Nostalgia, atemporality and music blogging

Simon Reynolds: how do you write about music when the volume of creation is unmanageably large? You give up on criticism, give up on finding something Significant. Instead, you just churn out excited brief notes on whatever track has dropped into your feed in the last 5 minutes.

That’s what Pitchfork are doing with their offshoot Altered Zones. 15 bloggers post prolifically “

with a sensibility that could be fairly described as post-critical

“. Because, says Reynolds, “

there’s just too much [music], and that filtering doesn’t seem to be quite the thing to do with it

So far, so typically net/ADHD/affect-driven. More interesting is the implied link between this cultural surplus and a culture of nostalgia.

“Everybody knows” that we’re drowning in nostalgia. But our nostalgia has two distinct patterns, one transitional, the other here to stay. The first is our parent’s nostalgia — the mainstream, modernist-nationalist TV nostalgia of “remember the 80s” shows. This variant functions as a stand-in for the mass culture of the past, a nicotine patch for modernism. It conjures up a feeling of experiencing the same media alongside your neighbours, friends and enemies. Since that shared culture no longer exists in the present, it’s transposed into the past.

So that form of mass-culture nostalgia is a transition phenomenon: it’ll vanish as there are no longer generations growing up with mass-culture upbringing. “Remember the 90s” is already strugging; “Remember the noughties” perhaps won’t function at all.

But the ‘nostalgia’ currently riding high in music is something else entirely. It’s “ahistorical omnivorousness”:

I don’t think [it] really has much to do with all the ’80s ghosts haunting this music. From YouTube to sharity blogs, the Internet is an ever-expanding data sea, and these young musicians are really explorers, voyaging into the past and diving for pearls.

Bruce Sterling covered this last year in a speech at the Transmediale digital art festival in Berlin:

So how do we just — like — sound out our new scene? What can we do to liven things up, especially as creative artists?

Well, the immediate impulse is going to be the ‘Frankenstein Mashup.’ Because that’s the native expression of network culture. The “Frankenstein mashup” is to just take elements of past, present, and future and just collide ‘em together, in sort of a collage. More or less semi-randomly, like a Surrealist “exquisite corpse.”

tw: yes

depresive hedonia

I have a pretty decent idea of what kind of grumpy old man I’ll become, should I live that long. Like some kind of postmodern atheist puritan, I’ll start to becme vocally opposed to Fun. Or opposed to short-term pleasure, at least — opposed to the capitalist agenda of momentary hedonism.

This kind of addictively shallow pleasure-seeking is closely linked to the constant availability of short-term stimulus. Here’s how


describes it in

Capitalist Realism


“Many of the teenage students I encoutnered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia. Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it is by an inability to do anything else _except_ pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ — but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed _beyond_ the pleasure principle”

This is a general social trend, but massively exacerbated by instantaneous new media and mobile communication, and in particular by the commercial interests built around them. In a world of constant, instant news, the economy of attention is built around addiction.

It’s barely a stretch to claim that this is taking its place alongside the better-known socio-cultural distortions which have shaped the world up to now. Planned obsolescence, advertising-fuelled inflation of gigantist consumerist desires — these continue, but news-addiction takes its place alongside them as a market distortion of desire.

It’s a particular problem when combined with ‘walled gardens’, which give one corporation control over the mechanisms of communication, and power to unilaterally change the terms of conversation. We need some kind of ‘escape gardening’, a set of technical innovations and social practices which would let us engage with communities in such closed platforms, while building ways to guide people out of them into the open web, or into interpersonal relationships not mediated by blinkenlights.

Addiction-seeking mechanisms and walled gardens can exist independently, of course, but the latter provides a strong commercial incentive to generate the former.

There are ways out of this situation. But they all require consciously stepping off the hedonic treadmill, and accepting stress and misery on the path towards doing something. There’s no shortage of models for this. Any number of classical philsophical schools, many religious teachings. Walden, and other forms of intentional simplicity. Romanticism, emphasising the intensity of feeling over its quantity or pleasantness. The Aesthetic movement, and the idea of the Lebenskunstler.

But to reach them we need, not necessarily a deceleration, but a willingness to exist in the absence of stimulation.

As you may guess, much of this post comes from my personal frustration at a work-style which requires me to be constantly plugged in, but which hasn’t yet helped me achieve any human closeness or intensity of feeling

tw :yes


On a similar topic, the need for retreat:

I believe that teaching today, in all and any context, must involve the strategies of the psychoanalyst. That’s how traumatizing our pleasure-culture has become, not by being pleasurable but by denying our ability to rest. I’m reminded of Zizek’s remarks on Lenin who withdrew to Switzerland in the dire times of 1915 to a kind of inner repose in which he read Hegel. When he re-emerged, it was with the refined capacity to strike at the heart of the matter.


