(un)known(1): A retrospective of Autechre’s inhumanist aesthetics

I’ve produced a one-hour mix of the tracks featured in this essay to accompany it. All tracks by Autechre are published by Warp unless otherwise listed.

Can all art be defined by human enjoyment of it? If it is generally done so, is this a mistake? How can we be certain that art is loyal to us, that it is on our side alone? The problem with defining art subjectively is that, as soon as we choose not to recognise it, it is no longer there. Visual art becomes mere images; language loses all symbolic value; auditory art becomes undesirable noise. Are we content to accept such a selfish, transitory definition of art, or will we be forced to rethink it? Let us for a moment propose that art is a synthesis between affective stimulus and an affected participant who affirms it in the act of recognition. Such an encounter with an art object would necessitate its a priori status as pre-art, with a virtual art status ready to be engaged. Surely then, if there are other forms of intelligence, belonging to biological or artificial beings capable of recognition, the aesthetic capacities of a pre-art can be tapped into in ways other than those known by the human. Let us go a step further, and abandon the concept of human subjectivity as understood in its “rational animal” variants: singular, concrete, constant. Could new ways of aesthetic judgment be developed along this train of thought, new appreciations born out of new methods of perception?

I am not proposing that the music of Autechre allows us to achieve this. At best it is a representation of what music made by or for non-humans might sound to human ears and minds, one based on necessarily limited understandings of the non-human world (as captured and schematized by humans using the sciences of mathematics, biology, geology, etc.). But, given that nonhuman thought by definition encompasses faculties, sensations, and syntheses unknowable to us, the construction of representative maps and diagrams remains for us a vital exercise in understanding thoughts and feelings beyond our limited range of possible experience.

I wish to take a chronological approach to Autechre’s oeuvre. Specifically, I wish to select a few compositions from across their nearly 30-year career which illustrate an increasing unfamiliarity over that time. I want to consider the group’s progression from the warehouse rave scene of the early 1990s, constructing music for a particular place and function, towards more abstract and diverse territories, and posit this trajectory as a consistent attempt to reinvent the listening experience in terms of the new and unexplored. I believe that by circumventing our expectations as listeners, Autechre allows us not only to develop new ways of understanding art, but also opens up the possibility for a more general inhumanist aesthetics for other beings and purposes.

“Flutter” (1994) [Anti EP: 150.0 bpm]

Early Autechre is a period of experimentation with sound and identity. Cavity Job (1991: Hardcore Records), Lego Feet (1991: Skam), Incunabula (1993), Basscad,EP (1994), and Amber (1994) showcase diverse engagements with hardcore, bleep, rave, and hip hop: sometimes aggressive, sometimes languid, always colourful and new. Each of these records is both singular and comparatively safe for what would come next: a response not so much to musical genre, but to British law:

(1) This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of 20 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose—

(a) such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and

(b) “music” includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.

(Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Section 63)

Autechre’s reply:

Warning. Lost and Djarum contain repetitive beats.
We advise you not to play these tracks if the Criminal Justice Bill becomes law.
Flutter has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can be played at both forty five and thirty three revolutions under the proposed new law. However we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.

(Autechre 1994: Anti EP)

“Leterel” (1995) [Tri Repetae: 150.0 bpm]
“Hub” (1997) [Chiastic Slide: 83.3 bpm]

Further journeys into the abstract ensue when Autechre dislocate their music from any straightforward sense of time. Genres of electronic music are often differentiated through bpm ranges : 120 bpm (moderato) for house, 160 bpm (allegro) for jungle, etc. Autechre take their pick for each separate composition, and the juxtaposition of tempos on each release add to the sense of nonlinearity. It’s not that the bpms themselves are especially strange, but how they are measured. Another common indicator of timing in dance music is the placement of kick drums. “Leterel” and “Hub” reduce the number of kicks to a minimum, creating a sense of tension and unease over long distances. One effect of this unusual rhythmic pattern is that it pulls the listener’s ear in, and gradually both listener and music fashion together an alienating effect akin to hypnotism.

“Fold4, Wrap5” (1998) [LP5: 78.1 bpm]
“Drane” (1999) [Peel Session: 104.0 bpm]

Rhythmic dislocation continues on these more melodic tracks, but the sense of contrast between the percussive and lead voices is perhaps stranger still. “Drane” in particular, with its four-note mantra, undulating hi-filter slices , and snarling bass note that serves as this track’s marker, make for an unsettling, yet warm and resonant combination. That each of these elements are descending in pitch (although independently of one another) seems to assist in binding them. This has the feel of dance music, but dance music for what?

“Parhelic Triangle” (2001) [Confield: 130.3 bpm]

By contrast, all that marks “Parhelic Triangle” out as dance music is a consistent looped bass (also descending) and snare. It’s a track almost entirely composed of texture: its form feels shifting, unstable, unreliable. It seems to test the mind’s capacity to replicate its image. “Intelligent Dance Music” is often derided as a genre tag, but tracks like this subvert its snobbery into a hyperliteralism. Suppose another form of intelligence were to make sense of this – would its ability to represent this arrangement lead it to places we ourselves are incapable of? For us, in any case, the track’s floating, machinic form marks for us the beginning of a decomposition.

“Gantz Graf” (2002) [Gantz Graf: 123.0 bpm]
“Surripere” (2003) [Draft 7.30: 120.0 bpm]

“Gantz Graf” is truly inhuman music. It can only be followed by human thought after multiple exposures. At first it seems indescribably complex, but perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s merely rambling, schizoid, unrepeating. It even breaks a couple of times, only to re-emerge in new assemblages. “Surripere” has a more readily identifiable cadence, but that itself is swept away by not-quite-onbeat snares, on a detour that jettisons the perceived intended journey. Calling such music “inhuman” is not to say that it does not feel, or that we can identify nothing from within it. Clearly, something is perceived that resembles emotion, or intelligent design (whether in the form of a dancefloor utilitarianism or another, perhaps nonrecreational usage). It does indicate, however, a certain reprogramming of the listening subject. And the rhythmic hypnosis induced by such music constitutes a methodology for this.

“Sublimit” (2005) [Untilted: 83.5 bpm]
“known(1)” (2010) [Oversteps: 84.0 bpm]

One way of recognising the Other is when it strays into the spectrum of the known, where it can be captured by familiar semantics and patterns of identification. The intricate, accelerated drum programming of “Sublimit” differs from the sparse, languid “Leterel” immensely, but is no less disarming and tough to penetrate for the listener. Yet it blooms into something substantial, even majestic, as it pursues its determined route. By a wholly different measure, “known(1)” is entirely nonpercussive, relying on strange interplays between elements both ancient and futuristic. Could “Sublimit” be described as sublime, and “known(1)” considered beautiful? Would this be a disservice to both the categories and the pieces involved? No, there is no need to refer back to such labels. Surely it is more intuitive and informative to allow the music to cut its own trenches, and force us to engage with them as they are in themselves.

“feed1” (2016) [elseq1: 84.0 bpm]

The most recent stages in Autechre’s always-diffractive chronology, albums such as Exai (2013) and elseq1-5 (2016) challenge established musical experiences formally through their extended tracklists across multiple discs (120 minutes across two discs for the former, 247 minutes across 5 discs for the latter). Across such expansive formats appear multiple degrees of experimentation: uncategorizable arrangements of sound that indicate a group of ever-increasing artistic singularity. “feed1” is but one expression of the distance Autechre have travelled from a distinct musical scene towards an absolute creative individualism. It forces one to think: “Is this listenable? What value can I extract from this?” But are habitual markers necessary? Is recognition? Art such as this inverts the relationship between itself and its audience (however flimsy and unhelpful this relationship is formulated): it exists beyond us, has no care for us. It has a stubborn value, which we may in fact recognise should we come to draw something of its uniqueness from it, and embrace its indifferent complexity as widely as possible.

Featured image: The Designers Republic (2016): “elseq1-5”.


Doctor Octopus: A Reading of Deleuze’s “Bartleby; or, The Formula” (1993)

This is the edited transcript of a short presentation I gave at the University of Warwick on the 14th November 2016, as part of a series of seminars called “Topics in Philosophy and the Arts”. I gave what I thought to be a highly subjective yet spirited analysis of “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, a chapter of Gilles Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical (1993); itself drawing heavily on Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), as well as the remaining body of Melville’s fiction.

