Witch house 2

Now that witch house acts have moved from singles to albums – from 10 to 100 MB folders – it’s time to see how the mysticism is holding up. When caught by the light, dust motes can be beautiful for a brief moment. But the grey powder lying on furniture and neglected books is dull, everyday dust and nothing more.

As I wrote last year, the obfuscations – the tactics of illegibility and name/facelessness – of witch house was somewhat radical in the context of the facebook-dominated web. The common complaint from older generations has been that, in the past, you had to hunt for music in out-of-the-way record shops, you never knew very much about bands and things were mysterious, intriguing – whereas now all information is as far away as the next mouse click. By making themselves difficult to google, witch house acts were trying to fuck with this instant knowledge.

But as they get better known, little details, names and photos start to leak out. The withheld information that made them interesting can’t be kept secret forever and if nothing else of interest is given to take its place, then we’re left with the sense that “[t]hese hidden secrets are a sleight of hand, because there is no solid meaning, only mysticism.

Another way that these acts have tried to take control of their sonic fiction away from the greedy guts of the internet memory hole is by rationing their output. Young groups now tend to release something new every couple of months, filling up zip files with rough mixes, putting out anything and everything constantly. Witch house acts tend to at most release a handful of singles, maybe an album and some mixes. They’re not exactly digital ascetics, but most of them are careful about what gets released into cyberspace. As Masha Tupitsyn writes in the introduction to her book LACONIA,

“While the Internet gives all of us the opportunity to communicate and create, to comment and respond, it’s also obscured a more important criterion: What is it that we need to say and what is it that we don’t? What helps us with our work and our life and what distracts from it? What is necessary and what simply clutters up the world? In other words, how much “art” do we really need?”

A criticism to be levelled at witch house is that the music has no greater substance than a tumblog – a vague collection of images to be scrolled down then forgotten – or internet aural wallpaper. One gets the feeling that witchausers make music not for ecstatic transformation, but just as something to listen to while reading hipster runoff. But I’m a) not sure that this is true and b) not sure that the musical equivalent of a tumblog is a priori a bad thing. Witch house is undoubtedly music for the internet, but unlike listening to classic rock (or whatever) while aimlessly skim-reading, witch house is designed to make things strange, to make staring at a glowing box all night a little bit creepy.

One aspect of the whole thing that reminds me of tumblogs is the ventriloquizing of surface identities. Witchausers – who tend to be male – use femininity and blackness like a blog of photos. Blackness in witch house is pure surface, a grotesqued sample (to the extent that some WH acts have been accused of minstrelry). Femininity is more embodied through group membership and/or voice – you don’t hear a lot of young white male voices from these acts populated with young white males… This sort of ventriloquizing has a long history, one not confined to sampling. On the role(s) of the female Surrealists, Kate Zambreno has written that they were “[d]efined by spoken utterances” and that “the Surrealist aesthetic of automatic writing seems to suggest that the woman’s radical spoken utterances are not art or writing in and of themselves, but that an author is needed to edit and repeat, to shape and discipline.” (my italics)

To find out if witch house is “necessary” (Tupitsyn) we have to ask: What kind of mysticism are we dealing with? Is it the glittery mysticism of PR hype or is it a deeper kind of mysticism, one of ritual experience? A quick answer would be that it’s both – that it’s still in flux, unfinished. The question is complicated by another one: Are there internet ritual experiences?

For all their occultation of personal info, witchausers aren’t particularly magical. They don’t ever seem to go that far – there’s a reaching towards belief that they can’t quite grasp, they can’t quite break away from the safety of irony. You’re never sure if witch house isn’t on the level of a fashion magazine tableaux; models dressed up in occult-looking garb all the while thinking about nothing but cocaine and themselves. It’s not that the witchery of witch house has to be ‘real’; it’s that irony allows the participants a get-out clause. When witch house becomes uncool, they can shrug their shoulders and laugh, “It was just a joke, man”.

