Burial – Tunes 2011 to 2019 review

Traditionally, the music of the future is always beatless. To be futuristic is to jettison rhythm. The beat is the ballast which prevents escape velocity, which stops music breaking beyond the event horizon. The music of the future is weightless, transcendent, neatly converging with online disembodiment. Holst’s Planet Suite […], Eno’s Apollo soundtrack, Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack: all these are good records – but sonically speaking, they’re as futuristic as the Titanic, nothing but updated examples of an 18th C sublime.

Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun

Hyperstition here concerns not the longing for a lost past or the wish for an impossible future, but the meticulous weaving of parts, enveloping the unknown in the present, gnawing at the futurities of the moment.

Luciana Parisi, “Automate Sex”

On Tunes 2011 to 2019, the self-explanatory compilation quietly released at the end of last year, Burial has arranged a two-and-a-half hour suite of music that, on listening, firmly puts to rest the lazy assertions that there hasn’t been any significant development since the two landmark albums in the 2000s decade (2006’s Burial and 2007’s Untrue). Listening to it for the first time a few weeks ago, on the cusp of the new decade, it has become apparent that the timing of this release couldn’t be more prescient.

For the people who have followed this project across these last nine years and previously, Burial’s DNA is our DNA. The central engagement found throughout all of Burial’s music is the historiographical potency of the records and culture of London dance music, and the futures these cultural artefacts imagine in relation to a futureless present. Put crudely, Burial soundtracks the present moment, and contextualises this moment along the axes of place and time. South London Buroughs, the first Burial EP from 2005, can be easily interpreted as an attempt to report on the dance music scene from a prior moment, one that is both recent and ambiguously lost to us through its fictioning. The title track completes a hidden triptych of celebratory London rave anthems, that began with Bodysnatch’s “Euphony (Just 4 U London)” and Scott Garcia’s “A London Thing” (surely two of the finest tracks ever produced). But the elation of “South London Buroughs” is muted considerably. The hallmarks of Burial’s sound technique – namely, that uniquely cold reverb and the surface noise of records digitally embedded into the mix – simulate a strange dislocation in time while remaining rooted to a specific place. Listening to the track gives one the sense that something between the historical real and the fictional retelling of the nights soundtracked by those previous records has fallen out. There are rhythmic similarities in “South London Buroughs” to the 2-step and garage of the late 90s and early 2000s that are clearly articulated (though Burial does hold their own amongst the most original beatmakers), but the textures of the record foretell a darker and more melancholic relationship to the scene following the passage of a few anxious years (how many? 5 years? 10?). This is a dominant reading of all of Burial’s work, perhaps solidified by the critical reception of Untrue, a breakup album with the future itself.

Following the end of 2019, it once again feels as though we’ve entered into an insomniac age, a timeless zone somewhere after the future. Or rather, that this timelessness has crept into us, has walked over the shadow of the present and denied it any further motion. The film Blade Runner has its place in the history of UK dance music, as one of the inspirations of the darker atmospherics of jungle which went on to claim the 90s (the Director’s Cut of Blade Runner was released to cinemas in 1992). The tonality of Vangelis’s electronic ambient score, and grandiose themes of the fragility of urban living under state persecution and the nature of the human condition when mediated through technology, are persistent influences, consciously or not, across all musics of this heritage. Many of us are so familiar with this film, set in a worn-down future Los Angeles, that “November 2019” has become (and perhaps still is) shorthand for a point in the imagination of where the future can be lived. Crossing that point in our own world has been predictably uncanny, and, with the recent general election signalling immiserating defeat for the left in the UK, with an indefinite timeline on recovery, no less symbolic than the death of the last known replicant. The power of Blade Runner’s version of urban modernity to come is actually how little has changed since the early Eighties: still massively unequal wealth distribution, still substrates of society bumping heads at ground level, still the failure of the pursuit of individualist liberation on top of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. The opportunity for living in even modestly utopian modern spaces, the film seems to signal to us in hindsight, has been kicked into the long grass.

As with any artistic representation of the future’s cancellation, there needs to exist a prior moment of teleological optimism against which the present’s shell of light can be measured. The 2-step/UK garage template provides not merely a hope for a brighter tomorrow but an enjoyment of the present moment itself, historically demarcated in the titles and samples of its tracks. (I am thinking here of Groove Chronicles’ “Millenium Funk” and “99”, and their sequel in Ghost’s “Two Thousand”. The comparisons between the fin de siècle of the 90s/00s celebrated there and the current crossing over of the 10s/20s are irresistible.) Part of Burial’s digital mysticism has been to adapt and reconfigure a presentism, potentially stronger than any hauntological futurism. Both 2-step and Burial’s brand of (post-)dubstep describe presents; however, each of these presents is wildly different in tenor.

