'I am far from finding fault with your not having written a point-blank socialist novel, a 'Tendenzroman', as we Germans call it, to glorify the social and political views of the author. This is not at all what I mean. The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art.' - Friedrich Engels

3rd January 2014

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Disorder/She’s Lost Control

There is a refrain common to the two songs which renders them as opposing versions of each other, and marks the deceptively bright opener Disorder as foreshadowing of She’s Lost Control, the centrepiece of Unknown Pleasures and the purest condensation of Ian Curtis that the band captured, describing as it does his developing epilepsy as an extreme sympathy pain for a girl he meets, or alternately; self-sabotage willed into existence. Or a coincidence. It only became obvious to me when I was trying to hum Disorder and found myself continually slipping into She’s Lost Control - the bass hits low on the second bar of both riffs, a small detail identical in both. The tempos and overall composition are different, but I couldn’t unhear it once I’d noticed it.

There are similarities in the lyrical themes which go beyond the commonality of the titles. Disorder describes a stoic subject who through love awakens exciting, intense feelings, exemplified by bright buzzy uptempo guitar, that he is wary of, as expressed in the lyrics. The stuff of a million love songs:

It’s getting faster, moving faster now, it’s getting out of hand
On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it’s a no man’s land
Lights are flashing, cars are crashing, getting frequent now
I’ve got the spirit, lose the feeling, let it out somehow

As in all things Joy Division details are scant. This much we know - Ian Curtis saw a girl he knew have an epileptic fit and was deeply moved by it. He later developed epilepsy himself. He then wrote She’s Lost Control. The lyrics describe a subject close to ‘She’ but there is no indication of romance:

And she turned around and took me by the hand
And said I’ve lost control again.
And how I’ll never know just why or understand
She said I’ve lost control again.

Where Disorder is overwhelmingly bright and warm, She’s Lost Control is cold, inescapably rigid patterns. Martin Hannett’s production works the drums into machinic, suffocating perfection, that chord sequence never wavers.  The overwhelming character is not lost, but stripped of all positive emotion that the disorder of Disorder entails, ascending and ascending continually to hit that doomed E over and over.

In this way She’s Lost Control is a repetition of Disorder - a love without  romance which offers nothing in return in the way of positive emotion but thereby guarantees its authenticity. Real understanding of mutual pain, a self-destructive selfless good deed.

The extended 12” version which appeared a year later, however, adds another minute, a punchline on the subject’s isolation (‘She’ disappears) over an entirely new detail - icy yet heavenly keyboards to finish a more restrained, less rock-y version. The subject finds a cathartic break from the rigidity:

I could live a little better with the myths and the lies,
When the darkness broke in, I just broke down and cried.
I could live a little in a wider line,
When the change is gone, when the urge is gone,
To lose control. When here we come.

24th July 2013

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The Man This Man-Made Was Made For is Dead

1846 - A railway is completed from Blackpool to Poulton and ultimately the entire rail system, making it easier for urban workers to travel there.

1879 - Blackpool becomes the first municipality in the world with electric street lighting.

Early 1900s - Investors start a mass-building programme of hotels, many of which still stand today. As does their ancestors’ power over the town. The Victorian virtues of fresh air by the seaside give way to a colossal modernist project of piers, miles of illuminations and music hall variety shows, mostly on account of the weather being disappointing most of the time and the lack of entertainment. A town virtually springs up out of nowhere from the imagination, a mock-urban entertainment centre escape from real urban drudgery for workers.

'The hacienda must be built.

All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caverns, casino mirrors.’-Ivan Chtcheglov, Internationale Situationiste, 1964

1950s-60s - The Situationists, ‘inspired’ by reports from the Korean War of torture not simply by inflicting pain but manipulating prisoners’ surroundings, inducing hope only to take it away etc., formulate a plan for a new, totally artificial city which creates positive ‘situations’, psychological manipulations in architecture which encourage free drifting and an end to enclosed living as they saw it in society. They talk about Las Vegas as some sort of model, and will call it the Hacienda. It is never built but a club in Manchester bears its name for a few years some time after. This club is now a block of apartments for yuppies but bears the same name.

1970s - Its tourist appeal on the wane, proposals are brought to the council for a number of factories to be built in the area which would support thousands of skilled jobs and a common purpose for its residents beyond serving tourism in insecure, low-paying work. Hotel owners lobby against and defeat the proposals.

1976 - “For too long, perhaps ever since the war, we [have] postponed facing up to fundamental choices and fundamental changes in our economy…. We’ve been living on borrowed time… The cosy world we were told would go on for ever, where full employment could be guaranteed by a stroke of the chancellor’s pen - that cosy world is gone…” - James Callaghan at the Labour Party conference, Blackpool

1980’s - Post-industrial cities like Liverpool, Sunderland, Bristol and dozens more lose their purpose but don’t disappear, a grin without a cat haunted by their former civic pride, just barely held together by precarious agency, fast food and call centre work. Such was it ever in Blackpool. And you should think yourself lucky if you get even that.