I should preface by saying that I do not intend to cover everything in Deleuze’s essay, not only due to time constraints, but also because there are many passages that are best read in the wider context of Deleuze’s philosophy. So instead I wish to hone in on the points most relevant to our discussion on philosophy and the arts, and construct a particular reading of an essay which is itself a particular reading of a short story.

“Literature is a health.”[1] This is Deleuze’s claim in the Preface to Essays Critical and Clinical, not irrelevantly one of the final works within his oeuvre to be published before his death in 1995, and of which “Bartleby; or, The Formula” is a chapter of. This statement might lead one to begin to engage with what Deleuze has to say here in terms of his own biopolitics. However Daniel W. Smith, one of the translators of the volume (however not of the particular essay we will be looking at) instead interprets this statement in terms of a specific relation between literature and life;[2] one which finds its precedence in earlier works of Deleuze, specifically his study of sadomasochism in Coldness and Cruelty, as well as in select quotations in the Guattari-assisted What Is Philosophy?:

Through having seen Life in the living or the Living in the lived, the novelist or painter returns breathless and with bloodshot eyes. […] In this respect artists are like philosophers. What little health they possess[3] is often too fragile, not because of their illnesses or neuroses but because they have seen something in life that is too much for anyone, too much for themselves, and that has put on them the quiet mark of death.”[4]

There are obvious parallels with this interpretation of literature as healthcare and the function of the character Bartleby in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, which we will now turn our attentions to.

The thrust of Deleuze’s reading of Melville’s short story hinges, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the eponymous character’s now infamous turn of phrase, the statement “I would prefer not to.” Deleuze reads this sentence as the key to the text’s understanding. He begins:

“Bartleby” is neither a metaphor for the writer nor the symbol of anything whatsoever. It is a violently comical text, and the comical is always literal. It is like the novels of Kleist, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, or Beckett, with which it forms a subterranean and prestigious lineage. It means only what it says, literally. And what it says and repeats is I would prefer not to. This is the formula of its glory, which every loving reader repeats in turn.[5]

Now, before we proceed with Deleuze’s essay, we need to decide what he means by this word, formula. What immediately came to mind for me was a mathematical formula: an equation that could be used by us as readers as a means to translate the literary architecture of the story, its space, and the characters who inhabit that space. And I still don’t entirely wish to discourage that reading, because I think it still can be a fruitful one. However, I wish to nuance this definition of formula slightly further, and suggest that we instead treat Bartleby’s formula as an incantation or magic spell, a specific set of syllables that transform the rationalities of the attorney narrator, and effect real change on us readers’ textual interpretation.

I think what Deleuze is reaching for with the word formule is a kind of medieval sorcery of words, of which Bartleby, by appointment of Melville, is the witch doctor tasked with healing us of our narratological neuroses. But it is not a soothing treatment. The Formula is “ravaging, devastating, and leaves nothing standing in its wake”; it “eliminates the preferable just as mercilessly as any nonpreferred.”[6] Perhaps most significantly of all, the Formula is responsible for “hollow[ing] out a zone of indiscernibility”.[7]

What does Deleuze mean by this phrase, which he repeats in a variety of guises: zone of indiscernibility, zone of indetermination, zone of indistinction? A clue may be offered by another quick hop over to What Is Philosophy? and a reading of one of Deleuze and Guattari’s many ruminations on what they term the “concept of concept”:

What is distinctive about the concept is that it renders components inseparable within itself. [Each concept] has a zone of neighborhood [zone de voisinage], or a threshold of indiscernibility, with another one. […] Components remain distinct, but something passes from one to the other, something that is undecidable between them. There is an area ab that belongs to both a and b, where a and b “become” indiscernible.[8]

Melville and Deleuze both understand literature, and perhaps we would like to extend this reading to all art, as a necessary complication of the act of interpretation itself. Perhaps not intentionally, but certainly, this is one of its intrinsic functions. Bartleby hexes the attorney and the aesthetician alike with his Formula, and renders the literary work derationalized and uncategorizable: an approximation of the Universe’s boundless chaos staged as absurdist comedy routine. Undercut by a deterritoralized American language, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is surgically lacerated by the Formula, creating vacuous zones on its surface that invite deeper inspection. It is no longer a question of subject or object, author or character, art or nonart; dialecticism is now ineffective and unwanted. Subject and image, in their encounters, cause friction, this friction causes slippage, and they are no longer bound to one another. Their “unnatural alliance” establishes “a “hyperborean”, “arctic” zone”,[9] as smooth as the “arctic sublimities” of Duchamp’s Fountain, if we recall Arthur Danto’s parody of George Dickie’s challenging of the artworld’s narrow criteria.[10] The alien Bartleby exhales ambiguity, barricading the story from the rigorous, institutionalized analytic practices and techniques of Euclidian, earthly minds[11] with an inhuman cloud of unknowing, that perhaps cannot ever be fully penetrated.

From Deleuze’s point of view, the Formula is a transformative utterance. Its purpose is to render the literary environment in which it is heard so weird as to escape from the sovereignty of the interpreters, the literary and aesthetic theorists, and thus evade all attempts of rational codification. In this respect, this essay is no different from Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari’s polemic against the domestication of the paradigm of desire, encompassed in the figure of the psychoanalyst. Deleuze champions Melville and a handful of other “great novelists” as cultivators of

a new logic, definitely a logic, but one that grasps the innermost depths of life and death without leading us back to reason. The novelist has the eye of a prophet, not the gaze of a psychologist. […] Once it has reached that sought-after Zone, the hyperborean zone, far from the temperate regions, the novel, like life, needs no justification.[12]

Likewise, our own enjoyment of literature ultimately transcends all notions of art theory, and remains fascinating to us. So perhaps too, there can be no art without our failure to know why it is art, or why we are drawn to it or revere it. Our hermeneutics must account for the human limitations we impose on the artwork when we try to interpret its possible meanings. This is not to say that there is no intellectual worth, or indeed no intellectual pleasure in trying to identify the specific features or phenomena which account for the aesthetic experience; however, in doing so, we can only gain truths about Life as we perceive it. The radiant sights which leave Melville and the great writers short of breath and with bloodshot eyes attest to something less anthropocentric, and many times more complex, and overall healthier: nonhuman things, living within a nonhuman conception of Life. Bartleby’s Formula – I would prefer not to – thus can be read as an essential rejection of all prescribed methods of aesthetic interpretation, and a liberation of the artwork from symbolic or metaphoric necessity. Our future art and future philosophy ought to equip us with a greater vocabulary to describe what we may only be able to envisage now as the “irrational”.


[1] Deleuze, G. (1997) “Preface to the French Edition”, in Essays Critical and Clinical [Critique et Clinique], trans. Smith, D.W. & Greco, M.A., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press: lv.

[2] Smith, ““A Life of Pure Immanence”: Deleuze’s “Critique et Clinique” Project”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: xv.

[3] Smith refers here to the likes of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Deleuze himself, who suffered from respiratory ailments throughout his life.

[4] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? [Qu’est ce que la philosophie?], trans. Burchell, G. & Tomlinson, H., London/New York, Verso: 172.

[5] Deleuze “Bartleby; or, The Formula”, in Essays Critical and Clinical: 68.

[6] Ibid: 70, 71.

[7] Ibid: 71.

[8] Deleuze & Guattari, What Is Philosophy?:19-20.

[9] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 78.

[10] Danto, A. (2005) “The Appreciation and Interpretation of Works of Art”, in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art, New York, Columbia University Press: 35.

[11] These are Ivan’s words in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. When discussing his scepticism of God with Alyosha, Ivan concludes that if God were truly to exist, he would surely have to exist outside of three-dimensional space, “where two parallel lines meet”; a concept he admits is entirely beyond the comprehension of his “Euclidian earthly mind”.

[12] Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula”: 82. Emphasis added.

