A Defaced Jar Chrism

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While the music of the Aphex Twin tells a story about the growth of the digital, the morphology of the face of Richard D James illustrates the parallel expansion of the digital into the visual arena. I Care Because You Do was the first release to use James’s face in its accompanying artwork: a lurid and sinister self-portrait, created in photoshop. Titles on the sleeve were also hand-written and a number of track titles were anagrams of Richard D James, Aphex Twin or Caustic Window. This use of autobiographics was, I think, an arch response to the general sense that electronic music was dominated, to use the argot of the time, by faceless techno bollocks. Well, here’s a face.

The fact that James was disinterested in engaging with the media leant this move a particular edge: the reclusive, or masked, counter-cultural artist stance has been parlayed many times since in various fields with varying degrees of success – Burial, Deadmau5, Banksy – and had precursors – The Residents, Underground Resistance. I think it’s fair to say that the reasons behind James’s media-avoidance were often misread and misrepresented but that, as many copyists recognised, it nevertheless proved to be effective in piquing public interest, particularly coupled with this apparently candidly autobiographical visual signature. What was distinct about Aphex is that he seemed to have decided to let the image of his face do all the media work.

The self-portrait was the seed. The video for Donkey Rhubarb took the image of James’s face and ran with it: or rather, plastered it over the faces of hip-thrusting, giant teddy-bears, and ground with it. A lurid and grotesque scenario, designed for the fried brains of ravers used to watching childrens’ TV while coming down. Reader, I was that raver.

The cover of the Donkey Rhubarb EP used a section of the face, repeated. James’s face was multiplying already, being emptied of its meaning content by repetition and reduplication. In a sense it was already reaching towards the digital – cut, copy and paste, batch process as aesthetic– as the music was doing the same, breakbeats sped and twisted out of danceable shape

The lurid nature of the self-portrait was the key, though, and Warp ran with it for the Richard D James album. Here, a cleverly lit photographic portrait fixed James’s face in the real but exaggerated certain features: the corners of the grin were raised – I’d guess this was done using the goo tool in photoshop? The lines on the face were exaggerated, perhaps using make-up. This is primarily an analogue face, but it has been digitally touched up.

Aphextwin come to daddy from M-Well on Vimeo.

The next step barely needs repeating: enter Chris Cunningham, Come to Daddy, MTV, and legions of US fans. James’s face has now been distorted, rendered in mask-form in 3-dimensions and placed on the faces of children. While James’s music was now using digital tools to perform incredible feats – listen to b-side Bucephalus Bouncing Ball for my fave from this period – Cunningham’s effects were still largely the analogue effects of the prop maker – no surprise that the TV screen acts as a womb, that old analogue medium birthing the king-mutant. Grotesquerie is the key here, the distorted, exaggerated face, the hybrid of child and adult, the long-limbed, underfed, Rich mutant: that flicker between horror and humour, the weirdness, rather than the cuteness, of the animated Dancing Baby run riot. While this riffs on Daily Mail fears of gangs of feral youths, it carries forward the raucously carnivalesque aspect of the Donkey Rhubarb short: the social order is disturbed. Once again it plays to the rave, to techno’s outlaw status, splicing it with a gothic body horror.

Aphextwin windowlicker from M-Well on Vimeo.

Windowlicker is a crunch moment. Digital grotesquerie unparalleled. Absolutely perfect photoshop work on the record cover – there is no way that the Aphex-porn woman hybrid isn’t a real thing, and indeed, each part of her was perfectly real – and the distorted visage of Rick now transmissible like a virus: from the Gene Kelly, pied piper pimp, to his bikini-clad dancers and finally the gurning, ponytailed, nightmare babe. Windowlicker obviously parodies the most misogynist excesses of hip-hop culture, but the proliferation of James’s face, its continual morphing into yet more distorted, chimeric forms, parodies mainstream culture’s obsession with image over content, superficial beauty over substance – emptying the image of any meaning and using it as endlessly malleable form.

That James’s face had become a virus was further emphasised when it was discovered after the event that it had been spectrographically inserted into the music of Windowlicker. Even the tune was structurally infected by the face. And so it has continued. Fans have made their own James masks. Various distorted versions of the face are mapped onto the faces of ravers at parties where he plays – in the digital realm of Aphex visuals, produced by Weirdcore, we’re all susceptible to the virus. The face is trying to escape its own aesthetic confines; the face has gone digitally feral.

afx seaside specials from Bloc. on Vimeo.

