Songs That May Have Passed You By in 2016

Songs That May Have Passed You By in 2016

2016 scythed through song-writers with scant regard for the listening public. Bowie, Cohen, Prince. A grim litany indeed. But 2016 was an astonishingly creative year on the indie scene. In John Peel’s absence, I get my music from The Hype Machine which collates the recommendations of hundreds of music blogs around the world. Here are a few of my favourites from the year which deserve a wider public.

Forth Wanderers – Know Better: A Schoenberg cabaret song that updates grunge for 2016.

Swimming Tapes – Tides: Perfect summer pop. In Real Estate’s absence, this will do.

Japanese Breakfast – In Heaven: Love the slightly flat nasally singing on this. Their ‘Everybody Wants To Love You‘ is like Cyndi Lauper in a hurricane.

Big Thief – Paul: ‘So I swallowed all of it / As I realised there was no one who could kiss away my shit.’ Heartbreaking, in manifold ways.

They – Say When: Expect more of this darkly raging US hip-hop in 2017.

Slow Hollows – Softer: The dead-pan delivery reminds me of Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen – win-win.

Lord Huron – Hurricane: Alt-country before ‘alt’ became something sinister.

Preoccupations – Memory: If  Joy Division were around today, they might sound like this.

Hazel English – Never Going Home: Artist of the Year 2016 Indie Pop that sounds like ‘an old and familiar friend’ (Salinger) after the first play.

Molly Burch – Downhearted: Patsy-Cline inflected vocals and a song destined to become a modern classic.

Frank Ocean – Nights Song of the Year 2016 Its many quirks, circumlocutions, and sidesteps should grate but they never do. Constantly surprising and engaging, Gregg Wallace would say R’n’B doesn’t get any better than this in 2016. He’d be right, too. (You’ll have to click on the name to hear this one.)

Late entry for old friend @thetearooms, Young Scum – If You Say That: jangle pop dreamers.

We Need To Talk About Cthulhu

We Need To Talk About Cthulhu

Perhaps you, like me, have fallen back on the name of a cosmic abomination as an off-the-peg metaphor for something sprawlingly vast in time and space, monstrously abhorrent to behold, and existing outside of all human notions of morality. No, not Donald Trump but HP Lovecraft’s Great Old One, a horror supposedly even more disturbing than the thought of a Trump presidency: mighty Cthulhu.

Scan the index of a modern text by someone working in a university Humanities faculty and you will most likely encounter this name. Cthulhu has become a metaphor for something wholly other – sprawling, tentacular, supermassive, transcendent of Kantian ideas about time and space as a priori intuitions, the mental framework necessary to apprehend things-in-themselves. When academics reach for Cthulhu, these inhuman qualities are what they hope to transmit.

How did this fictional entity become a lazy metaphor for Humanities and Cultural Studies students and academics to fall back on (myself included)? Just what are they implying when they evoke HP Lovecraft’s creation? And how could such a non-existent object become so entangled in the logic of capitalism that is now available as a wool-knit toy, crocheted balaclava and as a variant of the Che Guevara T-shirt? These are some of the occult mysteries which this short essay will examine.

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The Death of Death

The Death of Death

A series of short essays in which a word, concept, or subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!

The death of death has long been foretold. In John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X (1609), the metaphysical poet chides Death for being proud and concludes that Death will be as good as dead once human souls are resurrected in paradise. Donne was merely drawing on a biblical reckoning for the Grim Reaper, 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” One is tempted to interject: how can Death die if he never lived?

Today, such prognostications about death’s demise are likely to take a more technological tone. The death of death means life, forever. Mortality is an irksome biological fact that will eventually be overcome by science. Technology will find the way; it always does. So go the certainties of the entrepreneurially-minded, usually billionaires in Silicon Valley who have the ego and money for such a Grail quest, and a vested interest in prolonging their sybaritic lives.

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The Corporate Realism Of Job Adverts

The Corporate Realism Of Job Adverts

When did the language of job adverts become so arcane? It is a language unto itself – a meta-language that seems to lack referents in what passes for the concrete fabric of reality today. Who can actually point at a stakeholder and say, as Wittgestein once did of a tree, ‘I know that that’s a stakeholder’? But it is a word that persists in its internal and external form. A stakeholder can mean everything from a customer to the CEO, or a school pupil (internal) and their parent (external). These terms have a nasty habit of leaving their parochial domain (the corporate world) and infiltrating all institutions – schools, universities, hospitals, libraries – at least in their job ads.