Epistemic Dam, or What Shadow of the Colossus Tells Us About Public Security and Societies of Control

The touch of evil mystery in these barrier mountains, and in the beckoning sea of opalescent sky glimpsed betwixt their summits, was a highly subtle and attenuated matter not to be explained in literal worlds. Rather it was an affair of vague psychological symbolism and æsthetic association—a thing mixed up with exotic poetry and paintings, and with archaic myths lurking in shunned and forbidden volumes.[1]

The term gamespace, when used in relation to video games, has been used in the past to denote a seemingly conceptual playground that is then analysed in relation to other social paradigms, including economies and political organisations, across lines of intersection. Less often considered is gamespace as an optical realm, with the illusion of real physicality: an aesthetic playground akin to cyberspace, but with the necessary distinction of being topographically constructed by a team of developers, as opposed to a perpetual, “open-source” project akin to a complex organism. Here I am going to borrow the term magic circle, introduced by Johan Huizinga in his classic study on game theory, Homo Ludens (1949), but used more recently by “new media” and “New Games” journalists to explain the theoretical boundary between the virtuality of the video game as it exists as a set of rules and conventions and the outside space of the gamer, and then subsequently to determine the transparency and porousness of this boundary. What I want to explore is this second definition of gamespace, i.e. the three-dimensional polygonal models of the video game as a physical territory; for the sake of convenience I will employ a new word – gamescape. This will involve a recognition of video games as being qualitatively different from previous forms of play. A gamescape is not simply an imaginary location embedded in a real one, conceived purely from the rules and objectives undertaken by the player, and only ideologically separate from the world it exists within; but a deliberate place that exists independently of such rules and objectives, bound within the magic circle.

Most video games are inherently mimetic: they require a sense of “role play” and the imagination of the player not only to control their actor,[2] but to transport themselves into the gamescape; in short, to believe in the environment they are vicariously exploring. Roger Caillois defined mimicry as one of the four basic categories of play, alongside agon (games of skill and competition), alea (games of chance), and ilinx (games that produce sensations of “vertigo”, or dizziness, such as amusement rides or rollercoasters).[3] “With one exception,” wrote Caillois, “mimicry exhibits all the characteristics of play: liberty, convention, suspension of reality, and delimitation of space and time. However, the continuous submission to imperative and precise rules cannot be observed—rules for the dissimulation of reality and the substitution of a second reality.”[4] By this he means that although gamespace constitutes a closed-off territory for the purposes of gaming, it can never be confused as primary reality: the player knows this if she is to consider her activity play at all. The gamespace must be considered “a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe.”[5]

This poses a problem for the video game designer: how to create an entertaining recreational experience in a gamescape that allows the player freedom over their actions, to explore, to make mistakes, and so on; but that simultaneously is structured by rules, challenges, and objectives. These two poles roughly correspond to what Caillois called paidia (“uncontrolled fantasy”, or a lawless gamespace) and ludus (a rigid and ultimately “purposely tedious” approach to game design).[6] It seems to me as though the video game designer must compromise between paidia and ludus design for their gamescape to be effective. Too much freedom and the experience actually becomes less liberating and more quotidian, and the illusion of participating in a mimetic, escapist fantasy is diminished (online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft bypass this issue to some degree with the organisation of players into “guilds” who then work together on agreed group objectives). If on the other hand the game design places too much emphasis on completing set tasks dictated by the character’s limitations or environment (if for example certain objectives need to be fulfilled in sequence before new contents, such as levels, items, or vehicles, become available), the game feels too “linear”, or too much like a thankless task.

On bridge of Dam
On top of the “beta dam” in Shadow of the Colossus, an area usually inaccessable in the final game

The balance between paidia and ludus can be ultimately understood as the extent to which the player is able to explore the gamescape freely and the opposite extent, to which the player is denied freedom; their actor instead being directed by the space itself, i.e. the designer’s will for the game’s content to be accessed in a specific way. Video game narrative may be considered as a series of non-interactive video segments (“cut-scenes”), strung together through the player’s actions; but this intermediary play, the bulk of the game, is as essential to the player in understanding the game’s narrative structure. How this narrative is authored may be the player’s choice, but the list of options, broadly speaking, are limited to the range of options offered by the designer. Whereas Marcel Duchamp spoke of the “art coefficient”, or the difference between an artist’s intent and the spectator’s subjective interpretation, as being the process by which art (or narrative) is constructed,[7] in a gamescape the designer can implement all manner of physical obstacles and handicaps to limit player experience, and steer the narrative away from the player’s desires.

Atopian paidia

In spite of this, it can be observed that video games have gradually employed a greater degree of non-monotonicity[8] as their history develops, with the player being trusted more to explore territory and implement their own ludic objectives through increased paidia. Partly this is for technological reasons. The leap from 2D to 3D gamescape design, as a result of greater processing power, was instrumental in this aspect. Earlier 2D games were nearly entirely level-based, i.e. divided into separate, independent stages: the basic objective being to move from one side of the screen to the other (usually left to right) while defeating enemies and avoiding hazards. Early examples of commercial three-dimensional games, such as Super Mario 64 (1997, Nintendo) heralded the arrival of a form of gamescape not previously technologically possible. Instead of resembling a kind of scrolling, interactive tapestry, as in earlier entries in the Mario series; the Nintendo 64 version begins with a 3D model of the princess’s castle grounds, and immediately feels like a more “realistic” experience. Instead of being littered with enemy monsters to defeat or clear directions, the player is able to navigate this initial model from Mario’s perspective free of penalties or time limitations. The emphasis is on control and fluidity of gameplay, and the sense (if only illusory) that the player is not bound by the invisible, guiding hand of the game’s designers. This castle garden’s structure is deliberately closed, using steep hills and other unnavigable terrain. In this sense game designers can be said to be not only landscape gardeners but cartographers: they dictate the edges of the map and make it virtually impossible to escape.

Another milestone of video game paidia is the Grand Theft Auto series. In these games, the gamescape is a single, fluid model: a whole virtual city, populated with ordinary people, traffic, police force, and of course law-breakers and criminal activity. The vast, interactive area embodies the developers, Rockstar Games’s attitudes towards player control and discovery, and is the primary reason for their massive successes. With little to no restrictions on what the player is able to achieve, no two experiences are alike, and with every (legal and illegal) temptation lurking around the corner, GTA is as close to Caillois’ definition of unrestrained mimicry that a video game is likely to get. McKenzie Wark, in a detailed study of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002, Rockstar Games), described this kind of gamespace as atopia. Built on what Foucault called “heterotopia”, or “other space”, an ideal at a remove from the common dysfunctional space we usually inhabit; atopia can instead be considered a “complete gamespace” – completely ordered and self-sustaining, with no requirement of externality, and existing seemingly everywhere.[9] Vice City is not a parallel universe, it is perfectly assimilated into ours. It is all-pervasive, and as an arena of play, it illustrates our own, “imaginary” gamespace better than any other. Wark goes as far as to label Vice City a “negative of gamespace, its atopian shadow,” which possesses a self-governing system of laws. “It is a game about transgression in which it is not possible to break the rules. One may succeed in the game or fail, but one cannot really cheat. (Even the ‘cheats’ are part of the rules.)” The game internalises transgression: in this way it is not even necessary to promote it. Law itself is “part of a larger algorithm”; the player manoeuvres their actor over the game’s physical “surfaces” in order to “intuit their way through the steps of the algorithm.”[10]

The player’s behaviour in Vice City is not inherently transgressive: the game itself facilitates violence, theft, prostitution, pimping, drug dealing, and so on, and presents them amorally, as methods of acquisition and progression. Video game play cannot be considered transgressive unless it breaks the rules by which it is defined, and manipulates the algorithm in unexpected ways. This requires disrupting the boundaries of the magic circle: to be able to move beyond the limitations imposed by the cartography of gamescape and construct new methods of play. Certain examples in video gaming demonstrate that it is possible to disregard the rules of play within a defined magic circle and still participate in self-sufficient activity that can only be defined as play.

H6-i5 beta lands
“Mountains of madness” floating in the sky over the Forbidden Lands

Sub-liminal palaeontology

Whereas in GTA players were made to actively transgress manifestations of the law to reap reward, Shadow of the Colossus (2005, Team Ico) had players follow the law to the letter, and ultimately lose for it (or at least reveal an ending that spelled disaster for the actor). The game’s premise was to defeat sixteen cyclopean, ancient beasts (colossi) in an order set by the immaterial, polyphonous deity Dormin, and thus save the princess from death. All promotional material for Shadow of the Colossus placed the enemy colossi as the game’s unique selling point, but as many players derived enjoyment from devising strategies to take down their immense opponents, others were quickly captivated by the scale of the environment they were able to explore. The GTA series has a similarly massive gamescape, yet in SotC the terrain is almost entirely empty: no smaller challenges or side-quests exist, and only one opponent is generated at a time, at a location disclosed by the authoritarian Dormin, and pinpointed by the player using a compass-like sword. Nor is it possible to complete the challenges out of sequence (if a player arrives at a colossus arena prematurely, no opponent will be waiting for them). As other video games moved towards non-linear design and player choice, SotC deliberately chose one of the most linear schematics imaginable.

