I had tremendous fun sitting in the chair at a Contemporary Fiction Seminar event in conversation with my old friend and former colleague, crime novelist and Sounds and Melody Maker journalist Cathi Unsworth, and I hope this comes across in the video below. We covered quite a lot of ground talking at music selected to respond to Cathi’s work, but also hopefully addressing some broader concerns of the pop music and contemporary literature brief. I particularly enjoyed playing Nick Cave’s version of Stagger Lee in almost its entirety – still sends a shiver down the spine!
In the late 90s there was a bunch of stuff going on around sonic weapons. Jimmy Cauty of the KLF put together Advanced Acoustic Armaments, part-hoax, part sound-system, part art-installation.
Pan Sonic played a gig through it, back when they were still Panasonic and minimal Finnish techno was ripping up the pages of Jockey Slut. Stewart Home was invited out to Dartmoor to report its activities. There was a historical piece in the Journal of Borderland Research about a near-mythic experiment with an infrasonic cannon.Inspired by this material I got mildly obsessed with the idea that sound could be both psychologically and physiologically disruptive around this time. I wrote a piece for Bizarre that was steeped in the more paranoid end of it. What can I say, I was new to the internet.
Around 2001 I took part in the Infrasonic experiment set up by Richard Wiseman and Sarah Angliss. I reviewed this experience for The Fortean Times and reported my slightly unusual and unexpected physiological response: mild sexual arousal. I was losing faith with the power of sound to perform extreme intervention into the body.
I became slightly better informed after attending a panel on non-lethal weapons at InfoWarCon 2003 in Washington DC. Non-lethality had been a buzzword in US military R&D talk since John Alexander’s book. This panel was an eye-opener. Research was directed towards highly directional ultrasound and microwave weapons, although “scaleability” was proving to be an issue, and there was held to be some bleed into the arena of lethality. Always interesting to hear how the practitioners talk to each other. (The big buzz of that conference, incidentally, was Ratislav Persion’s demonstration of his home-made EMP weapons, cannibalized from microwave ovens. Slava’s site is no longer on the internet but I believe he is around, so wasn’t spirited away into the black ops fold.)
On my return I interviewed Elwood “Woody” Norris for a show on Resonance FM about the directional ultrasonic speakers he had been developing. I pitched a piece about this, and InfoWarCon findings, to The Guardian magazine but was told Jon Ronson was working on something similar: The Men Who Stare at Goats came out pretty soon after that.
Truth is, all this was paddling around in the shallows, buffetted by occasional waves of sensationalism. By the time Steve Goodman’s book Sonic Warfare was published in 2009 we’d seen Active Denial Systems deployed in Iraq and various non-lethal sonic technologies deployed against civilians. Goodman not only recorded this, but did a lot of headwork to theorise it, too. Goodman’s vibrational theory has much to recommend it and his sensitive approach to sonic ecology in all its forms – not just at the extremes – makes for a much more complete understanding of the present. His work arrived at a point in time at which warfare was extending its reach beyond the traditionally militarised zones and into the everyday.
Sonic Warfare is a scholarly monograph – it’s not aimed at the general reader, but at institutional libraries and at fellow sepcialists. Nevertheless, the fact that Goodman runs the Hyperdub record label and records as Kode 9 gave his work a broader appeal than most scholars can hope for. I interviewed him and this one was cut pretty heavily so here’s the whole schebang.
Would you suggest any background reading for Sonic Warfare? Or would you advise diving straight in?
I think it is possible to jump straight in, but to get the most from it, I would recommend reading these first: Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, Jacques Attali’s Noise: the political economy of music and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari’s Nomadology: the war machine.
You’ve written on your blog that you wouldn’t recommend reading Sonic Warfare through Hyperdub. How would you characterise the relationship between your theoretical writing, your work as a recording artist and the music by others you put out on your label?
There are clear overlaps between the book and the label and my own productions. But I wouldn’t want to subordinate the book to what Hyperdub the label does or my own productions. The book is not primarily about music for a start, but something much broader. When it does talk about music, it only briefly mentions a slice of the kind of musics released on Hyperdub. It might be nice for people to think that the book, the label and my music all form a snug coherent whole, some kind of aesthetico-political manifesto. But I just don’t really think they cohere that neatly and I can see lots of divergences where in each format I’ve kind of pushed in a different direction. To be honest, that’s how I prefer it. I’m more interested in being directed to the inconsistencies in my work in different media, than them being judged as essentially a coherent argument that joins them together.
The entire frequency range of vibrational force, including the “unsound” of inaudible infra- and ultra-sonics, is central to your idea of Sonic Warfare. This also shifts discussion of sound beyond anthoropocentrism. But what does it mean for the ‘anthropos’ in the street?
For the ‘anthropos’ in the street, sonic warfare is just a background noise which mostly would be shrugged off without too much attention. Low frequency vibration from traffic etc. is something that architects have to take into account in the construction of buildings. It’s also common in factories due to heavy machinery. We actually don’t know that much about the physiological effects of infrasound except that they resonate with our bodies in interesting ways. We also know that some of us love very low subass in live club/gig situations. Ultrasound powered devices such as directional audio systems are transforming how we conceive of the space we hear, and they are increasingly used in malls, museums, art galleries, advertising etc. Everyday sonic warfare is also being played out in terms of the battle for sonic territory we all participate in when we wear ipods in public space, suffer complaints about noise pollution from neighbours, attend a silent disco, complain about how loud adverts are in between TV programmes because of compression, lose our service provider because we’re downloading music illegally, finding our favourite radio station constantly disappearing from the dial because it is a pirate etc. Finally, the internet is awash with viral sonic branding messages competing for our ear-drum attention.
The inter-relationship between the military and vibrational force is profound, from military technologies misused in a cultural context, to the continued development of military sonic weapons. Why vibrational force particularly?
I wanted to take as abstract a position as possible to examine some of the things which will always get ignored in a typical phenomenology of sound and music. Essentially I’m as interested in the vibrational resonances of objects and buildings as much as humans, but for obvious reasons purely focusing on sound or music, tends to put the discussion solely in the domain of the living. I wanted to avoid that, to loop in the non-organic as much as the organic.
You write about the affective potential of vibrational force and, using the idea of an ecology of fear, develop particularly the doom-inducing potential of infrasound. Have you experienced this directly?
The doom-inducing potential of low frequency sound is certainly something I’ve experienced a lot in the last 20 years of raving, going to the cinema, listening to storms and getting caught up in street disturbances of one kind or another. There are recorded uses of low frequency tones by police in riot situations to create tension, but I’m not sure I’ve ever experience that, and even if I had …
What are the affective possibilities of other frequency ranges?
Good question. I suppose my book is a call for experimentation to answer this question.
You explore the idea of audio-virology and envisage a dystopian future of pre-emptive control and sonic branding. Is this a prediction?
Not really. More just an extrapolation of real processes and tendencies that are already unravelling.
Sonic Warfare negotiates a fairly measured route through the vortices of what you term “vibro-capital”. Is it fair to say that you identify and diagnose rather than criticise sonic aspects of late capital? And yet you draw from anti-capitalist theorists…
It’s true that I am diagnosing more than providing a critique. Especially within academic writing, I often find the generalizations and nit-picking of critique pretty tedious. Sonic Warfare is supposed to be more cartographic, operating underneath the level of ideology at which discussions of the politics of music always seems to get caught: so it’s more like, here is a map of these invisible processes, all of which can be used for progressive or regressive purposes. My favourite political books have always been ones that leave it up to the reader how to plug the text into everyday life. I draw from the writers who for me diagnose or provide the conceptual tools to diagnose the contemporary condition as effectively as possible. It’s true that most of these are anti-capitalist theorists, and I’m definitely sympathetic to the struggles against, to use French historian Braudel’s term, the ‘anti-market’ systems that constitute contemporary capitalism. But I’m definitely skeptical of most of the political discourse that comes from both the right and left.