Workflow is another advertisement leitmotif, its concise vagueness perhaps meant to suggest fluid working methods, a liquid labouring that is as ceaseless as the 19th Century Thames in its outpouring of productivity. Such opaque rhetoric is the language of neo-liberalism – the language of the free market that ‘corporatises’ vocations to better engineer a return on investment. Here is Corporate Realism, Capitalist Realism’s PR firm:  a future-oriented, growth-minded, ‘strivers-not-skivers’ tone and lexicon. At work is a brutal anti-poetry, where words become connotation engines, suggesting economic import at every linguistic turn. It is both exhausting and perplexing, since this job-specific language only seems to exist within this strange realm of job applications.

It is a discourse trapped in the symbiotic exchange between advert and applicant. The selection process starts here, with recognition of the rules of the game, the phrases which are to be repeated back at the parental job provider. Only the worthy individual who can pluck these semantic implements from the text and wield them correctly in their application will enter the kingdom of gainful employ. This is your initation into the cult of modern work – the mastery of its esoteric language.

You will be experienced in x.  You will implement y. Another noticeable feature is how driven the rhetoric is – as driven as you must be to meet its demands. In keeping with the going-forward-isation of our times, the future is a utopia which you will have helped shaped through continuous improvement.  It is a peverse twist on the Heraclitean notion of Panta rhei, where everything flows, nothing stands still: for your new employer, the improving will never be done. At the same time, communication can only ever occur across multiple channels, meaning you must be able to handle audio, video, and written ‘content’. That latter catch-all term is one I have examined already. Elsewhere, the language of business and warfare (‘strategic aims’) permeates even a post for a Special Educational Needs Teaching Assistant. Austerity, meanwhile, is visible in the sprawling duties and responsibilities whereby two or more positions have clearly been sandwiched into one starring ‘role’.

Yet use these words you must. A university workshop on CVs and cover letters instructed me how employers now perform keyword scans, outsourcing their own Human Resources labour to an algorithm – an irony that is too disheartening to be ever so droll. So I beat on, a solitary boat against the workflow, borne back ceaselessly into the Corporate Realist present.

Featured image by Ed Burtynsky of a Chinese factory.

The Exit of Brexit

The Exit of Brexit

A series of short essays in which a word, concept, or subject examines itself. Inspired by the title of C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s The Meaning of Meaning.

When did the current fad for crudely conjoined portmanteaus begin? Was it the ungainly moobs that started it all, taking the m from man and supplanting the b of boobs with it? The media delights in coining compound celebrity couples, making mutant nomenclatures, such as Kimye, Brangelina and Hiddleswift. In ‘yoofspeak’, this is called ‘shipping‘, a verb derived from relationship. And now this modern habit has entered political discourse and, disastrously, we all live in a Brexit-ridden world.

Once (how long ago it seems!) it was simply an unhappy marriage of British and exit, and, despite its inelegant etymology and sonorous infelicity, its meaning was fairly explicit. Brexit was born out of Grexit – the Greek exit from the EU anticipated if that nation were to default on its debt repayments. It didn’t and Grexit slipped from view. With the EU referendum, a simple in/out became overshadowed by the newly-minted Brexit, and its over-exposure by a media incapable of refraining itself from jumping on any passing hashtag fad.

Yet Brexit’s once-simple meaning is fast unravelling, as even those who wielded it with confidence seem unsure as to what its two syllables are supposed to convey. The Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to know such things, has further fogged the semantic sense by giving it a now-infamous self-referential definition: Brexit means Brexit.  It’s as though Brexit itself were trying to wriggle out of meaning anything at all, unhappy at having been brought into the world, like Frankenstein’s monster looking for answers from its thoughtless creator. Brexit is exiting itself, self-sabotaging, divesting itself of lexical content and becoming so empty a signifier that it can mean all things to all people, which is to say, nothing at all.

