On Vanishing Land

Revisiting the Eerie: Notes from Mark Fisher’s and Justin Barton’s On Vanishing Land (2013) (currently showing at The Showroom Gallery in conjunction with The Otolith Collective). The piece features music by Baron Mordant, Dolly Dolly, Ekoplekz, Farmers of Vega, Gazelle Twin, John Foxx, Pete Wiseman, Raime and Skjolbrot.

On Vanishing Land is a 45 minute long audio-essay, based around an 18 mile walk that Mark Fisher and Justin Barton experienced in 2005. They walked along the Suffolk coastline, on an unusually hot April day, from Felixstow container port (the busiest and biggest container port in the UK) to Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge. The piece explores the eerie, as it relates to geography, a coastlines history and capitalism.

It also explores echoes, or perhaps recalls the walk, the territory, and the land through various cultural connections with the coastline and its histories – histories that are either forgotten or re-animated in literature or music. I would like to talk briefly about these memorial confluences….

M.R. James' stories and the 1968 Jonathan Miller adaptations for the BBC (which were based in the area) are very important here, not only because James' 1904 story (Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad) is based around the coastline but because of how it evokes the Eerie; the bristling, brooding, sentient landscape – an unnerving speculation of otherness:

A long stretch of shore--shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water--a scene, in fact, so like that of his afternoon's walk that, in the absence of any landmark, it could not be distinguished therefrom. The light was obscure, conveying an impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain. On this bleak stage at first no actor was visible. When, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared; a moment more, and it was a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened…” - M. R. James, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1904).


There is an important distinction to make here, and that is the distinction between a Gothic form of Horror, an anthropocentrically coded horror, and the sheer otherness of The Eerie. For traditional horror, there is always a chase, an object of fear or a threat – the eerie is none of these things, but instead it is a peculiar shift, a change of dimension, or a realization, an awkwardness with the world – the times when you notice the world is strange and indifferent – the Eerie is weirder than any threat or evil force – it is the dawning of an otherness that is malign, infinite and powerful. A non-thing that is  unthinkably indifferent to our very presence….

The sea, the burning sun, the stinging rain, the unfamiliar shoreline, the humanless container port (an eerie pocket of mechanization, capital as a cthullhu –here used strictly as Michel Houllebecqs notion of Lovecrafts Cthulhu as sheer amoral otherness entity), the overgrown tank traps for a Nazi invasion that never happened, the castles built for a Napoleonic invasion that never came.... In this strange land, this forth world, whilst lost along the coast, one may need to trace the ruins of ancient symbolic orders: We Must Hunt Under the Wreckage of Many Systems:

Mark Fisher and Justin Barton spent a lot of time watching 1968 Jonathan Miller adaptation of “Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad” whilst listening to Brian Eno’s 1984 LP “Ambient 4: On Land”, many of the track titles share their names with places along the coastline, this is no coincidence as Eno grew up in Woodbridge, but I’d like to draw particular attention to the ominously Eerie nature of the track titles that hint at a strange, otherworldly, land:

“The Lost Day”


“Unfamilar Wind (Leek Hills)”

“A Clearing”

Could this clearing be a clearing in space, or time, or memory?

Music and geography can become portals, we can wander into another world different to the symbolic order we have been accustomed too, as Brian Eno mentions in the sleeve notes to On Land:

What qualified a piece for inclusion on the record was that it took me somewhere, but this might be somewhere that I'd never been before, or somewhere I'd only imagined going to. Lantern Marsh, for example, is a place only a few miles from where I grew up in East Anglia, but my experience of it derives not from having visited it (although I almost certainly did) but from having subsequently seen it on a map and imagining where and what it might be. We feel affinities not only with the past, but also with the futures that didn't materialize, and with the other variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we have agreed to live in.” - Brian Eno, sleevenotes to On Land

I feel that there is a strong evocation of this in On Vanishing Land, listening to Barton’s narrative breaking and lapping over the layers of ambient sounds, the listener's mind is very much transported, into the solar glare of a hallucinatory day dream. One slips through to an elsewhere, a dream of sand, shingle and forgotten histories. But this dream that is not about a different place, but about a different world. It is in this respect that the piece evokes the Eerie. There are no reasons for this, but there is a tangible lucidity. Mark mentioned that he wanted to create a piece somewhere between sound art and music; the experience is very much of being transported to an unknown zone through an unknown zone.