You also see cultural opportunity in the politics of frequency and seem to seek out the possibility of the new in vibrational eddies and flows. What opportunities are you personally going to pursue?
The one area of my practice work that will hopefully cohere with the book is what I’m doing with the collective AUDINT in terms of our Unsound Systems installation, which attempts to experiment with some of the ideas of the book, especially how low frequency sound and ultrasound driven directional audio intersect which each other, and in a dark room, what that vibrational experience feels like. This installation first appeared in the Embedded Art exhibition in Berlin last year which explored the intersection of war, security and aesthetics. We will be tweeking it and deploying it again in NYC in 2011.
There seems to have been a very recent proliferation in technological applications using sonic affect for the purposes of control. Why now?
Non-lethal weaponry that doesn’t leave visible marks on the skin is currently in fashion. Also directional audio technologies have recently undergone a period of rapid improvement.
Should not the civillian cast adrift in the field of militarised urban sonics arm herself with such technological devices?
She already does if she carries a high frequency rape alarm etc. Like the way in which the civilian sphere re-appropriated disruptive pattern material (i.e. camouflage clothing) for fashion purposes, I think there is a certain amount of redistribution of these devices which should be encouraged. While this could just be dangerous and stupid, (we can all think of those who shouldn’t be given sonic weaponry) I think we would be surprised by the uses such technologies could be put to outside of a conflict situation. For example teenagers re-appropriated the high frequency pitch of the Mosquito crowd repellent device and used it as a ring tone which teachers couldn’t hear.
Are we all sonic warriors?
Perhaps. Sometimes victims, sometimes aggressors.
Sonic Warfare is published by MIT Press.
Steve’s Sonic Warfare blog: http://sonicwarfare.wordpress.com/
Steve’s academic homepage: http://www.uel.ac.uk/hss/staff/steve-goodman/index.htm
I post below the first part of the full transcription of an interview I did with Darren Cunningham, aka Actress, for this month’s issue of Dazed and Confused. In the print version (online here with an intriguing piece of film), the interview was given a fictionalised framework, presented as the notes of a therapeutic interview undertaken by a renegade psychotherapist, a conceit that came about because I’d been teaching Freud that week and because both Darren and Dazed editor Rod Stanley were keen to do something a bit different from a standard Q&A. I suspect the charade, such as it was, has now run its course but I hope it gave some amusement to someone somewhere. It’s the sort of thing I really enjoy doing and love to read but I’m sure it is just as likely to cause irritation and bewilderment with those who just want a proper interview. I was also keen to allow Darren’s words free reign and the timestamps were a way of smearing a digital tech aesthetic on to what is, after all, just the written down words produced by two friends shooting the breeze. It is presented warts and all, my own gibberings about t-shirts and philosophy of science unexcised.
The interview was in advance of Darren’s album R.I.P. which was released by Honest Jon’s last week. I was in complete agreement with The Wire magazine, who voted Splazsh their best record of 2011. Despite having known Darren for some time, it completely blindsided me. Hearing something so idiosyncratic, so immediately sui generis, is a rare thing. There are few whose styles are immediately recognisable and doing something new in techno/electronic music, as has been noted in recent theoretical forays, is no easy matter. And yet Splazsh did. It was in the heavy growl in the bass, the disregard for structural resolution, the sense of machined groove that might just have been the machines themselves, grooving.
I’ve kept going back to Splazsh, and it has kept rewarding, as I suspect it has for many, because Darren’s reputation has continued to grow – some judiciously given away tracks on twitter, some reportedly awesome live appearances and participation in a number of intriguing projects have done no harm. I guess R.I.P. was a nerve-wracking prospect with a considerable weight of expectation upon it but that expectation has been exceeded. It is a different beast and it progresses the Actress aesthetic with confidence and elan. I’m not sure I know what a polyrhythm is, technically, but there’s some very interesting rythmic stuff going on here that seems to proliferate in the way I imagine polyrhythms do. There are treated piano pieces. Where you might have been hearing Underground Resistance in Splazsh, you might be hearing a bit of Aphex coming through in R.I.P.: there are pieces that might be refugees from SAW. The bass is still there, the insistent analogue funk still rides a lowrider, but the beats are more muted and the varied texture also opens up an alternative route into all things hypnos.
We met at the Jeremy Deller show at the Heyward, which is a joyous thing. We sat for a free cup of tea at the transport cafe in the middle of the space. I started recording after Darren had started talking, but I had asked him about the rave memorabilia in the opening room of the Deller show.
It is just like things, it is just that overwhelming knowing that stuff is going on, your lot are a bit too young, but there is already this new cycle going on and it is just picking you up and for me it was like computers, you start feeling computers coming into it. You always kind of, the vision from that country, the vision of that country where I am from is already quite dark and Britain, the Midlands and the South is quite dark mainly but with the computers all of the sudden you just have these neon dreams and yellows and blues and around you have this Acid House music going on from the older kids and stuff. You are just sitting at your computer just programming stuff and you are just like: ‘Wow, what’s going on?’
So were you playing with ZX Spectrum?
No, my computer was the Amstrad464 so I am an Alan Sugar programming, my next-door neighbor did have a Spectrum so I got a bit of that and the school did have a BBC… so for me it was a pixel story, it was pixels and that. I remember, yeah with the 464 you would get this manual but it also had this software programming – just programs where you would type into a computer and press enter at the end of it and it would just do something. I remember Sundays used to be so boring: play a bit of football, go to church, play a bit of football, then what are you going to do? Spend it in your bedroom just typing out these software bulletins that Alan Sugar had given you. It was just mental.
And what would you get, like a graphic show at the end of it?
Once it would be like, it was a really intense binary and syntax, one letter and one space incorrect at the end of writing four pages software and it is just like: ‘syntax-error, you have got something wrong.’ So you would have to read back over and check through and you see this flashing light and be like checking back. It would explain to you at the start what the output would be if you got it correct and I remember if you got it correct you would go back and start saying this means that and that obviously means that so you would go back and re-arrange things and it would come out in a completely different way. So I think that is where the fascination started really, from a really naïve idea of typing down what someone has given you and seeing what the computer spits out and then it becomes language. Language data and you can kind of make sense of it. The UK is such a mad place and I think you really only start to realize – the penny just drops at really random times.
This show gives you an inclusive sense of how much is going on, all of these different traditions and how lively the folk tradition is. I suppose he is looking at the cultural side of it.
I suppose the start of it, the bedroom. A lot of things start in the bedroom. Everything starts in the bedroom! I suppose it is like the TV, the static and when I think about static I think about the Test cards and you don’t really get those moments of silence but noise at the same time and that is quite interesting. You do have to wonder, it is evolution, isn’t it, how do you deal with so much noise like today in today’s mass-production of content and there is so little silence in all of that here and I guess that is why I make music really. It is that, you know, I need to be able to find that silence from it and even if music isn’t silence in itself but the actual process of doing it can be silence.
Yes, it’s sort of the mastery of the sound.
Yeah, I don’t, well mastery comes from practices and practice. Start playing a sport and generally you can be quite shit at it really. I remember when I started playing football I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I just started playing football and that was it and then I did something: I remember going and scoring this goal, it was a really jammy goal, and I kicked it and it looped off (someone came and slid tackled and it looked off his foot) and the keeper came running forward and it looped over him into the back of the net. And, the euphoria I got from scoring my first goal was just unbelievable and from that point onwards I just couldn’t stop scoring goals, I just literarily couldn’t stop scoring goals and you know you develop a sense for it, okay, the ball hit his foot and then it spun up and the keeper was there and then the ball of a sudden he is running back and then the ball is doing this and then your brain just analyses trajectory and geometry within a such a quick duh-duh-duh-duh and then it’s like, all of a sudden, I get it, and it’s like the ball is round so obviously there are different points on a ball where I can kick to make it do this and it will do that and so, okay, I will just… so for me that is how the process always is and within that split second of analysis.