‘Language is the house of being,’ Heidegger proposed, and we might wonder what being resides in words such as Brexit. A post-truth flexibility enabling permanent political evasion? Of course, Brexit is the latest in a long lineage of sophisms. There is the lexical deception of collateral damage, the smoke-and-mirror beguilement of asset for assassin. George Orwell, in his famous polemic against political language, Politics and the English Language (1946), condemned its use of ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ to defend the indefensible.

Meaning, though, has always been precarious, as Alice found out when she wondered into Wonderland and met Humpty-Dumpty: ‘When I use a word […] it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ Naturally, Alice is disconcerted: can words really be made to mean ‘so many differnt things’? Humpty-Dumpty’s retort is that of all tyrants: ‘The question is which is to be master.’ A master-meaning, the one I mean it to mean; I, the one on high with all the power. The Guardian‘s cartoonist Steve Bell makes this point in today’s cartoon on Queen May’s regal raiments:

©Steve Bell 2016/The Guardian

Nietszche was likewise mistrustful of the disconnect between word and thing: ‘What is a word? The image of a nerve stimulus in sounds.’ In his very accessible albeit nihilistic On Truth & Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense (1873), he looks at these ‘arbitrary assignments’ and draws a rather damning conclusion:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.

So it will be with Brexit, which is already being ’embellished poetically and rhetorically’, already seeming ‘firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people’. And still the public and politicos plead, What does Brexit mean? And the only answer they hear is: it means what it means. C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards’s book The Meaning of Meaning should be exiting the shelves (shexiting?) like a  Harry Potter off-cut in the coming weeks.

The painting is Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Five Portraits (1901-02).


Review: Golf Ball

Review: Golf Ball

9781628921380 Part of a series entitled Object Lessons published by Bloomsbury and edited by the American academics Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg, Harry Brown’s Golf Ball sounds more like the sort of extended essay school students are set when doing detention. It might seem impossible to make such an object interesting but this is just what Brown achieves over the course of 128 pocket-sized pages. His cultural study is an intriguing mix of history, personal anecdote and cutting-edge philosophy, carrying the reader aloft over a range of courses and discourses past and present.

The eccentric approach to his topic is apparent from the off, both in the comical chapter titles (How the golf ball keeps holy the Lord’s day) and a bravura opening passage which begins with an anatopism: a Kalahari Bushman finding an empty glass Coca-Cola bottle in the desert, which is subsequently worshipped by his tribe and leads to jealousy and violence.  The Bushman finally determines to take this ‘evil thing’ to the end of the world because ‘it doesn’t belong on earth’.* This idea of unhuman objects will eventually (and cleverly) be merged by Brown into the new philosophical realm of Speculative Realism, positing the golf ball in a post-human time and space.

The book is divided into two golfing halves, nine outward ‘holes’ revolving around ‘Thing’, and nine holes coming back in entitled ‘Phenomenon’. The first half of the ‘course’ is studded with interesting facts about the ball itself, for example, how the composition of balls have changed over time in relation to the British empire – from leather and feathers to Malaysian gutta-percha to modern polymers, and how these innovations have themselves changed the game of golf, with course designs altering to accommodate the huge distances which the modern balls can now be hit. We also learn about: the profit to be made in recovering lost golf balls (5 million dollars a year for one American company) and the lawsuits such ‘recycling’ and ‘refurbishing’ has led to; the unusual ways golfers mark their balls to differentiate them when playing (the Northern Irish Darren Clarke draws a green shamrock, Nick Faldo a ‘6’ to represent the number of championships he has won); and the cachet certain golf balls carry, such as the Penfold Hearts used by James Bond in Goldfinger, with Brown cleverly linking this ‘cool’ to Marxist notions of ‘commodity fetishism’. I should add that, refreshingly, all facts and quotations are thoroughly annotated via end notes for each chapter.

The second half concentrates on human interactions with the ball and how to hit it, drawing on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychology of happiness book Flow, Zen Buddhist notions of hitting it through not trying to hit it, and the impact of various famous golf guides, such as Jack Nicklaus’s bestseller Golf My Way. Brown also speaks of his own golf ball anecdotes: the time he cut a ball in half as a youth reveal its weird rubber band and liquid polymer interior; the trip to the West Coast of Ireland and his metaphysical experience driving balls from a cliff into a sea of fog; how his father hid golf balls in the foundations of a new housing development in order to befuddle future anthropologists. This eccentric action brings us to the really intriguing aspect of this object-oriented book: the golf ball’s durability.