2012 - Channel 4 air documentary ‘999 - What’s Your Emergency?’, which takes the channel’s usual editorial line of blaming the poor for being poor and manipulating filmed situations in order to harden social attitudes towards welfare recipients. Some basic nods are made to the inadequacy of public services but most people watch it for a cheap holiday in other people’s misery and to sneer at their social inferiors.

2013 - The Blue Room, one of the few pubs in town not dedicated solely to tourists as a chain pub/club in the Walkabout mould, and which plays local live music, closes. The poverty of residents in the area is blamed amongst other things.

'Shifts in tastes, combined with opportunities for Britons to travel overseas, supplanted Blackpool's status as a leading resort during the late 20th century. Nevertheless, Blackpool's urban fabric and economy remains relatively undiversified, and firmly rooted in the tourism sector.' - Wikipedia, Today.

11th July 2013

Video

SAVAGES - SHE WILL (by SAVAGESBANDLONDON)

Do you like Siouxsie and the Banshees? Then you’ll love Savages!*

*Subject to terms and conditions. Savages do not accept responsibility for listeners feeling that they are trapped in a nightmare reality where they are doomed to listen to music that sounds like a carbon copy of music their parents listened to, and that they live on an exhausted husk of a planet which has nothing new or surprising to offer any more. If symptoms persist consult a doctor. Side effects of medication may include but are not limited to: Nausea, loss of appetite, feelings of hopelessness, lack of awareness, dizziness, shallowness of breath, compliance, apathy.

Source: youtube.com

6th June 2013

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Game of Thrones and Dialectics of the Internet

In response to this: http://snippets.voyou.org/post/52160165378/peter-dinklage-deserves-another-emmy-for-last-nights

I think the imposition of liberal values in this instance is, first of all, somewhat laudable as it usually involves journalists hand-wringing over the show’s lack of equality, use of women etc. It’s worth pointing out that liberalism’s problem is that it doesn’t go far enough in its own direction, ie. that the social structures which liberalism lauds actually betray liberalism on its own terms rather than enabling it. Nevertheless it’s a definite improvement over feudalism, a historical phase to be overcome you might say…

Secondly, you might argue that GoT fails to be a totally immersive social structure in that the present bleeds into it, but that’s also what makes it so successful, feeds so much forum and social network discussion etc. We are all historicists now: what focuses attention on GoT amongst the myriad things vying for it, internet buzz, a post-Fordist model without the benefit of being able to present itself as an Event tied to a particular time and place and its accompanying hype machine, is one which feeds this buzz after the fact of watching, that is to say one which allows discussion of how our own time fits around the time depicted in GoT. So present social norms are very much a part of GoT as a text and as a commodity (made explicit by the use of punk songs in the credits in season 3).

It’s also of note that GoT is some new high watermark for languid slowness in television storytelling - you could characterise watching the show as a therapeutic anti-buzz which is digested by the internet as buzz post-viewing. This also contributes to its appeal in its time - where so many other things clamour for our attention, GoT quietly and confidently demands it, is ‘above’ the desperation of competition for attention. All of these points, as well as its setting in a fantastical past, mark out a commodity that is anti-internet but very much OF the internet, a false opposition.


My point is, briefly, that the present is part of the text in all sorts of ways. http://bit.ly/KqW2f6 Here Laurie Penny hits on a couple of points which may show a way to read our way out of the ideology you describe:

1) That the defence ‘It was just like that in those days’ against accusations of misogyny etc. falls apart when you remember that the show is fantasy and doesn’t owe fidelity to anything, therefore you could just as well write a sword and magic series set in a communist utopia. It matters that these medieval features have been chosen in particular when the possibilities are limitless in a fantasy setting, and why viewers would accept them when they are apparently so alien and abhorrent to liberal norms.

2) That our own time may be more like the one depicted than most viewers would care to admit, and so it becomes clear that our own time is just as liable to produce and sustain cruelty and injustice via ideology. If the present runs into GoT’s fantasy past as I’ve described then it stands to reason that it would work the other way also.

Tagged: game of thronesideologydialectics

19th October 2012

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Tattoos

When people with ‘quality’ tattoos are asked to justify them they’ll say it’s their body and they mean something to them and they’re not obliged to explain themselves. Which doesn’t stop them mocking the underclass’ lack of taste in tattoos - some other rules apply when they’re trying to raise themselves up by stepping on those beneath them.

The reason Channel 4 didn’t do a documentary about quality tattoos, besides their usual remit of providing people with a cheap sense of moral superiority over ‘gypsies’ and the mentally ill, is that tattoo ‘art’ is a masturbatory minority subculture of little interest to anyone outside it. I’d imagine it would be an hour of people showing off their admittedly nicely-coloured pictures of birds on their backs and saying ‘It means something to me’ but we’ll always be in the dark as to what exactly it does mean.

I reckon you can get the same sort of thrill of tattoos from actually masturbating, and without any permanent effect if you can ignore the baldness and hairy palms.

They want it both ways… They want people to think they’re cool and edgy for having tattoos and they also want it to be respected as legitimate art. The price they pay to hold that contradiction together is to make a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tattoos and cast the bad tattoo people as subhuman.