Space through sound is conjured. The eerie is a terrestrially amplified resonance. The resonance that sounds when the symbolic fabric tears, our auto-coded world of delights and horrors dissolves and an Eerie silence of otherness and geo-trauma fills the void. There are spaces where this happens (like in Tarkofsky’s Stalker) On Land, on the coast, in sound and in our memories….

Just like a massive political event may mute the bustling roads of a city, stifle the air of the suburbs or snatch meaning from media commentary - I feel that the Eerie is an illusive and potent reminder of the symbolic order just being another dream within a dream:

"I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?"

 - Edgar Allan Poe

As Radical as Reality Itself: What Southland Tales Tells Us About Todays Media

After discussing many different facets of cinema, capitalism and affect in Jon Lindblom's Deleuze and Cinema reading group I find an increasing tendency in my thinking. I often refer to, or revert back to Shaviro's analysis of Richard Kelly's Southland Tales (in Post Cinematic Affect - Zero Books). I sometimes feel that Southland Tales has a prescient cinematic aesthetic; I find myself quite often seeing glimmers and echos from a flattened affective constellation from the future in other contemporary media. It is the similarity between Southland Tales and every day sights and sounds that I want to focus on here.

The poly-media: the contemporary constant hum of updates, bulletins, tag lines, adverts, sponsors and news is the aesthetic of Southland Tales cinematography. The viewer cannot watch or focus, but rather gaze passively, distractedly at a vertiginous retinal onslaught of information, imagery, action and stimuli. Kelly takes this dystopic media cinematography and polishes and multiplies it into a commentary. I feel that this aesthetic of capitalism is actually not overly exaggerated in Southland Tales, instead I agree with Shaviro - that Southland Tales is 'film' operating in the media aesthetic of today. The only reason it stands out, the only reason it feels like a caricature, parody or performative comment is because ordinarily the big screen is reserved for a conservatively retrospective aesthetic of deep hues, traditionally composed shots and reassuringly delightful pacing. Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Wells may well have historically vital works and aesthetic developments; but for the task of exploring how we gaze at the screens and media of today they are, charmingly, inept.

The similarities I am drawn to here are those whose "correspondences and connections form something like an affective constellation, examples remain uber-intensively flattened and "refuse to coalesce into any sort of higher, synthetic unity" scenes that drawn the viewer with an infinity of images that "coexist in their very distance from one another". Precisely, I am drawn to examples that share similarities with how, as Shaviro comments:

"Kelly's images and sounds are wildly disparate, and yet they all exist on the same plane. They do not fit together in any rational way; they are so miscellaneous, and so scattered, that they do not even conflict with one another. At the same time, none of these images or sounds is privileged over any other, no image source or sound source is treated as more authentic than any other. In particular, there us no hierarchy of representations; the images on a screen are just as real, and are just as efficacious, as the objects from which those images are supposedly derived. In the terms used by Deleuze and Guattari, the film refuses any "supplementary dimension" and operates only "with the number of dimensions one already has available" (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 6). In this way Southland Tales exhibits an entirely flat ontology." (Shaviro, Post Cinematic Affect, 2010, pp. 73-74)

The 2012 X-Games (from L.A.) exhibits all of the above. The viewer is treated to, supposedly, a showcase of macho gladiatorial spectacles. Take for example the BMX "Big Air Final".