Part of the strategy critics have had to reconcile this difference is to label Burial’s music as relating not to the club itself, but the (non)places that bookend the night out, calling attention to track titles such as “Night Bus”, “Pirates”, and “In McDonalds”. On Tunes 2011 to 2019, this analysis holds up only to a certain point. Listened to sequentially, the front end plays dividends to a strain of pirate ambient music: tracks such as “Beachfires” and “Nightmarket” are beatless, reverb-heavy, and offer only traces of prior hidden moments of a nascent millennium (the tricksterish Skull Kid laughter from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, briefly heard on “Young Death”, stands out in this regard). After 37 minutes of this come “Hiders” and “Come Down To Us”, the B-sides of the Rival Dealer EP, arriving like the dubs of an alien pop yet to be conceived. The extraterrestrial theme is carried through samples from, of all things, the deliriously awful Whitley Strieber film Communion, about the writer’s abduction by diminutive alien creatures. The album’s panorama is widened considerably by the 13-minute “Come Down To Us” in particular, but it’s nearly an hour in from the compilation’s beginning before anything resembling a 2-step beat materialises.

That arrives with the most recent track featured on the compilation, last year’s “Claustro”, and the similarly frenetic “Rival Dealer”. Neither waste much more time in letting drop an aggressive, now impatient libidinal energy that strikes at the heart of the present moment and threatens to smother it with emotional intensities. “Claustro” bursts forward, releasing a sinewy square wave bass and signature Burial woodblock. (Isn’t Burial’s woodblock the most deliciously expressive of any instrument? Cf. “Near Dark”, “NYC”.) This is the moment the record throws off careless immiseration and sleepless anxiety of the colonies and makes a break for future territories: fuck tears in the rain, the club needs us, war dubs at the ready. It’s irresistible but to regard this as truly socialist music: polysexual, polyglottal, immediate, and reparational. Closing out the first half, the 10 minute “Rival Dealer” rests on its heavy, overblown rave sirens and distorted bass, but as with “Claustro”, its vocal refrains do much of the heavy lifting. The listener is threatened with a powerful and vibrant passion that would presumably cancel out both parties’ experiential depressive realism, melting bodies together, heightening and re-activating the present: “I’m gonna love you more than anyone.”

Disc 2 of Tunes 2011 to 2019 collects the three earliest records, originally released from 2011-2, and so provides a bridge between the initial run of beat-driven records from South London Buroughs to Untrue and the later, beatless longform pieces. Both Kindred and Street Halo feel vintage now (especially having heard them both hundreds of times over the years), and present some of Burial’s most accomplished tracks, including the subaqueous postsoul techno of “Ashtray Wasp”. Meanwhile, “Rough Sleeper” and “Truant” each stitch together 3 or 4 little episodic vignettes – variously inflected with shades of dub, gospel, R’n’B, and post-punk – like cautiously joyous samplers for discovering and redrawing the nostos out of the shards of the frozen past. (In a similar vein, it’s a shame “Rodent” didn’t make the cut, as I imagine it to fit perfectly here.)

Set against the backdrop of a soulless and corporate-driven monocultural Britain, far beyond the promises of the new, the afterglows evoked and negotiated across the 17 tracks of Tunes 2011 to 2019 confirm Burial’s position as one of the great folk musicians of this generation. This music is documentarian, conjuring narratives of the lapsed present and functioning as an auditory manifesto on how to get the moment back. If there are musical solidarities here, they are with the groups and individuals who have also attempted to materialise time and place through sound in order to reopen spaces for critical intervention: Ewan MacColl, Steve Gurley, Shirley Collins, Source Direct. But the unique strength of Burial’s music, confirmed here, is the way it draws strength from its very vulnerabilities, managing to define a worldview that imagines a transcendence of race, gender, sexuality, and cultural divisions beyond the endurance of suffering. Wounded, tough, embittered yet resolute, it’s exactly the kind of music we need to reflect on the previous starved decade, moving into dark and uncertain times ahead.

Reality Capitalism, or, the Cultural Logic of the Upside Down

After human capital, social capital, cultural capital, and algorithmic capital, I would like to propose reality capital as another contemporary object of exchange. Reality capitalism describes the state in which competing visions of reality – or even realities in themselves – are produced, bought and sold on futures markets, displayed through the refractions of multiple Overton windows, and (seemingly) possessing no innate value by which one can be asserted definitively over another. Reality capitalism is both the product of and existential challenge to the 40+ year project of neoliberalism, and a description of the market ecologies of what I have elsewhere identified as theory-fiction: convergences between various forms of text and their environments that are capable of causing a crisis in the confident notion of a singular, objective, and universal “reality”.