I’d really despair of society if Channel 4 issued an apology to the Facebook campaign on the grounds that some people were offended that so-called ‘chavvy cunts’ were shown getting tattoos.

Tagged: TattoosChannel 4My Tattoo AddictionIdiotic Facebook Campaign

20th September 2012

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Machine Music

The Rock kids call Dance ‘machine music’ but isn’t it the other way round - that learning to play an instrument by hand requires years of repetitive practice ie. to turn yourself into a machine running through self-programmed motions, where dance outsources that work to programming so that it can get on with the creative work of building a mood, a ‘soundscape’? Leave the machines to the machine work and leave the Rock kids to their past they didn’t live, will never recover and that didn’t exist in the first place.

Tagged: MusicRock musicDanceMachinesProgramming

30th July 2012

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The Spectacle of the Olympics

This was surely some sort of new and terrifying high watermark of emotional manipulation - A solemn moment dedicated to lost loved ones in the stadium, a montage of the faces of the dead swirling back and forth on an electric blue energy force background set to an ambient soundtrack which I’m sure was predicted exactly, some ten years ago by Charlie Brooker in TV Go Home. I should point out first of all that, yes, losing loved ones, particular in the 7/7 bombings would be a horrific ordeal, as Opening Ceremony Avatar Hazel Irvine hedge-bet half-connected the montage to - almost as if she was embarrassed to introduce such a vampiric commodification of grief, her attempt at automaton delivery wavering, is this really right?

That I feel I have to point out that grief is sad at all when it’s screamingly obvious was of course the ideological trick of this particular section of the opening ceremony - How could a person have any problem with this? Do they not feel bad for the victims of terrorism? For the dead in general? The viewer was asked these questions, and the only right answer was to not criticise, to take in the moment, the Spectacle, share in the grief of those who sent pictures in and say ‘Yes, this was sad’. An interpassive outpour of emotion.

That the pictures of the dead were untouched-up, candid home photographs as solid rectangular blocks looking relatively clunky amidst the rest of the hyperreal ceremony felt like some grounding in ‘reality’ in relation to the rest, the relatively shoddy digitalisation acting as a rote signifier of the genuine which was a tacit concession that the ceremony at large was spectacular brainwashing, albeit of a harmless sort and not afraid to have a laugh at itself - we know the Queen didn’t really jump out of that plane. We’re all in this together.

Compare that with the rest of the ceremony which had an almost pathological obsession with blanket doctoring of images - why exactly does an image of the photogenic empty symbol of ‘sport’ David Beckham driving a speedboat have to be treated? There was a haunting lack of depth to this picture, the man blending into the background, all one and the same, The Olympic Spirit flowing and glowing around him. It’s difficult to think about what exactly didn’t feel right about it, and again this was exactly the point, a feeling that the mind was being tricked somehow when it really didn’t need to be, manipulation for its own sake. The hyperreal is more and less than real at the same time. Where am I?…

Though this is not a case of the unwashed masses being wholesale tricked into believing whatever they are shown. Articles such as this digest for us our misgivings about the bad faith inclusiveness of the Olympics: Never mind the silliness of non-official Olympics toilet hand dryers’ logos being covered up, the slave labour workfare deployed to help maintain the event, the surface-to-air missiles on tower blocks, the gentrification and the disposession, the expense of the whole thing and the cuts going at the same time, the empty seats which suggest actual enthusiasm is low. There is something magical at the heart of the Olympics which all these things cannot touch. I met a couple of people who were quite enthusiastic you know. We are asked to act as if we believe what we don’t really believe: this is ideology.

'I hear the horseshoe brings luck even if you don't believe in it.'

Tagged: olympicssituationistssociety of the spectacleopening ceremonyhyperrealideology

27th July 2012

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4chan and Reddit’s Models of Democracy

As two distinct and popular virtual social mediums, 4chan and Reddit reflect the ‘IRL’ (in real life) societies from which they sprang in different ways. 4chan in various ways serves as a reaction against the niceties and social form of IRL, a place where people can say ‘what they really think’ behind the cover of anonymity. If you were to have a quick look around 4chan, particularly /b/ (random), you’d find a lot of unsavoury stuff: Gore, racist and extreme right wing rants, sexism, people claiming to be paedophiles (but not CP - Child Porn, which is quickly removed by moderators). Reddit has at its disposal a community which fits better with mainstream opinion: while 4chan is usually only ever reported in the media with either bewilderment, (The anti-Scientology ‘Project Chanology’) or scorn (‘Anonymous’ reported as a hackers’ group, stories on the criminalisation of trolling as ‘cyber-bullying’); Reddit is increasingly being used by the media as a free source of vox pop quotes for journalists as a time saver against proactively making contact with the public for their opinions. There are a number of ways that consensus building is achieved on Reddit by tacit regulation of the medium in which people post, many of them I think sinister.