To what extent is it instinctual and to what extent is it applied analytic force?
I think I have only just now worked that out for myself but at the time it is more naïve, you just, you don’t really understand your brain, you don’t really understand how brains work and you just more interested in having fun and that happened and wow cool, brilliant. Now, I think, when you get a bit older you think it’s a bit more usual and you start applying the laws of physics. You go from Primary school to Secondary school and you start learning intense science and you look at objects and obviously there are links everywhere and you just start linking it all together and that is what instincts is really, it is that kind of dumbing down of your intelligence because, like I said, your brain is mad, in a sense it is too young to work it out but in a sense it has already worked it out. Whatever path you lead you pick up clues along the away and you have teachers who bring different elements into it and you start to philosophize on it a little bit and people throw little bits of data at you and it is for you to kind of either agree or disagree and find yourself in the middle, it is all that kind of logical processes and then trying to find answers, but then are there answers to anything really. That is why I like the idea of infinity, infinite trails and that is kind of what my music is about really, I don’t really approach music in a like: here’s a beginning, middle and end, because unless you are a producer and you have to make music for a particular market. , I guess you then approach it in that way. I try and approach music from a sense of pure sound and a fascination with what it does.
That is something I particularly love about Splash: it quite often seems like the processes are set running and where you are, where the composer is in that process doesn’t really matter, the thing just runs its course. I just love the tracks when it is like “yeah, that’s done”: you never hear that on records and I really enjoyed hearing that in this one. Between The Shadow from Tartarus and Tree of Knowledge it just stops dead, there’s that kind of sharp cut. It is interesting to read your remarks that you are part of, you feel, I am going to quote your own words back at you know, from the press release: ‘I am just an instrument, I am completely dead when I write.’
You can take that literally or whatever, I obviously don’t mean it literally, I’m not dead when I write. I guess what I am trying to say there, that for me I try and think more about time that anything else, the ideas of time, the creative process isn’t just about the music, it can’t be, it is about my, it is about the reasons why I write music, about how it is possible for me to write music. I don’t have any training as such. I don’t know how to play the piano, really and it is like that kind of thing. How is it possible? It makes sense to me, but how is it possible? And so yeah questions start from there and for me it becomes something different, and firstly, how you have been brought up. I have been brought up to be not overly religious and not God-fearing either but very church most Sundays.
Yeah, exactly, heritage based really. And, so obviously the idea of God is very much there but the problem with me is that although I do practice every now and again I am also a rebel generally, you know what I mean. So often my sinful delights get in the way of the clarity of possibilities and so it is like I can do these music – so is it a gift? Is football a gift? But I cant play football anymore so is that gift taken away from me? Was it taken away from en for any particular reason? I can’t play football anymore so how do I apply the idea of playing football into the idea of making music? So you kind of apply it, but that happens naturally because that is who you are. So these are the kind of things that are always going on when you are playing and that is what I don’t do interviews because I don’t really like the idea of selling an idea, selling how, I just don’t like the idea of selling full-stop of that kind of thing, that buy my records sort of thing – I hate that shit. Because, to be honest with you, I am sharing my music, just about. If it was up to me and I could earn a lot of money without letting people hear what I am doing I would probably wouldn’t put that much stuff out to be honest with you because it is for my own healing, for my own personal ego, it is for my own understanding. Having said that that when you do share it with people you do start to understand more, essentially. I don’t really care about what critics think too much because I am my own judge really, it is like I am never really going to put something out if I think it is shit and rubbish. So I am generally always happy when I pit something out but it is interesting to see how it is going to be perceived but more interestingly I am interested in what other peoples belief systems are and it is like I did a gig not long ago and I saw this guy and he was wearing a t-shirt and it was basically saying that he was a n atheist and I remember just for some reason being really offended by this. For some reason, I was really offended by it! I was like you don’t believe in anything, or is it like you just don’t believe it God – is that what the t-shirt is trying to say? And then obviously in this exhibition and in the toilets there was some kind of and that sort of thing is a challenge.
I used to wear a t-shirt with the slogan ‘Jesus hates me’ – when you are younger and you used to wear slogans without really thinking – and I got stopped by this guy at a cash point who was just like: ‘He doesn’t, you know.’ From that day on I never wore it again. I was just like, I don’t actually mean this, I am just wearing it as a general ‘fuck you.’
I think things like that happen you know, I guess the symbolism in that is that you stopped wearing the t-shirt.
Once I got called on it I realized what it was.
What did you think it was?
It was cynical.
But what did him saying that mean to you?
I realized that I didn’t… it wasn’t a belief, it was just a slogan and seeing that it acted in the world, well, that was just like saying it….
That is interesting because you generally see t-shirts that project a message almost more to other people than to themselves, you know what I mean?
You need to bear that in mind when you wear a t-shirt. What was the atheist guy’s t-shirt?
It was just like, I can’t remember exactly what it said, it just was like, what I am offended by, you walk around, you just see beauty everyday and I am in paradise and that’s how I feel all the time and it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I am feeling great all of the time I can feel shit, but I generally just see beauty in everything and everyone really. So, it was a really kind of reflex kind of thing. The thing is I am really into science as well and the thing about science is that it requires definitive answers to make something right or wrong it requires a definitive answer and I all see it as a big like understanding game: what is it? How is it? How did it become? How? Why? What? All of the time. I just can’t see how you can have a definitive answer to it when as a human it is really flawed.
Science is part of a social contract and we all have to accept that its claims on truth are necessarily limited by what we, where we make our translation from world to model and from there to… Take for example mathematics, geometry is a model of the real world and it is one that works and it maps it well but we can’t, we kind of take it, it is now given this privileged position of pure truth – not so! At the edge of science you have a lot of theory and essentially this is where the fuzz happens at the edge of science. You get this hypothesis put up and it stands until it is disproven – it has to be testable but until someone disproves it… So something like String Theory is an interesting one. We are trying to test it at the moment but we are not there.
It is a manipulation. It is fascinating to me that we probably live for a maximum of about 80 years – 90 year or something like that but we have sent like spaceships to check out a planet that is 40,000 light-years away and it just makes your life so much short, absolutely nothing. It is just evolution of the brain and people playing God at different times and again manipulation. I don’t know fully the game of science in the end. I say game because I think it is easy to kind of start, kind of play games – people do it in music all the time. Aphex is just doing it in music videos and that kind of thing and music in itself it is a science and in itself it is a drug of some sort and even though it doesn’t exist as such it is just… it is amazing really, someone can be dead, like Bob Marley for instance, but you are likely to hear is voice everywhere at a given time in the world every day. I don’t know if it’s his soul but his being still exists even though his body has passed and he continues to influence and manipulate…
And still occupy some physical space because the wave-form of his voice is getting pumped out of speakers.
It is mad. This is why I wake up in paradise because I just think it is amazing that however this shit is put together it is just amazing, it is just infinitely amazing to me and it just fascinates me by it all the time.
A sense of the sublime?
That would lead on quite naturally to Milton.
I personally don’t know that much about Milton.
Is that to come at it as process again? There is obviously a thematic carry across, you sort of went to that because you felt that… Why did you go to that?
I went to that because I didn’t want to go to the bible because I think that the bible can be a little bit of a hindrance. I have never read the bible as such but it was always present, there was always the presence of the bible and I dint really want to go to the bible because it can become a little bit too much God preach-y shit and I didn’t want that and obviously that aspect is there but what I did want to do and what I think music is and my job in a sense, as what it is now, is more in a sense is about literature and sound art and sound literature. Just through research while I was writing the album I just stumbled across Paradise Lost and I had never heard of the book before and I was like firstly I will by the book from Amazon and wait for it to arrive and in that space I did a little bit of research on who Milton was and you just start reading about this guy and you are just like: ‘okay then this is a serious dude, obviously extremely intelligent and he lived in like the 1600s – that’s ages ago. You read one page of Paradise Lost and one page is like a novel for most people, just the way the words are constructed. It takes me about, I read about a paragraph a day, I can just about read a paragraph a day, it is intense, I probably won’t finish it until next year sometimes. It seems right because not that I think reading Paradise Lost is a shortcut to reading the bible because it obviously isn’t but it give it a more of a Romantic spin I think. It gives it a bit more because it is placed within his time zone rather than BC or AD or whatever when a lot of shit is going on in England and his life is under threat at times and he is doing a lot of traveling and meeting very important people and then I kind of think about that obviously around that time the clarity of God is a lot more intense than it is now and that is just a thing. How would this book been received then? The book I am reading now is obviously about that book he wrote and that’s what I kind of start thinking about, how did people received this book? And it was received amazingly, for me that is quite interesting.