Below, I intend to draw out a number of elements and themes that could said to be representative or symptomatic of reality capitalism: a menagerie of theoretical concepts, memes, noteworthy recent events, strands of political or media analysis, and other assorted debris that either have or could find themselves the topics of recent conversations, and perhaps those to come leading into the new decade (though where the circus will travel has yet to be decided – looking forward to the following words’ obsolescence ten years from now). Of course, big concepts require more than flavour text in order to prove their merits. This is something I have not aimed at here, as my thinking regarding this line of inquiry is still wholly in its infancy. No conclusions at this stage either. Neither am I looking to equivocate any of the subjects below, only to suggest possible affiliations in the current climate, from a certain point of view and held together by a certain discontinuous dream logic, and to keep options open as to where this nascent direction in my recent thought might develop next.

As André 3000 once said, “It’s just my interpretation of the situation”…

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We’re particularly interested in deep experts on TV and digital. We are also interested in people who have worked in movies or on advertising campaigns. There are also some very interesting possibilities in the intersection of technology and story telling – if you’ve done something weird, this may be the place for you. […]

We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels[…]

Dominic Cummings, “‘Two hands are a lot’”[1]

The name populism has been associated with the emergence of a renewed political “far right” across the globe. Populism denotes a number of interrelated phenomena which congealed around some of the major political upheavals (and for many, upsets) of the 2010s. Chief in status among these was the 2016 US presidential election, which saw Donald Trump into the White House, but also similarly controversial appointments of hard-right figures in senior governmental roles, including Matteo Salvini (deputy prime minister of Italy from 2018-19) and Jair Bolsonaro (Brazilian president, 2019-); as well as the referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU (“Brexit”: 2016). The scale of popular support for the sentiments which fueled each of these events – typically characterised by appeals to “forgotten” communities (e.g. the “white working class”), systemic failure of the “elite” establishment class (parliamentary politics, education, the media), fierce national solidarity, redoubled anti-immigration rhetoric, and, above all, promises of re-enfranchisement – would have been regarded by many as inconceivable only a few years prior to their happening. Yet they now feel bitterly comfortable and commonplace, and difficult to prize apart from a more “innocent” time. Regardless of political orientation, what the democratic subject now finds easiest to register is a betrayal of trust, and a familiarity of being lied to (even if the lies and liars aren’t universally agreed upon). There are general understandings of imminent climate disaster, Russian collusion, social media manipulation and hacking of metadata, of potential economic chaos; but for many individuals, who have accrued generations of precarious living, instability, and (perceived) neglect, the responses have been apathetic and desensitised at best, and denialist and auto-destructive at worst.

The post-truth era refers to this thoroughly miserablist social climate, where the traditional lines between truth and falsity are increasingly, sometimes glibly, being breached. Perhaps this era could be understood primarily in terms of a displacement of affect. That is to say, while critics of postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson were content to describe a reduction in overall feeling for the individual, an experience symptomatic of neoliberal economic and social policies[2] (the world becoming more and more like a simulation of reality, or for Jean Baudrillard, “hyperreality”[3]), it is more widely believed today that these feelings (experienced as fear and resentment) were instead pooled, ready for extraction by nightmarish data science apparatuses and redistributed into the electoral machine. As soon as power is seized by these ill-understood data firms, and the targeted puppet-financier-CEO is installed, it is seemingly impossible to use judicial means to intercept or reverse these processes. After all, those who would have the means to delegitimise these populist seizures of sovereignty by (ostensibly) outsider mavericks (“men of the people”, reality TV stars) are themselves (by default) the establishment, and therefore de facto enemies of free expression and “ordinary people”. And so exclamations of “fake news!” and “no collusion!” become the de jure means of reinforcing the Manichean narrative of the establishment versus the commons, the deferral (and equivocating) of conspiracy with conspiracy theory.

Contradicting narratives proliferate the media landscape, and therefore the public at large is more divisive, more factional than ever. Narrative has now become the primary method of interpreting society, politics, and, more widely, “reality”. One could regard this everyday aestheticisation as a textualisation, in which physical and social sciences, once assured of their solidity and perennial status as tools of validation, are betrayed by a loss of the singular real itself. In other words, what was once taken to be generally valuable, applicable to all relevant contexts within “normal proceedings” (anything from voter polling to climate stats to philosophical rationalism and empiricism) now has to face stepping down from a position of total authority or legitimacy, now useful in some realities but not others. There appears to be no going back to a time of realist unity, a time of normal proceedings, as some might want: we find ourselves now flitting in and out of pluralised, weird and polytendrilled realities; another side of the board, the Upside Down.

I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.

I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.

