be? (p.43-44)

If it strikes you as implausible that human beings – however interesting we may be to ourselves – deserve to fill up a full half of philosophy, then you are already on board with OOO’s critique of modern thought. (p.56)

Review

Academia was struck by Object Oriented Ontology, a proposed “theory of everything”, by Graham Harman, in 2017. Despite the polarized reactions across scholars, this philosophical essay on knowledge production remains a keystone reference for any object-based learning studies.

Object Oriented Ontology, or OOO, as the author generously abbreviates it, is based on seven given premises. (1) All objects must be given equal attention (human, non-human, natural, cultural, real, or fictional). (2) Objects are not identical in their properties, but have a tense relationship with those properties and this tension is responsible for all the change in the world. (3) Objects come in two kinds, real objects, which exist whether or not they currently affect anything else, and sensual objects, which exist only in relation to some real object. (4) Real objects do not relate to one another directly, but only indirectly, by means of a sensual object. (5) The properties of objects also come in two kinds, real and sensual. (6) The two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities lead to four basic permutations, which are the basis of time and space, essence and eidos. And (7) philosophy holds a closer relationship with aesthetics than mathematics or natural sciences.

The point where academia starts dividing is when it’s stated that OOO takes for a given premise that objects have an existence outside human perception. Even though some may see this anti-anthropocentric point of view of life as a ground-breaking and long due addition to philosophy, some scholars remain devoted to the view of “anti-realist”/ “anti-object-oriented” philosophers as the likes of Descartes or Heidegger. Either one of these denies any certainty in claiming there is a world independent of our engagement with it, for we can only categorically state something under crushing evidence. For Descartes, as the only tools of knowledge of the physical world we have are our senses, and these are not to be trusted, we can never be sure there is something else besides the I, cogito ergo sum. Heidegger, on the other hand, does not rely on our senses as the only knowledge production tool, stating we can be sure there are real things outside of ourselves, but we can only know what we can engage with. OOO tries to decentralise knowledge production from human beings, invalidating either one of these philosophers’ theories.

Graham Harman builds his theory with concise and appealing arguments, irrefutable to most readers. He eloquently takes down science as the expected study-field capable of creating a “theory of everything”, claiming that task belongs to philosophy, and in particular to aesthetics and Object Oriented Ontology. By stating that a theory of everything is a theory about objects, he brings the aesthetic experience and the empirical experience closer together. Although, what remains to be discussed is how these self-referent objects behave outside the proposed real-sensual binary, given that we humans only have access to them as phenomena.

By Benedita Menezes

Review of Jane Pavitt (1997).

‘The Camberwell Collection of applied arts, Camberwell College of Arts, The London Institute’,

Journal of Design History, 10(2). doi: 10.1093/jdh/10.2.225.

Extract pp. 225–229

During the 1930s, local education authorities had been advised by the Council of Art and Industry to consider developing collections of suitable design material for use in schools. The report of the Gorell Committee on Art and Industry in 1932 discussed ‘the immense importance of giving a right direction to the taste of boys and girls while they are still at school . . . making the understanding and enjoyment of beautiful things an essential part of the day-to-day life of the school.’ In 1937, Frank Pick had organized an exhibition of ‘well-designed common objects for lessons’ which was staged at County Hall in London. The Evening News commented that it showed how ‘the advancement of taste should accompany the advancement of learning’, which also broadly describes the intention of the later [London County Council] LCC scheme.

In 1951 the LCC approached the [Council for Industrial Design] COID with the request that they put together a circulating collection of ‘well-designed objects’ for London schools. The COID’s involvement was to be a short-term experiment, for after a time the LCC was to assume complete responsibility for running the scheme themselves. Other local education authorities, it was felt, could develop similar schemes based on this model. In 1951-2, three London schools were initially chosen for the pilot scheme. The COID selected appropriate material, putting together portable displays of objects which explained design in terms of materials, methods of production, and design qualities. Sydney Foott described the purpose of the scheme as follows:

‘Once the child’s interest has been caught, and his attention focused on the appearance of everyday things of good design, he will search for further information on the subject. He may go to many sources: factories, museums, books, craft work, shops and films. But whatever means he uses, he will be widening his horizons and developing the taste he will need as an adult.’