I feel that this coverage of the X-Games is a wonderful example of how modern media has "no hierarchy of representations" and "exhibits an entirely flat ontology". For example, and this is perhaps the most vitally exemplary facet for me, the commentators voice is used for multiple dimensions. The commentators narrate the action on screen and the efforts of the athletes just as in any other sports coverage but they also, without any announcement or aesthetic transition, seep in other dimensions. They slide seamlessly into comments about future programmes and deliver arrays of whole advertisements with a flattening tone of irrepressible glee. One moment the ear is fed background histories about athletes efforts to advance their capabilities or the methods they undertake to learn new skills, the next moment a list of sponsors is detailed including all the traditional components of an advert e.g.: brand announcement, advert, tag line, brand name closure. There is never any notice that this is an advert, there is never any significant break in the voice or even the action on screen, instead adverts, sponsors and sporting action coagulate into one singular plane of aesthetics.

This does not just occur at the level of the authoritative commentary; it extends, perhaps more observably, into/across the images on screen. As with much of sports coverage the screen is crammed with data, graphics, news and logos; but ESPN’s coverage seems almost directionless in its floating, fragmented flatness. It feels directionless because there are so many facets vying for ocular attention simultaneously. Obviously, all sports coverage has adverts, most news and sports channels have rolling news feeds, updates, next ups and bulletins; but I feel that the degree to which all the aspects of ESPN’s coverage culminate in is striking. For example, straight after, or sometimes during, the voiced advertisements we can see the logos on the athletes and ramps and logos on the graphics (a constant floating remind of the sports debt to capital) - but we are also treated to random brand logo pop-ups! These logos drop down and distract the attention, often from the same logo placed within the ‘action’. So in one moment the viewer could be appreciating a Go-Pro logo situated on the ramp in the action but the next moment this view becomes obscured by a pop-up graphic of the same Go-Pro logo - and all this whilst a discombobulating imbrication of narrative/sponsor is operating in both visual and aural levels of the coverage. The effect of such capitalized flattening is akin to myodesopsia (eye floaters) behind which an endlessly ramifying, imbricating, propagating and proliferating of content into capital is at work.

There are other similarities too. Quite often, the camera pans across a crowd of surf/skate-wear clad spectators who gesticulate, whoop and scream in a knowingly performative manner. This is not a constant state, but a reaction to the presence of the camera and the medias gaze. Upon making eye contact with the technological lens the fans of the sport begin the required performance of faux-ecstasy and leap into action. It is almost as if the real thrill is not the sport but the media… One common reaction to the cameras presence has caught my eye as embodying the forces emerging from such a media. Or rather, a disembodied want is emerging as a manifestation of such an affective media environment. Oftentimes, when the camera pans across a stand of excited spectators it is not greeted by the traditional wave, gesticulation or shouting that we expect but something quite different. Instead I often see spectators holding logos on their T-shirts out to the camera, as if to say: "this is what you came for". For an athlete to do such a thing would make perfect sense, most athletes earn far more from sponsorship and endorsement deals than prize money, but there is no such benefit for a young teenager in the stands to draw the camera gaze towards a Vans or Quicksilver logo. Granted we all do stupid things when feeling uneasy in-front of the camera, but the stoic, almost lethargic coolness of the ubiquitous logo touting performance that so many spectators feel they ought to be performing at the moment the camera pans past leads me to suppose that they are acting out something that cannot be said. They are perhaps acting out the fact that it is not the sport, event or atmosphere that is important – but the presence of various forces of capital that the logos and brands channel through the event.

The spectators also have a self-reflexivity on par with all the celebrity performances in Southland Tales. From Justin Timberlake miming to The Killers or Dwayne Johnson playing Johnny Depp playing a nervous finger twitching fretter – there is a knowingness of appearance; an auto-animation into flattened avatar aesthetic. Becoming a prop for the logo at the drop of a hat. This feels not dissimilar to the amnesiac method acting that Boxer Santaros/Dwayne Johnson displays in Southland Tales. Both the spectators at the X-Games and Boxer Santaros/Dwayne Johnson show:

“an extreme version of the flexible personality demanded by what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (2007) call “the new spirit of capitalism.” On the one hand, such a personality must be capable or participating , with total energy and enthusiasm, in whatever project engages him at the moment. On the other hand, he must also have “the ability to disengage from the project in order to be available” for a new one. “Even at the peak of engagement, enthusiasm, involvement in a project,” the flexible personality must be “prepared for change and capable of new investments” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007, 112)” (Shaviro, 2010, 90)

As the camera rolls past the spectators any “uncertainties and differences are smoothed over, and none of them are posed as “contradictions” to be dialectically resolved. Instead, they are just presented, and transformed into spectacle, in their full messiness and intractability. In the midst of (t)his multimedia barrage.” (Shaviro, 2010, 91).