Donald J. Trump, Trump: The Art of the Deal[4]

Political and cultural commentators sometimes like to point with a sense of bewilderment at the 2016 Superbowl halftime show, in which the wardrobe and choreography of Beyoncé’s performance owed much to the stylings of the Black Panthers, and contrast this with the election of Trump later that same year. Supposedly, this demonstrates a clear division between American culture and politics. It would perhaps be better to say that there is a misalignment between the hegemonies, or dominant ideologies, of mainstream culture and national electoral politics in this example. In any case, Trump and Beyoncé are unusual dialectical axioms for American history: clearly, given his often dismal personal approval ratings, Trump does not “represent” the entirety of American political views any more than Beyoncé’s performance “represents” the pinnacle of American culture at that particular moment. (And any film fan will tell you, the Oscars are a poor measure of the best films released in any given year.) It’s not as though we ought to expect a significant overlap between fans of the Superbowl concert and voters who anointed Trump at the ballot. The Republican nominee’s victory in 2016, as is now well documented, came about through crucial concentrated voting in key states, in which exposure via a combined mainstream and social media played a significant part. Similarly, platforms like Spotify and YouTube often hold the share of responsibility when it comes to algorithmically sorting and distributing today’s and tomorrow’s pop kings and queens. With the advanced techno-logic of viral marketing and the buzz generated by meme magic, there is no longer a pronounced need to cross the streams to achieve the conditions of success. The apparent contradiction, therefore, between the success of the Superbowl performance and Trump’s victory, lies not in the divergence between the discrete registers of American culture and politics, but in the failure of two very different trending topics, or profiles of famous positionalities perpendicular to the plane of the “real world”, to calibrate signals compatible with one another. And, furthermore, the contingency of such a need for them to do so.

Markets are won by taking control rather than by establishing a discipline, by fixing rates rather than by reducing costs, by transforming products rather than by specializing production. […] Marketing is now the instrument of social control and produces the arrogant breed who are our masters.

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies”[5]

We are now preoccupied with a cultural logic that is simultaneously a product of neoliberalism and a threat to its very origins. The neoliberal project is, analysed through various post-Gramscian lenses, a liberation of human potentials through the deregulation of economic markets from state control,[6] an apparatus of free-market auto-correction or “self-contradictory form of regulation-in-denial”,[7] or an attempt to control and repurpose the state in an effort to “create and sustain markets at all costs”.[8] What the theorists who define neoliberalism thusly share is an understanding of the project’s very inconsistency, and aptitude in evading concretised meaning. Although neoliberalism describes a unity of varying strands of economic theory that were purposefully composed in the 1920s and 1930s, the principles of such a project, while never making themselves explicit, underwent frequent mutation until their first mainstream applications in the late 1970s, and indeed continued to adapt past this initial moment of implementation throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries.[9] Neoliberalism has proven to be simultaneously deliberate and obscure, heterogeneous in its scope and reach and unified in its political and theoretical direction – and this mutability has been central to its effectiveness and long-term success.

It is in retrospect that we have come to see neoliberalism as a universal, default, and “natural” ideology and approach to economies and societies. These qualities were not always invoked in regards to the relationship between states and markets, and when they were first drafted faced immense hostility from mainstream Keynesian economic theorists and post-Depression governments. Why would more volatility, and increases in margins for profit losses – and even seemingly unusual social attributes such as the widespread construction of subjectivity as competitive and driven to self-improvement, and the dissolution of the public/private divide – be encouraged? More pertinently, how did these ideas manage to become taken for granted as the sensible (perhaps even the only viable) order of things in hindsight?

None other than Milton Friedman has an answer. Somewhat (in)famously, Friedman described the project of neoliberalism as one that opportunistically seizes a crisis and exploits it for its own gain: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”[10] This “actual or perceived” is more significant than it may initially appear, as – with the Ccru’s term “hyperstition”,[11] or Žižek’s classic conception of ideology[12] – the fostering of political inevitabilities does not require mass consensus or even awareness in order for these narratives to take hold as natural and ahistorical. Indeed, it may be beneficial for the origins of such narratives to remain hidden whenever possible.

For any way of thought to become dominant, a conceptual apparatus has to be advanced that appeals to our intuitions and instincts, to our values and our desires, as well as to the possibilities inherent in the social world we inhabit. If successful, this conceptual apparatus becomes so embedded in common sense as to be taken for granted and not open to question.

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism[13]

And so in the 1970s, after repeated shocks to existing economic policy in the forms of oil crises, rising stagflation, and the expansion of credit, neoliberalism appeared poised as a half-century theoretical project that could be viably implemented to pick up the pieces and engineer credible solutions to the problems that beset the United States and Britain. This effort was aided considerably by the protean admixture neoliberalism had become by this point, reaching out and lying low in government institutions, universities, public think tanks, and the media.[14] In its most recent iterations, according to Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, it “has become parasitical on everyday experience,” its version of reality cocooning the dominant collective worldview by weaving through “the normative fabric of everyday life itself.”[15] But this is not simply an external imposition: neoliberalism also succeeded by building “on the very real desires of the population”,[16] becoming inextricable with notions of personal freedom and sentiments of anti-institutionalism. In conclusion, we can see the project of neoliberalism as not only an exercise in producing a desired reality out of the meshing of private desires and orchestrated ideological projections, but as a model for a kind of deranged logic that privileges the acts of producing realities out of the materials of the given “real world”, quantified through and distributed according to abstract (fictional) capital: events, people, energy, food, air, and water.

