Psychedelic Reason & The Post-Industrial City: Acid Detroit By Joe Molloy

Written by Detroit native Joe Molloy, Acid Detroit explores the physical, temporal and affective topography of America's most haunted city

Acid Detroit is a book written by someone just starting out on their life, 23-year-old Detroit native Joe Molloy. A Zoomer, then, one of those young people we hear so much about, but not yet that much from. It is a short-ish, speedy and highly readable work, full of conversational charm that stands as testimony to any number of things but functions primarily as a love-letter to the counterculture and its myriad iterations on his home turf, The D.

The book sketches out how, post-war, a number of political and cultural forces rose and converged, sustained by the increased leisure time and security of the Fordist compact, declined as that compact was broken apart and now live on in attenuated form in a city that was once at the cutting edge of musical innovation, the heart of an American dream that had not yet dissipated and, the fantasy ran, perhaps never would. For a while, Molloy argues, Detroit was the centre of the world: what happened there in its ascent and its struggle was extraordinary and despite the equally extraordinary speed and extent of its collapse, the trace of the desires that its radicalism kindled remains, in the art, in the inhabitant’s hearts and minds, down on the street.

Acid Detroit is also a tribute to the thought of the late Mark Fisher whose blogposts and books, from Capitalist Realism through to the unfinished Acid Communism, provide the conceptual underpinnings for the way Molloy looks at his city. It’s intriguing to see how far Fisher’s work has carried across generations, how deeply it has seeped into and shaped consciousness and how its delivery mechanism has been exactly those musical artefacts and strands that Fisher argued so brilliantly for.

Molloy’s work then is that of a fan, an enthusiast, an average Joe to whom Fisher’s work has spoken and, arguably, for whom it was written. He is a Fisher fan just as he is a fan of the artists the book champions, a pantheon both of Detroit luminaries – the Motown greats, J Dilla, Jack White – as well as a more obscure and underrated alternate-canon of bands such as Laughing Hyenas and The Gories. As a fan, someone for whom the emotional relationship to the work is as great as the intellectual commitment, his book sidesteps po-faced ruminations on Fisher’s meaning and the academic’s exhausting trepidation about not being exhaustive enough and instead runs fast and loose with a few key concepts: Acid Communism, Fisher’s formulation of the Eerie, Hauntology and psychedelic reason, using them as tools to excavate and map the physical, temporal and affective topography of the city he inhabits, the art he responds to, the back and forth of influence across the Atlantic and the whole complex imbrication of those domains within the experience of daily life.

Detroit, the book claims, may not be a city that Fisher explicitly considered, marginal in terms of his actual work, gestured at in scattered ways, but in many respects nonetheless central to his concerns. Molloy traces threads between Fisher’s use of The Temptations’ ‘Psychedelic Shack’ in his influential introduction to the unfinished, indeed, barely-begun consideration of the high point of the Age of Affluence as it anticipates the Leisure Society of the 1970s, Acid Communism, through to the last, late efflorescence of a certain accelerationist hyper-modernist aesthetic in Detroit Techno and on up to Danny Brown’s Ballardian, depressive-hedonic masterwork, the post-punk referential and reverential Atrocity Exhibition. It’s Detroit, Molloy suggests, home of Motown, home of Ford, now synonymous with a ruin-porn of collapsed factories and deliquescing libraries that, with its vast troves of second-hand vinyl stores and scrambled street plans – the modern, gridded city incompletely stamped on the chaotic pre-industrial city of old – that is the place most fully steeped in Hauntological affect, the ground zero of the Reaganite “morning in America” that for Detroit has proven nothing but a long and unremitting night.

The book also nods at some judiciously chosen Detroit-set films as a way of further exemplifying the different stages of Detroit’s recent history – among others the superb documentary on militant Black unions of the sixties Finally Got the News, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Robocop, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, concluding with a look at another illuminating documentary on the radical art and activism of contemporary Detroit with the supremely Fisherian title, We Are Not Ghosts, which acts as a kind of post-Fordist parenthesis to Finally Got the News.

Molloy uses We Are Not Ghosts as part of his search for the buried desires for a post-capitalist future – an overwhelmingly Black set of activists, artists and Detroit denizens in what is now a majority Black city attempting to live with and among the ruins, reclaiming space for themselves and their communities. It’s in these attempts at transformation that Molloy finds hope; in the urban farming projects and co-operatives that have sprung up in the abandoned lots and parks and in the passage for hip-hop outsider Danny Brown between his damaged, dark and dissonant, Atrocity Exhibition to the flower-bedecked and colour-saturated youknowwhatimsayin, while the florid interzones of a city being reclaimed by nature in Ryan Gosling’s Lost River provide a prefigurative visual analogue of a post capitalist Detroit to come.

The book ends with a brief and beautifully written biographical coda filled with the pleasures of a long night out biking between the clubs strung out across the city and suffused with the overwhelming sense of discovery that comes with being young. Acid Detroit then is a vibrant snapshot of someone trying to make sense of an increasingly past-heavy and fragmented world, a book of homage, love and yearning for a future that may be equal to the past, that may deliver what that past promised yet which doesn’t lapse into melancholy and instead keeps its eyes on the possibilities of solidarity, creativity and love in the present. It’s a book not yet calloused by age or bitter experience that brims with a protean hope, a missive from a particular place and time perhaps, but one that should be read by everyone, everywhere, of any age.

Acid Detroit by Joe Malloy is published by Repeater Books

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