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Wrote Through Ghosts To Get Here: Ghosts Of My Life & Cultural Paralysis
Paul Wolinski , June 22nd, 2014 18:16

Exploring - and taking as a yardstick - Mark Fisher's Ghosts of My Life, Paul Wolinski considers the apparent paralysis of contemporary culture and the slow cancellation of the future through the lens of the success and failures of advances in electronic music production

Only now, after writing thousands of words of Mostly Rubbish attempting to figure out exactly what it is I’m trying to say, do I realise that I never actually wanted to write about Ghosts of My Life at all. What I actually wanted was to have written it, or at least to have had the ability to articulate myself with the laser-like precision that Fisher deploys throughout his book. About half way through this collection of essays there's an interview with John Foxx who, when talking about Paul Auster's New York Trilogy says:

It was as if I'd written it, or it was the book I should have written. I have to be very careful to find my way around it now.

Such occurrences are simultaneously rewarding and terrifying. They illustrate the fact that there is something in the air which is tremendously heartening after working alone for years yet they scare you because it feels as if someone has published first, and therefore registered their claim to where you discovered gold.

That's a bit like how I feel about Ghosts of My Life. It's rare for non-fiction to resonate with me in such a compelling way.

For years now there's been this nagging feeling that things have somehow become stuck, especially in terms of electronic music – although not just that. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and that Sci Fi futurist crowd like to refer to it as 'atemporality'. Mark Fisher approaches it using Derrida's concept of hauntology and, in his introductory essay ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’, sets about sharpening the edges of these ideas that had been floating round my mind, fuzzy and unformed. Seeing them sculpted from those weird shapes into words on a page is, as Foxx describes, at once rewarding and terrifying. I didn't think these ideas were unique to me by any means, but until reading this book I lacked the means to properly communicate them even to myself, never mind anyone else.

Fisher's central conceit seems to be that not only is the future lost, but that "the period from roughly 2003 to the present will be recognised - not in the far distant future, but very soon - as the worst period for (popular) culture since the 1950s". That's pretty provocative, and as somebody whose band released their first e.p in 2003, it certainly struck a (minor) chord with me.

I'm not sure that I disagree though. By the time 65daysofstatic got going, it quickly felt like we'd arrived just as the party was winding down, somehow. Fisher cites the rise of jungle in the mid-nineties as one of the last big steps forward for electronic music:

Instead of simulating the already-existing qualities of 'real' instruments, digital technology was exploited to produce sounds that had no pre-existing correlates. The function of timestretching - which allowed the time signature [sic] of a sound to be changed, without its pitch being altered - transformed sampled breakbeats into rhythms that no human could play.

This was slightly before our time, although he accurately describes the process I spent a lot of time practising when first learning how to use samplers and sequencers. 65's beginnings were around 2001, just as digital signal processing (DSP) was getting powerful enough to be able to do the kind of audio manipulation/destruction on consumer laptops that you previously would have either had to spend thousands of pounds on high-end samplers to achieve, or which had simply been impossible. This advance led to the short-lived but exciting bootleg/cut-up scene which we inadvertently became a part of; people using these DSP pitch-shifting and real-time time-stretching tools to liquidise pop songs and smash them together. Labels like Tigerbeat6 and Leyland Kirby's (a recurring character in Fisher's book) V/VM Test Records label, as well as online portals like Boomselection, became outputs for this new, odd, glitchy aesthetic.

That didn't last long, though. The novelty wore off, pop music coldly appropriated the ideas and repackaged them with slightly slicker production techniques and, in hindsight, these few years seem like the period when digital technology started to eat itself. Everything got cheaper and faster really quickly and music tech set off on a path of creating software versions of everything that had previously been stuck in the physical domain, from synths and samplers to pianos and guitar pedals. New digital techniques were invented, processes like granulation (the effect that makes those 'Justin Bieber slowed down by 8000%' ambient tracks you’ll have heard on YouTube) became popular. Real-time, instant time-stretching became commonplace (up until the late 90s samplers could only perform timestretching as an offline process, so utilising it involved a certain amount of trial and error and/or maths to make something usable). There was modal synthesis (weird, Autechre-like metallic clanks, mostly) and of course there was the rise of Autotune (e.g Kanye’s voice on most of 808 and Heartbreaks, although it was really Cher who first used it as a deliberate effect in a pop song rather than as a tool to fix out-of-tune vocals). However, the vast majority of new software tools being created focussed on emulating analog circuitry to mimic already-established noises and methods rather than breaking any new ground.

In the past few years, music technology has become ever more hauntological. As Fisher makes clear throughout his book, capitalism doesn't care that culture has hit a wall, (indeed, it’s mostly to blame for that happening), it just needs to keep making more things to sell us. Like Crichton's dinosaurs, Consumerism finds a way. So now the software is leaking back into weird, new-old physical forms. There's more choice than ever before for laptop-based music-makers to do pretty much the same things in slightly different ways, as post-Fordist production techniques dissolve into pseudo-DIY maker labs and startups via, presumably, Chinese kids in factories somewhere whose 20-hour work days allow the relevant IC chips and plastic injection moulding to become cheap enough for this 'revolution' to take place. Now you can buy authentic analog circuitry with user-friendly digital front-ends bolted on; a hybrid of cutting-edge new technology embracing established forms to make reassuringly familiar sounds on faux-vintage synths, more efficiently and in a whole host of different colour options.

Here's a good Murakami quote: "What we call the present is given shape by an accumulation of the past". That sounds about right. Now though, and arguably for the past decade, we've managed to build a temporal dam; all this history is piling up behind it, getting all mixed up and weird. How do we find a way to break it down? To move forward? To not drown?