[T]he existence of a ‘futures’ market makes it abundantly clear that time itself is now for sale as a commodity.

Mark Fisher, “SF Capital”[17]

Let us not forget that the alien, vampiric, and demonstrable elements of Marx’s critique of capital tend to linger as some of its most credible and resonant. Mark Fisher’s concept of SF capital directly opposes Marx the humanist with “Marx the remorseless abstract cartographer of abstract hypercapital.” Humanist Marx posits capital-as-fiction as a quantification of use value, ready to be exchanged as such. But, for Fisher, use value itself is just as alienated as abstract capital, being that it is positioned along a time axis that ensures its transcendent inaccessibility. Use value’s “retrospeculative fiction” places it impossibly past the horizon of the future, and is unmoored from an imaginary past (of real exchange and real value). Capital itself is speculative, arriving from this futural point (often travelling from a fraction of a second into the future, as in high-frequency trading). What late capitalism trades on, therefore, is not an abstracted form of use value (given its unachievable status), but time itself: “time and money implex into each other.”[18]

The digital language of control is made up of codes indicating whether access to some information should be allowed or denied. We’re no longer dealing with a duality of mass and individual. Individuals become “dividuals,” and masses become samples, data, markets, or “banks.”

Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Control Societies”[19]

According to Luciana Parisi, the notion of algorithmic capitalism follows on from the “technocapitalist phase of real subsumption”, in which the “logic of digital automation has entered the spheres of affects and feelings, linguistic competences, modes of cooperation, forms of knowledge, as well as manifestations of desire.”[20] The digital technologies which increasingly exhibit modes of governance over our lives has transformed the “social brain” into a “machine ecology of algorithmic agents”, in a manner directly indebted to the neoliberal apparatuses of data gathering and quantification of affects and value(s). What emerges is a new form of governmentality, which has “given way to a diffused financialization of potentialities through which aesthetic life is constantly quantified and turned into predictable scenarios.”[21]

Alex Williams agrees with Fisher that capitalism is unique amongst all forms of social organisation in that it exists purely as a dehumanising vector, with no regard for human essentialism. According to this diagnosis, capital is at its purest when it is highly virtualised, and abstracted from the sticky world of human relations. Writing at the end of 2008, Williams saw in the financial crisis an opportunity for developing a new social science of xenoeconomics, that could reconceive the dominant economic mode as a “vast inhuman form, a genuinely alien life form […] of which we know all-too-little.”[22] The call being solicited here is for a new, “radically inhuman subjectivation” – the “unbound” Promethean – who would utilise market and state apparatuses to radically corrupt these macropolitical aggregates from within. This line of thinking later became the basis for the political philosophy of “left” accelerationism.[23]

What we used to call cyberpunk is a convergence: a crossover point not only for fiction and theory, but for everything that either doesn’t know its place or is in the process of escaping it. Whatever is emerging where authority is getting lost and middle men are being made redundant.

Mark Fisher, “Writing Machines”[24]

The term Overton window has steadily increased in usage within media analysis over the last few years, to the point of household familiarity. This term defines the space of public acceptance for news stories and political policies: ideas that fall within public expectation may be received as sensible or rational, whereas unfamiliar or previously discredited suggestions may (or even deserve to) be treated with cynicism, scorn, absurdity, or abject terror. What is important to users of the concept is that the Overton window displays a naturalism without itself being natural: its framing is constructed, according to principles that are historical, economic, and ideological. It is something that exists independently of received opinion, and yet can be influenced heavily by those in the media, government, and academia to suit particular interests and delegitimise alternatives. As Srnicek and Williams note, the neoliberal project did not require active assent in order to materialise in its many forms, and that by using the framework of the Overton window, a “sequence of neoliberal administrations throughout the world, in conjunction with a network of think tanks and a largely right-leaning media, have been able to transform the range of possible options to exclude even the most moderate of socialist measures.”[25]

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To look at an unusually blatant example of Overton window logics in full effect, we can look back, if we can bear to be reminded, to the tabloid press’s deracinating strategies on display during last year’s general election campaign. One image of many doing the rounds in certain social media circles shows a side-by-side of two headlines published on the Daily Express news site. One was dated shortly before the announcement of the election and outlined the Labour party’s plans to increase the minimum wage to £10 per hour: “Labour’s minimum wage plan could cost you YOUR job and send unemployment soaring”.[26] The other, published following chancellor Sajid Javid’s speech at the Conservative party conference, only a few weeks after the Labour headline, presented a minimum wage boost to £10.50 per hour in much more ameliorative terms: “Boris Johnson’s plan to raise wages across the country receives huge boost from expert”.[27]

Not only does this example highlight clear editorial bias, to the point of shameless self-contradiction and an insult to the intelligence of the Express’s readership, there is a clear subtext here about how rationality can be produced and maintained over time and throughout an extended, relentlessly pro-establishment media landscape. The Tories’ policy is presented as an expression of universal common sense; its recourse to an “expert” selectively pushed up to the banner. By contrast, the language of the headline (and article) of the Labour story is unabashedly emotive, designed to target unconscious fears by suggesting that an (even more) moderate wage increase poses a vertiginous threat to national stability. There is also a reinforcement of the Manichean logic of the media (steadily increasing in the West for decades now), that there is an almost chaotic undercurrent to all non-authorised political narratives (outside of the approved right-centrism and social conservatism by and large traded on by major print and broadcast media alike) – similar messages can spell out very different things; the weighting of belief is crucial.

