Mark on a seaside trip, c. mid-2000s
There is a line in Byung-Chul Han’s book The Burnout Society that makes me think of you: ‘the violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts.’ You were the person who diagnosed this condition better than anyone else, always. You lived the violence of positivity even as you did your best to harness it. You refracted everything, engaged everything and everyone. You dissolved cynicism in energy. You could go to sleep on the floor, like a lemur, and wake up and continue the conversation as if sleep was but a momentary blip between real desire, the desire for perpetual engagement, for never-ending conversation.
[Piece for The Wire’s issue 352 on ‘Words and Music’, June 2013].
Once you start listening you can’t stop hearing it. The voice – female, or female-sounding at least, pre-recorded ‘real’ voices or mechanised tones, or, often, a weird cut-up mixture of both, dominates the sonic landscape. From the supermarket checkout machines with their chaste motherish inquiries (‘have you swiped your Nectar card?’) to repeated assertions regarding the modes of securitised paranoia (‘in these times of heightened security’), the female voice operates as a central asset in the continued securitisation and control of contemporary space, cutting across what little is left of the public realm and providing the appearance and the illusion of efficiency, calm and reassurance in commercial environments. It is estimated that 70% of recorded voices in the UK are female, or female-sounding. We all know this vocal tone, because we have no choice but to know it: it spans a narrow range between reassuring and relatively high-pitched, though ever-efficient, to deeper, more refined and sales-oriented: from clipped bus stop name announcements to Cadbury’s Caramel bunny and Mark’s and Spencer’s ads that sound like you’re wading through sexy gravy.
[A version of this text was published in The Acoustic City, edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen, JOVIS Publishers, 2014)
Four questions to begin with: What is the pitch of the neoliberal city? How does the pitch of the city construct images of and for the humanity that travels through it? How does gender relate to control of this space – corporate, commercial, privatised space and the few remaining places we might (often erroneously, or perhaps nostalgically) refer to as “public space”? How does the soundscape of the city relate to forms of control – what I will call here “soft coercion” – that often goes unnoticed, or at least blends into the background and becomes simply part of the tapestry of the urban sonic environment, alongside the whirr of traffic, the babble of the crowd, birdsong, sirens? We may think of the sound of the city as somehow being ‘neutral’ on its own terms, or at least cacophonous enough to escape linear description, but by paying careful attention to the patterns of urban sounds we do more than simply listen: the over-familiarity of certain sonic tropes starts to tell us something key about the way in which both gender and control are constructed and reinforced.
In October 2015, Audrey Wollen posted a picture on Instagram with the message ‘a PSA brought to u by ur local chapter of Female Nothingness’. The picture comprises a black and white composite image with the words BEWARE MALE ARTISTS MAKING ARTWORK ABOUT EMPTINESS/NOTHING DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU/GIRLS OWN THE VOID/BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!! next to crudely crossed out images of a John Cage manuscript, and works by, amongst others, Yves Klein (Le Vide (The Void)), Bas Jan Ader (Broken Fall (Organic). Amsterdamse Bos. Holland 1971) and Robert Barry, (Inert Gas Series: Helium. Sometime during the Morning of March 5, 1969, 2 Cubic Feet of Helium Will Be Released into the Atmosphere, 1969).Wollen’s piece, alongside her ‘Sad Girl Theory’ (where she states, and I agree, that ‘the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance’), is brilliant, both for its immediately blunt but recognisable vantage point, its militancy and its humour. ‘GIRLS OWN THE VOID’ – but what, we might ask, pushing past the humour, does it mean to own (the) nothing? A nothing that is possessed and taken away at the same time. Wollen’s synonymy – emptiness, nothing, void – and the defensive possessive ‘BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!!’ posits an ironic essentialism on two levels: the very idea of owning nothing, and the idea that ‘girls’ have a privileged insight into the nothing by virtue of being ‘girls’. It is precisely the sort of joke/non-joke that cannot be fully articulated, because it takes place on the very terrain of representation itself, which is also where sex and language do their obscure work. In this sense the joke morphs into something much more serious, revealing once again, that all jokes are acts of aggression, even in defensive formation.
Image of Nazi typewriter, including the ‘SS’ symbol (accompanies the e-flux article)
I haven’t updated in a while. In the meantime, there are quite a few new recent pieces available on and offline (links where available).
- From the end of last year, a piece I wrote entitled ‘Philosophy, Sexism, Emotionalism, Rationalism’ was published in the collection After The “Speculative Turn”: Realism, Philosophy and Feminism, edited by Katerina Kolozova and Eileen A. Joy (Punctum)
- ‘From The One to the Many’ for Texte Zur Kunst, Jan 2017.
- An interview for Pagina 12 (in Spanish), May 2017, and another interview (also in Spanish) for Cosecha Roja, two Argentian newspapers.
- A piece for the Baffler on Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity in the wake of the General Election, June 2017.
- ‘The Language of the New Brutality’, a piece for e-flux on language and images post-Trump (I particularly like this piece).
- A piece on objects and gender for Disegno, Summer 2017.
- A radio discussion on ‘accelerationism’ for the RSA.
- A piece on austerity to accompany artist Phil Collins’s Ceremony, the bringing a statue of Engels from the Ukraine to Manchester
- A piece on ‘Scientific Romance’ for Issue #00 of_AH Journal.
You can also find my writing on music every month in The Wire.
with Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Nina Power
[Note: this dialogue took place in 2012-13. It was due to be published by a film magazine, but fell through for reasons beyond the control of the authors. Thank you to Geoffrey Nowell-Smith for permission to publish it here in 2017]
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith: Pasolini has often been described as a Catholic Marxist but his Marxism was always unorthodox and he was never a Catholic although brought up in an environment permeated by the imagery and values of Italian Catholicism. Like most people on the left in Italy in the 1950s he was strongly anti-clerical (not surprising given the profoundly reactionary role played by the Catholic Church in Italy in the period) and it is only in his poetry that another side of him appears—an identification with suffering as experienced by the oppressed and potentially embodied in the figure of Christ. Then in 1958 the election of Pope John XXIII was a massive force for change—in Italian society, in the Church, and in Pasolini himself. Catholicism became something to engage with—as myth (in the noble sense of the word), as culture, as ideology, as a political force that was not necessarily quite so reactionary as it had been or seemed to be throughout most of preceding Italian history. Continue reading