Monday, August 27, 2007

Dead Souls

An interesting mop-up post from K-Punk and the essays in the ‘Spectral Spaces’ issue of Perforations have been cause of some contemplation around here, not least regarding the remarks by K-Punk and Ian Mathers on Joy Division. I’m beginning to fear that the balancing act between ‘the Joy Division of Pure Art’ and ‘the Joy Division of "just a laff"' that both writers warned must be kept up is starting to go off-balance, in favour of ‘aesthetic-Romantic’ views of JD. I myself have been, in the past, more than susceptible to such tendencies, and know better than most the need to keep them at bay; I know that hauntology, at least in the hands of K-Punk et al., has more than an element of hyperstitional poeticisation – imbuing theory with the qualities of fiction and transforming fiction into reality – but talking about Curtis’ death as something seemingly inevitable, with Curtis singing "as if he was already dead", even if it’s true that’s how we all experienced Closer – the contemporary fans like Mark Sinker just as much as those listening intently to their transmissions today, like me – seems almost callous, frankly. Not to mention, it betrays what seems to be the true significance of Joy Division, which is undoubtedly what K-Punk/Mathers/Morley et al. are getting at: the tension between the quotidian facts of Ian Curtis’ and the band’s brief lifespan – Northern, working-class, "lads out for a laugh" (with the stories from the Buzzcocks tour of looting a hotel bar in Cardiff; "removing the striplights from the gents’ toilets and smearing the taps and light switches with excrement" in Guildford; Ian getting drunk and pissing in a free-standing metal ashtray in Brussels; the band taking advantage of what Steve Morris called "fantastic copping potential"; Tony Wilson, the man who would later mythologize Curtis within an inch of his death, saying he "was loads of fun… Their major pastime was japing") – and the astonishing, uncanny (as if that term weren’t loaded enough) power of the music itself, a power going very precisely beyond the quotidian and empirical without succumbing to the recuperations of mysticism, mythology and the organised ‘spiritual’ – a divide best illustrated by the photos in the only magazine feature I have on JD (thank God), an article by Pat Gilbert (from which the above quotes were take), of IC flailing onstage at the Paris Bains Douche, his shirt drenched in sweat, eyes and face skeletal and rigid, with, inset, a snapshot from home with Deborah and little Natalie, smiling politely and wearing the exact same shirt.

Even beyond the extraordinary power of the two Hannett LPs – which I must admit Mathers evoked with real vividness and nail-on-the-head accuracy – and numerous singles, there was something otherworldly about JD: in the live footage from Wilson’s ‘So It Goes’ and Factory’s Here Are The Young Men VHS they seem both to possess and be possessed by the stage, the static awkwardness of Hook and Morris, complemented by Curtis’ spastic shimmying, undermined by the sheer primal frenzy the speakers pour forth, Curtis energetic command of the viewers’ attention. One is forced to wonder, again and again, How the fuck did this come out of them? And whilst the glacial torrent of the Hannett-produced recordings has definite value for sonic hauntology, the distancing effects of digital production doubling and highlighting the immaterial nature of sound, the near-metaphysical nature of phonomancy, we shouldn’t forget these facts about them, and the fact that a man took his own life, for fuck sake.


Incidentally, regarding the hauntology pieces, reading K-Punk’s remarks about the centrality of Curtis' voice to JD's hauntological importance reminded me of Derrida again, but particularly of his critique of phonocentrism in the metaphysics of presence (a nice loop if ever I saw one, and maybe one Jacques (initials JD – weird coincidence) would have appreciated): if, as we seem to feel, the voice is taken to be more of a guarantor of presence than writing, then what the hell do you do with a recording of a voice whose, um, ‘author’ (anyone got a better term? Answers on a postcard, please) is no longer there? It doesn’t actually seem much of a problem with most singers – you can listen to Sinatra, for example, without even thinking of the fact that he’s dead – and you can even listen to most of the first side of Closer without IC’s non-existence passing through your head. But when, as critics from Reynolds to Mathers point out, music appears that seems to call attention to that very fact – Closer from ‘A Means To An End’ to ‘Decades’, or, say, Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ (whose desperate tone was apparently the inspiration for Curtis’ doomed croon on ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’) – the effect is, frankly, frightening. That is partly a result of the way we normally experience, and write about, music, i.e. ontologically: the voice, the recognisable sounds of the instruments, all serve to reassure the listener of the presence of the musicians and singer, linking back to the live, communal nature of music before aural recording (the same with the rock-band need to capture ‘the live sound’). Hannett’s studio interjections sever that link, making Curtis sound as if he’s singing from the Other Side (a medium being both someone who ‘communicates’ with the dead and the means of artistic production, the means by which the singer ‘communicates’ with the listener) and the band as if they’re playing from behind a safety curtain (Hannett’s preoccupation with making the band sound as synthetic as possible extending to the replacement of Sumner’s live drums with syn-drums, the processing of Morris’ and Hook’s instruments, and the introduction of unheimlich electronics at every opportunity). If, as Mathers and K-Punk contend, Curtis sounds "already dead" – and, I’ll admit, he certainly doesn’t sound ‘live’ – then logically he can’t sing; the entire band, Curtis especially, sounds caught in the interzone between life and death, a Derridean undecidable (and after all, while the dead don’t make noise, ghosts certainly do – banshees, and those involved in Electronic Voice Phenomena, to name but a couple.)

