Friday, October 15, 2010

Opting out

The plot of William Gibson's latest, Zero History, is driven by a "secret brand" of clothes called Gabriel Hounds (after one of those crazy things that happens when local religious traditions get overlaid with trappings of invading Christianity). Gabriel Hounds doesn't advertise, doesn't seem to care if people know about it, except perhaps insofar as it may prefer that people don't. More importantly, it very deliberately is made not to be tied to the "style" of any given time, and, as one character who knows a bit about the Hounds explains, they don't have seasons in the traditional sense of the fashion world:
When they remake the jackets, if they ever do, they'll be exactly the same, cut from exactly the same pattern. The fabric might be different, but only an otaku could tell....It's about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialization of novelty.
The Baronette picked up the September issue of Wire and I've been slowly picking through it. The cover story is called "Retro-Activity," and is made up of a bunch of shorter stories about different ways that contemporary musicians or music scenes are using the music of the past, not simply as revivalism, but in creatively interesting ways. In the first section, Nick Richardson writes about the new coldwave and minimal synth scenes as a "radical revivalism," arguing that their
retro-resistance is more ideological. They resist the mass media's belief in novelty-as-quality, resist the forced "progress" of neo-liberal capitalism--where "progress" means a drive for efficiency at the expense of human interaction. So their material does sound new, even if its sound isn't new. That is to say, it's the sound of something it wasn't before: a radical dissent that's as much a product of its time as Marquis De Sade [one of the original post-punk era coldwave bands] were of theirs. A stubborn stride backwards in a culture driven forwards at the end of a whip.
I'm not personally familiar with any of the new music Richardson's discussing, and not much more familiar with the original batch from the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, but regardless of whether I would agree with the assessment were I better acquainted with the material, it appears that there is Something In The Air.

Gibson's story is about the attempt to turn the methods of the Hounds to the advantage of the global capital machine, which is appropriate considering that the figure driving the action of all three of his latest novels, the hilariously-named advertising magnate Hubertus Bigend, is explicitly--and excellently--portrayed as turning the methods and theories of the Situationist International to this same advantage (which is in itself perhaps the greatest, and most despicable, example of détournement imaginable). In fact, a constant theme throughout the books--and possibly their entire Deeper Meaning--is that, regardless of your relationship with this machine (both as personified in Bigend and in its myriad other forms), regardless of the relationship you desire to have with it, you are always benefiting it. Even if you come up with what seems like a foolproof method of defying it, of fighting against it, you're still complicit, and it will simply find a way to twist your methods to its needs. That Gibson is, to all appearances, merely ambivalent to all this (when surely the only sane reaction, on becoming aware of it, is Lovecraftian horror), ends up actually adding to the impact of the books for me: they show all this in action, they show how it all works, and still they can't find a way to just straight-up condemn it.

I doubt that either Nick Richardson or the members of the scene he writes about are naive enough to not realize all of this. And, for the moment, their system seems to be working, at least on a minuscule level. It's not a revolution, but it is resistance.

I have my doubts about the specifics--a revival of a specific period will always have a flavor of "going back to before it all went wrong and starting over," and in this way I think perhaps the atemporality of the Hounds is more effective (though of course there it's still just another way of pushing consumer goods). And the music of the post-punk era, in addition to being aesthetically appealing to me, also has the very strong virtue of having happened right on the cusp of the Thatcher/Reagan era. But while Thatcher and Reagan are among the best examples of what's wrong with everything in this world of ours, I worry that a revival of this era can send the erroneous message that they were the cause or the beginning of it. Though on the other hand perhaps we could see this more as a revival of resistance to the wrongs that they exemplified, a resistance that went wrong the first time.

Regardless, though, I'm getting caught up in the specifics of an example, when I meant to be examining the broader concept. I'm not sure I have much more to say about it. But: resistance to novelty as resistance to capitalism. Nice. Like it. That's all.


Anonymous said...

love it! i would add that while resisting the obsession with newness is a way to resist capitalism, renouncing the obsession with irony is truly the new avant-garde.

Ethan said...

Thanks! And funny you should mention renouncing irony, because Richardson and several of the other writers in the Wire feature talk about that, too. Like, for instance, Mark Fisher, talking about the unfortunately named but wonderful salvagepunk and hauntology:

"...the triumph of the British hauntologists is is apparently to have over come embarrassment, and regained sincere passions for enthusiasms that had been condescendingly dismissed in the sneery-cheery atmosphere of compulsory trivialisation and conspicuous detachment that governs British pop culture."

I agree with you to an extent on this front. I do think that irony can be a very powerful tool to express some very important things, and can be a route to sincerity in some contexts, and as such shouldn't be abandoned entirely. But when irony is as reflexive, pervasive, and meaningless as is certainly is now (and has been for an amount of time I wouldn't want to attempt to specify), it becomes just another way that mass culture keeps us in our isolated consumerist boxes.

Anonymous said...

exactly! irony is an indispensible weapon in the subversive's arsenal. as the dominant rhetorical mode, on the other hand, it's petty and tyranical.

Peter Ward said...

I'm not sure that novelty (or pseudo-novelty as it seems to be to me) is fundamental to capitalism, or even that important. In fact it seems to me it's lack of change--in any non-superficial form--that is one of the salient characteristics of our politico-economic situation. War is Peace/Change is Stasis.

Ethan said...

Hmm...I'm intrigued, but I think I might need a little more to go on. Should you feel the inclination, would you mind expanding on that a bit?