In effect, the game is divided into sixteen levels, which consist of the following: navigating the expansive Forbidden Lands in the direction indicated by the sword, discovering the beast, and calculating and executing an offensive strategy, at which point the player is teleported back to the central compound (the Shrine of Worship) to pursue the next enemy. What elevates this monotonous exercise is doing exactly what is “forbidden”: exploring this infinitely empty, Edenic landscape. Unlike other games which often award desertion from the primary objective with unlockable content or upgraded skills, there is absolutely no gamic advantage for going AWOL in SotC (if anything, the likelihood of getting lost constitutes a noticeable disadvantage). The player and the actor are most bonded here, in flouting protocol to investigate the knowingly sublime and excessive, not for profit but for the sheer decadence of it all.

Bridge behind entrance
Hacking the game can reveal some unusual and memorable computer-generated visual effects

Of course the game has been constructed precisely so that players can find metaphysical rewards within its gamescape; interestingly, it is precisely because of taut ludic conventions that paidia is able to creep in. But it can only be expected that from this point paidia would be converted by the players back into ludus, that a small group of fanatical players would create their own games using the available tools of the gamescape and often considerable skills of using external software to navigate the underlying properties which make up the game: the game code itself, a kind of sub-gamescape. Like DNA, the “code” which determines the direction and rate of protein growth in living organisms, video games are composed of a single extensive program, an ur-text which is responsible for everything from facilitating the narrative, deciding which sound files play as a result of certain actions, and, perhaps in this case most significantly, the game’s graphics: i.e. the gamescape and all its contents. If the hacker is lucky, he (in virtually all cases it seems to be a “he”) will find certain leftover content not implemented into the final version of the “game”, and not intended to be accessible to the player. For many, this is the goal of their investigation. Seeking out this hidden data is a kind of palaeontology: it can be studied and used to reveal the various stages of the game’s evolution, akin to carbon dating, and thus further speculations can be made over the design of the finished gamescape and its previous incarnations.

There are several reasons why SotC should prove attractive to these kinds of players; all of them relate in some way or another to conventional or recent views on aesthetics. In the conceptual sense, SotC is quite clearly sublime: the diminutive hero must battle with monsters of such immensity that the screen can often only capture them in part. Likewise, the Forbidden Lands are sublime: containing vast mountains, forests, deserts, ruined temples and forts; but more importantly, they are empty (or at least seem to be) – free from human presence, and inhabited only by the occasional bird or lizard. Between fights, the atmosphere is existential, alien, even Lovecraftian: the game’s orchestrated soundtrack is not present (It creeps in only as the player approaches a colossus), reducing audible sound to howling winds and the actor’s footsteps. As a result, anything visible or audible to the player may become a source of intrigue, particularly if it resembles a human construction (such as a ruined pillar or the strange stone rings which populate the desert), or potentially the hand of an even elder race (the scale of the Shrine of Worship and the bindings on some of the colossi suggest an inhuman precedence).[11] Such accents in an otherwise barren landscape actually enhance the player’s alienation, awe, and fascination, as well as the scale of his surroundings. One is reminded of Douglas Adams’ description of another formally crafted gamescape, the Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.”[12]

Orange brick_edge
The seam of a deleted grid square

The emptiness of the mystical Forbidden Lands entices players to project any kind of meaning on what is not there, based on what is, and what should be or ought to have been. The results of expert hackers and compilers of unused SotC content, such as Michael Lambert, who goes by the YouTube username Nomad Colossus, have revealed to more casual players the scope of Team Ico’s initial project. The most significant discoveries made are the remnants of “test areas”, used by the game developers to try out battles with colossi before their designs were finalised – and there is a high probability that unused, deleted colossi designs once occupied them.[13] Even more startling is a complete model of a dam that seemingly had no other but decorative purposes. Lambert’s current conclusions are that, despite official indications from Team Ico that the finished model of the Forbidden Lands is entirely based on the placement of the finished 16 colossi arenas, and would be “completely different” if more were incorporated; that “there never was a different map”; and the “beta” content is evidence of a shrunken final design “planned at the outset”, rather than a complete rebuild.

Map_all extra lands
A version of the in-game map restored by Lambert to include the “inaccessible” locations – the territory floods over the map
Beta + retail colossi locations
Locations of the game’s sixteen colossi (red) and speculated territories for the discarded eight (blue)
B2 model_cut
Section of a probable colossus test area partially remaining in the finished game

Artifacts, aesthemes, ludic tension

Eddo Stern uses the term artifact as an explainer for unintended phenomena within video game gameplay. In computer science, the term is more familiar, used to refer to “undesired cosmetic disturbances” which result from compression of jpeg or mp3 files, or unpredictable ASCII characters in a text file; all of which pre-empt an “unperfected aesthetic disturbance”. In gamescapes, artifacts can reveal themselves unexpectedly, but more commonly are prompted by erratic or methodological player actions. Regardless, all artifacts are extra-diegetic: they disturb the narrative flow orchestrated by the game designer, and often the senses.[14] In turn, they invert old and invent new diegetic and aesthetic forms.

SotC’s hidden artifacts certainly make for compelling viewing to players who would otherwise be unaware of the presence of large, physical manifestations of data beyond unattainable horizons: objects that to borrow Robin Mackay’s term can be regarded as aesthemes. These mountains, this dam; their “deep resonance and transcendent qualities […] make appeal to a transcendent self which, through sensory experience, is innately touched by ideas that are equally transcendent.”[15] Aesthemes convey the transformative properties of the artistic phenomenon without relying on falling back on Kantian sublimity or Duchampian co-authorship; they exist independently of the subject’s relation to the ideas that subject conceives, and furthermore in this instance amount to a reconceptualization of both subject (the player) and aesthetic content (the fractured gamescape and implied gamespace).[16] The search for beta content in SotC, of which the dam is the end result, demonstrates the emergence of new guerrilla modes of play outside of the game’s physical boundaries, which in turn defies the designers’ understanding of players’ capabilities.  To its core, hacking is an ontological activity. Practitioners transform gamespaces, and themselves become transformed subjects, free of the autistic behavioural algorithms[17] which they were ultimately expected to endure to be considered players at all. When these subjects are able to navigate the hero Wander – to allow him to “wander” from his omnisciently scrutinised assignment, which is to rescue the damsel Mono (a name implying singularity and restriction), they simultaneously stretch the magic circle from within and play outside of Team Ico’s jurisdiction. They cross over an epistemic gap: in real terms, they gain knowledge of the game’s construction, as an archaeological discovery, a gnostic journey, a technophilic qabbala.

It is disheartening, therefore, that this new ontology of gaming has met with such unambiguous resistance. Previous attempts to acquire accurate information about SotC’s development from Team Ico have caused communications to cease, and this policy is unlikely to change.[18] Much has been made of the game’s “artistic” qualities, which the developers evidently worked hard at to achieve, not only by promoting a minimalist, creative and beautiful experience, but also by the scope of the player’s possible actions and concealing ugliness. Director of the project Fumito Ueda has stressed clearly his preferred interpretation: in an interview he stated “I think [the game] holds more romantic appeal if you don’t know the specifics.”[19] But by doing so he revealed himself to be less of an artist and more of a manipulative auteur. There have certainly been artists working in more traditional media that have objected to a spectator or a critic’s evaluation of their work, but here is a case where the artists involved have actually been able to impose an interpretation of their own choice – romanticism – and have insinuated that any actions taken to reject the suggested readings and facilitate reinterpretations are akin to criminality. This seems especially confusing as the whole objective of the game is to search for the colossi to fight, and to explore the Forbidden Lands in order to do so.

The player’s impulse to flaut the rules imposed by gamespace relates to Heather Alexandra’s concept of ludic tension, or the tension exerted on the player to uphold ludic and diegetic elements of a game at the expense of forming an individual game narrative. Alexandra conceives this tension as an active, affective, “emotional” force which indirectly forces a singular interpretation or gaming experience. The game “transubstantiates into a noumenon, a platonic idea in the mind of the player.”[20] It becomes little more than interactive film, antithetical to paidia, bland and unadventurous. This is not to suggest that a noumenal, monotonic vision of the game is Team Ico’s, but when there are so few other “legitimate” forms of play within SotC, there seems to be a lack of foresight concerning the degree to which ludic tension would be resisted and lose out to the persuasiveness and intrigue of the game’s huge, mysterious territory.