But most fascinating about this example is that it appears to give an inverse economic value to the width of the Overton window: the space wherein reality is framed and the “unreal” excluded comes at a cost to minimum wage British employees of -50p.

[W]e live in a mythological era, where it is difficult to distinguish between myths and reality – like for the ancient Greeks – politics is not based on political knowledge, but on the myths promoted by the mass media.

Gleb Pavlovsky[28]

Whether the Overton window is employed or not, this placement of trust that the public is expected to participate in acts of faith when presented with policy pledges (especially when abstracted from historical political spectrums in this manner) is clearly something weak and contingent, and constitutive of forms of narration that are liable to co-option, distortion, and gamification from outside bodies and interest groups. As Reza Negarestani has suggested, dominant narratives are vulnerable to taking dark and chaotic turns when assumed to be hegemonic and unshifting: the undercurrents of subplots beyond the human dynamics of anticipation – what Negarestani calls Hidden Writing – are eternally poised to blister out from the surface plot.[29] The most high-profile events of the 21st century so far seem to affirm this hypothesis: Wahhabist atemporality interjecting the present under the guise of modern “terror”, the future’s cancellation through the breakdown of infinite-degree virtual capitalism (and subsequent redrafting of the globally dominant financial fiction), the screaming of the Earth…

Add to this list of examples the well-documented activities of the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA), which from at least 2013 employed hundreds of people (upwards of 400, according to one estimate) to spread misinformation across Russia and internationally, through sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, VKontakte, and the comments sections of several media outlets (CNN, BBC, The Huffington Post, Politico, Fox News…).[30] IRA workers were known to have used multiple accounts to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda on a massive scale, on issues including the Ukrainian Euromaidan revolution of 2014 and the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Multiple sources indicate that the IRA was funded in large part by the restauranteur Evgeny Prigozhin, known as “the Kremlin’s chef” for his role in hosting important meetings between Kremlin officials, as well as his campaigns against members of the opposition.[31] The IRA were later identified in relation to the network of social media campaigns used to agitate the 2016 U.S. presidential election.[32]

Robert Mueller’s indictment of 16th February 2018 brought into focus an operation known as the Translator project. Under the direction of Igor Osadchy, Translator “aimed to change the ratio” between pro- and anti-Russian online content, by defending the Kremlin across social media, and sponsorship deals with the perceptibly apolitical online zones of fashion, fitness, and spiritual guidance blogs.[33] These moves strongly echo Putin’s recurrent public opinion of the internet as a “CIA project”, and follow the protests regarding accusations of fraud in 2011’s Parliamentary election and Putin’s reinauguration in 2012 in particular as a concerted effort to restrict open public discourse on the “Runet” (Russian internet).[34]

When it comes to foreign affairs, the cadre of troll farms that the IRA are said to be constitutive play by a different set of rules, engendering not ideological unity but chaotic dissent. This is evidenced by the microtargeting of their political ads, hashtags, and promotions for events such as organised street protests. For example, the IRA are believed to have organised both pro-Trump and anti-Trump rallies in New York on the same day, and engineer support for causes such as Black Lives Matter while using targeted ads to stoke racial tensions among those susceptible to those views.[35] The methods of Russia’s newer propaganda outlets closely resemble those of the Kremlin’s “political technologists” a few years earlier, as well as top Putin aide Vladislav Surkov’s translation of experimental theatre practices over to the political stage.[36] The combined effect of Russia’s misinformation agents and machines has been to undermine the dominant structures of (Westernised) reality, and there could be no better place than the online world to control and shape desires, fears, and beliefs. As New York Times journalist Adrian Chen noted in 2015: “Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history, and its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.”[37]

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass.[38]

Much of the information regarding the IRA’s activities were leaked by a collective known as the Anonymous International (not to be confused with the masked hacktivist supergroup Anonymous). Their activities are numerous, and are said to include the publication of hundreds of private emails of both Russian officials and IRA associates.[39] Allegedly co-founded by “black PR” expert Vladimir Anikeyev and another individual, “Alexander”,[40] Anonymous International claimed that their operation resembled an online gamer clan, whose members were paid in cash or bitcoins for their services.[41] With a multitude of rumours to this day as to their origin (their possible connection to the upper echelons of the Russian government a persistent source of debate), the group appears steeped in the fictional: the name of their blog – Shaltai Boltai (Humpty Dumpty) – and pseudonyms of their members invite a comparison with the works of Lewis Carroll.[42] In a series of interviews conducted between 2014-5, Anonymous International spokespeople consistently described their aim as “trying to change reality”.[43]