The emphasis of the scheme was on the education of the future consumer, rather than the designer or maker, and children were encouraged to regard the cultivation of good taste as a social responsibility. As one 1952 display catalogue put it: ‘The design of the things around us is part of our daily life, and our judgements and our appreciation depends much on our happiness in life. Design is not just something for those who can draw, anyone can get pleasure from the shape of a wooden desk or the satisfying curve of a handle’.

Review

For a group of objects with such high ambitions, the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) collection is surprisingly under-researched. As Jane Pavitt’s article demonstrates, the London County Council (LCC) scheme behind the collection was a post-war experiment to enforce “‘good taste’” in future consumers. Yet despite its intrigue, Pavitt’s is one of only two published academic papers on the subject.

It was written following the collection’s first public exhibition in 1996 at the London Institute’s Davies Street Gallery. As the first of its kind, Pavitt paves way for future design historians, presenting the building blocks for further research. She recalls the collection’s current location, provenance, leadership patterns and describes its wide range of materials with clarity and demonstrable accuracy. The ILEA collection was a group of 2000 craft and design objects, collected over approximately 25 years between c.1952-1975. It was circulated in thematic showcases amongst nearly 300 schools across London. Camberwell College of Arts acquired the collection in 1990 and it remains under the care of University Arts London, staying true to its origin in education.

Pavitt rarely veers into critique, keeping the piece a descriptive account. However, those rare moments provide great food for thought. She notes the implicit parallels between the “‘responsible good child’ and the ‘well-made object’” and extends the analogy to design historiography, which continues to denote Modernist ideals to its furniture and domestic wares, as if they too were fighting for a cause.

The cause in question behind the LCC circulation scheme was “‘happiness…anyone can get pleasure from the shape of a wooden desk or the satisfying curve of a handle’”. The ILEA collection is a striking example of Modernism’s pliability: principles of equality and fairness were transmuted into notions of affordability and industrial design, only to be shoe-horned deeper into an altogether consumeristic love affair with things. These echoes are still heard in current Tory-ministers’ calls to “Build Back Better”. The scheme pushed for a future, where the decision was no longer, ‘can I afford it?’ but ‘which one?’ and ‘how many?’. Late 20th century scholars Jacques Derrida and Mark Fisher discuss how we are haunted by these decisions and the insatiable mentality that drives them. The promise of a happy future never quite grasped, even when its embodiment fits in your hand – a stainless steel fork or melamine eggcup for example.

Pavitt’s article is a must-read as an introduction to the ILEA collection. Filled with facts, it paints a vivid portrait of this remarkable mid-century collection of craft and design. Hopefully, it will continue to inspire further research and interpretation.

By Olivia Bright

Review of Kjetil Fallan (2013).

Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories,

Oxford and Providence: Berg Publishers.

Extract pp. 5-7

Any volume with the term ‘Scandinavian Design’ in the title must include a clarification of that term, as its meaning is far from given. First of all, we need to bear in mind the crucial distinction between the concept ‘Scandinavian Design’ (often signified with a capital D) as an actor’s category and the term ‘Scandinavian design’ (with a lower-case d) as an analytical category. As an actor’s category the definition of the term and the meanings ascribed to it are that of historical actors, based on their sociocultural context and their motives and agendas. As an analytical category, on the other hand, the term becomes a tool with which historians describe and categorize historical phenomena. It should be fairly obvious that significant discrepancies may occur between the two, and it is essential to distinguish between them—especially since any historical study of Scandinavian design will have to manage both.

The geographical component of the term ‘Scandinavian design’ may seem to be quite straightforward, but even this needs some deliberation. Strictly speaking, the geographical definition of Scandinavia is limited to the three countries Denmark, Norway, Sweden, whereby the latter two comprise the Scandinavia Peninsula. […]

But why, then, is Finland included in most understandings of and publications on Scandinavian design, whereas Iceland (mostly) is not? This is where the significance of ‘Scandinavian Design’ as an actor’s category becomes so manifest: when that phrase was coined as a specific concept in the mid-twentieth century, the actors involved in its construction chose to include Finland in their definition of the concept and the events that underpinned it. Their habitual exclusion of Iceland may be largely due to a relative lack of corresponding infrastructures but perhaps partly also to that country’s relative remoteness, minute size and late independence.