65daysofstatic's approach was to make Wild Light. Essentially a battering ram designed to run head on into this mirrored wall blocking our path to the future. We didn't expect it to break through, but hoped any kind of crack we made could be a useful signpost for the next generation of contrary noisemakers to set their sights on. I mention this because it was a noteworthy change of approach for us. On all previous records, with a stubborn, self-inflicted naivety we kidded ourselves that there was still a future to be found and maybe we could be the ones to find it. A weird, as yet unthought of new music; some magic combination of electronic noise and walls of guitars. Not so with Wild Light. We dared ourselves to recognise this horizontal bloom for what it was; instead of trying to make something 'new', we just tried to make something 'good'. Maybe that sounds like giving up, but really, that's not what it felt like at all. It's without a doubt the best record we have made so far, and it filled us with more excitement about the future (as impossible as it remains) than anything we have done before.

Fisher's approach is rather more nuanced in its execution. It's almost as if he's trying to build a new taxonomy for this time-stretched-to-infinity Now we're all treading water in. Making the invisible visible - a more urgent and useful goal than ever in today's climate - and giving us all a vocabulary with which we might be able to fight this malaise.

The musicians that Fisher and fellow critics like Simon Reynolds pick up on as the first crop of hauntological artists are people like William Basinski, The Caretaker/Leyland Kirby, Burial and Tricky. It is reflections on, or interviews with, these artists that make up a significant part of Ghosts of my Life.

No longer able to walk boldly into an unknown future, instead these 'retroneers' detach themselves from the eternally cresting wave of Now and drift off into the backwaters of electroacoustic music, exploring what Fisher describes as 'crackleology'.

I think there is more to explore here than Fisher delves into, although the inroads he does make are thought-provoking. A recent, brief (and failed) foray into the academic study of electronic music quickly made me realise that artists like Basinski, Tim Hecker, Holly Herndon, are the very tips of an almost impenetrable world of Serious (with a capital S) electronic experimentalism. The kind of thing that makes The Wire look like NME. And the history of recorded music is filled with giants like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer who grokked absolutely that these new sound-capturing techniques would allow for a momentous change to the fundamental idea of what 'music' could be and immediately jumped on it. The idea of a forward-thinking Cage and a backward-looking Basinski as being a type of aural palindrome across history is probably a bit too romantic to hold any actual, useful insights, but I'd kill to have someone like Fisher somehow pull threads like that together.

In any case, as the book jumped from one esoteric artist to another, I found myself hoping that the dénouement would see Fisher widening the definition of what hauntological music could be. Because, in fact, I'm beginning to suspect that it's everything currently being made. That we're all out of time together.

For example, there's a section where Fisher talks about Mark Ronson's production techniques for artists like Amy Winehouse and Adele in reference to Fredric Jameson's 'nostalgia mode'. This mode, he explains, is not as simple as an actual yearning for the past, because the production of Winehouse and Adele is infinitely slicker and cleaner than the reality of the recordings of 1960s soul they try to evoke. Instead they sit in a musical uncanny valley, belonging "neither to the present nor to the past but to some implied 'timeless' era, an eternal 1960s...The 'classic' sound, its elements now serenely liberated from the pressures of historical becoming, can now be periodically buffed up by new technology".

And it is not just 'classic' sound that is being emulated, it is the established form of the pop song itself. For example, in popular contemporary music, we haven't seen any kind of development in the lengths of songs. Despite once being tied to very physical limitations of vinyl, tapes and CDs, the ascension of music to the digital realm has freed the pop song to be any length it chooses, but it has so far failed to embrace this possibility. Notable exceptions to this, of course, include the very artists Fisher holds up as examples of hauntological. I don't actually own a record player so this is an untested assumption, but being able to press a button on my computer and have the entire six hours of Basinski's Disintegration Loops play back to me uninterrupted seems like it is more rewarding than having to flip a vinyl every 45 minutes. The same thing goes for the new, 3 hour long Leyland Kirby record We Drink To Forget The Coming Storm. With their intentions rooted firmly in exploring our atemporality, these hauntological artists nevertheless manage to nudge their form forward every so slightly.

There is more to Ghosts of My Life than just music, and there is more that I wanted to be able to say, especially about Fisher’s political ideas, but music is all I feel qualified to write about. Elsewhere essays about Inception, Life on Mars, Red Riding and even Jimmy Savile are all used as building blocks to create an unsettling but coherent vision of Fisher’s Broken Now. And to what end?

A light-hearted conversation from 2011 I found online between Fisher and Marxist theorist France Berardi (from whom Fisher cheerfully admits he stole the title for his key text, ‘The Slow Cancellation of the Future’), ends with Berardi concluding "It's too late, anyway: the storm is underway and we have no shelter". Fisher's response hints at an answer to the questions he later poses in Ghosts...:

It's asking too much of art or culture to expect it to provide resources for overcoming the decomposition of solidarity that you so acutely describe. Art and culture are themselves the victims of this decomposition. Under post-Fordist working practises, neo-liberal ideology and communicative capitalism, social imagination struggles to find the time to grow... We need to reclaim the future whose disappearance you mourn, and that means recovering a prospective time, where we are not endlessly protesting against or obstructing capital, but thinking ahead of it. Here is the space for art to reinvent itself - as the site for a multiplicity of visions of a post-capitalist future.

There are no easy conclusions to draw, and certainly no roadmap provided to help guide us out of this paralysed state, but Fisher's analysis of our contemporary world is convincing and compelling. Suggestions of how to exorcise these ghosts was never Fisher's goal; it is enough, for now, to draw them out of the shadows.

Ghosts of My Life is out now, published by Zero Books