Anonymous International, and others who leak data in the name of freedom of information, see their roles as much the same as those who wield state power: as gatekeepers of alternate realities, of new fictional environments, to make publicly available the materials from which individual and collective stories are written. While the relationship between states and the internet has shifted from the authoritarian to the memetic (comical, inspirational, attention-mediating), such caches of leaked data, from the most utopian viewpoints, also give the public the means to “see like a state”,[44] through the uncovering of the hidden structures by which the fabric of prescribed reality is cut.

As ending on this note would risk seeming celebratory or a desertion of foresight, I’ll instead put forward a different cop out, by invoking the “what is to be done” question. This is perhaps at least a good way of articulating one of the aims of the work I’ve already done, and will continue to animate my research both in the near and distant futures. Do we accept the terms of reality capitalism we already find ourselves negotiating? Do we work with or against the tide of fictional processes, eke out spaces for renewed commitments to rational thought or seize the memes of production? Do we ground and singularise the real as it once appeared to us, or look for opportunities in its entropic expansion and multiplication? Perhaps the only certainties are the need to recognise, to adapt, and to commit to the realisations of the future fictions that suit our needs best. This is the beginnings of a turbulent strategy, whatever ends it wishes to serve, but with measured applications of cunning we may be able to acquire the realities we want and need, outside of the market dynamics through which they are currently being offered to us.

*

Notes

[1] Dominic Cummings. “‘Two hands are a lot’ – we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…”, Dominic Cummings’s Blog (2nd January 2020), available online at https://dominiccummings.com/2020/01/02/two-hands-are-a-lot-were-hiring-data-scientists-project-managers-policy-experts-assorted-weirdos/.

[2] Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

[3] Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death [L’échange symbolique et la mort], revised edition, tr. by Iain Hamilton Grant (London: SAGE Publications, 2017 [1976]).

[4] Donald J. Trump & Toby Schwartz. Trump: The Art of the Deal (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987), p. 58. Co-/ghostwriter Tony Schwartz has since publicly disowned Art of the Deal, appealing to its publishers in a tweet for them to reclassify it as fiction. Tony Schwartz, Twitter post (8th May 2019), available online at https://twitter.com/tonyschwartz/status/1126233571696492544.

[5] Gilles Deleuze. “Postscript on Control Societies” (1992) [1990], in Negotiations, 1972-1990 [Pourparlers, 1972-1990], tr. by Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 177-82 (p. 181).

[6] David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 2.

[7] Jamie Peck. Constructions of Neoliberal Reason (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. xiii.

[8] Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London/New York: Verso, 2015), p. 53.

[9] ““Finding neoliberalism” is therefore not about locating some essential center from which all else flows; it is about following flows, backflows, and undercurrents across and between these ideational, ideological, and institutional moments, over time and between places.” Peck, p. xiii.

[10] Milton Friedman. “Preface, 1982”, in Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press: 2002 [1962 & 1982]), pp. xi-xiv (p. xiv).

We may also recall the famous anecdote about Friedman’s most ardent devotee, Margaret Thatcher. During a policy meeting in her time as sitting British prime minister, Thatcher is reported to have slammed down onto the table a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, telling her ministers “This is what we believe.” Peck, p. xv.

[11] Ccru. Writings 1997-2003 (Falmouth: Urbanomic/Time Spiral Press, 2017 [2015]). Cf. this volume, “Origins of the Cthulhu Club” (pp. 59-64); “Appendix 1: Ccru Glossary” (pp. 357-70).

[12] “[I]deology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’ [à la Marxism], an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ – ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence – that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’.” Slavoj Žižek. The Sublime Object of Ideology (London/New York: Verso, 2008 [1989]), pp. 15-6 (emphasis in original).

[13] Harvey, p. 5.

[14] In the UK, the proponents of what became known as the “New Right” emerged symbiotically with the Thatcher government, enabling one another to enact their vision on the national scale. Right-wing academics used column space in The Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Sun, and the Daily Mail – as well as the Roger Scruton-edited Salisbury Review quarterly – as platforms for broader social ideologies, including anti-immigration politics. Cf. Maya Goodfellow. “Hostile Environment”, Verso (4th November 2019), available online at https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4461-hostile-environment?fbclid=IwAR1dczI8Dtkr7NusdoWgJPv7S5nDsMAG8sb6dtSp5BTmQdcV1-ypj2A24x4.

[15] Srnicek & Williams, p. 65.

[16] Ibid., p. 64.

[17] Mark Fisher. “SF Capital” (2001), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20050417013207/http://cinestatic.com/trans-mat/Fisher/sfcapital.htm.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Deleuze, p. 180.