All of which makes the latest image for Syro an intriguing addition to the canon. I guess we could read it as reflecting James’s absence from commercial release since the Analord series – no faces accompanied that – the ten year hiatus visually represented as cuts, or folds. It achieves the now-familiar grotesquerie with a jaunty analogue technique – simple excisions – but it made its way into the world through the deepnet, the realm of the digital outlaw. Digital tools are now so broadly dispersed and embedded in our lives that their use is pretty much assumed – even analogue techniques will be achieved using digital tools. The digital is now most significant as a structural distribution network and so Syro first emerges through such a network. But the face is still there, shifting, mutating and doing some of the media.

I can’t wait for Syro. The first track available, minipops 67, is incredible – so many melodic elements, so much totally ideosyncratic electronic funk, it could only have been produced by Aphex, as will become abundantly clear if you listen to the vanity-tronica tracks uploaded to youtube and passed off as Aphex before the stream was released. This sounds new, in the way that was not supposed to be possible anymore. A most welcome return round these parts.



This was going to be a link to an epic two-part Aphex interview posted at David Burraston’s noyzelab site last week but it’s since been taken down. Of relevance to the above bit of scribbling was explanation from Aphex of the Syro image – specifically, that it was intended to capture the mood of a microdot trip. It’s been a while but I remember microdot trips as being quite chilly and spare when compared to the relative warmth of a Strawberry or a Sonic, say, and they were renowned for their long-haul duration. It was never wise to inspect your own features under lysergic reorganisation: the folded-in effect is plausible.

Also of interest in the interview, which was primarily about gear, were sporadic outbursts of 9/11 truthism. I suppose it’s possible that Rich has gone down the wormhole – and certainly, twitter and “mainstream media” (nudge nudge wink wink) are buying this version – but as an alert (paranoid) Aphex follower I prefer to think of these claims as deliberately misleading truth-bait continuous with the career-long media policy of making shit up. They had something of the ring of a posteriori insertions to them, and the disappearance of the noyzelab interview – surely someone, somewhere has that cached, right? – makes it all seem like a bad dream.


The media line is that she was “divisive”, and that seems to remain the case, as folk disagree about whether to respect her or to celebrate her death, or even whether to respect the rights of those who want to respect her or the rights of those who want to celebrate her death. Greater agreement is to be found among politicians, who recognise the politically numinous and, by-and-large, respect that, if nothing else. The irony is that one of the few distinct classes left after Thatcher – apart from the ‘underclass’ of her direct creation – is the political class, an isolated cadre of intellectually lithe control-freaks, ego-maniacs and affect-engineers.

Marcus Harvey, Maggie, 2009, from Ann Jones's http://imageobjecttext.com/
Marcus Harvey, Maggie, 2009, from Ann Jones’s http://imageobjecttext.com/

The most interesting piece I’ve read came from Russell Brand, of all people, someone I’m not accustomed to much enjoying. Describing a sighting of the late Thatcher in her late-period dotage and loneliness tending the plants in Temple, he comes across as some deviant, near-future naturalist, a spotter of almost-extinct species. His story reminded me of Gordon Burn’s encounter with Thatcher in Battersea Park at the beginning of Born Yesterday (if I leant my copy to anyone reading this I’d love it back!):

Where does she go in between all the times she is not being ‘Margaret Thatcher’? The answer, sometimes, it seems, is here, where the short, purposeful steps of her performance self are allowed to dwindle into the short, tentative steps of pensionerdom and widowhood and she is allowed time away from the big emphatic colours she uses to identify herself for the cameras – her blazons. (Faber and Faber (2008) pp. 17-18)

Burn, in his fiction and hybrid writing, was something of a geologist of morbidity, digging down into the cultural weirdness surrounding death through the strata of celebrity. His nearly-dead Thatcher was a suspended premonition of what we now have. He recognised Thatcher as exerting a powerful pull in the imaginary realm, the social unconscious that finds coprolalic vent in the tabloid press. So too did Iain Sinclair, whose portrayal of the Widow in Downriver routes into fever-dream to find appropriate voice:

One morning … the newspapers loud with her praise, the Sun in its heaven, banked television monitors floating a cerulean image-wash, soothing and silent, streamlets of broken Wedgwood crockery, satellite bin lids flinging back some small reflection of the blue virtue she had copyrighted, filmy underwear of sky goddesses, clouds of unknowing … the Widow rose from her stiff pillows – bald as Mussolini – and felt the twitch start in her left eyelid. She ordained the immediate extermination of this muscular anarchy, this palace revolt: but without success. She buzzed for the valet of the bedchamber, a smiler in hornrims. He entered the presence with a deferential smirk, hands behind back (like a defeated Argie conscript), bowing from the hip: he was half a stone overweight, creaking with starch and greedy for preferment. He disconnected the ‘sleep-learning’ gizmo, the tapes that fed the Widow her Japanese humour, taught the finer points of cheating atstud poker, and provided an adequate form forecast to the current camel-racing season. She was a brand leader, she did not sleep. ‘A’ brand leader? The leader, the longest-serving politico-spiritual Papa Boss not yet given the wax treatment, and planted in a glass box to receive the mercifully filtered kisses of a grateful populace. (Penguin (2004) p. 285; Paladin (1991))

Wax treatment, yes: but there’s to be no glass box. Sinclair’s vision has the feel of detournement, the blighted writer reclaiming his psychic territory and wreaking satiric revenge: he, too, has her defined by death; steeped in sleep; producer of skies. Thatcher summons this visionary mode, her powerful psychic pull requiring something far more lucid than realism. A response of this order closes David Peace’s GB84, a single-page prose poem equal parts Blake and Marx:

Here where she stands at the gates at the head of her tribe and waits – Triumphant on the mountains of our skulls. Up to her hems in the rivers of our blood – A wreath in one hand. The other between her legs – Her two little princes dancing by their necks from her apron strings, and she looks down at the long march of labour halted here before her and says, Awake! Awake! This is England, Your England – and the Year is Zero. (Faber and Faber (2004) p. 462)

Note that hand between the legs. There have been any number of quotes remembering Thatcher’s sexual power, and doubtless this is astonishing to the young and repulsive to those who self-identify as left-wing. John Snow recalled her rustling tights, a particularly fetishistic response; all and sundry have quote Francois Mitterand’s remark that she had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula; Ian McEwan trotted out some Christopher Hitchens anecdote, which is all the McEwan crowd are good for these days.

There’s a stand-out source to turn to for the good juice on Thatcher’s powerful sexual allure: as Iain Sinclair remarked in interview to Tim Chapman, “When in doubt, quote Ballard.”

‘What I Believe’, first published in French in Science Fiction #1 in January 1984 (French readers, famously, got Crash-era Ballard rather more readily than we Brits), and later republished in Interzone that summer, places her firmly in the Ballard pantheon, posing her in various frames and snapshots, as if a character in The Atrocity Exhibition:

I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel, in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel, watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.

(If you’re unsure about the confusion the sexuality of Thatcher causes among younger readers, check out this piece on Dazed Digital that reads ‘What I Believe’ as tongue-in-cheek and lists it as an ‘anti-Thatcher moment’)

Ballard has been asked to expand on this in interview a number of times. Survival Research’s Mark Pauline procured a particularly rich response in 1986:

JGB: I’ve always admired her enormously. I always found her extremely mysterious and attractive at the same time. I think she exerts a powerful sexual spell, and I’m not alone. I think there are a lot of men who find themselves driven to distraction by the mystery of Margaret Thatcher. She’s remarkable. I think she taps all sorts of extreme responses on the part of, certainly, men in the population at large.

MP: How do you think she fits in with the whole English historical tendency to have female rulers?

JGB: I think she exemplifies that. She taps very deep levels of response. There are elements of La Belle Dame Sans Merci–the merciless muse, in her. Also the archetype of the–

MP: Medusa.

JGB: Yes, the Medusa. She taps a large number of deep responses which people express in present-day terms. She’s the nanny, she’s the headmistress, and she’s school-marmy as well. I think her appeal goes far beyond . . . it’s a very ambiguous appeal. She represents all these sort of half-stages–half-conscious, primordial forces . . . that she certainly tapped.