Does Paradise Lost come just after the Republic? Was Cromwell still in charge at this point? So people are reading it in that context of we have already executed the King – who was God on Earth. Milton was a Republican and all for that.
He dictated most of it as well because he was blind.
Given you feel this sense of Sublime and waking up in Paradise, reading about the loss of paradise for Satan, how do you feel about this?
That’s a hard one, loads of things run through my mind on that one: is Satan God? Is Satan God’s conscience? Is it a half and half sort of thing? You know how you can be like the most lovely person but there is that aspect – Satan is a very interesting one. Obviously again, I haven’t finished Paradise Lost but firstly I think he is depicted as a hero and then progressively his armor falls and he becomes…and I think that is a fair representation of what Satan can be. There is that canniness and a very, obviously via the serpent, but an easy way to corrupt, seduce and tempt. But, these are I kind of human desires anyway so that was a tricky one and that is why one of the reasons why I abruptly put Shadow of Tarturus next to Serpents because obviously the serpent is, you should be experiencing the serpent in a sort of dream state, almost, because the serpent approaches Eve while she is sleeping I think so at this point she should be dreaming, so at this point when the Devil arrives it is like you have woken up basically. I think it always, for me, it is about life is always a bit like that, it is almost a bit like a dream and then all of a sudden something hits you, like death – death can change things just like that [he clicks his fingers] and change your life. That is why the topic of death is, not necessarily an interesting one, but, you can’t have any topic without it being based on death because really you are going to die and that is one of the things we definitely know is going to happen.
The thing is about art is you can document it, you can record it. That is a magical thing really – being able to archive stuff, the amount of time that stuff has lasted.
We were talking about the sleep state; when you are writing a track, what is the relationship to that kind of state. Are you trying to work towards this state with this kind of music?
I think it comes more naturally and that is why I use the sense that I am completely dead when I am writing. I try and get my mind in a complete state of some sort of purity, whether that is an ethereal or whether that is a nature based purity, or whether that is a water based purity, or whether that is a concrete based purity, or whether it is a completely dark and murky sense of purity – I try and approach things from that sort of angle. I can be profound but I think humour is also important and it is why I use Dr Claw as my Twitter because the way that I see Dr Claw is someone who is essentially quite evil but he never succeeds really. He is always outwitted by these idiots in Inspector Gadget and there is something just brilliant about that for me and it is just amazing that they can create a program with a soundtrack by Shuki Levy and some of the soundtrack is quite dark, but how you can lighten the tone and the mood through understanding how the characters work within the script is just brilliant I think.
Your tweets can be quite indecipherable, intriguing though. I think ‘it is almost like he is automatically reproducing chunks of text’ and then I realized you had been hacked, – it literarily was a robot reproducing chunks of text. But, you did give away some tracks through twitter, that is an interesting distribution mode, or is there a rationale behind that one?
Yeah, I guess some of the rationale is just kind of lay the bed a bit or something that can be quite deep and testing as a listen. So, I kind of have to work within frames of lead times and delivery and masters and to kind of release them so I think it is important to really about of a runway for something that can be quite deep. But, at the same time it is about finding new ways of distributing music. I don’t have to make money out of everything that I do, its not essential. I make music all the time so I can say: I don’t mind giving some of that away. Obviously, my published doesn’t like it very much but Fuck them as far as I can say – I write the music! So, yeah, there is a kind of rationale behind it and to test the water on certain tracks. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing if it wasn’t for people going out and buying my records, so it is for me about giving something back as well and the relationship between the artist and the people that support you is important one and you do have to give back and keep that relationship sweet and hopefully people stick – stick is not the right word- it keeps me in the job so I can continue. it is not really pre-meditated in anyway.
The other thing is that there is a progression of different kind of tones and obviously there is continuity. There is a kind of restrained funk and a tension that really appeals to me, that is mainly on the rhythm-based things. This is perhaps an important techno thing… there is a kind of tightness.
Yes and no, I think for me I love dancing and I am a great dancer – I am not a great dancer, I’m a good dancer, I know people who are better dancers than me and I like a good party and I think going back to when everyone else was raving and my generation was at home on their computers I think my generation as such has never really had that tribal thing where they go to a rave and you just loose it and blah blah and that is almost like a weekend-ly thing. You pick up that rhythm and you kind of tribal sense of dancing and loosing it and dah dah dah and obviously there has been certain bills that have closed down nightclubs and that sort of thing and what you generally find now where I am of that age that I probably don’t go clubbing as much as I used too. That tightness is a representation of that and the muted kicks is also a representation of that because I am making tracks in my studio which is at home and it is not a dance-floor, so the music has to work within the space as far as I am concerned. For me, if I was a dance DJ and I was buying records to make people dance then I would be tuned and ready to make music that was [makes bass beat noise] and because I enjoy staying at home and I enjoy smoking weed and I enjoy walking around and chilling generally and because of what weed can do to you sometimes, it can make you quite paranoid or it can make you be quite at certain times or it can make you feel euphoric or it can make you feel a little bit tense about certain situations or vibes or whatever, it goes into the music essentially. I do become a little bit nervous and wary when I am being interviewed (particularly in public places) I do get nervous about that at certain times. But, coming back to who I am – I am a footballer and I have been in environments where I am in rooms where there is a huge amount of testosterone going on and I have been in stadiums where a managers neck is on the line and the crowd is going ballistic at him outside the doors like literarily baying for blood. I have been in that situation where you have 20,000 people just like chanting or whatever, it is like I am used to…
Is that as a player?
Yes, absolutely. When Alan Buckley was not getting the right results the crowd were going absolutely mental. Obviously I come from playing for West Brom and Wolverhampton and whatever and being from Wolverhampton and playing for West Brom you get a lot of stick for doing that around town. It builds your character. I just try and put every bit of emotion into the music and then I do occasionally think about how people will feel it and then sometimes I do have insecurities. Like, on Splazsh I did have some insecurities because I didn’t expect it to get so big and even though I am proud of it there are certainly same kind of tracks on it that I am like: how are people going to react to that? I am always writing to think of people’s well being basically and it is like because I know personally when you get hooked into music and you can get hooked in completely mad ways, but that is probably just my a paranoia coming through – it is really intense, or is it really that intense? Listen to me, it is fine, just get one with what you are doing. so, yeah with Rest in Peace there was a kind of decision to make something that demonstrated a more of a come-down, ambient tone than Splazsh, more like Red Matter, it just takes whatever things you got off the back of that album and caresses it a bit and softens it a bit and keeping that kind of tension in terms of the title name and the track titles and blah blah and sprinkling it with things that are a bit more, I just want to transcend people, give them that state, illumination. As I said I am very fortunate to have a lot of time to be in this paradise and to get to walk around and not a lot of people do as they are in the grind.
The following has been posted to a dormant soundcloud page for the defunct literary collective Neither Am I. I’m a big fan of Actress – Splazsh carved its own niche in British bass music – and I’ve tracked everything since, including the twitter tracks he put out last year. If you’re at all interested in electronic music, Actress is where its at. He’s got a couple of new records forthcoming. I don’t know what to make of this, though. If it’s a PR stunt it smells a bit weird.