Dam_Devil image
The dam may have been a backdrop to a fight against a deleted colossus, Lambert speculates

Controlling gamespace

One is tempted to think of the Forbidden Lands as a self-contained disciplinary society, akin to the juridical and prison systems described by Foucault; a fixed space overseen by its creators from the Panopticon, poised to reproach deserters and troublemakers. But it would be more accurate to observe Team Ico’s microcosm as a Deleuzian control society instead. “Enclosures are molds,” said Deleuze, “distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other”.[21] As we have seen, the gamescape of the Forbidden Lands may be fixed, if ultimately inconceivable; yet the gamespace fluctuates with every new discovery. As a result, Team Ico fail to enclose their version of SotC: its grand yet imperfect programming is penetrable, therefore its designers can only modulate its image and dissuade multiplicity of that image; disguising its atopia as heterotopia. This method of control is harder to diagnose than disciplinary instruction, which can easily be challenged or rejected outright, which is often exactly what happens when, for example, artistic institutions announce compromising plans for the sake of further monetization. But that it has managed to creep its way into artistic content, into the magic circle is insipid, and should not go unnoticed.

The greatest issue with Team Ico’s univocal control is that it is undemocratic. We can define democracy as the citizenry (demos) having control over that which has control over them (i.e. the instruments of control in that society: government, economic institutions, etc.). While it should never be a goal in itself, free democratic movement should be able to operate independently of and exist as a challenge to law and modular tension. Renegade action demonstrates effective methods of undermining state control and revealing artifacts blocked by intelligence agencies. Yet how we interpret this information and the measures which were implemented to disguise it from us are more important than the mere acquisition of anti-democratic secrets. Consider the news stories back in April 2016 regarding the leaking of over 11.5 million files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which unveiled extensive levels of tax evasion from wealthy elite figures from global finance and politics.[22] One name leapt upon by the British media was prime minister David Cameron, whom it had been revealed received £200,000 as a tax evasive measure in 2011. To contain further scandal, Cameron took the unprecedented step of publishing his personal tax records for each year of his premiership up to 2014-15. However, this seemingly reconciliatory measure quickly spread into a witch hunt, wherein every senior UK politician was so mistrusted by the public that by failing to follow Cameron’s lead they could be interpreted as suspicious or underhanded.[23] Others went further, implying perhaps rightfully that the distinction between politician and non-politician was misleading, pointing instead to overseas multinationals’ abuse of the global tax system as more significant; yet this measure escalated further into a weak admission that no-one should be exempt from publicising their tax returns.[24] Thankfully the demand for further transparency was quickly curtailed, before the emphasis shifted from naming and shaming public individuals to the “nothing to hide” mentality that apologises for any private security breach nominally covered by the Data Protection Act.

The obvious message here is that revealing information regarding others may escalate into revealing information regarding ourselves (something Julian Assange would know all about). “Tension” over our behaviour is not only a coercive force used by figures of governmentality to incite particular responses, it is also something we project onto ourselves, our peers, and our communities. We ourselves present a large risk to our own security and privacy:  the social media profiles, image feed, and string of security passwords we’ve been encouraged to litter throughout the internet are just a fraction of the evidence that we are as much participants of a control society as we are its victims.[25] We too possess our fair share of artifacts and aesthemes; sometimes we even leave them in plain sight.

Nevertheless, democratic self-control is important; this includes the right to decide our own paths free of tension, observation or persecution. It is even necessary and expected to some degree for cartographies to leak outwards: control societies “work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down.”[26] Data leaks that remap socio-political ontologies, as a result of unsolicited action, can be internalised, like any predictable behaviour. Freedoms of thought and expression run like viruses through our algorithmic megastructure, creating ruptures that heal themselves, allowing the host to grow stronger. New rules are made by allowing old ones to be broken. Yet the size and shape of the rupture dictate the nature of reconstruction; in atopias, individuality can mean the difference between meaningless propagation and practical, ontological influence.

Beta dam_main1
The beta dam up close


The aesthetic case for Team Ico’s control paradigm is a valid, and not ineffective one. The linear gameplay of SotC helps to develop the intensity of the player’s action and sense of challenge to a crescendo, in an otherwise permeable gamespace. Yet the implications of the actions of play in within a defined territory inevitably permeate outwards, into a larger but less defined space. Consider Huizinga’s comments made immediately following his use of the phrase “magic circle”:

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of its character and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us; it is “enchanting”, “captivating”. It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony.[27]

While it is preferable to play a game that is aesthetically appealing than one that is not, disruption of a game’s order is an equally valid method of play: educational, creative, skilful, vertiginous. Caillois dedicated a whole chapter of his study to the “corruption of games”, and spoke positively of the “desire for disorder and destruction” associated with ilinx.[28] The magic circle can be thought of as a positive barrier, a shield from the outside world where ordinary laws  are suspended; but more often we see this barrier being pushed both inwards and outwards. Refusing to accept any boundary as immobile and opaque not only leads to new forms of play, but also fluid ways of self-conception and effective relationships with control societies that lie outside its territory. Once atopia is fractured, and gamespace changes from an ideological subsistency to a fragile ecology, we affirm play as the means of collective social and cognitive development once more.

All images taken from Nomad’s Blog and used with permission.


[1] Lovecraft, H.P., At the Mountains of Madness. In Klinger, L. (2015) The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, pp457-572.

[2] The tem “actor”, proposed by James Clinton Howell, is given to the game’s playable character(s). Howell, J.C. (2007) “Driving Off the Map”, Deltahead Translation Group, available online at http://www.deltaheadtranslation.com/MGS2/DOTM2.htm.

[3] Caillois, R. (2001) Man, Play and Games [Les jeux et les hommes]. Trans. Barash, M., Urbana/Chicago, University of Illinois Press, p12.

[4] Ibid, p22.

[5] Ibid, p19.

[6] Ibid, p13.

[7] Duchamp, M. (1957) “The Creative Act”, transcript from Session of the Creative Act, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957. Available online at Radical Art [http://radicalart.info/things/readymade/duchamp/text.html].

[8] Reza Negarestani defines non-monotonicity as “a synthetic form of inference whose consequences are not straightforwardly or linearly dictated by its premises or initial conditions.” Negarestani, R. (2014) “The Labor of the Inhuman”. In: Mackay, R. & Avanessian, A. (eds.) #Accelerate, Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp425-466.

[9] Wark, M. (2006-7) “ATOPIA: on Vice City”, in GAM3R 7H30RY, version 1.1, published online by Institute for the Future of the Book [http://www.futureofthebook.org/gamertheory/], pp101-25 (my italics).

[10] Ibid, pp118-21.

[11] My own constraints here prevent me from exploring the full potential of the similarities between the Forbidden Lands and the work of Lovecraft; needless to say they are extensive.

[12] Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, London, Pan Books, p135.

[13] Lambert and others have collaborated in the past to gather as much information as possible about all the colossi, including those that were scrapped during various stages of the game’s development. SotC’s director, Fumito Ueda, is reported to have initially conceived of the game having 48 colossi; at an early stage this number was reduced to a more realistic 24, and “halfway through production” this number thinned out again to 16. A few screenshots of the 8 discarded at this point exist, and using these images and the few sections of mountains hiding beyond the game’s natural borders, this group of dedicated fans have collectively made some detailed yet sound hypotheses. See more at Nomad Colossus (2011) “Unused/Beta Colossi”, available online at Nomad’s blog [http://nomads-sotc-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/unusedbeta-colossi.html]; Nomad Colossus (2015) “Shadow of the Colossus – Beta colossi recap & update”, video uploaded at https://youtu.be/5Do_0aWpYeo.

[14] Stern, E. (2002) “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer Role-Playing Games”, available online at http://eddostern.com/texts/Stern_TOME.html.

[15] Mackay, R. (2014) “Neo-Thalassa: A Fantasia on a Fantasia”. In Mackay, R., Pendrell, L. & Trafford, J. (eds.) (2014) Speculative Aesthetics. Falmouth, Urbanomic Media Ltd, pp97-105 (my italics).