These distancings are added to by the nature of the recording itself: we may know exactly where and when Curtis’ vocals were recorded, we may even have witnesses to the fact; but because a record can be played again and again, unfolding the exact same experience each time, they separated from their origins, so that, as K-Punk puts it in his piece on The Shining, they "insist… but never exist". Hence, the question "What do you do with a voice without a speaker?" becomes one of the central questions about Joy Division, and makes clear their importance as a case study for sonic hauntology. Maurice Blanchot, whose work extends Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence in literature (and who takes the now-clichéd notion of ‘the death of the author’ completely seriously and literally) sheds even more light on this:

“Like sacred language, what is written comes from no recognisable source, is without author or origin, and thereby always refers back to something more original than itself. Behind the words of the written work, nobody is present; but language gives voice to this absence, just as in the oracle, when divinity speaks, the god himself is never present in his words, and it is the absence of god which then speaks.”

The process of recording, matched by the process of writing, thus becomes paradoxically trivial - unable to speak of truth and presence in the way we want it to - and utterly serious, in a way that transcends the mere material act:

"These pages can end here, and nothing that follows what I have just written will make me add anything to it or take anything away from it. This remains, this will remain until the very end. Whoever would obliterate it from me, in exchange for that end which I am searching for in vain, would himself become the beginning of my own story, and he would be my victim. In darkness, he would see me: my word would be his silence, and he would think he was holding sway over the world, but that sovereignity would still be mine, his nothingness mine, and he too would know that there is no end for a man who wants to end alone.

"This should therefore be impressed upon anyone who might read these pages thinking they are infused with the thought of unhappiness. And what is more, let him try to imagine the hand that is writing them: if he saw it, then perhaps reading would become a serious task for him." -- From Death Sentence.


One of the less-acknowledged sides to hauntology, but which, as far as I’m concerned, is really of central importance, is the nature of human (and machine) memory – partly because many of the most prominent writers on hauntology are men reaching their mid-to-late 30s/early 40s, the period generously referred to as the ‘midlife crisis’, in which memory plays a more and more vital role (because there’s more life behind than before you). It’s also partly due to the fact that recorded material has come to form such a massive part of human life and human memory; as I’ve pointed out before, the connection between photography and our sensory memories of events is deeply intimate for those born in the twentieth century, with both the inevitably fading and fragmenting pictures of memory and the cracked doppelgangers of lived experience that result from the process of recording. It often seems, both looking at photographs and remembering scenes from earlier days, that they don’t depict you, but some unknown figure closely resembling you, but faded, distorted: in ontological terms, neither the self nor any ostensible Other, but somewhere in between, hovering on the threshold between, suspended between existence and non-.

If a haunting is the return of a past that we cannot access, cannot know the presence of, then memory is the perfect analogue. And it seems no coincidence that the great investigations of the nature of memory – the psychoanalytic project, Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu – began at the same time as photography, film and sound reproduction really began to take off. The progress of the twentieth century was not just a progress towards spectrality, but towards a more primitive, metaphysical, theological texture to life: the liberal believers in science-conquers-all/The-Unstoppable-March-Of-Progress/lumpen-materialism were proved wrong; at every stage technological and scientific progression brought a greater primitivism and fragmentation to existence, in the First World War, the spate of revolutions that rocked Europe, the Great Depression, the rise of European Fascism, the Second World War, the Holocaust, etc., etc. The March Of Progress brought not greater life but barer; not an increase in life but mass extermination; not a smoother, more material existence but one increasingly disrupted and unsure.

Reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, a meditation on the legacy of exile and loss that haunts European Jewry – particularly the ‘account’ of the painter Max Ferber, who left Munich for Manchester in 1938, and whose parents were exterminated somewhere in Eastern Europe – amply decorated with black-and-white chemical photos, I couldn’t help but think of the shared characteristics of so many of the Holocaust poets – Paul Celan, the Hungarians Miklos Radnoti and Janos Pilinszky, Tadeusz Borowski (who stuck his head in a gas oven 6 years after leaving Auschwitz, and whose impassive prose accounts read like the second side of Closer sounds), Tadeusz Rosewicz, Geoffrey Hill, the American Jew Randall Jarrell: the feeling occurs again and again that what occurred in the concentration camps was utterly beyond human contemplation, beyond material existence in a way that does not merely ‘compensate’ for the suffering with the fruits of the spiritual (something Jewish culture has very little truck with). The experiences of modernity demanded the narratives of primitive theology: not to make what happened, the overwhelming weight of suffering, from the all-consuming fact itself down to the most intimate and sordid texture of existence, in any way comprehensible, understandable, merely to allow it to exist in all its horror at all, and not be forgotten with the ages. This ‘spiritual’ – although ‘extra-material’ would be a better term – treatment of the Holocaust stems not just from its theological implications (outlined in Dan Cohn-Sherbok’s anthology Holocaust Theology), or the fact that it has come to form one of the major events in the history of a newly-radicalised Judaism, but the fact that it was captured on the twentieth century’s new, spectral media, and was so beyond comprehension it couldn’t have happened on this world.

To this day the entire thing is so shocking that the images and accounts seem not so much material facts as transmissions from another, barren, alien world. The first time I entered the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, I found it literally impossible to take in, only occasional facts battering their way into my head; those fleeting impressions remain irremovably burned into my mind. The atrocities depicted in the grainy black-and-white photos – and this applies equally to those of the First World War – looked like nothing any human being would do to another. The closest approximation I ever found to these, years later, were the gruesome crucifixions and Pietas of Rubens and Grunewald, or the early medieval icons depicting the Passion, in which Christ’s body is horribly deformed and twisted. The progress of the twentieth century from its beginnings in the capitalism of the Industrial Revolution didn’t founder in wartime Flanders or Nazi Germany, but find its truest expression (as demonstrated by the post-war shift into consumer capitalism, which relied more than ever on theological means to maintain the spectral pseudoworld of the spectacle). It’s no wonder that those theorists and writers who followed – excepting the existentialists, who merely recuperated the entire business (again, Camus excepted, though he was never an ‘existentialist’ as such) – should re-adopt the medieval and Shakespearean language of death, ghosts, and exorcisms; or that both Blanchot and Ian Curtis were haunted (extra resonances intended) by the disasters of the twentieth century, and especially the concentration camps.


Blogger owen hatherley said...

that photograph, btw, is perfect...

August 28, 2007 at 4:20 PM  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Also, on the 'disasters of the 20th century', specifically the camps and their presence in JD: what makes this especially contradictory is that for them it is both a lived, human horror treated with (some) respect - and on the other, something excitingly grand guignol and horrifying to be filed along with the exploitation films and Sven Hassel paperbacks. After all, I get the impression that House of Dolls (the book from where they got their name) was somewhat more lurid than, say, Shoah.

August 28, 2007 at 4:30 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

You may well be right there RE. the concentration camps: there was (according to S. Reynolds) a bit of morbid fascination going on. Also, you can maybe see them as part of the Gothic aesthetic of JD: the sense of inexplicability to the horror, which in turn feeds into the whole supernatural side of JD. And of course, 20th century Gothic is as much Hammer horror and Dario Argento as Buchenwald and Treblinka.

August 29, 2007 at 10:07 AM  
Blogger Neil said...

Not so sure that all's as unrecoverable as thought:

August 31, 2007 at 4:48 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Ummmm... right.

August 31, 2007 at 8:21 AM  
Blogger The Unnormal said...

Three years after the fact...Well after reading this article just now, I find myself wanting to share something that I've felt whilst listening to 'Wilderness' by JD. The lyrics and the form of delivery always make me think as if Ian Curtis was telling us about 'his past lives' and what he saw in the flesh during those exact moments (he's very explicit about that I think).

He does it with such a conviction, he seems an oracle of sorts.

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