Following the arrest of an unnamed adult male responsible for a series of bizarre desecrations of public buildings – the Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, the laser at Greenwich Observatory, 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead – police last month raided a house in the Thames Valley. In the premises they discovered evidence strongly suggesting the suspect had been working, unlicensed and untrained, as a psychotherapist.
Documents leaked to the press include the case file of a black, adult male, born in 1989 in Wolverhampton and living in south London. The young man, one Darren Cunningham, a musician working under the name Actress had enjoyed significant and unexpected success with a record release in 2010 (‘Splazsh’), and had just completed the recording a new release referred to in the notes as ‘R.I.P’. He had presented with a series of unusual symptoms: independent automatism of right and left hands; frequent fugue states; pronounced fetishization and personification of electronic machinery; waking visions. He reported dreaming of monuments, geometric figures and the archangel Uriel.
A talking cure had been undertaken, and the patient asked to respond to a number of site-specific or external stimuli relating to his past and/or cultural environments. An audio extract accompanying the leaked case notes is presented below without comment.
Earlier in the summer I gave a paper at “the first international symposium on the work of Tom McCarthy” responding to Tom’s LRB essay ‘Stabbing the Olive’, in which he argued for a geometric fiction. The video of the paper is here. I’d written about Tom’s work during my MA and we’d done a brief interview by email about Remainder which is published below.
An overview of the entire event written by attendee Martin Eve is here, while Derek Attridge wrote a brief review in the Guardian Review the next weekend (‘McCarthy has leapfrogged many older novelists into the academic canon.’ (Derek Attridge, ‘THE WEEK IN BOOKS: Booker odds, Tom McCarthy in conference, Muriel Spark at the Poetry Society’, Guardian, Review Section, 30 July 2011, p. 4). As a not-yet-doctored speaker, it was exciting to give a paper to an audience that included the author, assorted INS cohorts – including Simon Critchley, who also spoke – and Eng Lit profs like the aforementioned Attridge and Andrew Gibson, whose paper on Speculative Realism opened up a lot of interesting channels. The afternoon session was pretty lively as the more established folk exchanged opinions in robust fashion. Kudos to Burkbeck’s Dennis Duncan for organising.
A collection of essays around the symposium is planned by Glyphi Press, so I’m not going to post the text of the paper because I’m working it up into an essay that I’ll submit for that.
Tom has been active over the summer: the blog Surplus Matter maintained by 3AM magazine’s Andrew Gallix keeps tabs on McCarthy material online so I refer any interested parties to that for some great articles and talks.
Tom McCarthy interview (16/04/07)
Remainder puts to work some of your theoretical writing on trauma and re-enactment. In your essay Between Pain and Nothing you argue persuasively for Rod Dickinson’s Milgram Re-enactment as “offer(ing) us the possibility of ethics and, in so doing, offer(ing) us the very possibility of subjectivity – that is of being at all”. This raises a number of questions with regard to your protagonist in Remainder…
I wrote the essay on Dickinson’s work a year or so after finishing Remainder, so the more formal thinking-through of the question of re-enactment that you get in the essay hadn’t happened for me when the novel was taking shape. I hadn’t read Levinas at that point, for example. But writing about Dickinson’s work was a kind of formalising after the fact of some of the questions raised in Remainder. The protagonist of Remainder is much less of an ethical subject than my putative model viewer of Dickinson’s re-enactment, though.
1) As his programme of reconstructions progresses, he loses his subjectivity for periods to increasingly frequent fugue states. Are his re-enactments in fact creating problems for his subjectivity?
His re-enactments both give him the possibility of subjectivity and remove this, pull the rug from under his feet. It’s a catch-22 situation. Perhaps you could draw a parallel with some of Lacan’s notions of how, for example, the imago both forms a vital component of the thrust towards subjectivity and, by always remaining just outside the circle of the subject, that elusive extra part, makes a totalised or unified subjectivity impossible. Ditto the little other or objet petit-a. I wouldn’t want to paint the correspondence between Lacan, or any other thinker, and Remainder as that schematic, but the echoes are there.
2) As he re-enacts increasingly ‘found’ events he enters an ethical space but responds in a neutral manner. Indeed any sense of an ethical subjectivity is absent from the narrative. Has he failed to relearn an ethical framework?
The obvious answer would be that yes, he fails, he ends up a psychopath for whom the deaths he causes can only be understood in terms of their aesthetics, as ‘beautiful’. But in fact I think he does engage with ethics, in a totally Levinasian way, when he does the shooting re-enactment. In that sequence, he opens himself, his time and consciousness, up to the absolute otherness of the man whose death he’s re-enacting – its mute enormity, its endlessness and so on. The authorities have cleared the area, washed the blood off the street and erased all traces of the event, but he goes back to it, and lets it snag him, tear him open, again and again and again. He, not the sane people around him, is the one who keeps repeating the mantra ‘Everything must leave some kind of mark.’ Levinas characterises the ethical moment as an entry to a diachronic space in which traces of surprised forgettings are recovered: that’s the space my hero wills – cudgels – into being and occupies, repeatedly.
The term ‘event-field’ is not a term I’m familiar with, although your citations from Faulkner make it clear how an event field operates: as ripples spreading out from an original event. Could you elaborate on this idea?
I think Faulkner said it all. You get ripples, and more ripples, moving over pools that aren’t even necessarily the one in which the original stone dropped. Events play out over generations: the playing out is itself the happening of the event, although the event itself always remains outside of its own field, even if it passed through its plane at some unspecified point in the past, ruptured it. Badiou’s thought might hold some answers here. But in that magnificent passage (from Absalom! Absalom!) Faulkner also talks of seeing, remembering and reflecting, which for me echo (again) Levinas’s notions of bearing witness – although for Faulkner the rippled pools aren’t bearing witness to the event as such (the stone dropping) but rather reflecting ‘the infinite unchanging sky’ from which it fell.
Cracks, rips and imperfections are recurrent in Remainder. In these irruptions reality returns – Lacanian tuches or Barthesian puncta – and you exploit the possibility of lending such seemingly insignificant events an ever-expanding event field. Does an event-field view of history prioritise the traumatic event? Are these in effect micro-traumatisms?
Yes and yes. An event-field view of history is impossible without a traumatic event at its core. And then the little rips you mention are like stand-ins for the big one, little envoys, mini-mes. They’re like the boy whom Godot sends to keep Vladimir and Estragon in a state of anticipation. The big one will never appear and show itself, and yet we live in the belief that it might – live for that belief even.
The second half of chapter three, an imagined conversation with a homeless man in a restaurant, appears to effect a narrative equivalent to such a notion: the artifice of narrative is punctured in this moment. How do concerns change when writing a fictional narrative about the re-enactment of found events as opposed to writing critically about art events that are themselves re-enactments?
Fiction is intuitive. I was in a bathroom at a party, not entirely sober, looking at a crack on the wall, got a moment of déja-vu, and in half an hour the novel was there. I didn’t stop to work out what it all meant, and in fact still haven’t. It just made sense, in its own warped way. With critical writing, it’s more about making sense of that kind of intuition in retrospect. That’s not to say that critical writing can’t be creative and exhilarating – look at the work of Derrida, for example – but it does inhabit a different mode.
Because the trauma suffered by your protagonist is a physical as opposed to purely psychical trauma, it remains unclear whether or not his amnesia is a result of brain tissue damage or a psychological condition. How important is this ambiguity between the physical and the psychical trauma?
Not that important, frankly. There’s no Cartesian split in Remainder. The hero is ill-at-ease in the world physically and behaviourally and mentally, but these are all part of the same complex. It’s a very materialist book – in effect, what he’s coming to terms with throughout it is a certain materialism, a matter-based vision of existence as opposed to a transcendent one. His mind is matter, damaged brain tissue, and the world is matter, bitty flows and scar tissue all bathed in liquid daylight spilling from a ruptured sun.
