A conversation with the music writer and acclaimed author of Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life on music and mainstream culture, Popular Modernism, the struggle for time and the dizzying prospects of a political “new.”
Thank you for your time Mark. I wanted to start by asking, since the publishing of Ghosts of My Life, what are some of the responses you have encountered in your travels and lectures?
Well, from the point the book was published last April to around April this year, I was out of action in a major burnout episode, which meant I was on a strange hiatus from the book and its reception. It almost felt as if I had cursed myself by writing a book about
I think the book has fended for itself since it came out but I guess there are certain, common negative responses to some of the arguments that I have, one of which is, “we’ve heard this all before, isn’t this the same old argument that every generation has?” That things aren’t what they used to be…” To which my response is— no, this is actually a new situation. My complaint is not that things aren’t what they used to be or that they’ve changed out of all recognition— it’s just the opposite— my complaint is that things are exactly what they used to be, which in a different sense also means that they are not
Having come to a consciousness of music culture in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I was habituated to perpetual change, what I call Popular Modernism— the continuous reinvention of things, a paradoxical standardization of surprise. This has really disappeared in waves from the mainstream of popular culture, I think. There’s clearly a
I’ve heard you use the word “temporal chauvinism” to describe the push back to that idea, could I ask you to elaborate?
Yeah, what I think is interesting is this attachment and defensiveness for the present moment amongst people, saying, “our time is
So, the reverse of this “temporal chauvinism” was the discontent and disaffection previous generations had with their own time in which they lived. People in the ‘60s often didn’t think, “this was a great time.” Expectations were so high at that point that they thought, “this is not good enough, we want more!” It’s the same with punk— now punk is looked back upon as this wonderful moment of rupture that we could scarcely imagine in the current moment. The whole pitch of punk was that this was the worst time ever: no future, dreadful, a “blank” generation and it was that negativity about one’s own moment which actually— and seemingly paradoxically— fuelled what was positive, transformative and energetic about those times.
Although, the issue for me is not money, I think the major cultural crisis that we’re living through is a crisis of time. If musicians had advances, that meant they had time…time to be absorbed in their art. They had time to absorb things that would feed their art and they wouldn’t have to rush around working two or three jobs in order to pay rent alone, which is the fate of anyone trying to be a musician in London now. Even without a typical record contract, if someone wanted to be involved in music culture in the ‘60s or ‘70s in the UK, there was a much wider support network than there is today. They might have gone to art school as many of the major musicians in the ‘60s and ‘70s did. What did that give them? It gave them access to all of the resources, which included significant amounts of high culture, and it gave them time because their fees were paid. On top of that they had a maintenance grant and that’s definitely a reason why so many bands or collectives were formed by art school students. It’s also the circuit of art and pop— of pop into art, and art into pop, and back again. Students wanted to transduce some of the intensities that they received from visual art into sonic art and they had the time and space to do that because of the conditions around them. Even if people weren’t at art school they still had an unemployment or housing benefit in the UK. If they didn’t have that, they had squatting. And this capacity to substantially squat large areas of the city was a key condition for punk and post-punk in London and New York and has since been cracked down upon. When you look at it like that, it’s not surprising that the rate of innovation has collapsed in music culture. It’s just 100 times harder to be a musician now in the 21st Century than it was in the late 20th Century.
In Ghosts of My Life you pose the question, “Why did the arrival of Neoliberal, post-Fordist capitalism lead to a culture of retrospective and pastiche?” Are you still working on an answer?
Well, I tried to answer that question because of what I was just describing— it’s really just the point that Neoliberalism systematically destroys
What we’ve also seen with Neoliberalism is that the conditions for are also gone because of the attack on public funding. And broadly, we’ve now got the production of a new kind of time— entrepreneurial time. Franco Berardi is very good on this topic. The reason it was
…now everyone is required to be an entrepreneur to one degree or another. We’re all required to sell ourselves even if we are in stable jobs— and what is a stable job now anyways? There is this frenzied activity of promotion and of self-promotion— and Baudrillard was really a prophet of this— which I think is a final and decadent stage of capitalism and so I titled a chapter in Capitalist Realism, “All that’s solid melts into PR.”
I really liked that title…
Of course it’s a play on Marx and Engels but this seems to me what’s happening with the social media obsession and it’s something Baudrillard would have anticipated. If you listen to the radio or watch TV now, it seems they are endlessly promoting Twitter feeds rather than the other way around. Wasn’t the point of the social media feed to promote the radio? It’s sheer promotion for its own sake now and everything gets sucked into this vortex without any possible end. I use the word “frenzied” because it’s producing this constant sense of overwhelming urgency that there is no time to settle on anything— “there’s no time to read this book properly, there’s no time for me to listen to this record. Maybe I’ll be able to snatch a few fragments of it. What I want is a quick summary because I’m under pressure at all times from multiple platforms and even on those platforms my attention will be dispersed across multiple windows.” And this is not some strange or marginal condition for those straining themselves to the limit but becoming required of practically everybody. And the final deadly element is that this is not just some duty imposed on us by work or our employers but that this requirement has become libidinized as something we will enjoy. So I think along with Baudrillard, is also a key prophet of the current moment. We are seeing addiction and compulsion— not the kind of lyrical addictions of heroin but precisely the Baudrillardian kind— addictions to the banal and the boring. I mean, is there anything more boring than being addicted to
You’ve said that capitalism can deliver the next iPhone but not the next Public Enemy or Wu Tang Clan. Has this not caught anyone off guard that a pride of the capitalist system— novelty— has, culturally-speaking, downward spiraled into a model of ordinariness?