As ever, Ballard is an expert analyst of the cultural condition. He is listening carefully to what the analysand has to say, and what’s coming through is that they want to be fucked by Thatcher.

The excellent Extreme Metaphors interviews book, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, reveals the extent of Ballard’s infatuation/interest and its maturation (go straight to the index, something we might have picked up from Jim himself). Thatcher is discussed on several pages from the 80s through to his final years (Ballard’s a fan of cruise missiles, a proponent of the Falklands action, and a supporter of her economic policies – this, despite being anti-monarchist, anti-Lords, anti-public school. Libertarians would like to claim him, but we might be more secure identifying him as a denier of political binaries. Certainly, he’s more interested in how politics works in the psychological register than in the ideological.)

From Ann Jones’s http://imageobjecttext.com/. Artists got the potent sexuality of Thatcher from the get-go. Marcus Harvey’s piece makes visible the macabre fetishism of contemporary iconography. It reveals itself in two stages – at a distance and up close, when it yields (literally) new dimensions. Those dildos look a bit like cruise missiles, right? This piece is a fucking machine, on all sorts of levels, but primarily on the dream level. It’s a freaky totem of surreal libidinal power.

For those whose livelihoods and communities were devastated by her political decisions, she might be the embodiment of evil, a single individual on whom to heap blame for destruction. If we join Ballard and analyse from a different perspective we might note that she embodied something that has remained more culturally potent than ideology: the adman’s understanding of the libidinal forces that really drive us. She had a domineering sexual hook. She fucked us and a great number of us asked her to do it again. And again.

Her most quoted phrase – her epitaph – is a piece of sexual advice, a coital warning. This lady’s not for turning. Quite. You’ll have to look into those eyes if you want congress. There’ll be no beast of two backs with Thatcher. In fact, perhaps you should be the one to turn.

Mieville and the monstrous

I’m tinkering with my paper for this weekend’s China Miéville conference. I’m compiling a primer of terms coined by Miéville to describe the non-mundane spaces encountered in his novels and was planning on a smash and grab raid of spatial theory through which we might think these spaces but have instead found myself concentrating on Kant.

China Miéville
China Miéville

Isobel Armstrong’s essay Spaces of the nineteenth-century novel’ argues compellingly that Kantian space was foundational for the nineteenth century novel in recreating a sense of lived space in the mind of the reader. The emergence of n-dimensional and non-Euclidean geometries in the second half of the nineteenth century created problems for the Kantian idea of space, not least because Kant aligned geometry so closely with his a priori space. Discussions in Britain over the new geometries invariably orbited Kant; indeed, Helmholtz’s popular essays on the subject were sustained attacks on the idea of space as a priori, arguing that because we can conceive non-Euclidean spaces, Euclidean lived space must therefore be learned rather than innate.

The biggest obstacle for Kantian space was produced through projective geometry, which suggested that Kant’s incongruous counterparts – objects that could not be made to coincide with their mirror images, say left-handed gloves or spiral snail shells – could be made congruent in higher dimensional spatial manifolds. The rug was therefore pulled from underneath the very peculiarity of three-dimensional space that tied it to the body of the thinking subject.

Miéville’s work is a very long way from the nineteenth century novel, but part of what I want to say in my paper is that it exists in a tradition – specifically what both Mieville and Lovecraft define as ‘the weird’ – that deployed these non-mundane spaces to change the shape, and space, of the novel after the nineteenth century. Miéville is, in many ways, a post-Kantian writer, and given the currency of Object Oriented Philosophy whose project is to overturn the Kantian doctrine of correlationism (and Miéville’s loose fraternity with some of these bods), this is a good fit with the moment of philosophical thought.