Some key terms in both Remainder and the field of trauma studies operate doubly. Chief among these is notion of authenticity which is implicated in debates over witnessing – indeed the crisis of witnessing uncovered by Abraham and Torok in Cryptonomy is fascinating in this regard, placing it at a crux point in the history of psychoanalysis as well as at the history of modern trauma theory. In your work authenticity is at the heart of a crisis in subjectivity. Do you aim to exploit this doubling?
I’m not sure what you mean by ‘doubling’. Paul de Man has written a brilliant essay about doubling, a term he takes from Baudelaire’s notion of dédoublement. For Baudelaire, and subsequently de Man, doubling names the effect of self-consciousness that prevents us from being authentic: if we can reflect on our experience, that means we’re not simply living it, and we’re therefore split in two and consequently not complete. What’s worse, figuring all this out doesn’t bring about a return to authenticity, but rather re-doubles the problem, makes it play out at more and more self-conscious levels, endlessly regressive. Again, I hadn’t read that essay (‘The Rhetoric of Temporality’) when I wrote Remainder – but it could be describing the book. In fact, it’s the best thing ever written about Remainder, without even mentioning it!
Not only is the modern understanding of the term trauma a medico-legal construction, but so too has the reconstruction become a medico-legal tool. The artistic re-enactment operates in this context but how does the medico-legal aspect of the reconstruction relate to its artistic cousin?
One of the first things my hero’s lawyer explains to him about the terms of the Settlement the parties (‘bodies’) responsible for his accident are offering him is that, if he accepts, the accident ‘will cease to become actionable’. In the first draft, I added: ‘It will lose its status qua event’ – but I removed that because it’s bad writing (a lawyer would never say such a thing, unless he was a philosopher as well). But the legal moment of erasure of the ur-event, of ur-erasure (say that fast if you can), goes hand in hand with the more philosophical (Blanchodian) erasure. And the medical one. I did my research: even the most positivist psychologists, the kind of people who would oppose Freud on every other point, concur with him completely that the trauma-moment bypasses the narrative chain we call memory. Their term for this phenomenon is ‘dissociation’: the data gets laid down in the brain (in the hipocampus, to be precise), but not as memory. So it’s there, but in an absent or negative form – but no less there for that. I’d say the artistic is the synthesis of all these modes, plus a little more besides – but I wouldn’t want to say what that little more is. It’s the remainder maybe. The hero of my novel doesn’t at any point consider himself an artist, though – although that’s a slight sleight of hand because the novel itself belongs to the category of art, and to a large extent allegorises it. But if he’d stood in front of the crack when he experiences his moment of déja-vu going ‘Oh yes, this is a bit like Proust and the madeleine,’ the book would have been over then and there. Ars est celere artem, like the man says.
Earlier this summer I interviewed documentary maker Adam Curtis for Dazed and Confused magazine. Curtis generously gave me an hour of his time and was an extremely engaging and candid interviewee, running with my questions and providing answers that far outstripped their scope. Dazed were only able to run this at 1,000 words and I thought there might be interest in an unedited transcript so post this online in the hope that it might find some readers. (When I say unedited, I have of course made my questions far tighter and more coherent than they were.)
We met at Television Centre the morning before James and Rupert Murdoch were due to appear before the Commons Media and Culture Committee and sat in the horseshoe of the magnificent building, soon to be vacated when the BBC moves its base to Salford media village. Curtis mentioned that he’d been offered the use of the Centre after this move for a Punchdrunk project but we began by discussing the Murdochs and the excitement around the breaking story despite his concern that it would be out-of-date by publication. I asked if he would be tuning in to the Murdoch testimony later in the afternoon. Of course, he replied:
It’s just a great story.
How do you think it will play out?
In essence no one really knows. At the moment it’s a wonderful, wonderful story. It’s not Watergate, in the sense that it’s the corruption of power, but these scandals can often flick a switch that starts something broader.
You’ll find me resistant to comment any further. Daily journalism is about trying to record, as best you can, the fragments you have in front of you. What I tend to do is come along later and try and pull all those fragments together and say what does it all mean or have you thought of looking at it this way. When you’re living through something you absolutely no idea what it means. That’s part of the thrill of it. You can speculate. I really don’t know.
What do you think of the current state of journalism?
This whole argument that the internet is destroying newspapers is a bit of a smokescreen. I know it’s taking advertising away from newspapers, but it’s also that the journalism is so boring.
If someone like, say, the New Journalism movement of the early 1960s came along and reinvented journalism – which is story-telling about the real world – in a way that connected with the way people think and feel today, then people would buy that newspaper or magazine or whatever it was because they’d want to have it. At the moment the journalism we have most of it is written in such a way that it feels very out of date, it doesn’t connect with the way we feel about the world, it’s not real to us. Murdoch journalism has never felt real, it’s always been a comic product. Broader journalism now feels very unconnected, not with the things it’s describing, but with the sensibility of audience, which has changed radically in the past five or ten years. The sensibility of an audience now is much more fragmented, much more shifting, much more emotional. If you live in an age where there are no big stories anymore, what is substituted for that is an emotional response. That’s not wrong, that’s just what happens.
The realism of our time – to use a literary term – is a fragmented emotional one. That’s how most people experience the world, as fragments which they fit together emotionally. The internet encourages that, you flit around that, you experience that in a fragmented way. I notice that story-tellers – and myself when I edit – I find I’m much happier, and my audience are much more happy, with big emotional jumps. They like it and they like filling in the gaps themselves.
Traditional journalism still tries to be much more causal and analytical. That’s fine except that the audience knows that most of those journalists have no idea what’s going on, we have no idea what’s going to happen in Europe, we have no idea how this scandal’s going to play out – so when we try to do this causal analytical approach it feels thin and somehow false and the audience knows that.
Each age has its own way of experiencing stuff and our way is very emotional and associative. Now, someone is going to come along and create a kind of journalism that both reflects that and connects with that yet at the same time takes people out of themselves and describes the world in a broader way than they can experience through their own narrow experience, that somehow feels real to them.
New Journalism. I think we’re on the cusp of that. I don’t think it’ll come through television, I think it’ll come through writing, and when it does, people will love it, because they want to be taken out of themselves and then they will buy the product that has it in it and they’ll pay a lot of money for it. So I don’t think that print journalism in the general sense is over. That’s a smokescreen. It‘s because it’s boring and it doesn’t connect.
If you live in an age of individualism – which is what we’re encouraged to be, and what we want to be as well, it’s us… at the moment – you judge what is right and what is wrong by what feels right to you. What did Tony Blair say about Iraq and the ultimate justification – I’m misquoting but it’s pretty much what he said – “I did it because it felt right to me.” And that, in our age, is the guiding principle by which you judge. It’s not that you are told that it’s the right thing to do, that’s how it used to be, it’s whether it feels right to you now.
That’s what I was trying to trace in The Century of the Self, the rise of that idea and those who would then take that new idea that feeling was important and shape it and use it for their own purposes. It had to exist before they used it. And I don’t think journalism’s really caught up with that. In a funny way politics did under Blair, and now it’s lost it again partly because the world’s got so confused and the strange territory that Blair took it into as a result of that.
If you live in an emotional age then of course it’s going to be a confused age because there isn’t an elite telling you a story by which you can judge events. So what in effect happens in that age is that events come and go like the waves of a fever and sometimes they come into focus and like in a fever they’ll float out of focus. That’s the realism of our time. In many ways it is more real than previous ages which tried to tell you a grand story. Now, the question which no one really knows the answer to is whether that’s what we’re in for the long run. I mean, the patrician age of mass democracy lasted from the middle of the 19th century really to the early 1990s. We may be into another period of that. Or it may be the blip between the collapse of one big story and the rise of another. And you could say that the whole problem with the press – including the Murdoch thing – is that they don’t have a big plot – in literal terms they’ve lost the plot – there isn’t a plot. If you’re in a newsroom in The Mirror, The Sun, or The Telegraph, The Guardian, when an event just happens there isn’t a big plot, there isn’t a frame into which to fit it. So things come and go. Journalists have lost the plot. People turn away from that kind of journalism because it doesn’t connect with them.