The third aspect of ESPN’s 2012 X-Games coverage I would like to focus on is what the location does to the action in light of the info-saturated aesthetic. At the end of the world, as the sun sets on L.A. and extraordinary feats of aerial acrobatics and dexterity are performed under pressure by the athletes there is no culmination of affect. There is no climatic accomplishment or center to focus upon. Behind the helmets of the athletes we see cars parking and moving along stretches of motorways. The viewer is still bombarded with notices for events running simultaneously, given updates about events in other sports or showcases on other channels. The only point of temporal reference is the sun position, all other facets of content are maintained in a frenzied stasis – the effect is flat. Both Southland Tales and ESPN’s X-Games coverage exhaust temporality, they are both “exuberantly envision the entropic dissipation of all energy, and the implosion of social and media networks into a flat, claustrophobic, degree-zero banality. (The) end-point looms before us, but it is never quite reached.” (Shaviro, 2010, 86). Temporality, duration and the time-image are gone, digital media and post-modern coverage cannot communicate and sense of duration. “Just as the movement-image gave way to the time-image, so now the time-image gives way to a new sort of audio-visual or multimedia image.” (Ibid)

The reason Southland Tales is important is because it shows the banality of duration-less media as a thing to be considered, so that, in turn, a critical distance, a position for awareness and critique can now be afforded for even the most ubiquitous media.

“Southland Tales doesn’t offer us a way out from the nightmare of “capitalist realism” or the neo-liberal “end of history”. But in its crazy ambition, its full engagement with contemporary media, and its terrible sincerity, it is one of those rare works that dares to be “as radical as reality itself”. In its demented fabulation, it reflects upon our actual situation, rather than taking a pretended distance from it.” (Shaviro, 2010, 92)


a-linguistic corporeal sounds of transformation

This is my fourth category of how voice operates in horror. I feel it is the most complex and difficult to locate (but I feel that the few I have are amongst the most powerful scenes in all of my research.). It is also the most fascinating of all the categories. It is intriguing, perhaps, because it is difficult to define, unlike the other tropes it is not a case of displaced voice, disembodied voice or ventriloquised voice - there is no spatial shift at play. To clarify; alinguistic corporeal sounds of tranformation could be screams, grunts, yelps or cries. They could be strange straining sounds or anguished moans. But, they could also be the texture and nature of voice behind the words - the pheno-phone to riff on a Barthesian conception. I will tentatively propose that this forth category provides a horrific and visceral foregrounding of the grain of the voice - grain in the Barthesian sense.

“the grain of the voice is not - or is not merely – its timbre” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 185) but “is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 188).

Grain is the glimmer of the corporeal machine, the body, making the signifier. It is noise in a somewhat cyborgian (the machinic body) or “cybernetic sense” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 187); it is an echo of the signifier’s maker in the signifier, the sound of the maker making the sounds – and one that harbours the uncomfortable corporeality of: "the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose.” (Barthes, 1977, pp. 183)

What interests me in a-linguistic corporeal sounds of transformation is how a voice changes to show a personality change or a bodily change (or both). The timbre, tone and grain of the voice will shift to signify a change (usually a threatening change). One of the most horrifying examples of this can be found in Michael Jackson's Thriller Video:

This scene could be interpreted as Michael Jackson's core psychological drive captured in a microcosm.  Michael was Peter Pan; he never wanted to grow up, sometimes he would answer the phone in a gruff masculine voice (as mentioned in Spike Lee's documentary Bad), when asked about this he would reply that he just preferred his Other voice... Jackson's utter control of his body, his limbs against gravity and his larynx against the physiological and hormonal changes of puberty was wish. In the werewolf scene we see Jackson's last sentiment growled through a vocal shift of bodily possession. The werewolf/puberty threat to the clean presentable boyish superstar is a easy trace. But the growling voice, the alien body, the unknown self emerging in his throat is not a problem unique to Michael Jackson - it is a genuine locus of signifying change (or rather a sonic grain that divulges a change impossible to put in language). The voice embarks upon a change that is analogous to either a physical transformation or a change in personality. In the Thriller example above the physical changes from young Michael to werewolf are shown in typical horror coding - but it is the voice that breaks out, erupts mid change to show that this change is truly real, truly horrifying.

This formulation of voice against physiognomy is inverted in Mamoulian's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). The changes are glimpsed in a fragmented fashion, the camera moves to and fro, we witness the change of facial features, then the hands, then the face, before seeing the nails and hair changing on the other hand. Throughout this sequence the straining voice, the grunts and wheezes track the painful physical transformation Dr. Jeckyll into Mr. Hyde. So whereas in Thriller the voice erupts suddenly, emerging with a different pheno-phone than expected, in Mamoulian's Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) the voice remains part of the image - slowly shifting, detailing, tracking the change. The changing a-linguistic sound of transformation is the only constant image within this scene. This is the cinematic difference between two formulation of the same vocal horror trope - that to show a change, a massively traumatic, physical change is best done with a voice, either abruptly for shock or slowly, with relish, to detail the grotesqueness at hand.

Importantly, it should also be noted that physique alone is often not enough to show a change - or rather that the voice alone is the character litmus test par excellence for cinematic convention. The obvious physical changes of Michael and Dr. Jeckyll depicted on screen require a vocal marker of change. Any transformation needs to be confirmed by the voice. In fact, in the original Robert Louis Stevenson story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, the voice alone is enough proof for Poole to continue battering down a door. No physical evidence is required at all:

"But now the ten minutes drew to an end. Poole disinterred the axe from under a stack of packing straw; the candle was set upon the nearest table to light them to the attack; and they drew near with bated breath to where that patient foot was still going up and down, up and down, in the quiet of the night. "Jekyll," cried Utterson, with a loud voice, "I demand to see you." He paused a moment, but there came no reply. "I give you fair warning, our suspicions are aroused, and I must and shall see you," he resumed; "if not by fair means, then by foul--if not of your consent, then by brute force!" "Utterson," said the voice, "for God's sake, have mercy!" "Ah, that's not Jekyll's voice--it's Hyde's!" cried Utterson. "Down with the door, Poole!""

The two previous examples are very similar, both scenes feature a good character changing into a less good character. And in both instances the change is physical and psychological, the physiognomy of Michael and Dr Jeckyll undergoes an excruciating change whilst their personalities, temperaments and motives also change. In the next example we shall see how an observable physical change is not even required by cinema and the viewer. The pheno-phonic shift alone is enough to warrant an emotive appreciation of a traumatic change - even if the thing changing is not human and does not have a body.

Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey features HAL. A computer program with an infallible level of artificial intelligence. The scene below shows Dr. David Bowman dismantling HAL('s) core memory drives. Dr. Bowman does not want HAL to continue controlling the ship, the only way to do this is to shut down HAL. In the context of the film we have become as attached to HAL as any other member of the team on the ship. HAL's death is poignant in that is feels like one crew member killing his colleague/friend/guardian. This is not logging off. It is a slow killing.

As David travels into the area that the memory cores are located in we hear HAL's synthetic voice dryly asking him to "stop", "please", "please Dave, stop". The language is emotive enough, we can understand that HAL does not 'wish' to be shut down. This serves the purpose of showing that HAL is reduced to pleading, he is in danger. The a-linguistic sound of transformation emerges moments later when the first few memory cores are extracted by Dr. Bowman. Here we already have all the emotive cinematic potency a director could wish for, but the tone of the scene needs to change: Kubrick has a problem, he needs to show how a thing that isn't living, a thing that doesn't have a body, emotions, hopes or dreams can die. This is accomplished through one thing alone: HAL('s) voice.