Escapism

Given that Reddit came after 4chan, there are some ways in which Reddit is a reaction against 4chan just as 4chan was a reaction against IRL. This is consciously stated by Redditors frequently, as when someone is outright trolling by disagreeing with consensus they are told to ‘go back to 4chan’, many Redditors will state that they were previously 4chan users before they got bored of the trollish atmosphere and went to Reddit to ‘discuss things properly’. 4chan is also seen as a medium of stupid escapism where people can post scandalous opinions and sentiments whether they themselves believe them or not.

Though there is a way in which ‘escapism’, of viewing IRL from the outside, that is from a point of abstraction, can lead to better understanding as in all things. This is by one definition the whole MO of Theory which is of so much interest to me. This can have political implications as in the ‘ddos’ attacks on target websites such as Visa in response to their freezing of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange’s accounts - A new kind of virtual solidarity for the internet age, a highly effective, adaptable new form of disruption particular to the internet age and surely an essential new weapon in the dissenters’ armoury.

Contrast this effective protest model with the political posts which make Reddit’s front page, which amount to so much shouting down a well to the ‘bad father’ of Government to behave better on topics ranging from the US’s spending priorities, its rapid techno-militarisation with drone bombings, the pernicious influence of Religious issues on politics as a whole. I find myself in agreement with a lot of the common issues raised by the community but on a tactical level they amount to a repetition of the useless 2003 anti-war or 2008 G8 protestors who effectively pleaded with the government to act better and found themselves casually and cynically ignored.

The anonymity of 4chan does grant a very particular and new kind of freedom to state whatever it is the user might want to: besides crackpot theories and hateful invective you will often see people earnestly sharing problems in their life which they feel uncomfortable sharing IRL for fear of recrimination: an American teenager with the ‘rock and a hard place’ combination of gay tendencies and fervently religious parents, or someone with a terminal illness who wants to share their fears which they feel they cannot with loved ones around whom they feel they have to be ‘strong’. In this way 4chan can act like a sort of hyper-barman, an impersonal sounding board a person can share their deepest thoughts with and rapidly receive a mass of differing opinions.

As a reaction against 4chan, Reddit can be seen as a second turn back to reality as it is - many Redditors claim that their medium is just like IRL, that users there are ‘just normal people’ as opposed to the ‘autistic trolls’ of 4chan, that the same bland politeness of IRL that 4chan represented a break from has been reinstated on Reddit. In this way the community of Redditors often proudly claim and uphold a spirit of acting just as they do IRL, only with the capability to find more people in touch with their feelings around the world through the internet.

This begs a couple of questions: In what ways does Reddit solve any specific problem with social interaction as 4chan did? (Whether or not these problems were solved ‘ideally’ or not is another issue) And does Reddit perhaps simply amount to an echoplex of consensus in which people parrot their similar opinions back to each other and pat each other on the back for agreeing with each other? That Redditors are conscious of this second question can be seen in the way that the term ‘circlejerk’ is often used for this mutually masturbatory feedback loop by the community itself.

Hivemind

Both communities use the term ‘hivemind’ to refer to themselves as wider communities. Both communities’ cultures (Superstructure) are shaped and dictated in differing ways by the  medium (Base) in which they post. As an imageboard, 4chan is geared towards the rapid dissemination of pictures. In a thread images are first shown as thumbnails, which can then be clicked to open the full size picture in a new tab. 4chan holds these pictures on its servers so they can rapidly be loaded, and they cannot be linked instantly as is to people by design so as to save bandwidth and preserve the speed of loading times. I use a woefully out-of-date computer and I can still load pictures in this way very quickly.

This led to a highly specific pictorial sort of language of memes, perhaps most purely shown by ‘reaction faces’. Reaction faces are usually screencaps of actors which serve as a stand-in reaction to people’s comments in lieu of actually saying anything, their meanings mutually understood without being spelled out in traditional written language. In this way a cultural ‘hivemind’ can be said to have developed on 4chan, a new and highly specialised way of communicating.

Their influence on internet culture as a whole can be seen in the way that Reddit have carried on this praxis of communicating through pictures despite the fact that the medium does not support images in the same efficient way: images are usually hosted and linked to on sites such as imgur, which have to be independently loaded, and this degree of separation slows the dissemination of images such that Reddit’s memes are noticeably ‘renormalised’ back to a dependence on traditional language communication. As a consequence Reddit’s image memes are noticeably more accessible to outsiders, and get posted more frequently to Facebook and such like, whereas the viral memetic development of 4chan’s images are so obscure that they often reach a point of incomprehensibility to all but the most frequent 4chan users. This is the characteristic hivemind of 4chan.

Shadow Banning

Conversely, as a discussion board, Reddit is designed particularly with the intent to shape discussion carried out in its realm, and often ends up appearing hermetically consensual as against truly democratic, whatever the intentions of its creators. Whereas the only recognisable hierarchy of posts in 4chan threads is a chronological order, as a Reddit thread develops it starts to take shape and order automatically based on what posts have been upvoted and downvoted. A common frustration of mine in reading Reddit threads is finding posts hidden at the bottom that I thought were valuable counters to commonly held opinions that have been downvoted because they were argued too ‘aggressively’ and taken to be trolls. What this means in effect is that the only dissenting opinions which get a positive reaction in the karma system and thus a relative significance in the order of posts in a thread are ones that read as uselessly long-winded word-mincing like this for the sake of politeness. This system is in complete ignorance of the fact that polemical opposition could possibly be useful and a situation where the quickest way to approval and thus being heard at all is to blithely agree with the hivemind at large whose judgement of one’s opinions you are always subject to.