I’d put this in the same context as Malcolm X’s experience of studying in prison. In fact it’s true of many revolutionary leaders, that they move from being jailed on political grounds, straight to leading a mass movement. I’d taken it as an impressive sign of strength of character — but perhaps even the isolation of jail can provide something of value*.

See also this HN discussion of doing nothing for 2 minutes. And this is discussion from a high-energy technophile crowd, appreciating the value of stepping back from the cycle.

* to be clear, not trying to be rosy about this — being locked up is a soul-destroying experience for most, even if there is occasionally a small silver lining.

Love in a time of acceleration

Is love more powerful when it is harder to obtain? Rob Horning thinks so:

as dating (or ersatz love) has migrated to the internet, it has undergone the same changes as everything else that has moved online: it has been remade by the ethic of convenience into something more solipsistic and disposable.

But what online dating does terrifyingly well is to help people find partners who perfectly embody some desired template of personality. The end result is that you can find scarily close lovers.

Or that’s my hunch, and one which I’m sure could be demonstrated in some quantitative way. Couldn’t two lovers who are database-certified as perfect for one another attain a deeper level of intensity, compared to old-school partners, who have some reasons to love one another, but were mostly just in the same place at the right time?

Zizek on capitalist realism

What I love about Zizek’s blurb for Capitalist Realism is that you can so easiy imagine him exclaiming it vocally, complete with excited hand-gestures:

Let’s not beat around the bush: Fisher’s compulsively readable book is simply the best diagnosis of our predicament that we have! Through examples from daily life and popular culture, but without sacrificing theoretical stringency, he provides a ruthless portrait of our ideological misery. Although the book is written from a radically Left perspective, Fisher offers no easy solutions. Capitalist Realism is a sobering call for patient theoretical and political work. It enables us to breathe freely in our sticky atmosphere.

More on depressive hedonia

Ian Bogost and his commentators have some interesting reactions to K-Punk’s argument on ‘depressive hedonia’. First, Ian connects it to the never-ending debate over ‘hard’ theory:

Yet, as Fisher points out, when students “want Nietzsche in the same way that they want a hamburger” they miss the fact that “the indigestibility is Nietzsche.”

My answer here is probably to say that nothing is inherently worthwhile /because/ it is hard. It can perhaps, though, be good in spite of hardness, and the hardness (if measured in the depth of attention possible/required) can open a door oto stronger feeling/understanding.

Then there is an interesting comment about distraction as a defence mechanism. Of a student wearing headphones in class:

What if the student needed the headphones primarily as a type of anxiety management against the classroom, placing a symbolic barrier of sorts between himself and the room in which he was expected to participate with a degree of fluency, articulateness and incisiveness that, in this society, it’s just as likely he would feel eminently unequal to. To me, the headphones seem much more a way to insulate one from the angst of socio-academic participation in than it is “to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand.”

This, IMO, is also true as a much more general rule. The cycle of seeking new things, seeking short-term gratification or acceptance — it’s the result of insecurity. If you have the confidence of being surrounded by love and acceptance, you don’t need by-the-minute demonstration thereof.

Incidentally, for reference, this is the post which formed the basis for that section of Capitalist Realism.

Depressive hedonia: blast from (450 years in) the past

On depth of pleasure…something not all that apposite, but which has been rocking around in my mind, and so which I may as well expunge by copying here.

Here’s Roger Ascham on Jane Grey, Anglicanism’s favourite geeky teenage quasi-martyr:

I came to Brodegate in Lecetershire, to take my leave of that noble Lady JaneGrey, to whom I was exceeding much beholding. Her parents, the Duke and Duchess, with all the household Gentlemen and Gentlewomen were hunting in the Park: I found her in her Chamber, reading Phædon Platonis in Greek, and that with as much delight as some gentleman would read a merry tale in Bocase. After salutation, and duty done, with some other talk, I asked her why she would carry out such pastime in the Park? smiling she answered me: I know all their sport in the Park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato: Alas good folk, they never felt what true pleasure meant.

