Sometime back in the early 2000s, I began following a blog by a mysterious character called ‘K-Punk’. K-Punk wrote with rare brilliance – and at astonishing speed – about music and other idiosyncratic preoccupations: J.G. Ballard’s urban dystopias; films by Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and David Cronenberg; 70s sci-fi TV series; the coastal landscapes of south east England; writers of otherworldly stories like Ursula Le Guin and H.P. Lovecraft; X-Men comics; Christopher Nolan’s Batman; Kate Moss; the England football team. His rapturously eloquent, bracingly erudite posts on pop music – in its various underground and overground forms – were, though, the first to snag my interest. Often, they were hilariously spot-on in their caustic hostility towards sacred cows.
This column was originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet.
In my column for this publication a few months ago, I called for a new negativity, in the spirit of Herbert Marcuse’s claim that the proper function of art was to be a “Great Refusal”. What better answer could I get than the massive ‘NO’ painted on the grass of Parliament Square in London during one of the recent series of protests against government cuts in the UK? Only four weeks ago, this kind of negativity still seemed to be only a distant possibility in a place like the UK. When, at a conference on public art and civility organised by SKOR in Amsterdam at the end of October, I suggested that there would soon be expressions of massive public anger in the UK, some of the UK-based delegates were sceptical, accusing me of “revolutionary nostalgia”. I was confident that they were being unduly dismissive – but I still didn’t anticipate the scale of the recent protests.
The audio-essay I recently produced in collaboration with Justin Barton, On Vanishing Land, was in part a disquisition on the eerie.  For us, the eerie was defined by problems of agency. In the deserted spaces which often trigger the feeling of the eerie, we are forced to ask if there is an agent present, unseen but watching us. If an agent is present, what is its nature? Is it hostile, friendly, or merely indifferent? The feeling of the eerie is also likely to be provoked by the contemplation of the relics left behind by agents who have long departed. The statues on Easter Island, the stone circle at Avebury – these confront us with gaps in our knowledge. What kind of agents built these constructions, and what (now irretrievably lost) symbolic regime made sense of them?
The artist Michael Wilkinson’s show ‘Lions After Slumber’, which was exhibited last May at the Modern Institute in Glasgow, was a repository of artefacts from past militant moments. The show was dominated by images and objects referring to the May ‘68 events in Paris and the punk and post-punk cultural sequences that happened in the UK in the late 70s and early 80s. The largest item in ‘Lions After Slumber’ was a massive photograph of Piccadilly Circus – the same image that had hung, upside down, in Malcolm McLaren’s shop Seditionaries in the 70s. But, tellingly, Wilkinson exhibited the photograph the right way up, a sign of the ways in which – in the thirty subsequent years – power has been restored. Wilkinson’s show was in many ways about the same malaise that I described in my book Capitalist Realism.  The book is about the retreat of the militancy, which ‘Lions After Slumber’ invokes. The surrender of any utopian impulse to a ‘capitalist realism’ which expects business to dominate all areas of culture has elicited a range of responses – a mordant sense of resignation, a cheerily compliant cynicism, an impotent protest, the quiet yet implacable plague of youth depression. All of which is manifested in a culture given over to (a largely unacknowledged) retrospection and pastiche. But even as pessimism totally pervades today’s culture at an unconscious level, negativity is officially abjured.
Thank you for flying with transnational commodification
we shall shortly be arriving in mayhem
if there is anybody on board who can impersonate a pilot
it would be of comfort to the other passengers…
Never have these lines from Nick Land’s 1992 theoretical-fiction Circuitries seemed more acute. After 2011, it would be perverse for anyone to talk about the end of history any more. It was as if, after a prolonged period of emaciation, history has been bingeing. The density of world-historic events in 2011 was such that it seemed almost impossible either to keep track of them, or to believe that they had all happened in one year: the Arab Spring, the death of bin Laden, the Breivik atrocity, the Japanese tsunami, the riots in England, the Euro crisis, the emergence of the Occupy movement. We are in the midst of almighty, and perhaps unprecedented, chaos. The world has never been more interconnected, but parliamentary politics has never seemed more impotent. The globalised systems connecting the planet are vectors for financial contagion, not channels for expressing collective agency. There are no credible experts. Mainstream economists have been radically discredited, not only by their failure to predict the financial collapse of 2008, but their complicity in it. Professional politicians designed for an era of supposedly post-political administration, in which nodding compliance to business was all that was required, are unable to adapt to the new conditions, in which imaginative thinking, decisiveness and charismatic interventions are at a premium. In an attempt to orientate ourselves, we seek historical parallels. The most ominous is, of course, the 1930s, with the prospect of Europe slipping from neoliberal consensus towards internecine and perhaps ethnocidal conflict. While politicians flail and bluster on a collapsed centre ground, the far right are ready to ‘impersonate pilots’ for populations that are bewildered and shell-shocked by everything that has happened since 2008, and intensely anxious about what it is to come.