I’ll post the text of that paper here after I’ve given it, but in the meantime I want to suggest a non-spatial way in which Miéville is a post-Kantian writer. I read this fantastic essay on contemporary art by “money-laundering knowledge pimp” Simon Critchley last week, and lingered on the following passage:

In Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, he makes a passing, but suggestive set of distinctions between the beautiful, the sublime, and the monstrous. The beautiful is the free play of the imagination and understanding, when everything seems to hang together, rather like driving a humming-engined expensive German car through the California desert. The sublime is what is refractory to the formal harmony of the experience of beauty, something formless, indefinite, and mighty, but still containable within the realm of the aesthetic. For Kant, the sublime is “the almost-too-much,” and is distinguished from the monstrous understood as “the absolutely-too-much.” That which is monstrous defeats our capacity for conceptual comprehension. Kant simply asserts that the monstrous has no place in the realm of aesthetics. The great aesthetic danger is the moment when the tamed terror of sublimity—the Alps or Mount Snowden for the English Romantics—might tip over into the monstrous. Indeed, in the founding text of philosophical aesthetics, Poetics, Aristotle makes an analogous gesture when he makes a distinction between the fearful (to phoberon), which has a legitimate place within tragedy, and the monstrous (to teratodes), which has no place at all.

To put this in other terms, we might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.


This rang across to what I was writing about Mieville. Not only is he surely the finest creative teratologist since Lovecraft – I give you the Ariekei as exhibit A, The Weaver as B, Slake Moths etc. – a writer whose stock-in-trade is the imaginative heft of producing the monstrous, he also works extensively with the post-Kantian space of the n-dimensional, which likewise – largely – ‘defeats our capacity for conceptual comprehension’ – many examples to follow in the paper. In this reading, the non-Euclidean and the n-dimensional are, in Kantian aesthetic terms, as monstrous as Miéville’s monsters.

If you’ve a Miéville fan you could do worse than signing up for Weird Council – he’ll be doing a Q&A and reading on Saturday evening. If you haven’t read the text of his brilliant address to the Edinburgh Literary Festival on the future of the novel, it’s definitely worth a look. Likewise, his hybrid state-of-the-nation photo essay, ‘London’s Overthrow’. Hope to see you there, cephalopod lovers.

Postcards from a Dying World

In 2007 I was writing an MA thesis on JG Ballard and I posted him a nerdy letter about publishing history – specifically about the original annotated edition of The Atrocity Exhibition put out by San Franciscan industrial culture publisher Re/Search. This edition added four new Atrocity pieces and a wealth of annotations that maintained the explosive mobility of the text. It’s a fine piece of work and puts the staid UK Flamingo paperback edition including the same extras to shame. I love getting it out at the British Library. It wears its heart on its sleeve.

I’d read of Ballard’s habit of spending the first hour or so of the day dealing with correspondence but I didn’t really expect anything in reply to my speculative approach. (I’d also written to Re/Search publisher V. Vale and he hadn’t responded). When I received a couple of postcards answering my questions and offering some generous well wishes I was made up. I share these scans in the spirit of literary ephemeral interest: as I say, my questions are a bit nerdy and the textual history Ballard clarifies can probably be pieced together through other sources, but the cards he uses are worth a look, even if they were just what came to hand at his desk. I imagine he had a ready supply.

The first speaks to Ballard’s pop-art fascination and roots: all the covers of Italian pulp comics surrounding the man reading the real news. The world of the imagination is leaking out into reality through this news vendor’s stall. It gestures at the pulp history of Ballard’s own sci-fi beginnings. The photographer for this was Ugo Cozzi and it was taken in Firenze in 1940. The Second World War was year old. The young Jim was in Shanghai but probably not yet interned in Lunghua, where he would be isolated from news of the rest of the world.

The second is really the one, though: Etienne-Louis Boullee’s 1784 drawing for a Cenotaphe a Newton which was not built; a spherical funerary monument dedicated to a dead physicist; a possible pre-Modernist future that looks the epitome of the high Modern. Insert your own hauntological reading here and begin to imagine the world in which Boullee’s architecture had dominated the 19th century. The geometrical style of Boullee’s architecture speaks directly to Ballard’s geometrical obsession – it really can’t be read as anything other than obsessive – that finds its purest expression in Atrocity, and about which I was writing. This one was published by a German publisher but the copyright is owned by the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

With the benefit of hindsight I wish I’d asked him more expansive questions. I didn’t know him so I was aware it was a bit of an intrusion, and that made me err on the side of caution. And of course I had no idea of how ill he was and probably entertained ideas of writing again. He died two years later on 19 April 2009. If you’ve not read it his autobiography is a model of concise modesty.

These cards represent something of a missed opportunity but they are in a box of things I’d save in the case of a house fire.