As the memory cores are removed the tone of HAL changes, the voice becomes deeper, the words are delivered slower, more laboriously. As HAL tries to sing "Daisy Daisy" the a-linguistic phone of transformation (and let's remember it is a non linguistic change here that evokes emotion in the viewer - HAL('s) dialogue is utterly mundane and not even referring to the plot any more, he is no longer asking Dave to stop) is the one component that conveys HAL's demise. "Daisy Daisy" is transformed from an automatic speech synthesis program to an anguished death rattle. The reason why I feel this scene is so important is because it always feels human watching David remove the memory cores, hearing HAL's voice change is more emotionally resonant than most human-human death scenes in cinema, yet all along we are reminded that HAL is just a program that is being shut down.

A further scene that shows an a-linguistic sound of corporeal transformation (albeit indiscernible for the viewer and instead detected by a computer) can be found in David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986). In this classic body-horror a renegade scientist, Seth Brundle, builds a teleportation machine. Naturally he cannot resist but give a spot of auto-telepotation a bash. All goes well, infact Brudle even has more energy afterwards and feels that teleportation is the key to unlocking his true potential. Unfortunately a fly was in his telepod and the teleportation essentially fused his DNA with fly DNA (except it didn't make him cool). He became part man, part fly; except the fly DNA started to overtake his own, he started to change from man to fly. In the days after his accidental gene splicing Brundle approaches his computer and speaks a comment (the computer has voice recognition). The computer informs Brundle that his voice is not recognised and he then has to manually enter the password. This scene shows how the voice recognition flags up the imminently massive physiological change.

In all these examples it is not the words that are significant, in fact the words do signify anything the physiological change is marked solely by a phonic outside of language. It is either a change in timbre in Thriller, a change in grunting - a becoming glottal in Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, a granular modulation and decay in 2001: A Space Odyssey or a technologically detected and highlighted micro-phonic change in Cronenberg's The Fly. The a-linguistic sounds of transformation are just further examples of how voice (and not physicality or occularcentric manifestations) is the key marker of a beings change, and that this change cannot enter into logos, it is never part of language but rather a phonic truth that lurks behind the words or erupts through them.

Speculative Aesthetics

After a four-day stint of contemplating various Speculative questions (at The Matter of Contradiction: War Against the Sun and the Speculative Aesthetics event) I thought the best method to re-group and sketch out the shapes of what emerged would be to start writing.  I haven’t blogged anything on this blog for some time now, I’ve been focusing on my research into voice more and posting on the Vocalities blog, but I haven’t actually posted anything about contemporary philosophical concerns, politics or art since, uh, like, forever…

However, Ray Brassier’s fantastic paper for Speculative Aesthetics and his talk at Matter of Contradiction bit me – in the most stimulating, exciting way. I’ve not engaged with Brassier’s work at any length previously but this weekend after hearing him speak on Friday I read through his paper twice before hearing him speak again on Sunday. Most of the questions I have arise from my understanding of Brassier’s formulation the journey (or rather the meandering ontological methodology) between concepts and signs and his detailing of (to summarise it crudely) a phenomeno-noumenal linguistics ‘working reality’ model. As I understand the concepts this is essentially a lucid tour through the ontological mechanisms that build firstly Wilfred Sellars’ manifest image, scientific image and secondly the subsequent stereoscopic image. My questions are framed in this brief and uninformed reading of Brassier’s work on Sellars but arise from thinking in this framework whilst tackling the questions brought forward by a few other particular papers that pose very contemporary, practical concerns for art and aesthetics; most notably Mark Fisher’s, Amanda Beech’s and Benedict Singleton’s.