I think that’s really key to it. The book I’m currently working on starts with Apple’s famous
This was really successful because this has now become the cultural default in which all we can do is adjust to this new realism.
and have been incredibly successful at over all of us. Indeed, the modernist conception of time has been and now, we’re all on So what do we mean by the future now? The graspable future for us is whatever That’s the only possible future and we now count cultural time or whatever we imagine would supersede So in terms of our social-economic conditions, we experience ourselves as constantly
In culture, we accept that we can listen to something released only two years ago and that it can sound like something that was released twenty years ago. We don’t even blink anymore when we hear that, we don’t even notice that it’s the same. This is very interesting. Marshall Berman, in his writings on modernity, described this self-
For me, there’s a strong relation here: when stability and security are taken away from people’s lives it does not mean that they are compelled into all manner of creative responses to those conditions— on the contrary— it’s very clear now and unequivocal that if you deprive people of all forms of security and if you impose this panic-temporality on people then they will not be able to create anything new. They will just default to
So that’s another way of getting to the same point of how Neoliberalism has destroyed creativity.
You wrote in Ghosts of My Life that nostalgia exists today at a “formal level,” what did you mean by that?
I meant that it’s not a psychological
One of your exercises for readers is to imagine a futuristic sound. Kraftwerk is often referenced and while they are still active today, we all know their sound squarely fits in the ‘70s and ‘80s and this is still considered futuristic even though it was over 30 years ago…could you elaborate?
The music honestly captured what it was like to be in London in the 21st Century: a kind of sadness and mourning for the ‘90s, for the vibrancy of the multiplicity and of the endless self-reinvention of the dance music scene that existed in London in the ‘90s. And then, a recognition that all of that had disappeared. There’s a sadness about it and it’s the honesty of the sadness rather than the false smile— that’s the appeal of…
OK, just what do we mean by the term “futuristic”? When the word “futuristic” is used in sonic terms, we’ll probably think of Kraftwerk but it’s plainly not futuristic anymore. The “futuristic” is not something we connect with time anymore, certainly not a time that will be any different from now. The “futuristic” has become
A somewhat rhetorical question you’ve posed in your writing is, “Nostalgia compared to what?” Are you saying that there isn’t a present to grasp anymore?
Yeah, exactly. That came up with some of the music that I had discussed in Ghosts of My Life which plainly refers to
Along with , you’ve also shared your enthusiasm for some contemporary artists like the recently
Well, I think the obvious candidate for new music in the 21st Century would be
And that’s part of the appeal with too because the music honestly captured what it was like to be in London in the 21st Century: a kind of sadness and mourning for the ‘90s, for the vibrancy of the multiplicity and of the endless self-reinvention of the dance music scene that existed in London in the ‘90s. And then, a recognition that all of that had disappeared. There’s a sadness about it and it’s the honesty of the sadness rather than the false smile— that’s the appeal of
In your audio essay for The White Review you commented, “a secret sadness lurks behind the 21st Century’s smile.” You ask, “What is the saddest sound of the 21st Century?” and answer with, “When Drake says,
I think Drake and Kanye West really are the most important artists of the 21st Century because they highlight That’s what I meant by the secret sadness of the 21st Century.
You wrote in Capitalist Realism that at the level of cultural production there is a, “refusal of gatekeepers to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear to) want.” Could I ask you to elaborate on gatekeepers today?
We’re now in a time without gatekeepers and that’s really good but I also think it’s important to mention Jodi most of which are connected with corporate power.
So, the best kind of gatekeeper would give create and at a risk— as risk is a supposed basis of
and the justification for entrepreneurial capitalism but it seems to me exactly the opposite has occurred. The more deeply embedded Neoliberal-style capitalism has become, was ultimately more successful even in commodity terms.
So there is this return of music industry puppets, the likes of which we haven’t really seen since the ‘50s and there’s also the deification of the business mogul figure— it’s really a sign of the way popular music culture has been subdued and had its libidinal core replaced by business.
Right in the heart of popular culture there were that went I think a key to the current moment is the organized forgetting of that.
For example, if I taught Adorno’s famous essay from the 1930s, “On Popular Music” in the ‘70s or ‘80s, in particular the ideas of industry moguls and a standardization of music, it would look ridiculously out of date at a time when the music industry and even major labels had lost control and seeded much creative autonomy to musicians. But today, Adorno’s essay doesn’t look out of date anymore— the moguls are really back now. The re-emergence of a figure like
The reason that has assumed this centrality has to do with the subjugation of everything by capital business. The success of is saying, “Look, this is all music is now, and it’s all it ever was really, it’s just this form of business. What you need to succeed is a capitalist business and to succeed as a business…you have to do what tells you to do.” There’s no pretense of entrepreneurialism or innovation there.