[20] Luciana Parisi. “Instrumental Reason, Algorithmic Capitalism, and the Incomputable”, in Matteo Pasquinelli (ed.), Alleys of Your Mind: Augmented Intelligence and Its Traumas (Lüneburg: Meson Press, 2015), pp. 125-37 (p. 127).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Alex Williams. “Xenoeconomics and Capital Unbound.” Splintering Bone Ashes (19th October 2008), available online at https://web.archive.org/web/20100805021724/http:/splinteringboneashes.blogspot.com/2008/10/xenoeconomics-and-capital-unbound.html.

[23] Ibid. To quote Williams further at length:

Part of what is at stake here is the thinking of capitalism outside of alienation. For if we are to follow Badiou’s stab at an unmitigated inhumanism, a total leap beyond the suffering animal model of godless democratic-materialist bio-linguistic humanism, as surely we must, then a theory of value cannot be predicated upon this original suffering, the voodoo process of soul-theft at the core of the alienation of labour in the commodity form. To build a model of capitalism from a new theory of value is necessary if we are to evade the traps of both democratic materialist commensically corrupt liberalism, and the post modern end of history. The “blind acephalous polymorph” that is capital must be embraced, but not from the point of view of some naïve enthusiasm or sentiment of hope that markets can deliver utopia. Instead, as the way out of the binaries of a leftism which is utterly and irretrievably moribund, and a neo-liberal economics which is ideologically bankrupt, we must bend both together in the face of an inhuman and indefatigable capitalism, to think how we might inculcate a new form of radically inhuman subjectivation. This entails the retrieval of the communist project for a new man, AND the liberation of the neo-liberal quest for a capitalism unbound, from both its subterranean dependence upon the state and the skeletal humanist discursive a priori which animates its ideological forms.

The work of Ray Brassier has been influential on Williams’s development of a “Promethean” subjectivity. Cf. Ray Brassier, “Nihil Unbound: Remarks on Subtractive Ontology and Thinking Capitalism”, in Peter Hallward (ed.), Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2004), pp. 50-8; “Prometheanism and Real Abstraction”, in Robin Mackay, Luke Pendrell, & James Trafford (eds.), Speculative Aesthetics (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014), pp. 73-7.

[24] Mark Fisher. “Writing Machines”, V2_Lab for the Unstable Media (c. 1998-9), available online at https://v2.nl/archive/articles/writing-machines.

[25] Srnicek & Williams, p. 135.

[26] Paul Withers. “Labour’s minimum wage plan could cost you YOUR job and send unemployment soaring”, Express (28th September 2019), available online at https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1183556/labour-party-general-election-policy-jeremy-corbyn-prime-minister-minimum-wage.

[27] Laura O’Callaghan. “Boris Johnson’s plan to raise wages across the country receives huge boost from expert”, Express (4th November 2019), available online at https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1199992/boris-johnson-conservative-party-general-election-minimum-wage-raise-sajid-javid.

[28] Gleb Pavlovsky, in Andrew Wilson, ““Political technology”: why is it alive and flourishing in the former USSR?”, openDemocracy (17th June 2011), available online at https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/political-technology-why-is-it-alive-and-flourishing-in-former-ussr/.

[29] Reza Negarestani. Cyclonopedia: complicity with anonymous materials, (Melbourne: re.press, 2008), pp. 60-1.

[30] Cf. Max Seddon, “Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America”, BuzzFeed News (2nd June 2014), available online at https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/maxseddon/documents-show-how-russias-troll-army-hit-america; Adrian Chen, “The Agency”, The New York Times (2nd June 2015), available online at https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Alexander Panetta. “‘The Translator Project’: Mueller charges 13 Russians, details election conspiracy”, Canada’s National Observer (16th February 2018), available online at https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/02/16/news/translator-project-mueller-charges-13-russians-details-election-conspiracy.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Seddon; Chen.

[35] Maya Kosoff. “How Russia Secretly Orchestrated Dozens of U.S. Protests”, Vanity Fair (30th October 2017), available online at https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/10/how-russia-secretly-orchestrated-dozens-of-us-protests.

[36] Wilson; Adam Curtis (dir.), HyperNormalization (BBC: 2016).

[37] Chen.

[38] Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2015 [1871], p. 111.

[39] Seddon; Chen; Daniil Turovsky, “‘A man who’s seen society’s black underbelly’ Meduza meets ‘Anonymous International’”, Meduza (2nd February 2015), available online at https://meduza.io/en/feature/2015/02/02/a-man-who-s-seen-society-s-black-underbelly.

[40] Shaun Walker. “Russian hacking group’s ‘last member at liberty’ comes out of the shadows”, The Guardian (9th February 2017), available online at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/09/russian-hacking-groups-last-member-at-liberty-comes-out-of-the-shadows.

[41] Turovsky.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Seddon; Turovsky.

[44] Cf. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven/London: Yale University Press); Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015).