If witch house became about fervent, fanatical belief then it might really scare the shit out of everyone.

Unspoken strangenesses

A room in the centre of a black void. Walls that can only be seen from one angle, that are only solid from one direction.

Worlds that look like reality, but all it takes is a simple error and people float, their faces disappear, they walk through walls – nothing is real.

Workers forging immaterial warriors, training them up to sell to people halfway round the world, people they will never meet and who despise them. Powerful weapons made of nothing traded through the air to be used in epic battles that exist only on microchips and in the minds of those involved.

In a world of incorporeal beings a fictional contagious disease spreads through the population.

A collective fiction that changes lives, that lulls the agitated, that wrenches dull pebbles from the mud in war-torn Africa, that lives in boxes made of metals from all over the globe – boxes that were constructed by near-slaves.

Forget consumer electronics and sugary nostalgia for a moment and think about how strange videogames are. These elaborate digital puppet shows that are not merely about showing, but also performing. The illusion of movement, invisible movement, created by playing and felt by the player. The method of loci drawn outside the mind and onto the screen. Not so much virtual reality than fictional reality.

It’s these two illusions – the visual illusion of a solid world and the (imaginary) tactile illusion of movement – that make videogames what they are… what makes them strange. They both require and are reinforced by the much-trumpeted interactivity (or user input) but interactivity isn’t games raison d’etre. The illusion of movement created via the controller is very powerful. Think about the motion sickness experienced by some players of first-person shooters. The body thinks the illusion that the player is participating in is a poison-induced hallucination, so it takes evasive action and tries to expel the poison by puking. This power is able to exist via interactivity, but interactivity merely intensifies an engagement with the illusion for the player (and de-intensifies the illusion for mere viewers).

But instead of going through the standard game crit routine of sweeping positives glossed with light science, let’s think about how videogames actually feel. Because they are a feeling – a new feeling.

The identification of the player with the player character (and the feeling of movement this creates) is not entirely unique to videogames, but the particular flavour of movement is. Example: horror works through identification. This happens naturally in real life – we fear for someone if it looks like they are about to be run over by a bus. (Horror is complex and can’t be shoved into a paragraph, so I’ll not offer definitions) Horror exists in films, music, books, websites and in videogames. It manifests itself differently in different media, but it’s there in every one. The connection to fear is felt as an emotion.

Every new medium gets possessed and condemned sooner or later and it is through feeling – both physical and emotional – that videogames become vulnerable to infection by spectres. After a new medium is praised as the exciting new pinnacle of human achievement it is quickly decried by moral crusaders. The new medium is at once both a glimpse of the future and a connection to the past; the dead past of spirits and memories. Videogames are essentially no different, except it’s happened to them in a different way. Games aren’t a recording medium – you can’t put a laptop with Game Maker installed on it in front of a person and expect it to record any trace of her. Games are more like Wagner’s view of opera, a Gesamtkunstwerk of digital media.

The feeling of movement creates an imaginary space in the player’s mind and, as any dreamer knows, imaginary spaces can become haunted – like when you lie awake at night trying to make sense of a strange noise, when you can feel the shape of the room only through memory. The survival horror boom gave us the best examples of this; the grief-stricken Silent Hill, the labyrinthine Resident Evil, the vulnerability of Fatal Frame. That so many of these games deal with memory and recording technology speaks volumes.

The layer of deterioration in recording technologies can be a rich source for memory horror, but it’s not something videogames suffer from. Instead, being software, videogames are at risk from being frozen behind obsolescence; imprisoned behind software upgrades and hardware generations, sealed within an unplayable disc, lost in the digital Dark Age. And it’s this and other strangenesses that videogames are comfortable ignoring; the strangeness of CGI faces; the strangeness of immaterial surfaces that can flicker and disappear; a form of animation that is also a performance; a colonising metamedium eating film, music, acting, drawing, writing… what will be left after videogames succeed in taking over all art and after the doors of one digital era seals shut forever?

Videogames are the future at the same time that they eat the past… the spectres of memory are whispering in the blank voids that contain game landscapes. And they’ll get louder.

Coltan

The third and final part of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace touches on the mineral coltan and its importance to consumer electronics and east African wars. It’s worth looking at coltan in a bit more detail.

Coltan is a humble-looking mineral found all over the world, but mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is one of the major causes of the continuation of a war in the Congo that has lasted for more than ten years and has cost the lives of five and a half million people. We need coltan to play videogames and make calls on mobile phones.

Media invented after the industrial revolution seems to get more and more toxic: developing photographs means handling carcinogenic chemicals; film stock was once made from highly explosive nitrocellulose; CDs and DVDs won’t degrade for hundreds of years. But it’s videogames that require the most noxious chemicals and blood-soaked minerals. Game machines are tight little boxes of hazardous waste. They’re wired with the spoils of war, oppression and slavery. They’re discarded into landfills to make way for the next (micro) generation where they decay like corpses; leaking vile fluids and gases into mountains of rubbish. These zombie consoles pollute the air, soil and water as well as the people who live off rubbish sites.

We play war games on machines that fuel wars. Never mind the supposedly corrupting software – the hardware has a direct relationship to the deaths of millions. We talk of the immateriality of internet culture; all that is solid melts into air, into the cloud. But what coltan represents is the hidden material world that fuels this cloud and the enormous human suffering wrought in the process. Just as there are unseen mainframes full of personal photos, love letters and savings, so are there tiny chunks of black metallic rock being pulled out of the mud that will one day run a carefully constructed computer model of a real-looking corpse on L.A. Noire.

It’s not just games of course. Mobile phones, DVD players and computers of all types use the tantalum extracted from coltan to make capacitors. And it’s not just coltan either – consumer electronics contain other toxic chemicals and so-called ‘conflict minerals’. But videogame manufacturers do manage to stand out; the only big game company that is devoted to games alone is Nintendo and it is Nintendo that has come dead last on every one of Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics that it has appeared on.

The coltan/DRC/videogames controversy peaked in 2001 with the high consumer demand for Playstation 2s. Coltan is often smuggled out of the DRC and the paper trail that leads to console manufacturers is hidden in the usual offshore shadows, so it is hard to know how much is still being mined and sold in that war torn country. The DRC has 80% of global reserves of coltan, but the records show that it is mostly obtained from elsewhere in the world – for now.

With or without Congolese coltan, game consoles remain toxic. What is it about videogames and infection? The infection of game architecture with hidden meaning; the infection of Hollywood with game-like CGI; the games that worm their way through social networking sites; the junkie compulsion to play… even the consoles themselves are poisonous. Games are alchemical in two ways: they conjure something out of nothing and they are steeped in hazardous waste from the bowels of the earth.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he was a novelist and film-maker, but he always insisted that the two should be considered separately – that his method in one medium wasn’t applicable for the other – that structural and aesthetic decisions should be made if they were right for the medium, not if they fit into some imagined nouveau roman way of doing things.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that his name in Britain has largely been evoked only as an example of how silly all that experimental, avant-garde stuff really was – we all know that his fiction is dull and a chore – nothing but a pointless exercise in ‘objectivity’ taken to a mind-numbing extreme – a bizarre relic of the earnest, hair-shirted modernist past, one whose pompous restrictions we are now fortunate to be free of – he told the Guardian in 2007 that “Nowhere in all the world has anywhere been less interested in my work than in Great Britain.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that – unlike in the UK – his work was well respected and studied in American universities – he used to travel to the US regularly to give lectures at colleges – and he (and other nouveau romanciers) had a big influence on a generation of American writers – like Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper – to the extent that in recent years there has been something of a backlash against the type of experimental fiction AR-G represents – either from a reactionary position (a return to the ‘classics’ of the 19th century) or – interestingly – from a feminist one.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that his work often included fantasies of the rape and murder of young girls.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he used the mood and exploratory drive of the detective story, but dispensed with the plot – this allowed him to explore his obsessions – the images that haunted him – without forcing a moral – without being subsumed within a political project.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that – strangely for an artist whose novels and films are full of sex and violence – his work is often criticised for being ‘dry’.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he was, after all, French – the French language is more strict than English when it comes to the rules of grammar – when it’s translated into English it can often seem formal – but AR-G’s smart and orderly prose is necessary to guide us through the hall of mirrors and false doors that make up the worlds of his novels – this isn’t your wild and hairy Beats telling conventional stories with hip slang, this is an exquisitely painted Surrealist landscape of fiction – think of the clean, crisp images of Marienbad – it is the aforementioned pulpish models – the detective, spy and murder mysteries – with their straight-forward language that allowed him to take the reader through these non-realist worlds.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet’s novels is that they exist within the plot holes of genre fiction – his worlds are made up of the paradoxes of fiction, of people trapped within the discontinuities of a glitch – instead of tying up loose ends he artfully arranges them for the eye to play over.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that his work has parallels to two other writers – one American, one English – who have been fully accepted and canonised in the UK – Burroughs and Ballard.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he used the detective story like Ballard used sci-fi and Burroughs used crime fiction – the rote structures (the same old story) were discarded as useless, leaving the exploratory mode as a tool to cut the images into a shape that the author felt got to the heart of the matter – and allowed us to see what was on the end of every fork – rather than focusing everything on the pleasure of the denouement, these writers eschewed climax and instead kept the reader tingling with uneasy and unfulfilled desire – this desire was driven by the aforementioned obsessions – simplified: with Burroughs it’s control, with Ballard it’s psychopathological sex, and with Robbe-Grillet it’s pain/pleasure – they shared themes: doctors, bondage, illusions of reality, drugs, murder, rape – not everything overlapped so easily, however – Ballard and Robbe-Grillet had a predilection for naked and injured women that Burroughs did not share – Ballard and Burroughs were both interested in futuristic technology – I can’t recall even a TV featuring in anything by Robbe-Grillet – interestingly, while all three authors were interested in science and the figure of the scientist, only Robbe-Grillet had a proper scientific background.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he filtered into British culture through Marienbad – Ballard himself was an admirer of Marienbad as a sci-fi movie – he qualified the categorisation as “not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars” – they were also both admirers of Surrealist painting and often included allusions to it in their work – another interesting parallel is that the protagonist of AR-G’s 1962 film L’Immortelle survives a car crash only to buy a similar car and inadvertently re-enact the accident – something very similar happens in Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash.

 JGB in front his reproduction of a lost work by the Surrealist painter Jean Delvaux – AR-G was also a fan – he worked on a book with the artist in 1975.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that he is often taken for taking himself seriously – ‘dry’ – and yet the opposite criticism could be made – that he is too playful – his interviews were full of contradictory statements – said with a twinkle in the eye – his most famous work of criticism – Pour un nouveau roman – declared that anthropomorphic metaphor was a fictional trope that belonged to the past – but at that same time he published Jealousy – a novel with metaphor at its silently raging heart – this is typical of Robbe-Grillet’s puckishness.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is the enduring myth that his work is ‘objective’ – partly this came from Roland Barthes’ early review of The Erasers – partly from Robbe-Grillet’s criticism of Sartre’s anthropomorphism and metaphor in Nausea – but nothing could be further from the truth – his fiction and his films exist solely in the minds of his characters – as well as the author and reader, of course – who are themselves so lightly sketched as to be ciphers – the asynchronous time structures, contradictory events, the snapshot-deep portraits of other people, the sudden “slidings” (a key AR-G word) into different places and realities – all indicative of the way imagination and memory work subjectively within the mind.