I should also add a secondary constellation of influences that may not be directly cited in my questions but still coloured my thoughts on the subject: Robin Mackay’s presentations and questions, Alex William’s concise formulation of Negarestanian local/global imbrications in regard to global capital, Inigo Wilkin’s comments on Xenakis’ stochastic mode of music composition, Ray Brassier’s paper Genre is Obsolete, a brief but fascinating chat with Simon O’Sullivan and lastly the discussions with Jon Lindblom in his Deleuze and Cinema reading group.

One of the most powerful aspects of Brassier’s paper is the linguistically based diagrammatizing of our propositional method of knowing. A method that meanders, shifts and slips (unknown, unaddressed and problematically) between, if I can be so binary about it, objects and thoughts. The distinction of common nouns (“table”, “chair”) and proper nouns (“Dante”, “Cyprus”) is vital here (but just the first step). The argument to be taken from this is that not all the names we have for things are concretely linked to the things, but rather, that the naming, the nomination, the enviro-linguistic process, is not a meaning based activity but one which is a materially grounded activity. For proper nouns, simple signs, it is intuitive to understand: we agree on a name, we use it, it works and thus the relationship with the thing is maintained and so on. However, for categories, for common nouns the method leads to questions because the link from a category to a thing is not so sure.

Here we can bring in Brassier’s example of “”Rouge” in French is “red” in English” Which shows this problem in striking simplicity. Rouge is a sign, the shape of the letters and the sonic signature (sup Jacques) of the pronunciation are the thing/sign – so when we think about this translation we are not thinking about the colour red, rather we are thinking about the spelling or the rolled “R” and softened “g” of the correct pronunciation. In contradistinction “red” refers to a colour, a category, a thought – a quale. So in this example whilst “Rouge” is a sign that refers to phenomena (ink, sound) the sign is asked to embark upon massive transition, not from one phenomenal sign to another but to “red”. And red is not quite so tethered phenomenally testable methods. Perhaps my summary is too bold but I feel that this example performs how the thing, the object, is being re-vised into is an experience locked inside the readers subjectivity. A sign is asked to be a category, we could perhaps go as far as to say that a phenomena is asked to be a thought.

The problem, or perhaps the question to be addressed is, how propositional arguments are based in a predicative reliant shuttle between simple signs and more conceptual categories. So, if asking “what is there?” is a straightforward operation for signs, the aspect to explore here is that these signs are not used in isolation but are mixed in with predicates, metalinguistic sortals, concepts, and thoughts (which are not all the same thing, but I cannot unpack all these complexities here – for the sake of questions concerning aesthetics this summary will suffice). Brassier writes of how Sellars answer to the question of “what is a category” is that they are neither mind-independent attributes nor mind-dependent concepts but meta-linguistic functions that are nevertheless a mode of representing reality. Determining categories relies on the identification of a conceptual space. I feel here it is vital to proceed carefully; this is not a case of binary oppositions of private internal thought and coldly external phenomena – but the environmental, materially renewed dialogy between concepts and space. To quote Brassier:

“the mind is not an inner sanctum, (...) it is externalized in the world, and (...) this externalization is a consequence of its connection to linguistic activity. (…) The concept of inner-thought episodes is modeled on publicly observable ‘saying-out-loud’s. (…) Introspection is a corollary of extrospection. The ability to introspect and perceive that one is thinking X or feeling Y presupposes conceptual capacities rooted in linguistic practice”

So there is, in a sense, a bi-dynamic checking, a constant ordering protocol rooted in the material, the world. Environmentally testable vectors are constantly deployed outwards but at the same time the (smudged, shuttling, meandering) ontological method remains both conceptual and material. The internal reality is just as mediated as external stimuli. I feel there are strata, of thought/material gradients – that are constantly shifting and re-ordering as a natural process of how we engage with the world, how we think about the space we move in.

Brassier has more to say about Sellars, but for the purpose of my questions I will move away from this ontological subject and use the framing it provides to ask what a speculative aesthetics may be like.