Informational Hygiene

‘Informational Hygiene’ is a concept dreamt up by Neal Stephenson in his classic cyberpunk novel ‘Snow Crash’. Stephenson riffs on the idea of memes as mind viruses; his conceit is that memes exist with the power not only to propagate themselves and convey ideology as a side-effect, but to destroy the minds which play host to them. Ancient cultures, plagued by these mind viruses, developed forms of cultural protection against them:

Monocultures, like a field of corn, are susceptible to infections, but genetically diverse cultures, like a prairie, are extremely robust. After a few thousand years, one new language developed – Hebrew – that possessed exceptional flexibility and power. The deuteronomists, a group of radical monotheists in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C., were the first to take advantage of it. They lived in a time of extreme nationalism and xenophobia, which made it easier for them to reject foreign ideas like Asherah worship. They formalized their old stories into the Torah and implanted within it a law that insured its propagation throughout history – a law that said, in effect, ‘make an exact copy of me and read it every day.’ And they encouraged a sort of informational hygiene, a belief in copying things strictly and taking great care with information, which as they understood, is potentially dangerous. They made data a controlled substance.

Information hygiene has developed a life beyond the pages of this book. [it’s not the only concept to do so — Snow Crash is also the book that inspired Google Earth]. It has a slighty creepy feel, but the principle is sound. The processes inside your head depend on what you put into it. So you should be careful about what you read, for example — an idea, even one you consciously disagree with, will have mental side-effects.

You could take informational hygiene as an injunction not to read, say, racist or sexist rants. I’m not so bothered about that side of things; I believe you can reject such ideas more-or-less consciously.

Informational hygiene is more interesting to me in the context of the attention economy. Political, social and cultural developments are dictated not just by what people believe, but by how much time they spend talking and thinking about it.

If a European spends all her time reading about politics in America, for example, she’ll end up feeling alienated and disempowered. She has few levers with which to change policy in another country, so learning in detail about it is a waste of intellectual and emotional effort. Better to learn about a topic she can affect, and the ways she can affect it.

We’re blowing up your home. It’s for your own good.

Afghanistan. Still a war there. And every time you look away for a while, the news gets a bit worse.

Here is a horrifying story of bombing an Afghan village into oblivion. Except the writer isn’t horrified; in her eyes, this is a perfectly sensible military tactic. She’s incomprehending when one of the villagers “

in a fit of theatrics

” accuses the commander of “ruining his life”. Because blowing his home, and his neighbours’ homes, and their farmland, is a trivial thing to get annoyed about.

There are outraged posts and further information popping up online.

One of the best responses is from Joshua Foust, writing at Central Asia blog Registan. As he points out, this isn’t an individual outrage. It’s a standard tactic, something that the soldiers involved now barely see as controversial:

I cannot comprehend why the deliberate destruction of villages seems to be an official, sanctioned ISAF policy in the South. Is is abhorrent, an atrocity, and there is no excuse for it (nor are there words for the anger it’s stirred in me, reading about it from afar; I suspect Broadwell would sniff at me to stop whining as well, were we to discuss it in person). This should outrage and infuriate everyone who reads about it. But, and this is where I move from rage to despair: how could we ever possibly hope to stop it?


Afghanistan. Still a war there, y’know.

And every time you look away for a while, the news gets steadily worse.

Here is a horrifying story of bombing a village into oblivion. But the writer is in total sympathy with the military, and doesn’t understand how anybody could dislike their home being destroyed::

Mohammad [one of the villagers]…in a fit of theatrics had accused Flynn of ruining his life after the demolition

clearing operations are a necessary evil to weed out the Taliban, and they often leave devastating destruction in the wake. But [critics overlook] the tremendous effort some units, like 1-320th, have made to rebuild his country

There’s been entirely justified outrage at wired and at Central Asia blog Registan

what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is


. There were rumors of this policy of collective punishment in the Arghandab before (see this overwrought Daily Mail story that stops right before the village actually was destroyed for an idea of what is going on), and I’m really struggling to see how such behavior does not violate Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—that is, how this behavior is not a war crime, especially given the explicit admission that such behavior is merely for the convenience of the soldier and not any grander strategy or purpose.

I cannot comprehend why the deliberate destruction of villages seems to be an official, sanctioned ISAF policy in the South. Is is abhorrent, an atrocity, and there is no excuse for it (nor are there words for the anger it’s stirred in me, reading about it from afar; I suspect Broadwell would sniff at me to stop whining as well, were we to discuss it in person). This should outrage and infuriate everyone who reads about it. But, and this is where I move from rage to despair: how could we ever possibly hope to stop it?

Extra horror: read the comments on any of the posts above. They’re all full of people defending the policy of blowing up villages for the good of the inhabitants.