A strange and pernicious example of this is the concept of ‘shadow banning’, where a user who is persistently downvoted will have their posts rendered invisible to all but themselves, so they are effectively banned without knowing it. This appears to be particularly duplicitous and sinister in comparison to 4chan, whose moderators will ban user IPs for a day or two for persistent trolling or contradiction of the stated rules, an authoritarian but honest move by the powers-that-be. This recalls Zizek’s comparison of the authoritarian father’s command vs. the liberal father’s emotional blackmail: where an authoritarian will arbitrarily command: ‘You must see your grandfather this weekend’, the liberal father will say ‘You don’t have to see your grandfather this weekend if you don’t want, but he enjoys your company so much, and it will upset him if you don’t…’ which is altogether more psychologically manipulative whilst appearing to grant freedom to the child, solely to reassure the father that they are ‘fair’. This analogy also bears some relation to the word-mincing conviviality described earlier which hides a tacitly authoritarian hivemind of opinion.

Conclusion

For all of its pitfalls and disturbing posts you might see on 4chan, there are new and interesting solutions to certain problems of social being, which Reddit serves as a reaction to. Although Reddit appears to be more leftist than 4chan in general, more effective modes of dissent have sprouted from 4chan, and the more time one spends on Reddit the more it appears as a sort of Liberal Fascism given that its structure is designed to close out dissenting opinion.

Both use the term ‘hivemind’ but 4chan’s hivemind can generally be described as a cultural one which revolves around its image memes, and a broader range of opinion can be found on 4chan if you care to look carefully. The example of the ddos attacks on Wikileaks’ enemies again works as a case in point here: although the medium acted as a staging ground for dissent which had concrete effects, by no means was it the result of a hivemind of opinion: Many 4chan users opposed the attacks for various reasons, and discussion is often more aggressive yet free given that the medium on which people post doesn’t privilege posts based on consensus. Where 4chan often opens up truly new, exciting and anarchic and specifically virtual forms of democracy, Reddit most often appears to reflect the reified ‘Democracy’ of first-past-the-post Western representative voting systems.

Tagged: Reddit4chanInternet cultureProtestWikileaks

16th July 2012

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Cooly G - Playin Me

A pulsing, liquid, reverbed Lover’s Rock guitar plays out for 45 seconds before dropping off-time into a driving string bassline as Cooly G enters amongst the sticky clamour. It’s a moment on opening track ‘He Said I Said’ that sets the tone for the rest of debut album Playin’ Me: at once alerts the listener to her arrival and forces them to struggle in picking her out amongst the production. The backing is relaxed – but then Cooly is just that little bit more relaxed.

You get the sense that this is the setting to really take centre stage in if she sang at anything more than half-bore, but instead allows herself to get lost amongst a dreamscape of reverb and then shuttering percussion. But this is the hook that draws you into such an effortlessly beguiling voice, as you crane your neck in to hear but never quite eliminate a certain distance between yourself and the vocals, finding yourself pleasantly awash amongst hazy, woozy instrumentation and unsure of how to find your way back out.

The worry with artists preparing an LP off the back of impressively restrained singles is that they will overstretch themselves in trying to impress, outdoing what made them good in the first place (see Joker). It probably works in Cooly’s favour in similar circumstances that the work is all her own so that no singular features battle each other for the foreground, vocals and production married in matching softness, melting towards each other.

What this most sounds like is Dub versions of old Soul songs: simultaneously dislocated and intensified, on the title track two treatments of the voice lock into a repetitive, schizophrenic call-and-respond – Playin me… How so? - around a developing dread bassline and the emptiness of reverb. Dub strips away to the barest minimum but always calls back to its originals as a hook, but this is prefabricated – the more complete Soul numbers on which they were based never existed. The effect is doubly Dub-disorienting. The one place where an original can be summoned is the refix of Coldplay’s Trouble, but this doubling effect is maintained here by the fact that both versions attempt to conjure such a similar mood and yet sound so different, Cooly’s version so busy with Funky percussion patterns yet somehow maintaining the stillness of the original.

Red herring hooks appear – ‘What This World Needs’ is a saturated, pulsating vector of a bassline punctuated by sci-fi clicks and whirrs, vocals cut down to disembodied snippets. As features drop out and the track moves towards minimal you expect a more complete vocal line which is never forthcoming. ‘Come Into My Room’ with its Rave piano and strings hints at a Diva belter but the track remains almost completely instrumental. Seduction always leaves you wanting more – you wonder what she could really do if she let go, but the fun is in not knowing.

1st June 2012

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A Serbian Film: In search of the Real of Serbian Nationalism

A Serbian Film appears to breach every acceptable boundary of taste: Rape, Mutilation, Torture, Sex-Murder, Paedophilia, Necrophilia, Incest. A Feminist reading might suppose that in depicting these things, the film endorses them, or at least validates a male-dominant order of sexual relations in a less extreme form: A Serbian Film’s depicted world is the structure of fantasy which upholds patriarchal sexuality, enshrined in internet pornography, wherein women are inert automaton agents of rote sexual fantasy narratives they have played no part in determining.

Another argument, the ‘Video Nasty’, might suppose that although ‘we’ know that Milos’ journey through the film is completely undesirable and intolerable were it to be acted out in real life, someone without the mental capabilities and in-built sense of right and wrong (internalised Ideology) might see the film and become a copycat killer acting out its scenes in real life. For this argument the notional potential of such an occurrence is reason enough for wholesale censorship of ultraviolent films. Were this to actually happen, and there are examples of the media framing coinciding events with films such as the James Bulger case’s connection to Child’s Play, this would be an instance of Lacan’s dictum: ‘A letter always arrives at its destination’, whereby the connected film is subject to massively increased notoriety, scrutiny and above all attention precisely at the point where its ‘true’ message has seen to be received and acted upon in reality. Speaking as a commodity, ‘there is no such thing as bad press’. There may be here an implication that the film makers actively desired a real occurrence of scenarios played out in their film as a postmodern marketing technique in a logic of lawless amoral Capitalism.

These connections retroactively presuppose a monstrous individual hidden somewhere in society who cannot be trusted to watch such films and recognise that acting them out in real life would be unspeakably evil, and so access to these films should be withdrawn from the majority of interested consumers with a Liberal aesthetic interest in the innate power of controversy, of breaking boundaries, of everything being on the table of discussion and depiction. In an ironic turn, the copycat killer is framed in media narratives as just the same automaton agents of rote patriarchal ultraviolent fantasy sex as the women in the films, unwittingly and unwillingly agents of this ideology, acting with a lack which precludes their humanity, that is their common sense of right and wrong.

The film which inspired the copycat killer’s actions acts as a fetish object for media narratives, an explanation engineered to paper over an unconscious but palpable thought: that sometimes evil things happen for no reason, that though certain details of a murder may coincide with acts carried out in films there is an obscene kernel of the Real at the heart of the actual act which blaming films does not fully explain. Behind this repressed thought we may find an even more obscene revelation: that the perpetrators of such actualities often come from lower social backgrounds, as the Bulger killers did; that patriarchal and class-based society makes equivalent desubjectivised monsters of those it has neglected in their various ways, and these incidences are doomed to repeat themselves if this social aspect is not addressed. There is another specific argument made for the film’s censorship to which I will return later.

What makes A Serbian Film particularly interesting and potentially radical is that by framing its ultraviolence in specifically Serbian Nationalist terms, the film acts not only as a sort of aversion therapy whereby seeing such acts in narrative form highlights their horror, dissuading viewers from actually wanting to carry them out, but asks the question: ‘Is there anything worth reclaiming in the Serbian national identity given its very recent, horrific creation narrative? In any National identity?’ This line of thinking naturally leads to an endpoint whereby the whole notion of identity politics is thrown into question. The film-within-a-film of which Milos is the star, the Serbian film which we are shown the production of when we watch A Serbian Film, is explicitly justified by Director Vukmir as an artistic work which seeks to get in touch with the Real of Milosevic-era Serbia by re-enacting its unbound crimes against humanity. The violence depicted within his film, he explains, must be authentic violence so it will truly be ‘A Serbian Film.’ Perhaps speaking to a Slavic aesthetic inferiority complex encapsulated by Hitler’s opinion that what he saw as Slavs’ scant contribution to European cultural history of classical composers and writers rendered them basically expendable as a race in service of German lebensraum, Vukmir sees this identification with Serbian monstrosity as the key to his nation’s cultural self-determination, its aesthetic contribution finally delivered, ‘a new genre’, a specifically Serbian genre.

The linchpin of Vukmir’s connection between his ultraviolent film and Serbian history is provided by the character of Jeca, a young girl who we see sporadically and out of sequence. The use of Jeca in the early stages gives Milos his first sense that all is not right with Vukmir’s film when Milos is still of sound mind. Milos is taken to an orphanage and shown a scene on a projector where Jeca’ mothers admonishes her for becoming a ‘whore’, disgracing her ‘war hero father’s name. A nurse then begins fellating Milos while he is shown pictures of Jeca seductively eating an ice lolly. Visibly uncomfortable, Vukmir then tells Milos to receive fellatio from Jeca’s mother. Milos refuses, this is beyond the pale for him, but he is eventually talked into carrying the scene out for the money. Milos is unnerved by what has taken place, and hesitantly agrees to meet the director and find out exactly what this film is about, at which point Vukmir reveals his artistic vision. Milos is horrified by what he sees and storms out, but on the way home one of Vukmir’s female doctors seduces Milos. In the next scene Milos wakes up in a bloody bed, and from this point on Milos’ participation in Vukmir’s film can only be ensured by continually drugging him with ‘bull semen’ which unleashes an uncontrollable sexual libido at the expense of Milos’ power of reasoning. In short, Milos is reduced to an animal, and from this point on he is a victim/perpetrator of the crimes Vukmir sets up for him.

Vukmir hopes to use the Real of Serbian war crimes as the base for an aesthetic movement which authentically replicates those acts, real in itself but always referring back to a primordial encounter with the Real in Serbian National consciousness. In this way the film within A Serbian Film reproduces the Epic Science Fiction/Fantasy narrative of the fallen world. Already present in Ancient and Religious texts and emphasised in Catholicism, Lord of the Rings, for instance, presents an epic struggle between good and evil, but refers constantly to a previous, more epic struggle. Some of the first scenes of the films of LotR depict the Ring’s creation and the battle to separate the corporeal Sauron from the Ring: at its starting point the ten-hour film trilogy declares that what you are about to see is a pale reflection of this previous in-narrative age.

This might seem an oddly self-defeating thing for a Hollywood blockbuster to do, but this is true also of Star Wars, which in its original trilogy refers back to a now near-extinct ancient order of Jedi and a flourishing galactic republic. We enter Star Wars’ narrative universe in A New Hope, a dark age of that narrative universe, and by the end of Return of the Jedi the protagonists have done little more than laid the groundwork to start rebuilding their galaxy in peace. By referring temporally outwards to its past and future beyond the beginning and end of either trilogy, authors breach the limits of what they have depicted on page or screen, and both stories have amassed legions of fans developing its ‘expanded universe’ beyond the scope of the films, and lucratively for George Lucas as legal author of all works inspired by those films, companies in control of these intellectual property rights and acting on his behalf publish fans’ expanded universe stories, taking a cut along the way. This expanded universe is a void in the sense that it is not depicted by the author, and is the site where dedicated fans of Star Wars encounter the Real of its mythology. Whatever the problems of its execution, Star Wars’ prequel trilogy was always doomed to fail as it would never live up to fans’ projected imagination. Precisely in depicting this previous ‘Golden Age’ it imposed limits where it filled this void in depiction, and it is a common declaration heard from Star Wars fans that they have to repress the prequel trilogy in order to continue enjoying the original films, that is to preserve the void which previously existed in this narrative universe.

Given that Vukmir’s ‘Golden Age’ of Serbian violence to which he refers back to actually happened, and that his films seek to build on this as a mythos for his own work of art, the dynamic is dialectically reversed: the Real of Milosevic’s Serbia can never be exactly recaptured. Though according to Lacan ‘every act is a repetition’, by trying to validate and explain the aesthetic principles of his film he loses touch with what is essential to those war crimes’ figuration as the Real: there was no reason, justification or explanation which fully captures them, there remains a part of those acts which cannot be grasped by media narrativisation. So too does Vukmir’s film here lose its grasp on its own creation myth: by filming the authentic acts within his film for viewer consumption, and with a coherent aesthetic explanation for his production he fills the void of animalistic violence with reason, the connection with the Real he seeks is broken.  There is always a remainder of the Real which narrativisation precludes grasping in the very act of trying to narrativise. No matter how authentic the violence of Vukmir’s film, it can never establish a proper connection with the Real.

It is crucial also that as the film progresses Milos must be tricked in various ways into carrying out more and more monstrous acts, that the Real which Vukmir seeks to bring out in Milos is always already invalidated by the artificial means by which Vukmir induces this state in Milos. Firstly, Vukmir specifically wants ex-porn star Milos as the star of his film because in his former career he had a reckless sexual abandon which is said to be unique, a total giving away of himself to his desires without recognition of other ethical factors, a supposed ‘true’ primal male sexuality which has been diluted by notions of female participation in sex. In this way he figures as a returning prodigal son or a Luke Skywalker type figure, uniquely privy to a ‘Force’ which renders his participation in the film as essential. But since retiring, Milos has a wife and child. When former co-star Lejla approaches him to appear in Vukmir’s film, only revealing scant details of exactly what it will entail, he is reluctant, and considers the offer only on the basis that it will alleviate the family’s money worries. When Milos then decides to appear in Vukmir’s film, there is a point which he will not go beyond in disturbing sexual acts no matter the financial reward. At this stage he is injected with bull semen which unlocks a hitherto unseen sexual rage in Milos, which also renders his memory disjointed: from this point on we see the acts Milos is coerced into in an uncertain temporal order. In short, Milos has to be made completely insane before he will carry out the acts Vukmir wants him to. Even in this state he must be tricked into raping his son Petar at the film’s conclusion by him being completely covered.

There is one boundary that Milos does not cross, however. Towards the end of the film Milos finds himself sat with the young girl Jeca and an elderly woman. Milos had earlier killed Jeca’s mother, and the old woman offers up Jeca to him as a pure ‘virgin commune’, explicitly as the daughter of a ‘Serbian war hero’. Even in Milos’ induced state of insanity, it is as if Milos senses the consequences of the connection between the acts in the film and Serbian Nationalism, and he makes an animalistic gesture of refusal of the connection by simply diving through a closed window and escaping.