Mediating practically usable signs or ultimately creating new concepts or changing the viewers concepts should be the quest of contemporary art; to pierce through and change thought – this the privilege art has traded on, or presupposed a potential of such. But this is not happening. Philosophically speaking I appreciate that there is a wealth of complexity between these two poles – but for the sake of argument I will consider these poles in relation to the above comprehension of environmentally practical signs and inner thought. Art that is language based and engages in a practice of sign-centric knowingness (the sure deployment trick or short-hand for concepts problem) is obviously no good for challenging concepts, signs change all the time, differences are constantly being re-negotiated – but it is an aeon away from conceptual renegotiation. The examples of such problems are mundanely obvious; who hasn’t walked into a gallery space and read the art piece, nodded in affirmative comprehension of the semiotics scattered about the place. In short, the level of conceptual purchase that ‘readable’ works offer is somewhat akin to that of a Peanut Punch ingredients list – not much. For our porous engagement with the world so much art is depressingly weak and languishes at a saccharine safe, commodifiable, level of sign play. Of course, it is this very mode of operating that adheres to a dominant political discourse. The consistency of signs, the stasis of concepts is something that is allows an artist to easily pitch “how they are addressing the contemporary space” as much as it reinforces categories of power as Mark fisher comments: “Elements of ‘leftist’ politics not only collude in, but actively organise this rampant identitarianism, corralling groups into ’communities’ defined according to the categories of power: a Foucauldian dystopia.” Mark Fisher also observed that  “Queer theory might reign in the academy, but it has done nothing to halt the depressing return of gender normativity in popular culture and everyday life.” And this is sadly true, I personally find art works concerning the questions from the histories of Queer Theory to be amongst the most cheaply readable – and I do not specialize in this field as much as some. A (pessimistic) case in point- right?

So, how can art become more insidious? How can it permeate through to our thoughts and challenge or renegotiate concepts. Although this avenue is available it is also ordered by arts own tradition. Art always proposed this deeper potential – be it the sublime, or beauty (both very much received at a deeper level of thought that is less language-centric and more experienced activated) but these too are all too easily aligned into existing strategies of power and the capitalist channels of libidinal routing and ordering for its own propagation. To discover hope we may turn to Benedict Singleton’s application of the term metis and his research around traps, escapology, fabrication and manipulation. Singleton comments that in Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant’s Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (1991). They describe mêtis as:

“a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behaviour which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience over the years. It is applied to situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation or rigorous logic.
Detienne & Vernant, 1991: 3-4”

My first reaction to the weekend was that the question of speculative aesthetics is a question of understanding where to lay a conceptually disruptive trap between the two previously outlined extremes of contemporary arts dilemma. Like Goldilocks, the trap cannot be set upon the level of language and easily communicative notions for this position does not have sufficient purchase on concepts to create any major conceptual renegotiation but cannot swing to the other extreme of arts traditional position of the sublime or beautiful as these too would adhere to the current political order and generate nothing but stasis. I felt that the question was a case of finding an opportune sweet spot to execute the trap.

However, this is not an answer. There is no possibility in this. There is no potential to be discovered in asking this question – strictly because the question of where presupposes an existing conception of various degrees of artistic practice – and it is precisely the ordering of these degrees that need to be questioned. Both Mark Fisher and Robin Mackay commented on how social media is a very powerful force for changing both concepts, thought and behavior. This lead me to ponder the possibilities of non-art or non-media – or rather those endeavors that operate across creative territories and are as insidiously powerful in changing the way we behave and think as they are impossible to categorize; isn’t the thing we cannot comfortably categorize always the most profound? I am thinking in particular of those pieces that are not really one thing or another – the chimerical practice (which is essentially what makes emerging strands of peripheral capitalism and online social media so powerful). For example, the projects that have to be awkwardly fumbled into conversation as “well, its not an art piece, its this guy who” or “I mean its not a record, there’s this website and you…”. Art needs to escape from beneath the smothering name it mistakenly pedals in the hope of affording potential. The task is for “it” to operate autonomously from the role of “Art” and become a creative project outside of traditional discourse, institutions or economies.