Das Ding about Robbe-Grillet is this supposedly phenomenological interpretation of his work – he went through a phase of mentioning the term in his interviews – that led critics to see his work as being only about descriptions of objects and therefore ‘objective’ – but a split between the ‘objective’ and the ‘subjective’ is not so easy with Robbe-Grillet – just discerning who is talking – a Godlike narrator or a protagonist – is never easy because it is never always one or the other – it doesn’t help that Robbe-Grillet was never consistent in interviews – in this respect he is a bit like that other French Puck – Lacan – although on Lacan AR-G once said that in his later years “he really talked nonsense”.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that rather than being against subjectivity he was against realism – “I detest realism,” he said, “That is to say, the realist illusion. Reality is not realism. Reality is worrisome; realism is reassuring.” – realism – in AR-G’s conception of the word – means not only the reassuring narrative that the conventional novel gives to its readers, but any attempts to explain the world – this discounts all grand political projects, but leaves AR-G open to invisible, everyday ideology.

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is that – while he rejected political fiction – socialist realism, the engagé novel – his favourite filmmaker was Eisenstein – someone who no one can deny had a political message and made political films – but the important thing with Eisenstein is – while it is impossible to ignore his politics – his politics were inseparable from his aesthetics – that he was never about a kind of social realism that says that aesthetics must be subordinate to politics – as Robbe-Grillet wrote, “for the artist… despite his firmest political convictions – even despite his good will as a militant revolutionary – art cannot be reduced to the status of a means in the service of a cause which transcends it” – and – “Let us admit it quite frankly: the Socialist Revolution is suspicious of Revolutionary Art and, moreover, there is no reason to believe that it is wrong to be so.”

The thing about Robbe-Grillet is – lastly – that while his early work has been marginally accepted and appreciated – films like Last Year at Marienbad and Tran-Europ-Express and novels like The Erasers and Jealousy – it is his later work – especially from his 70s peak – that is still marginalised and ignored – dismissed by the art crowd as being too sexual and violent – dismissed by everyone else for being too confusing – one of his films was outlawed and publicly burned in Italy for not making sense – even though – as John Fletcher put it – his work is “puzzling only to the intellect” – what awaits a reader or viewer – if they aren’t too uptight about sex, violence and narrative continuity – is a hallucinatory world that slowly builds to a kind of delirium for – for what? – seemingly only that ephemeral thing – art.

Celebrity anti-politics

On Thinking Allowed this week, Laurie Taylor’s guest was Sanna Inthorn from the University of East Anglia. She was talking about her research into how young people think about politicians. She found that the young people she spoke to (aged between 16 and 17) said that they trusted celebrities like Eminem because they felt they knew about him and his life; they felt that they knew where he was coming from and that gave meaning and context to the things he had to say. Politicians, however, were seen as patronising and distant – just “rich, shouty men”.

Modern politicians (especially since Blair) have been at pains to seem normal, to carefully manage a touchy-feely image of themselves as – in Blair’s phrase – “a pretty straight sort of guy”. What most of them haven’t been able to do is become celebrities. As Inthorn said on the programme, politicians aren’t on Big Brother. (George Galloway serves as a warning to politicians who try to court just this sort of reality tv celebrity)

When politicians become powerful they have a kind of drab, default celebrity: they are newsworthy. But the celebrity that Inthorn is referring to – the celebrity of pop stars and reality tv detritus – alludes them. But imagine what a politician could get away with if he/she had that kind of celebrity, a more personal relationship with the public. We’ve seen a rehearsal of this in Britain with the popularity of Boris Johnson, but the real model for this type of celebrity politician is Silvio Berlusconi.

There is just as much a danger of some form of Berlusconism being the next phase in British politics as there is a chance for a left resurgence. And it would be worth reminding ourselves the repeated missed opportunities that the left-of-centre in Italy had to do away with Berlusconi, only to see their complacency blow up in their faces when Berlusconi bounced back. A celebrity anti-politics could easily catch the imagination of many disenchanted with politics, including the young. If that happened, any outrage over corruption would easily be absorbed by the illusion of familiarity people feel towards celebrities – a perfect libidinal position from which to complete the disembowelling of the social democratic state.