[16] Mackay, comments in “Discussion”, Speculative Aesthetics, pp113-4.

[17] Corruption of the phrase “autistic conversational algorithms”, in Stern, “A Touch of Medieval”.

[18] Nor is this policy unique to Team Ico. Lambert and his associates have been turned away multiple times, and have reached the conclusion that “it’s extremely difficult to get Japanese developers on the record about anything regarding unused [content] in their games or even the specifics of the game’s development.” According to a journalist at Gametrailers, some of video gaming’s biggest development teams, including Nintendo and Square Enix, are extremely sceptical about disclosing any production secrets to the public. Nomad Colossus, “Unused/Beta Colossi”.

[19] In an interview with Daniel Robson (Edge #261, November 2013). Ibid.

[20] Alexandra, H. (date uncertain) “Ludic Fuckery, Dynamics, and Emotional Response”, TransGamer Thoughts, available online at http://transgamerthoughts.com/post/109631171387/ludic-fuckery-dynamics-and-emotional-response.

[21] Deleuze, G. (1992) “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, October, Vol. 59 (Winter, 1992), pp3-7. Available online at http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0162-2870%28199224%2959%3C3%3APOTSOC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-T.

[22] E.g. Harding, L. (2016) “What are the Panama Papers? A guide to history’s biggest data leak”, The Guardian, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/apr/03/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-panama-papers.

[23] Boffey, D. (2016) “Cameron faces questions over £200,000 gift from mother”, The Guardian, available online at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/apr/09/david-cameron-questions-gift-mother; Riley-Smith, B. (2016) “Every MP under pressure to publish tax return [sic] after David Cameron reveals income”, The Telegraph, available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/10/every-mp-under-pressure-to-publish-tax-return-after-david-camero/.

[24] Murphy, R., (2016) “What Can MPs’ Tax Returns Actually Tell Us About Dodgy Dealings?” Interview by Sam Wolfson for Vice [http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/what-do-mps-publishing-their-tax-returns-actually-tell-us-about-tax].

[25] Cascio, J. (2005) “The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon”, available online at http://www.openthefuture.com/wcarchive/2005/05/the_rise_of_the_participatory.html.

[26] Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1984) Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia [L’anti-Oedipe: Capitalisme et schizophrénic]. Trans. Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., London, The Athlone Press Ltd, p8.

[27] Huizinga, J. (1949) Homo Ludens, London/Boston/Henley, Routledge & Kegan Paul, p10. PDF available at http://art.yale.edu/file_columns/0000/1474/homo_ludens_johan_huizinga_routledge_1949_.pdf.

[28] Caillois, p24. For more regarding the concept of ilinx within video games, see Bateman, C. (2006) “The Joy of Ilinx”, Only a Game, available online at http://onlyagame.typepad.com/only_a_game/2006/05/the_joy_of_ilin.html.

World of Ecco: A Look Back at Chuck Person’s Eccojams Volume 1.

An eccojam is a piece of music usually made from a single short loop of source material, nearly always from the seventies, eighties or nineties, and smothered with effects, most notably reverb and echo. When listening to an eccojam, or watching a music video for one on YouTube (usually fan-made, set to washed-out stock footage from the VHS era), a number of associations are elicited. The name itself pastiches Ecco the Dolphin, a cult Sega video game from the early 1990s, a reference which seems apt given the vaguely aquatic, waterlogged quality of the music, and also suggests crude CGI dolphins leaping over the sunsets of corporate videos and the bucket-list aspirations of the information age’s middle-management. It’s also not difficult to interpret the eccojam as a sort of nostalgia wormhole; a lament to the pre-Internet era already slipping out of collective memory, an ode to the two tapes: video and cassette. But a large part of their appeal is their ambiguity: the miniscule focus of a single line or phrase of FM drivetime pop, destined to repeat forever, like the last skipping CD in the post-nuclear wasteland of our Hollywood-prescribed future. The eccojam’s enduring quality is probably its fragility: it grasps at something about our present and our future, about memory and the human condition, but it never quite reaches it. The famous quote attributed to Marx and Engels about capitalism could work equally well in this context: “All that is solid melts into air”. [1]

All of this has been said before to an extent, including by Simon Reynolds in his nostalgia inquiry Retromania. [2] But I want to go further by suggesting that the eccojam might be the artform (or genre, or what you will) that best describes and challenges perceptions of our political and economic position in the early years of the twenty-first century, although itself not without its inherent problems. It was invented by Daniel Lopatin – now a successful and highly regarded electronic musician working under the alias Oneohtrix Point Never, but back then “a total 9-to-5er” in an office cubicle – in around the mid-00s, mostly as a diversion from the menial day-to-day drudgery experienced by virtually (or virtually by) everyone in his occupation. [3] Posted to YouTube, Lopatin experienced an unexpected degree of success with his experiments, including the Chris De Burgh-sampling “nobody here”, which accumulated views into the tens of thousands.

Fast-forward to 2010, and Lopatin has become a genuine underground music celebrity, having released amongst other things the celebrated 2CD compilation of synthesizer works Rifts as Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN), and a further album under that alias, Returnal. His next release is another compilation, this time of his sample-based eccojams, using the pseudonym Chuck Person. Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 was a limited edition cassette released by The Curatorial Club; only 100 copies were made available (to date it has never been reissued, or officially released on any other format). Inevitably several rips were uploaded online by fans lucky enough to get their hands on an original tape, and as of January 2016 the different versions have combined viewing/listening figures on YouTube of around 200,000. [4]

The fact that the vast majority of listeners (including myself) have only experienced Eccojams digitally rather than in its original analogue format can only be by design, the same reason why it never received an mp3 equivalent. On an outdated medium, it exists as a modern-day artefact, assembled in a DAW and translated to analogue. [5] It is up to the online community, that utopic population, to share their own uploads with the wider world, which is only an approximation of the contents of the cassette. [6] Several versions of Eccojams exist online, including a popular one at the “wrong speed” (as if there can ever be such a thing), and another, the “Asterite Edition”, an unofficial remaster by an avid fan. [7] Whilst not the only distinguishing factor, speed functions as a key identity in each version of Eccojams. The slow version posits Lopatin as a successor to DJ Screw, a famous Houston DJ who was both celebrated and derided for his “Chopped n Screwed edits” of hit Southern rap songs; these songs were usually just the originals slowed down to a narcotic pace, completely antithetical to the ecstasy-fuelled Hi-NRG expectations of the usual club sound. Although a certified influence on Lopatin’s output as Chuck Person, [8] I would suggest that this association is misleading, as it predicates slowness as the principal quality of the eccojam’s alteration, and marijuana as the principal drug. [9] Instead I want to return to the idea of acceleration, and propose that Prozac is as important as weed in orienting the eccojam’s escape velocity.

Prozac (as well as caffeine) is the drug of neoliberal capitalism’s gargantuan accumulation. In Heroes, Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes the effects of Prozac culture on the global economy over the last twenty years as being a direct result of the expansion of the economy, the internet and the haemorrhaging expectations of the cognitive worker’s individual consciousness:

Economic phenomena have long been described in psychopathological terms (euphoria, depression, slump, ups and downs . . .), but when the production process involves the brain as the primary unit of production, psychopathology ceases to be a mere metaphor and becomes instead a crucial element of economic cycles. Throughout the 1990s the overall economy expanded literally euphorically. Prozac culture became an integral part of the social landscape of the internet economy, which was expected to unfold in the manner of infinite growth. Hundreds of thousands of Western operators, directors and managers took innumerable decisions in a state of chemical euphoria and psychopharmacological light-headedness.