The term ‘Scandinavian Design’ also has a temporal component requiring clarification. It was coined in a specific historical context in connection with exhibitions showcasing contemporary design from Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden in Britain and North America in the 1950s. As an actor’s category, then, it has a severely restricted use and meaning as it pertains to a narrow definition of design made and presented during a distinct and limited period in time. To apply the term to older and more recent design, then, implies a shift in the understanding of the concept from actor’s category to analytical category.

In addition to these geographical and temporal dimensions the concept Scandinavian Design is delineated by a material aspect as well: far from representing a cross section of Nordic design culture, the products promoted under the catchphrase—or brand–-‘Scandinavian Design’ formed a particular and carefully orchestrated blend of gourmet objects selected from a very narrow segment of the region’s design practice. This clearly is to be understood in light of the concept’s origin as a promotional tool, and it is only to be expected that exhibition of the kind through which the term ‘Scandinavian Design’ gained currency for strategic reasons displayed almost exclusively objects for the home conforming to a modernist notion of aesthetic quality.

Review

In the introduction to Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories, Kjetil Fallan outlines the key distinction between actor-analytical categories of Scandinavian Design. A term often used generally and carelessly, Fallan’s outlines solid definitions and delineations within common conceptions of Scandinavian Design. In this case, Fallan dissects Scandinavian design versus Scandinavian Design.

Scandinavian design refers to the factually accurate concept. This could also be written as “design from the Scandinavian peninsula,” as the term does not refer to aesthetic sensibilities or design canons. Rather, Fallan denotes Scandinavian design as design from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – all countries on the Scandinavian Peninsula. Moreover, Scandinavian design does not exist in a fixed timeframe but may be referred to any design coming out of this region at any time. In essence, the analytical category is solely the happenings rather than the meaning accrued to these happenings.

Scandinavian Design, however, must be much more solidly interrogated. As opposed to Scandinavian design, which is temporally fluid but geographically fixed, Scandinavian Design is temporally fixed but geographically fluid. This is due to the fact Scandinavian Design does not refer to anything truly factual but is canonical and conceptual in nature. This is most clear in the oft inclusion of Finland within Scandinavian Design categories. Whilst Finland is not factually included in geographical definitions of the Scandinavian peninsula, its close proximity to Scandinavia as well as broadly similar infrastructure and exports included it within the Scandinavian Design canon.

Therefore, whilst Scandinavian design is simply “design from the Scandinavian Peninsula,” Scandinavian Design is more complicated in style and context. In the Post-war Mid-century period, Nordic countries began mass producing stainless steel domestic ware. Due to recent industrial developments this ware was produced relatively cheaply. The design of these products was heavily influenced by Modernist Industrial Designers who stressed the importance of timeless, simple form as well as ergonomic design. This led the mass production of objects that were elegant in form yet cheap to produce. To export these objects on a global scale they were marketed as Scandinavian Design. Whilst glossing over the aesthetical and stylistic diversities across and within Nordic countries, Scandinavian Design as a marketable style has proved successful in its proliferation throughout Europe and America.

However, as the globalised nature the Scandinavian Design canon expands, the boundaries within the term become blurred. Whilst Scandinavian Design may be thought to be an organic concept, it is also one that has been carefully constructed. Seeing possible business opportunities, American and British companies began to commission objects from Scandinavian countries or began to manufacture Scandinavian Design objects themselves. In this way, Scandinavian Design moves beyond geographical boundaries to encompass a marketable design canon that persists to this day.

In Scandinavian Design: Alternative Histories, Fallan complicates the term Scandinavian Design. Often taken at face value, Fallan uses a diverse number of examples to move beyond its actor’s category and show Scandinavian Design as diverse and multi-relational. Crucially, Fallan forces a critical eye on Scandinavian Design and asks us to question who really constructs our taste. 

