music and horror no. 2: our father is a nation.

Laurie Lipton.

Laurie Lipton.

Don’t cry no more,

Don’t cry no more –

Our father is a nation.

In the song “Nations” by avant-garde group Angels of Light there is a conception of the state which hews closer to the forms and conventions of horror than many songs coming out of the traditions of punk, or that weird sibling of punk and metal, grind. In punk songs, the state tends to be broadly drawn or even personified in caricature, like a Tammany Hall figure from Thomas Nast cartoons. Perhaps simplified and exaggerated, but perfectly explicable. In grind songs, the state (whether the American state, the British state, etc..) is specified, outlined with clinical precision, anatomized, called to attention for its myriad failings. It is sinister, but again, explicable. If the former is concerned with figureheads, the latter is concerned with systems.

But in “Nations,” the state is a more formless entity, whose expansionist aims may be clear, but whose methods and means and manifestations are not. The nation is electricity; the nation drinks blood and sand; the nation hides beneath the skin of children. It is any nations, and all nations. It is contradictory and prone to mutation, to metastasize. Most importantly, it is an entity with a life of its own.

Musically, “Nations” is built around the relentless strumming of a single chord and small variations and fingering changes around that chord. The strumming, although acoustic, is hypnotic and bludgeoning, and the slow but insistent rhythm would likely not have been out of place on a Roman slave galley – a characteristic less apparent on the studio version, which is aswarm with glockenspiels and marimbas and xylophones.

The song even touches on cultural imperialism and propaganda, with the following:

Our father weaves electricity

And he feeds the mind of nations.

The “mind” of nations. Here is nationhood, the state, as a strange kind of collective being, like a polyp-clustered colony organism growing from the stagnant water in someone’s basement. Or, perhaps more accurately, from an information-harvesting bunker in Nebraska. Later, it references the “scream of nations,” as if all nations were congenitally attached and responded to stimuli in unison, a Siamese apparatus of power conjoined at the level of technology. Rather than being simply silly and contradictory, this suggests an idea of nations as some kind of virus infecting humanity, attaching itself to us in various forms and guises and ostensibly serving our needs, but in reality seeking out its own ends. However, tied up with this idea, of course, is the more basic one of the population as a willing vessel for propaganda and PR whitewashes. They are part of this collective being, too, and watch serialized reenactments of the organism’s growth at evenings.

Not politically enlightening, and in fact purposely confused and murky, but compelling in its own right as a hallucinatory piece of fiction presenting a terrifying and fragmented vision of the modern state – and a vision much less mundane, but also little less threatening, I would add.

a menagerie of links.

Rudolf von Alt, The Library in Palais Dumba. 1877.

Rudolf von Alt, The Library in Palais Dumba. 1877.

To all my theoretical readers and spambots of the court, I apologize for the long break between posts, as well as the lack of material about fantastic and horror fiction. A new job’s strange shift scheduling is proving to be difficult to adapt to. In the meantime, here is a modest collection of links with some commentary. Let’s get cracking.

1) Benjamin Noys discusses the politics of the Old Weird versus the New Weird in “Full Spectrum Offense”, and discovers to almost no one’s surprise that the former is more rightist (as in, extremely right, and horribly xenophobic, racist, sexist, etc. ) and the latter more leftist in a very general sense. This was given as a presentation at a recent conference of the weird at University of London, and as a result is necessarily slight. It feels like a taster to what will hopefully prove to be more in depth work to come. Nonetheless, it asks an important question: What does the weird do now, not just with its inheritance of older stylistic forms, structures, and gestures, but with the inheritance of toxic racist and nationalist politics?

The ‘New Weird’, in obvious contrast, has a politics that is often much more to the Left. Beyond the obvious example of China Miéville, I would like to note a more general tendency to a cultural politics of loving the alien. The Weird is not seen as simply some terrible threat, but only a threat when perceived as such from within social constraints. The monstrous or Weird is to be celebrated for its expansion of consciousness and erosion of the bourgeois ego – the latter exemplified, often, by Lovecraft’s uptight ‘heroes’.

2) Sam Kriss writes for the New Inquiry about an unconvential new dystopian novel, the Diagonostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, written by a mysterious author going by the name of The American Psychiatric Association.

This is a story without any of the elements that are traditionally held to constitute a setting or a plot. A few characters make an appearance, but they are nameless, spectral shapes, ones that wander in and out of view as the story progresses, briefly embodying their various illnesses before vanishing as quickly as they came – figures comparable to the cacophony of voices in The Waste Land or the anonymously universal figures of Jose Saramago’s Blindness. A sufferer of major depression and of hyperchondriasis might eventually be revealed to be the same person, but for the most part the boundaries between diagnoses keep the characters apart from one another, and there are only flashes. On one page we meet a hoarder, on the next a trichotillomaniac; he builds enormous “stacks of worthless objects,” she idly pulls out her pubic hairs while watching television. But the two are never allowed to meet and see if they can work through their problems together.

This is not to say that there is no setting, no plot, and no characterization. These elements are woven into the encyclopedia-form with extraordinary subtlety. The setting of the novel isn’t a physical landscape but a conceptual one. Unusually for what purports to be a dictionary of madness, the story proper begins with a discussion of neurological impairments: autism, Rett’s disorder, “intellectual disability”. The scene this prologue sets is one of a profoundly bleak view of human beings; one in which we hobble across an empty field, crippled by blind and mechanical forces whose workings are entirely beyond any understanding. This vision of humanity’s predicament has echoes of Samuel Beckett at some of his more nihilistic moments – except that Beckett allows his tramps to speak for themselves, and when they do they’re often quite cheerful. The sufferers of DSM-5, meanwhile, have no voice; they’re only interrogated by a pitiless system of categorizations with no ability to speak back. As you read, you slowly grow aware that the book’s real object of fascination isn’t the various sicknesses described in its pages, but the sickness inherent in their arrangement.

3) Jim Frederick of The Baffler delves into that ignominious industry of unpaid labor which is screwing over and sometimes forcing into debt young workers – the internship.

Somewhere over the past two or three decades, a secret and shrewdly undeclared war between the titans of the glamour industries and a small undefended segment of the labor pool has been fought, and labor has lost. By deft public relations maneuvering, innovation in the face of decreasing cash flow, and the merciless leveraging of an ever-younger, starry-eyed, and unwary segment of the population, the media mandarins have cemented the institution of the internship—working for free—as not merely an acceptable route up the corporate ladder, but the expected one.

But hold the phone, are we really to dribble out sad otter tears for the upper-middle class college grads who willingly choose to accept unpaid internship positions? Nope, the ignominy is freely distributed all around.

And just because these hopeful careerists don’t think of themselves as scabs, it doesn’t mean they aren’t.

4) Zero Books is set to release a new short and pungent piece of criticism, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal End Game by David J. Blacker. What might it be about? To the blurb! Straight from the introduction:

The current neoliberal mutation of capitalism has evolved beyond the days when the wholesale exploitation of labor underwrote the world system’s expansion. While “normal” business profits plummet and theft-by-finance rises, capitalism now shifts into a mode of elimination that targets most of us—along with our environment—as waste products awaiting managed disposal.

The education system is caught in the throes of this eliminationism across a number of fronts: crushing student debt, impatience with student expression, the looting of vestigial public institutions and, finally, as coup de grâce, an abandonment of the historic ideal of universal education. “Education reform” is powerless against eliminationism and is at best a mirage that diverts oppositional energies. The very idea of education activism becomes a comforting fiction.