No one knows whether that’s going to last. I suspect that it probably won’t. Some big, serious cataclysm is going to happen, it may be a big, really serious economic crisis that hasn’t happened and out of that will come the necessity for a big story.
What role does a historically engaged journalism such as you produce play in that?
I do two things: I trace how that happens but also, I think that I feed off that mood. I’m very emotional. The way I do my journalism also tries to rework journalism so that it’s couched in those terms. The way I edit is much more associational and fragmentary than previous ways of telling stories on television. And also, I’m quite emotional. I take quite serious subjects and quite causal and analytical arguments – my films are quite old-fashioned – and I try – sometimes successfully and sometimes not successfully – to integrate that and fuse that with emotion so you feel that as well. I use music, images and my voice to create a mood because I think mood is incredibly important to get something over to people. It doesn’t mean that you are then incoherent or emotional yourself. What I’m saying is very straightforward, causal and analytical but you create a mood platform on which you tell that story. And people like that. They just do. Because mood is the thing of our time. That’s why people like immersive theatrical experiences like Punchdrunk. What Punchdrunk do brilliantly is create a mood. They’re just brilliant at it. The extent to which you can then create a story, I don’t know, we ran into problems with that one.
Your captions have begun to seem more and more like artistic interventions: they remind me of Jenny Holzer’s work.
People have said that but I don’t know her. I don’t really know about art. That really comes out of wanting to use songs. I didn’t want my voice to get in the way of the songs so I used captions. People are really happy with films that have a varying texture.
I’m quite normal. Given a bit of confidence by this lot but basically I’m quite normal. So if I like it, if I think it’s a bit silly or a bit funny or a bit appropriate then I think people will probably think that as well.
Can you imagine working outside the BBC?
No, I can’t, because I sit on top of the world’s biggest, richest, most wonderful archive, a record of the past, what? 80 years? They have been so wonderful to me because they allow me to explore that archive. And I’d have to go and do something else.
How do you negotiate working with the archive and are there any particular issues surrounding that? What is already left out of the archive?
We have a record that is seriously just fragments, and out of those fragments we stitch together stories about the past. And what I do is go back and re-stitch those fragments together in other ways and say well have thought about looking not just at then but also at now in a new way. Everything is fragments. That’s what reality is. And all journalism and politics is is taking the fragments of experience, dropping most of them and stitching together the ones you want to tell a story that makes sense of the chaos of the time. As I said, when you’re living through something it makes no sense. It’s afterwards that you look back on it and make it into a story yourself, whether it be a love affair or as day you lived through or whether it be a grand event, we all individually and collectively, stitch together, and politics and power is fundamentally a debate about how you stitch those fragments together and the change in the structure of power is when, in a way, those fragments are re-stitched, reworked. That’s what happened in the 1970s when you got the collapse of the idea that politics and the state could control everything. And it was reworked into a sort of technocratic, strange version of the free market, where in a way, the state takes a lesser role and individual’s choices and things can be catered to by other organisations.
No story just happens, it’s made, and here is one of the great factories which constructs that frame. And all the people you see around you are the construction workers of the story we live through. Whether they’re on Newsnight or on a reality show, they’re construction workers, we’re all construction workers.
I’m a parasite construction worker in the sense that I come along, take the fragments that have already been stitched together, pull them apart, rework them and ask have you thought about things in this way, and I do that because I think we live in this inter-regnum between frames.
I try to give people confidence that what you’re told is not absolute truth, it’s a construction. And let’s understand, it’s not a conspiracy or anything like that, it’s a construction. Let’s see a) how a construction is made and b) that you can construct it this way or that way and what do you think? If a big news story comes along people like me will just disappear out the frame.
If I was to make a serious film next I think I would like to go back and examine was that really the free market? Was it a sort of scientific, technocratic version of the free market that we’re still stuck with.
When you talk of big stories it makes me think of Lyotard and grand narratives, and your critique of structures of power is reminiscent of Foucault. Is your work informed by theorists such as these?
I have really serious problems with academia. I would never ever use those terms because a) they intimidate people and b) people don’t understand what you’re talking about. And actually what they say can be put very clearly in simple language, that’s what journalism is all about. Of course I am aware of those things and what they say is not really very profound. The world is constructed, how we see it is constructed and who constructs it has a great deal of power and every now and then that frame cracks and is replaced by another one. That’s called the struggle for power.
People then go and write books full of very long words that are saying that same thing but basically mystifying it, and preventing people like myself, who are normal but quite clever, from understanding it because it’s intimidating.
The only thing I’m interested in doing is communicating ideas to other people and saying ideas are quite powerful and important. Why dress it up?
Actually, I think academia is one of the institutions that should be examined. I think it has a really destructive role in stopping people thinking. Far from liberating people they actually intimidate people from thinking freely and more widely and more imaginatively, which actually should be their role. I’m in a privileged position, I’m allowed to make films which try to explain the world to people. I have never ever used a word that I thought people would not understand.
People would also, if they had any confidence, laugh at that language, and quite rightly so.
People talk about Foucault. What he says can be put in very simple, clear terms. I’m not trying to dismiss what he said, I’m trying to dismiss the terms in which he has written and the terms in which he is written and talked about. It’s anti- everything I believe in, which is clarity, and trying to give people the confidence that I was given by a good education which came about because of the state and also by good university teaching.
That confidence led me to believe that you can take any idea and explain it clearly and imaginatively to anyone. And the academy seems to be actively in many respects working against that which makes me think that it might be in decline.
In the late 1980s what went on in the Humanities in academia in Britain and America was as absurd as what was going on in the Soviet Union’s academies when they were trying to prove that the Soviet plan really was working by things that didn’t exist.
I also have problems with academia, because as a journalist I go and read a lot of academic books and to give them their credit they have good facts in them and they tell you interesting things but what I find with academics is that they won’t speculate. And it’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because they’re frightened, frightened that their colleagues will jump on them. It’s most dispiriting and unhelpful. Your heart sinks.
I’m still waiting for a new generation to come up in history that really want to tell stories, that don’t just want to theorise too much, that’s not to say you can’t have a theory. In many of my films I have theoretical arguments, but I would never put it like that.
But surely there are bigger problems with more popular ways of doing history?
The problem with popular history is that it over-generalises. It tells you what you already know and if it does that you switch off, you think I already know that, and you stop listening. Novelists have devices. What we need to do is to find similar devices to take you into that world. In the Century of the Self I used Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who I discovered in an academic book, and who claimed he’d used his uncles theories.
You begin to look at the world of PR and advertising in a new way. Throughout the series I kept on coming back to the Freud dynasty.
The problem with popular history is that it doesn’t tell stories, it just gives you the received wisdom, and people just go I know that and they don’t listen.
Can I pick up on what you mentioned as we were coming in, and ask you about Punchdrunk and doing a project here at the BBC?
The thing to do here would be a ghost story about all those fragments that are sitting in our library. There would be millions and millions of fragments of experience recorded. And maybe over the last 80 years something’s been moving through it. I would do a ghost story based on that idea. It would start on television sometime before. And ultimately it would end up with people on the day this building closed, the doors would be open and anyone could come in and go anywhere they want but what they would discover is that something that had already be on television would be continuing in here and it would be like in a ghost story.
It would be the ultimate opening up of the public service broadcaster only to find something strange at the heart of it. Everyone would be gone, this building would be completely empty, but you would begin to discover things, which you’d have to piece together yourself.
The problem I discovered when I did a thing with Punchdrunk was that as opposed to television, when even if you’re being emotional and you’ve gone away from your story for a bit ultimately you come back to your story, in a Punchdrunk thing you can go wherever you want, you’re making your own story, it’s actually very difficult to then tell a big story. It doesn’t cohere. The thing I did in Manchester with them was actually about how the fragments don’t cohere so it seemed an appropriate use of those limitations. What I couldn’t do was tell the audience something new. If one could somehow find a way of engaging people through the immersion that Punchdrunk do and at the same time fusing that to a narrative that told them…
I know Felix who runs Punchdrunk said he had real problems with the Duchess of Malfi – the play out in Docklands – he had real problems with that.