By Sauren Blaney

Review of Mark Fisher (2009).

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

London: Zero Books.

Excerpt pp. 14-15

Live 8 was a strange kind of protest; a protest that everyone could agree with: who is it who actually wants poverty? And it is not that Live 8 was a ‘degraded’ form of protest. On the contrary, it was in Live 8 that the logic of the protest was revealed in its purest form. The protest impulse of the 60s posited a malevolent Father, the harbinger of a reality principle that (supposedly) cruelly and arbitrarily denies the ‘right’ to total enjoyment. This Father has unlimited access to resources, but he selfishly – and senselessly – hoards them. Yet it is not capitalism but protest itself which depends upon this figuration of the Father; and one of the successes of the current global elite has been their avoidance of identification with the figure of the hoarding Father, even though the ‘reality’ they impose on the young is substantially harsher than the conditions they protested against in the 60s. Indeed, it was of course the global elite itself – in the form of entertainers such as Richard Curtis and Bono – which organized the Live 8 event.

What if you held a protest…?

To reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital. What is being disavowed in the abjection of evil and ignorance onto fantasmatic Others is our own complicity in planetary networks of oppression. What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our cooperation. The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie- maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us. There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us.

The ideological blackmail that has been in place since the original Live Aid concerts in 1985 has insisted that ‘caring individuals’ could end famine directly, without the need for any kind of political solution or systemic reorganization. It is necessary to act straight away, we were told; politics has to be suspended in the name of ethical immediacy. Bono’s Product Red brand wanted to dispense even with the philanthropic intermediary. ‘Philanthropy is like hippy music, holding hands’, Bono proclaimed. ‘Red is more like punk rock, hip hop, this should feel like hard commerce’. The point was not to offer an alter- native to capitalism – on the contrary, Product Red’s ‘punk rock’ or ‘hip hop’ character consisted in its ‘realistic’ acceptance that capitalism is the only game in town. No, the aim was only to ensure that some of the proceeds of particular transactions went to good causes. The fantasy being that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.”

Review

In Capitalist Realism: Is there no Alternative? Mark Fisher paints a picture of a world that has accepted capitalism as the de facto economic and political system. For Fisher, this is problematic because it is a system that relies upon the exploitation of the poor in order to accrue profits. Equally, the “Realism” is the fact “that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.

I would argue that Fisher’s illusion of capitalism is akin to a “Vampire” or some form of parasitic entity feeding off the most vulnerable, has its roots deeply within Jamaican Rastafari/Reggae tradition. For example, the late great Bob Marley sang about vampires in his song ‘Babylon System’ from the album ‘Survival’ (Island Records, 1979). Equally, his former Wailer’s compatriot, Peter Tosh, also sang about vampires on his song ‘Vampire’, on what was his last studio album: ‘No Nuclear War’ (EMI Records, 1987). Both Marley and Tosh, who were avowed Rastafari, spoke of vampires within the context of the capitalist (Western) system, which in their opinion exploited the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. For both singers, the ‘sufferers’ were Black people who had endured slavery, colonialism, and now neo-colonialism.

One can clearly see Fisher’s critique of capitalism in his argument about the ‘(RED) Products’ in which the profits of the products and services of capitalist entities would be used to alleviate disease in Africa. The (RED) Products initiative was founded in 2006, by Bono, the lead singer of U2 and Bobby Shriver, the nephew of the former United States President, John F. Kennedy. This initiative had its roots in Band-Aid, the 1984 Bob Geldof ground-breaking music-fundraising venture, to address famine relief in Ethiopia. The companies that were part of the (RED) Products project included some of the largest transnational corporations in the world such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Montblanc, Louis Vuitton, Primark, Balmain etc.

My experience of the (RED) Products came in the form of a gift of an Apple iPod Nano in cherry red aluminium, bearing the stamped logo, which suggested that this purchase was not only a delightful gift but was in turn also doing some good for others. This was designed to make the recipient feel as if they were “doing their bit to end world poverty”.