What is really radical about A Serbian Film though, is its conception of freedom. In the early stages of the film when Milos is agonising over his decision of whether or not to participate in the film for financial recompense, he and his wife Marija watch one of his old porn films. Seeing the sexual abandon for which he was famed for the first time, she asks ‘Why don’t you fuck me like that?’ After some hesitation, he obliges. Afterwards they face away from each other, both wide-eyed. The implication is clear: far from uncovering the ‘truth’ of her husband, getting to know and so love him ‘completely’ by sharing this dark recess of his mind which he has previously hidden from her, Milos was free to love and have a family precisely because he had repressed this aspect of his sexuality. Here his selfish primal male sexuality is revealed not as authentic but as a psychological disorder validated by patriarchal thought processes acted out in internet porn and retroactively posited as this authentic male sexuality - This is how cavemen did it. Far from finding himself a wife with whom he could be ‘completely free’ in acting out his inconsiderate urges, he was only free when he disconnected from a part of himself, that is, symbolically castrated himself, that he gained access to love proper.

Interestingly, the film was banned in a court in Spain where it was due for festival release for threatening ‘sexual freedom’. If we take this to mean that for all to happily participate in sex, men must not play up to this caveman archetype of male sexuality, ‘taking what they want’ etc., then Milos is in the early stages a good role model for this, having retired from porn and found a new way to express his sexuality with his wife. It is also worth restating that Milos’ status throughout is as victim/perpetrator - at no stage can we say that Milos is voluntarily deriving pleasure from the acts carried out in the film, or that Vukmir legitimately awakens a dormant barbarian sexuality in Milos. In some sense Milos’ relation to his family remains untouched, even when he is forced to literally destroy that relation.

So two messages coincide in the film: Vukmir’s attempt to encounter the Real thereby bypassing mediated desire, what Lacan calls objet petit a, to a raw primal desire is always doomed to fail. The Real is never encountered head-on but only in side glances. The problem is not that Vukmir has committed atrocities in the name of pursuing an ideal, this being the ultimate profanity in End of History anti-totalitarian Liberal pragmatism: the problem is that in pursuing unmediated desire he has rendered visible the always already mediated character of desire. The violence was utterly pointless, farcical.

Secondly, that what appears to be the mediated desire of Milos as a family man who has repressed his violent sexuality from his wife is an acceptance that desire is always mediated so that he can achieve love beyond desire. In the Feminist conception of the ‘reconstructed’ male who respects women in his language, shares domestic duties with his wife and sees no reason why he wouldn’t give up work to raise his children while his wife takes up the role of breadwinner, lies its unspoken opposite: an essential, authentic, ‘unconstructed’ male who would ignore this rationale in favour of, variously: his ‘natural urges’, ‘biological imperative’, a proposed natural order of patriarchy. Anti-Feminism is often posited as a reaction against ‘political correctness’, what is seen as matriarchal domination, the imposition of false narratives against an older and therefore more natural way of doing things. A Serbian Film rejects this by exploring and revealing that the second formulation of unmediated man never existed in the first place. In short, both formulations are of an Imaginary order, and the first is preferable to the second.

Though any notion that the film figures an idealised apolitical family unit as against the violence of politics is undermined by two details of the film:  firstly, Milos’ brother Marko is an essential component of Vukmir’s plot. Jealous of Milos’ family life, Marko is inserted into the plot of the film as a masked man, revealed at the end to Milos as the man raping his wife. It is not that the family unit offers an essential haven from perversion, again the point is made that love, in this case between brothers, would be validated by a restraint on Marko’s part from coveting his brother’s wife. Secondly, the scenario in which Jeca is offered to Milos explores a way in which familial pride is reinforced by the political: far right regimes often stress that these awful deeds must be committed in order to preserve ‘our’ families.

The film concludes in a thoroughly Lacanian way. Milos and his wife make an unspoken pact to kill themselves in bed some time after. In a twist so outrageous as to render the entire film a comic farce on its own terms, the camera pans out to reveal that yet another film was being recorded the whole time outside of Vukmir’s film, observers of the observer, another barely seen diegetic layer. Vukmir’s film within the film was really a film within their film. One of the men points to the bed after they have died and says ‘start with the little one’ as the film ends. What makes this ending so pathetically funny is the purely negative nature of the family’s suicide: not a sacrifice in the Lacanian sense as one to the big Other, perhaps an idea that death will cleanse them of what has come to pass or some such, but an absolute obliteration. To suggest as the final line does that having sex with their corpses after that point would cross another obscene boundary is to posit that their bodies after death are in some way sacred, that is to say some higher structuring order, be it religion or whatever, affects them after their death. These men attempt to restructure a block to the Real, re-establish the endless cycle of the objet petit a. But there is clearly nothing left to give. We leave the film at the beginning of another horrific act, implying that there is no end, they will go on forever. But where can these men go from here? Eat the bodies after raping them? And then eat themselves?

So the whole project of pursuing a perverse aesthetic truth and a connection with nationalism through sexual violence is rendered utterly pointless. The message of the film turns out to be that there is nothing profound to be found in abhorrent ethical scenarios such as these, destruction is nothing more than it appears to be. ‘There is no big Other.’