No one knows how to do that. The internet can’t do it, film can’t do it, immersive theatre had a stab at it. It may come through literature, I don’t know. I suspect someone will write some kind of novel that will send you somewhere. Somehow someone will fuse a film, a book sending you somewhere.
Back in the 1920s people really loved puzzles. Great thick books of puzzles, where you had stories where you had to work out diagrams. They reminded me of computer games.
While we’re on the subject of collaboration, I was wanting to ask about something that I’d read in Private Eye, that you turned down a commission from The Guardian?
No comment. Is that what Private Eye said? I didn’t see it. I did.
Another collaboration I was wanting to ask about was your film for Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe?
What I think Charlie Brooker has got is he’s one of the few journalists who gets the modern age. What he reports on is how he reacts to things. That is the journalism of our age. Because what people are concerned about is how they feel. I go back to what we said right at the beginning: ‘it feels right to me’ is the thing of our time. What Charlie does is he literally reports to you how he feels, how he reacts to something, whether it’s a television programme, or, I dunno, the Murdoch thing. He’s describing the events but he’s also describing how he feels about them so it has an authenticity to it, and it’s a modern authenticity. It’s narrow and it’s narcissistic, because it’s all about how he feels, but that is the realism of our time, you can’t escape it, and he’s got it and that’s why I think he’s really good and that’s why I feel privileged to be allowed to make films for his programme. He is one of the early construction workers in what I think is going to be the journalism of the future. Something that somehow when people read it is going to make them think: ‘That’s it, that’s how I feel.’ Because at the moment so many of our news programmes just literally tell you about your own experience because they’ve discovered that’s how you get an audience. So for example Panorama will – and this is not criticism – Panorama increasingly finds itself making films about, I dunno, car insurance fraud. It’s not a bad story, but it is just about what you already know. That’s fine, and we should be making those films, but we have to move outside of that.
Do you think there’s a risk that this affective mode of doing journalism doesn’t move us beyond being trapped in our own feelings?
Well, yeah, it’s limiting. We live in a very limited age, it is an age where we are trapped by our own sensations and everything around us is about validating that and saying that is the right way to be. In many ways it’s wonderful because we’ve been liberated from the old hierarchies of the past and the old elites of the past who told us how we should feel. Our archive is full of people from the 1950s onwards telling you how you should feel and how you should think. And just trusting your own feeling is quite empowering but at the same time it’s quite limiting and its limiting in two ways. Because it means all you know is what you see and what you feel and also if you are on your own and things go wrong it’s quite frightening. And when things do get bad for people – and they may get worse – when you live in world where you are just encouraged to trust your own sensations and things go bad, there’s nothing else around to help you. And I think that is why there’s such a sense of anxiety around at the moment. Journalism tends to feed off that. You get waves of apocalypse journalism, or avalanche journalism, waves of fear sweeping through. The reaction to al q’aeda was one of those that I tried to argue against, that a serious terrorist threat was being magnified out of all proportion and sweeping through society. It can only do that because it has a purchase on a fear or a feeling in the back of people’s minds and I think a lot of that is there because in an age of individualism when things go wrong it is quite frightening. If there is a big economic crisis there will be more fear and a bigger sense of isolation and loneliness. It’s also disempowering because what it stops you realising is that actually together you are stronger, and you can challenge power and you can change the world. And I think that’s the thing we’ve forgotten. It may come back or we may be in this for the long run. I don’t know. But journalism hasn’t even really caught up with individualism, it hasn’t actually created, to use an academic word, a discourse that describes the world to people in ways that connects with their individualism. So quite naturally they turn away from journalism and turn to each other, actually, and just chat, and live their own lives. It’s what I call the Richard Curtis ideology, that all you have in the world you and your own sensations and your own circle of friends – because that’s all his films are about. I think that’s very narrow and quite dangerous. That may lead to problems in the future. What people like me are trying to do is to connect with that emotional way of seeing the world.
That’s what the world is about at the moment, it engaging with that, it’s not narcissism, it’s individualism.
I’d like also to ask you about music. The music you use in your films is striking and very catholic, drawn from all sorts of sources. How do you encounter music? Is the music in your films representative of what you’re into?
A lot of my friends have got into the habit of pointing me in the way of music they like and giving me stuff. My mood changes. For example, Nine Inch Nails. Completely by chance I was staying with a friend in America and I had jetlag and so one night I was playing his Itunes thing and I literally by mistake played a Nine Inch Nails song and it was very romantic but it used industrial noise and I thought this is wonderful and I started listening to a lot of them and the last series is slathered in them. People quite like the idea of something that is almost falling apart but is somehow held together.
I listen to stupid pop which is my great love. Never go with the fashion of the time. The problem with a lot of music at the moment is that it’s completely in the hand of PRs. I get quite a lot of people come to me and say “will you do a video for us?” and so I listen to their stuff and so many bands are an archaeology of the 80s, that kind of post-punk stuff, early to-mid-1980s. You just have to listen. Often the most stupid things might work against a piece of footage. There was a bit in the last one where I had a shot of Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton and I slowed it down and cut it to a song by Leonard Cohen, who normally I would never like, but it just worked.
If it feels authentic, people somehow get that mood. You know those documentaries that have that dreary ambient drum and bass with a little bit of skittering, and there’s almost like a central factory that feeds this into documentaries but because you notice that they haven’t done it in any way to enhance the image, they’ve just needed to fill something in their structure, in a way you go off the film. You don’t feel it’s an authentic response.
The other way I use music is its punctuation, it’s a full-stop or a comma, it’s just grammar, it’s all it is. I listen to just masses. I have a drive with about 72,000 tracks on it. At the moment I’m listening to early recordings of opera – 1900s, Caruso and stuff like that, very, very scratchy stuff.
The film I’m cutting at the moment about the press in the 1960s, I’m using a lot of hard guitar music from the 1990s like Jesus and Mary Chain and more obscure bands, because it just feels right. It has to be very pop, have loud guitar, and that one drum noise, which is flat.
Using opera was a 1980s thing in films, all that minimalist stuff, Philip Glass. The ones I really hate – and this is bitchy – the documentaries I have a real problem with are the ones that use Arvo Part on their films. I’m sorry, this is not a criticism of Mr Part, but somehow the combination of the music of Arvo Part and, I dunno, dead bodies in Bosnia, just… again, it stops you looking at it and experiencing it for what it is, it’s like a cliché, you hear the language of the film-maker, it’s what you’d call modern plangent and because it’s so concerned with trying to convey something it actually conveys nothing, whereas to convey things you have to surprise your audience.
I did it to a very silly song from the 1960s cut very fast, just to make you look at it afresh. It’s silly but it’s sarcastically silly, it’s playing against it. Basically, one has to play against the knowledge that your audience already has about what the film is trying to tell them. Basically, audiences are really mature these days and they know all the different types of films and the way they tell you things. I’m not being deliberately contrary, I want to intervene in that a different way.
I’m sure you’re tired of this particular question, but I’ve read that you’re a first reader for Popbitch?
I’m good friends with Camilla who runs Popbitch. Every now and then I’ll send her a silly animal story. Popbitch has bought a racehorse, Super Injunction. I went to see Super Injunction race last night. She came last. She’s young, it’s her third race.
During the interview Curtis’s sister phoned to let him know that there was a photo of their dad in the G2 section of The Guardian illustrating a listing for the documentary Britain Through a Lens. Curtis’s father Martin was a cameraman who worked with Humphrey Jennings and was part of the British Documentary Movement.
I asked: so it’s a family business, then?
“He was a sensitive and modest film-maker. I’ve never been accused of that.”