Interestingly, many of these aforementioned products are manufactured in the developing world by workers paid a pittance. This form of outsourcing ensures that companies can maximise profits for Western-based shareholders. Fisher points out the inconsistencies of this initiative stating that, in the case of the (RED) Products, only “some of the proceeds of particular transactions went to good causes” (pg. 15). One could question the efficacy of such an initiative, particularly how it really benefited people in Africa.

Fascinatingly, while in Capitalist Realism: Is there no Alternative?, Fisher remains vehement in his critique of the capitalist system; unlike other thinkers such as Marx and Engels, he offers no viable alternative to that economic (political) system. It can be argued that as incisive as this critique is, because there are no conclusive solutions to the predicaments, we are left in a quandary, with the poor being the most impacted.

By Lily Reddie

“Our Haunted Futures”

Playlist Notes

Music is one of the most accessible ways to understand “Hauntology”. The late Mark Fisher’s seminal work: Ghosts of My Life places music as the most explicit signifier of ‘capitalist realism’; a failure to realise a new future and an overwhelming melancholy for the past. Our Haunted Futures is an accompanying playlist that maps the sound of artists who have explored hauntology as an existential orientation. It features hauntological artists, such as Aphex-Twin, Burial, and the Ghostbox label, as well as the original sounds that they sample: Joy-Division, Japan, and Sun-Ra.

Hauntological music is a loose genre that shares not so much a sound, but a sensibility, a fascination with evoking a cultural memory. In Lacanian terms, hauntological sound plays into our melancholic desire for the real: an idyllic past. Sound is ephemeral and only signifies a desire, as our melancholia can never be fully fulfilled. Very much like Gatsby’s green light at the end of the pier, this hauntological sound teases our “desire to desire”. Whether that is a desire to return to the Attlee-welfare state or 80s new wave, the tracks connote a dying social bond. Presence and absence are heard as artists sample post-war to Thatcher-era tones. The tracks feature televisions, vinyl records, audiotapes and the sounds of these technologies breaking down. Most notably they feature the record crackle –  a paradox that suggests materiality and a real past but one that is layered with “futuristic” drum and bass lines. There is not one defined past sampled in any one track but an ephemeral blurring of time. A further hint that what we desire from the past is always blurred by ideology and the symbolic.

Anti-Hauntology and SOPHIE

Denoting Jungle as the last qualitative shift in music production, in 2011 Mark Fisher wrote ‘jungle was a fictional space as much as a genre.’[1] Similarly, prolific music producer, SOPHIE was not concerned with what came before. Rather, blending synthetically sweet hyper-pop with heavy industrial sounds and any number of genre beats, SOPHIE had the rare ability to envision something new. This materialises in SOPHIE’s album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides, a wordplay on “I love every person’s insides.” Moving beyond binaries, the album is powerfully fluid and queer in its utopian collision of genres with idiosyncratic music production. In particular, “Faceshopping” is ‘both visceral and compulsively listenable.’[2] SOPHIE’s world is ephemeral yet reproducible, synthetic yet organic, and, at its core, inspiringly hopeful. 

Having recently passed away, SOPHIE’s legacy lives on in experimental producers A.G. Cook, IGLOOGHOST and Holly Herndon. In particular, Holly Herndon’s 2018 album Proto uses the relationship between humans and technology as the spark for new music production. Having birthed Spawn, her AI “baby,” with partner Mathew Dryhurst, Herndon uses Spawn to explore dialogic possibilities of AI algorithmic (re)production.[3] Performing live with a human chorus and Spawn, Herndon both glitches and expands the human voice. Centrally, at each performance, the audience is asked to sing for Spawn, who absorbs the song and feeds it into her AI brain. In this way, the audience too becomes part of Herndon’s technologically blended musical future.

By Jacob Lomas & Sauren Blaney

[1] https://www.factmag.com/2011/02/12/20-best-jungle/

[2] https://www.thelineofbestfit.com/reviews/albums/sophie-proves-herself-on-the-subversive-empowering-oil-of-every-pearls-un-i

[3] https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/interviews/holly-herndon-emily-mcdermott-spawn-ai-1202674301/