So there is this return of music industry puppets, the likes of which we haven’t really seen since the ‘50s and there’s also the deification of the business mogul figure— it’s really a sign of the way popular music culture has been subdued and had its libidinal core replaced by business. Even though business is fucking boring! All it’s saying is that everything is boring now and that’s how things are— and nobody likes the music on anyways!
This is partly what I was saying about boredom. Nobody is bored but everything is boring and we can’t experience the boredom of things because we’re endlessly interrupted.
So, your title Capitalist Realism is a play on Socialist Realism, an art movement I can quickly exemplify through paintings glorifying the proletariat or the peasantry working in wheat fields, or children rallying around the great leader. In your audio essay for The White Review you cited David Guetta’s “Play Hard”— would this global hit track along with Cowell’s TV show be exemplary artworks in these times of Capitalist Realism?
Oh, I think they are in lots of ways. When I first started using the term
Certainly, wanting means that you must be willing to give up your whole life for it.
In times of Capitalist Realism, if you tell your parents you want to go to art school, what’s going to be the response?
Exactly. In conditions where everything is
starting to think that way. Why wouldn’t they?
You’ve alluded to the point that capitalism has solved the riddle of boredom with the internet, but that now we have a new riddle: . You’ve also referenced the Katy Perry song, “Last Friday Night” because it depicts a life of no restraint, maxed-out credit cards and “breaking the law, always saying we’re going to stop” as if recurrent in daily life. This makes me think of the interims between feed-refreshing and how the compulsive checking can be a bit hedonist. When you said that fame has replaced religious salvation, I thought about the purgatory before the salvation…
I think is the appropriate term to capture the state of what is happening in the 21st Century and the song “Last Friday Night” perhaps says more than it intends to. In Capitalist Realism, I called it
What about a Sisyphean dimension, might people see it as subordinated?
I think this goes back to what we were talking about earlier— no one can see anything because we don’t have
This is partly what I was saying about boredom. Nobody is bored but everything is boring and we can’t experience the boredom of things because we’re endlessly interrupted. We know boredom requires and today we’re in such a perpetual state of anxiety that we can’t even notice that everything we’re experiencing is boring.
So that puts us at a comparative to the punks on an English Sunday afternoon. Nietzsche said in the 19th Century that the English were genius to make Sunday so boring that people wanted to go back to work on Mondays. The acres of vacant time that a Sunday in England represented in the ‘70s, with barely any corner shops or newsagents open, posed an existential challenge which you had to meet. The old kind of existentialist challenge of dealing seriously with a finite amount of time in the face of mortality as in, “how can I possibly be bored if I’m going to die?” The capitalist cyberspace environment is setup to make us ignore that so we’ll happily…or not so happily…or secretly sadly…waste hours of time because that’s the nature of this form of stimulus. The profile of the insomniac is similar to the purgatorial.
You also made an example of Kurt Cobain in Capitalist Realism, writing that he was self-conscious of this predicament of no escape…
Yeah, in retrospect I think Kurt Cobain still belonged to a
One of your references to Frederic Jameson reads, “Jameson was writing in the late 1980s— i.e. the period in which most of my students were born. What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, anti-mnemonic blip culture— a generation, that is to say, for whom time has always come ready-cut into digital micro-slices.”
Jameson was talking about this in the ‘80s and you have to think about how much more blipped the culture has become since then. It’s very important that this is pitched compassionately— that’s why this isn’t about
— I think we’re in a new moment.
This is what has really made Ghosts of My Life a critique of a moment that is disappearing. In lots of ways it has disappeared for large parts of the population who have rediscovered their
This is what happens when Capitalist Realism breaks down. Certainly, there is an alternative to it. It has excited young people and so that’s why I think we’re in a new moment and this has sharpened and deepened my confidence in my critique of the previous moment, which we’re still living through. Most of the population is still in that moment of naturalized postmodernism and the end of history, but the fact that now there are these very significant eruptions of a political “new” rather than a cultural “new,” makes me think that the culture will follow from the politics this time. It also brings a sense of relief because it’s possibly the most
Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life partly came out of a sense of in the early ’80s from the observation, “Oh my God,
I think that feeling, and the that was created by Neoliberalism, is now being rejected politically. When people have the slightest chance of rejecting, they’re rejecting it with all of their being and this is remarkable, it’s remarkable to see this in England— the most depressed country in world history!
To close, I’ll paraphrase the ending of Capitalist Realism, “The long dark night at the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity…suddenly anything is possible again…” Could I ask you to elaborate in terms of the mainstream as an arena? I’ve heard you say that the Left doesn’t compete for the mainstream anymore…
I think what has made that quote true is events like
You know, the reason we conceded the mainstream was because
but since , the Right wing have nothing. They’ve had no new thought since
In a way, the new book I’m working on is
Nobody wants a lost future, everybody wants and the is what will give us something actually new.
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