But although the productivity of the networked brain is potentially infinite, the limits to the intensification of brain activity remain inscribed in the affective body of the cognitive worker: these are the limits of attention, of psychic energy, of sensibility. While networks have produced a leap in the speed and in the very format of the info-sphere, there has not been a corresponding leap in the speed and format of the mental reception. The receivers, human brains of real people made of flesh, fragile physical organs, are not formatted according to the same standard as the system of digital transmitters. The available attention for the info-workers is constantly being reduced, involved as they are in a growing number of mental tasks that occupy every fragment of their attention span. They take Viagra because they don’t take time for sexual preliminaries. They take cocaine to be continuously alert and reactive. They take Prozac to block out the awareness of the meaninglessness of their working activity and life. [10]

I don’t imagine for one moment that Lopatin has ever worked as an investment banker or a stockbroker, but it doesn’t defy reason to assume that he felt the top-down effects of his employers’ (or their employers’, or their bankers’, or their financial advisors’, or indeed their governments’) deregulated euphoria from within the working environment of his office cubicle, and projected these effects outward into his music, like any effective artist. In many of the uploaded versions of Eccojams (for example the Asterite Edition), the tempos of each sample are roughly equivalent or even faster than in their original tracks. Their editing too is of a schizophrenic character: you may hear an uninterrupted loop for three or four minutes before it disintegrates into chaos as it buckles under the pressure of its monotonous day-to-day existence, revealing capitalism’s distorted, untameable underside. True to form, the eccojams’ lyrical content is also vague and provocative in meaning. They sound off under waves of echo, becoming an abstraction of pop music’s underlying message as read between the lines. “Don’t give up, you know it’s never been easy,” could be a line from a motivational speaking training video, a neoliberalist sanctuary of affirmative action which can be interpreted much more darkly when paired with “Hurry boy, she’s waiting there for you,” the language of want and need. It’s very easy to pull out eight or so lines at random and turn them into a Burroughs-style cut-up poem; it is hard, however, not to make it sound like a cry for help:

… There’s nobody here …

… nothing left … but you just … do …

… when I make my … I’ll be fine …

… Don’t give up … You know it’s never been easy …

… Where’d you get that information from? …

… angel please don’t go … I’ll miss you when you’re gone … please stay …

… let it go …

… the feeling … my head … [11]

Hearing these lines repeated incessantly and nonsensically draws attention to both modern, glossy pop and prescribed cognitive labour’s abject meaninglessness and proliferation of themselves. If we take Theodor Adorno’s viewpoint, we could say that pop’s tendency towards standardisation is a result of its inherent derivativeness, which is needed as an example of any mass-market product in direct competition with others. [12] In this case Eccojams becomes a kind of mockery of standardisation, subjecting each loop to similar processes and highlighting the thematic similarities in the original songs’ lyrics. But who would write such a poem as the one above? In Japan, there is a term for young people who lock themselves in their bedrooms, resist all points of contact with the outside world, and perform a kind of social suicide – hikikomori. “If one reflects on the incredible levels of stress that social life implies,” says Berardi, “the spreading of this phenomenon is not particularly surprising. On the contrary, hikikomori behaviour might appear to many young people as an effective way to avoid the effects of suffering, compulsion, self-violence and humiliation that competition brings about.” Speaking of his personal experiences with hikikomori persons, Berardi “found that they are acutely conscious that only by extricating themselves from the routine of daily life could their personal autonomy be preserved.” [13] A related analysis occurs later in the same book, this time within the rapidly-constructed metropolises of South Korea:

In a cultural space already eviscerated by military and cultural aggression, the [South] Korean experience is marked by an extreme degree of individualization and simultaneously by the ultimate immaterial cabling of the collective mind. The individual is a smiling, lonely monad who walks in the urban space in tender continuous interaction with the photos, the tweets, the games that emanate from a personal screen. The social relation is transformed into a cabled interconnection whose rules and procedures are hidden in the coded linguistics of the web. Perfectly insulated and perfectly wired, the organism becomes a smooth interface of the flow. In order to access the interaction, the individual must adapt to the format, and their enunciations must be compatible with the code. [14]

The relationship between Eccojams and the curiously Asiatic [15] phenomena of self-withdrawal and alienation can be further explored by considering the influence the tape had on a group of musicians who came to be known collectively as “vaporwave”. “The typical vaporwave track”, notes Adam Harper, “is a wholly synthesised or heavily processed chunk of corporate mood music, bright and earnest or slow and sultry, often beautiful, either looped out of sync and beyond the point of functionality or standing alone, and sometimes with a smattering of miasma about it.” This music evolved from a number of individuals’ studies of the music of Lopatin and collaborators such as James Ferraro, who can be said to lead the charge in this respect (the latter specifically with his 2011 album Far Side Virtual). [16]

“The text surrounding vaporwave – the artist names and track titles – is almost entirely in declamatory, brutally attention-craving capital letters, and often employs Chinese and Japanese lettering whose inscrutably (to me and most other Westerners, at least) enhances the music’s sense of tapping into the airwaves of global techno-capitalism and overhearing its business as usual, meant for someone else.” [17] The utilisation of Asian alphabets and characters, vocal samples and imagery in music videos and album art indicates the importance of shrinking globality and the acceleration of the proliferation of techno-capitalism in the spheres of art and ordinary life for the vaporwave producers. Lopatin himself made allusions to the Soviet states of a displaced time and place with the alias KGB Man and the OPN album Russian Mind (2009). [18] Is there an argument to be had here about Orientalism and the appropriation of non-Western iconography as a result of simplifying and exoticising the Eastern Other? Absolutely, but again it’s more complicated than that. For one, as alluded to before, the identities of most vaporwave producers are unknown, so it’s difficult to label any unidentified individual as Western. Another important point is that there is a certain relationship based on economic-cultural identity between, say, 1980s America and 2010s South Korea; these are the eras, roughly speaking, that these countries entered into rapid periods of economic growth adjacent to a technological renaissance and recalibration of the scope of cultural possibility, of which the creation of an innovative new musical identity plays a huge part. [19] And there’s also the “shrinking globalism” argument; that the advent of Web 2.0 and humanity’s adjustment to it has engineered interconnecting bridges across different cultures throughout the world. [20]

None of these provide a stable defence against the more problematic issues surrounding cultural reappropriation, however they do demonstrate that there is a feeling of affinity, even envy that Eastern mainstream cultures are currently at their height of innovation, compared with the sense of “lost futures” which Western culture was never quite able to fully realise. Building somewhat on Reynolds’ Retromania, Mark Fisher solidifies this melancholia-tinged social condition as “hauntology”, a term borrowed from Derrida’s Specters of Marx to illustrate “the agency of the virtual” of the spectre of a proto-futurity which was never to exist. [21] Eccojams can be said to be a hauntological statement, when considering that

[i]n hauntological music there is an implicit acknowledgement that the hopes created by postwar electronica or by the euphoric dance music of the 1990s have evaporated – not only has the future not arrived, it no longer seems possible. Yet at the same time, the music constitutes a refusal to give up on the desire for the future. This refusal gives the melancholia a political dimension, because it amounts to a failure to accommodate to the closed horizons of capitalist realism. [22]

Whilst fundamentally unable to avoid confrontation with the nostalgia mode, what differentiates hauntological music from “retro” pastiche is its political engagement with the past’s relationship with the future. [23] All of Lopatin’s music can be viewed in this way: Rifts, for many their first taste of OPN, was routinely compared with the Geman kosmische synth-work of Tangerine Dream; Replica (2011) butchered the TV info-mercial into chopped-up weird taunts and sleep-deprived soundscapes; and Garden of Delete (2015) invented a whole new genre of what could have been called hypergrunge, taking Lopatin’s experiences touring with Nine Inch Nails and smothering the poseur-pop of PC Music with heavily-processed metallic distortion, resulting in a prepubescent nightmare. [24] Part of what makes the hauntological package supplied by Eccojams so effective is its directness: the up-front nature of this particular experiment is something which appears more unconsciously in later works by the vaporwavers, or producers like Jam City or Lee Gamble, as exciting as their developments may be.

Ironically, however (put perhaps not altogether unsurprisingly), Eccojams already to an extent feels like a product of the past, which seeing as it was released only half a decade ago tells us something about the speed of life (and fibre-optic cable). It appeared at the moment when the mixtape was starting to gain traction over the traditional album format in terms of innovation (but, on the whole, not popularity): we can hear its influence in recent album-inspired production mixes such as Sharp Veins’ The Earth Splashed [25] or Fluxogramma#27: ‘Designer Environments’ By Djwwww & Sentinel [26] (both 2015). These mixes abstractify elements of Eccojams in bolder and even more unique ways, in the same way as Lopatin’s project essentially built on ideas circulated by Philip Jeck, Oval and the aforementioned DJ Screw and reapplied them to its cybercapitalist environment. All are necessary products of this particular cultural environment, simultaneously made of it and able to identify passages of resistance and escape within it. Eccojams shares an inherent quality with all fundamentally valuable art: it echoes.


[1] Marx, K. and Engels, F. (2004) The Communist Manifesto. Trans. Moore, S. and Engels, F., London, Penguin Books Ltd., p7. Digital copy available online at marxists.org/archive. Adam Harper also made a similar remark in his article for Dummy Mag about the musical genre vaporwave, which I will be returning to below.

[2] Reynolds, S., Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, London, Faber and Faber Ltd., pp80-83.

[3] Lopatin apparently likes to downplay his input in the creative process of authoring the eccojam: “I’m just participating in stuff that’s happening all across YouTube, kids doing similar things all over.” Ibid.

[4] Excluding plays of individual tracks, etc.

[5] A DAW, or Digital Audio Workstation, is a piece of software that anyone can freely buy on the market and use to produce or edit music on their computer. Examples include Ableton, Logic and Pro Tools. Anyone making music in this way will be using a digital output or signal, which then has to be translated into analogue if it is to be released on an analogue format, such as vinyl, or in this case a cassette tape (but not CD). This is in contrast to some of the pre-digital sources on Eccojams, such as “The Four Horsemen” by Aphrodite’s Child, which have been recorded in analogue (on tape) and subsequently converted to digital for CD and download versions (and then manipulated by Lopatin). What’s interesting about Eccojams is that much of its source material is from the eighties, the period where analogue recording was being phased out in favour of digital, and both types of studio setup were being used in parallel. These sources are a combination of analogue-to-analogue, digital-to-analogue, and digital-to-digital (e.g. “Too Little Too Late” by Jojo) recordings, all of which have been digitised, digitally edited by Lopatin and converted back into analogue for recording onto cassette tape. Finally the analogue signal of the tape has been re-digitised again by fans in order to upload the “tape” onto YouTube. This constant analogue-digital fluctuation has degraded the quality of the original recordings, including Eccojams itself, considerably, yet, for the most part, intentionally. It is no longer possible to hear the exact piece of music the eccojam is derived from anymore, due to the compression of the analogue signal during the analogue-to-digital conversions, and the loss of ones and zeroes during the reverse, digital-to-analogue conversions. This is not dissimilar to the function of human memory, which instead of preserving a perfect (visual or aural) picture of the past, experiences degradation and loss of clarity as memories are “reformatted”. The past is nothing but a distortion. For me personally, understanding this is more important than any quest for “fidelity”, or the fruitless search for the highest possible quality of sound.

[6] For reasons outlined above.

[7] More information about this version can be found at http://pastebin.com/9iHztScW.

[8] Reynolds, p81.

[9] However I will concede that this the case for the edit of 2Pac’s “Me Against the World” on the second half of the tape, which has an overtly “screwy” quality.

[10] Berardi, F. (2015) Heroes, London/New York, Verso, pp53-4.

[11] I’ve used approximate lyrics here, close to what can be heard from the original samples without looking them up (the people’s encyclopaedia, Wikipedia has a list of samples used on their “Chuck Person’s Eccojams Volume 1.” page). The lyrics, as they appear in the eccojam, are obscured to the point where an approximation will suffice in extracting their meaning, and allows for potential “happy accidents” through mishearing.

[12] Adorno, T. (2000) “On popular music”, in Soundscapes, Volume 2 / 1999-2000, available online at http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/On_popular_music_1.shtml. Adorno was writing this in 1941, when the main forms of popular music were jazz standards in the swing or sweet styles, therefore his ideas about the “standardization” of pop are best understood in this context.

[13] Berardi, pp159-60. Berardi resists the idea that hikikomori persons suffer from forms of autism or Aspergers, as behavioural psychiatrists have tried to suggest: “such a purely psychiatric definition may be little more than an elusive way to avoid the social problem that is implied in the behaviour of so many of Japan’s youth.” This is a social problem that, as of 2010, has affected the behaviour of 700,000 individuals, with an average age of thirty-one, in this way; and the Ministry of Health in Japan warn that another 1.55 million are supposedly at risk (this in a country with a population of around 127 million).

[14] Ibid, p193.

[15] By no means are the withdrawal from or re-orienteering of neoliberalist-tinged social relations phenomena exclusive to east Asia. But it is in countries like Japan and South Korea where the rates of industrial growth have occurred at an unparalleled speed, and, not coincidently, it is in these countries where these phenomena appear most frequently and acutely, according to Berardi: “Only two generations ago, starvation was a frequent and widespread experience throughout country [sic]. Then, in the space of only two generations, South Korea reached the same level of wealth and consumption of the most advanced countries in the West. But the price of this dramatic improvement has been the desertification of daily life, the hyper-acceleration of rhythms, the extreme individualization of biographies, and an unbridled competition in the work market.” pp193-4.

[16] Robin Burnett is a vaporwave musician who trades under a number of pseudonyms, including one called ECCO UNLIMITED, and cites the OPN album Replica as “one of [his] favourite records ever”. Another anonymous producer who goes by names such as New Dreams Ltd. and MACKINTOSH PLUS, is believed by Harper to “[explore] the territory of Oneohtrix Point Never’s renowned ‘Nobody Here’ loop” (which makes an appearance on Eccojams) on one particular project. When asked whether the term “vaporwave” has any significance to their music, the same producer replied, “I’ve heard the term used a lot but I don’t affiliate with it personally. When I started assembling the original LASERDISC VISIONS tape, we just called them eccojams – of course referencing Oneohtrix’s quintessential “Chuck Person” tape, the entire catalyst behind a lot of what we began doing.” Harper, A. (2012) “Comment: Vaporwave and the pop-art of the virtual plaza”, Dummy Mag, available at http://www.dummymag.com/features/adam-harper-vaporwave.

[17] Some examples of this include the artist names/aliases ░▒▓新しいデラックスライフ▓▒░, esc 不在 and 情報デスクVIRTUAL. Ibid.

[18] Reynolds also points to a scene in the OPN DVD Memory Vague (2009) wherein “a young Soviet couple blissfully share a ‘his and hers’ portable cassette player with twin headphone sockets.” p81. The segment, “Heart Of A Champion”, can be watched at https://youtu.be/ySchu3k7fO0.

[19] South Korea now enjoys one of the most successful, vibrant and creative music industries in the world, often in a style branded affectionately as K-pop. This is akin to Japan’s J-pop or even Nigeria’s Nollywood as an example of creative flourishing on an institutionalised scale as a result of increasing economic prosperity in developing countries.

[20] The most interesting musical developments of recent years have occurred when online technologies such as Soundcloud, Dropbox, YouTube, Bandcamp, and various online radio stations (NTS Radio, Radar Radio, Berlin Community Radio) and shows (Fade to Mind, BBC AZN Network, Tropical Waste) have  resulted in cultural cross-pollination, such as the Scandinavian dembow and reggaeton of Staycore, NAAFI’s Central American refix of Jersey and Baltimore club and ballroom, the Berlin-based melting pot of Janus, the uncategoriseable output of South Africa-via-US-via-UK’s NON Records, and countless others. Commentators, curators and DJs have grouped these sounds together under the umbrella term “global club” (in isolation, this name too carries a clinicism that would likely appeal to vaporwavers). Global club is a good example of the reciprocal nature of cross-cultural influence, though perhaps not quite one of Occidentalism.

[21] Fisher, M. (2014) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books, p18. Italics in original.

[22] Ibid, p21.

[23] As opposed to retro itself, which “involves an element of exact recall: the ready availability of archived documentation (photographic, video, music recordings, the Internet) allows for precision replication of the old style, whether it’s a period genre of music, graphics or fashion. As a result, the scope for imaginative misrecognition of the past – the distortions and mutations that characterised earlier cults of antiquity like the Gothic Revival, for instance – is reduced.” Reynolds, pxxx. There exists a tendency in retro to observe the past idealistically, uncritically and ultimately blandly; coupled with an often radical shutting-out of the present and future.

[24] This album came with a prefabricated backstory leading up to its release, dubbed “an elaborate alternate reality game”. To read more about it, see FACT (2015) “Mystery Surrounds Kaoss Edge, 90s band cited as influence by Oneohtrix Point Never”, available at http://www.factmag.com/2015/09/04/kaoss-edge-oneohtrix-point-never-mystery/.

[25] Available at https://soundcloud.com/sharpveins/the-earth-splashed. This mix was eventually released on limited-edition cassette, similar to Eccojams.

[26] Available at https://soundcloud.com/vitrio/fluxograma27-designer-environments-by-dj-wwww-sentinel.