Brown reveals how animals have begun to co-opt these foreign objects into their lives, with lampreys and red-tailed hawks using them to line their nests. He focuses in on a decomposing gutta-percha ball, the product of a Late 19th Century rubber factory, that has become the home of ladybirds:

The earth itself ushers the golf ball to the next stage of its evolution, changing it from an industrial object existing in historical time to an organic object existing in biological and geographic time.

In the final chapter – How the golf ball prepares for Doomsday – he considers how long the millions of lost polyurethane balls will take to degrade and the possible ecological impact of this. Making nods to the ‘speculative turn’ of recent philosophy and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), Brown draws on Timothy Morton’s notion of the ‘hyperobject’, that man-made objects such as golf balls will outlast the species which created them in the cosmic timeline.

The author does occasionally slice a few shots along the (fair)way. An overly frequent point of reference is Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom, which seems to be a sort of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for golfers, with its mystical guru Shiva Irons waxing lyrical about ‘true gravity’, and remaining (paradoxically) an overfamiliar and still obscure figure by the end. Some may also find the personal anecdotes and mystic thinking (Zen, pop psychology references) a little self-indulgent: the aforementioned golf-balls-off-a-cliff incident comes washed in a Kerouac-tinged haze.

But these are minor gripes. In Golf Ball, Brown has some fun with contemporary thinking whilst never getting too bogged down in the sand trap of theory, the philosophical and phenomenological nuances adding an extra heft to a detailed and often perceptive account, leaving us with some intriguing questions to ponder about the objects we use, lose and overlook every day.

*The film cited for this scene, The Gods Must Be Crazy, is a controversial South African comedy of questionable racial intent, something which is not made apparent in the book under review. I am grateful to @Nick_deKlerk for providing this additional context and a link to the relevant scene:

Featured image ‘Alignment (Golf balls)’ by onigiri-kun and is used under a Creative Commons licence.

Black Seas of Infinity: The Alien Sound-World of Georg Friedrich Haas

Black Seas of Infinity: The Alien Sound-World of Georg Friedrich Haas
Photo © Astrid Ackermann.

Music, always inhospitable to ekphrasis or literary description, seems doubly so when it’s not even typically ‘musical’, which the sound-worlds of the contemporary Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas are not. How to capture the ways this weird sonic world emerges almost organically, ex nihilo, like life itself, mutating, growing, pulsing, speeding up, slowing down, or coming suddenly to a stop. These are soundscapes on a vast scale: gigantic rotating planets, slowly warping architectonics, shimmering stillnesses glowing like the aurora borealis. This microtonal music (also referred to as ‘spectral’) finds its forerunner in the micropolyphonic world of the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, the eerie sonic hovering between tones of Atmosphères which Kubrick memorably heard as harmonia mundi, the Music of the Spheres, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Perhaps the best ekphrasis would be to quote HP Lovecraft’s vision of the cosmos:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Here are those ‘black seas of infinity’, the ‘terrifying vistas of reality’, depicted in sublime slabs of abstract sonic pulses. The shards of pseudo-melody which occasionally emerge seem even weirder when they do. It puts me in mind of the new philosophical school of the Object-Oriented: perhaps Haas is composing sonic hyperobjects, or preparing us for the post-human world.

Screen-grab from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Screen-grab from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Does the word ‘music’ even apply here? Does it even matter?  This will be noise to most, as it would have been to me but a few months ago, when I was all Bach and Beethoven, Mahler and Shostakovich, and this would have irked me into violent vocal derision. But then something clicked and its almost drone-like emergence, continuation, disappearance, anti-melodic swells of sound, pure, impure, but not noise (whatever that is), and not irksome. It now chimes offering a sort of mental consolation for the fuzzy logic of the world, a counterfoil to modern life’s dissonant overload. To quote Kafka in his Diaries, it bears me out like a friend.

Recommended Listening: