At the same time, Throbbing Gristle have just returned with their first album since their split in 1981. Though they emerged from the hippie underground in the mid-70s, TG were a shamanic conduit for the psychic turmoil of the late 1970s. The insidious terror and bludgeoning weight of their last three records – The Third Annual Report, 20 Jazz Funk Greats and 1980’s Heathen Earth – as well as the singles ‘Subhuman’ and ‘Discipline’ were a suitable preface to the long nightmare of the 1980s; a soundtrack to apocalypse.
TG’s sudden reformation in 2004 and their decision to make an album as queasy and toxic as The Endless Not is pretty damn worrying to those of us who know our history. If the world has reached the point again where we need Throbbing Gristle’s crisis-noise, we’re in for a rough ride. The continual panic-mode of this government certainly does not give us cause for ease: not only this government’s continued destruction of the public sector, but its paranoid rhetoric about "the enemy within" recalls the Thatcher government’s siege mentality; its campaigns against the anarchist movement, the nuclear disarmament movement, the trade unions, the miners, the legitimate sections of the Northern Irish Republican movement, were all accompanied by the same stigmatisation that characterises the target as the dangerous Other, as is used against sections of the Muslim population today.
But it goes even further than this. There is now a regime in the White House that perfectly mirrors the Reagan administration, even down to its foreign policy, even targeting the same enemies (Iran) once again. This is matched by a British government whose foreign policy outstrips even Thatcher – our adventurism in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq has committed far more men and killed far more than even the Falklands offensive ever did. Both Blair and Bush have acknowledged their admiration for Thatcher and Reagan respectively, and actively are pursuing to resurrect an Atlanticist foreign policy based around ‘enlightened’ interventionism.
The past can never return completely, only in transmuted form. What were once real become ghosts, oracles of powerlessness, stranded in the present. The increasing tendency of contemporary art to look back, not only to the Modernist period, but to the conflicts of the past (such as Jeremy Dellar’s reconstruction of the Battle of Orgreave), as well as the recent growth of ‘hauntology’ is the most telling symptom. This is most obvious in the ‘AIDS Uncanny’
series by sound-artists Ultra-Red (written about here by k-punk
). The subtitle, ‘time for the dead to have a word with the living’, perfectly illustrates the nature of the return the Eighties has made: the epidemic, which neither Reagan nor Thatcher attempted to stem, continues unabated, and the conflicts of AIDS activists to bring it to public attention, to bring about a solution, haunt the pieces, as options closed down, as blind alleys, as the voices of the dead interpreted through the medium of electronics. The post-punk revival of recent years also posits a strange return: the resurrection of a musical style suggests a resurrection of the circumstances that brought it about. But no such thing occurred: if post-punk was created in an atmosphere of political turmoil, material poverty, and a record industry bulldozed by the contained anarchy and radical demands of punk, our generation is the most materially spoilt ever, with a political system in which all parties occupy the middle ground, and a record industry more bumbling and monolithic than any time since the mid-70s. In particular, the post-punk period was characterised by a Year Zero attitude that took pre-punk music as material for its own radical explorations, whereas the post-punk revival is based on the fetishisation of that period’s music. In particular, Joy Division and Ian Curtis, whose legacy has been combed over continually in an almost necrophilic fashion. Curtis’ image, replicated continually, and his biography, dogged by the hindsight of his death, have been used and re-used: his absence has become a presence, a ghost clad in early-80s austerity, haunting the airwaves; the re-broadcasting of his image has given him a kind of eerie second life, but the image itself is completely intertwined with death, just as it seemed to exist in the psychogeography of the ghost towns of early-80s Britain.
In this sense, what we are witnessing is not necessarily so much a periodic shift in cultural perception back to mentality of the ‘80s (such as the shift that occurred in the 1980s back to the Cold War logic of the 1950s), but the creation of a copy of the ‘80s, a bleached-out, exhausted memory.
For Fukuyama, 1989 marked ‘the end of history’, the point at which the neo-liberal capitalism defeated corrupt socialism, creating a worldwide paradise, in which capitalism would expand to satisfy man’s primeval desire for permanent ease. It was to be the end of strife, the point at which Marx’s historical dialectic would reach equilibrium. He was perhaps right about one thing: what 1989 marked was the death of forward motion for history. From the beginning, the 20th century, and the idea of modernity, was bound up with speed, progress, continual forward motion. All the utopian projects of the early 20th century – in particular, the Modernist project in culture, and the Soviet dream conceived in 1917 – were geared around this. By 1989, the Modernist impulse had guttered out, exhausted by its own relentless pace and the existential horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima; the collapse of the Soviet project marked, for many, the end of the hope for any system outside of capitalism. It was the end of the idea that people could be subjects rather than objects of history.
People may claim that the death of socialism was not the death of history; they point to globalisation as evidence of the rapacious capacity of capitalism to create the new. But the capitalist system, dedicated to the reduction of life to the economic means of survival, was, by its very nature, a system static in terms of ideas; the Thatcher and Reagan administrations were dedicated to the resurrection of retrograde moral values that would maintain the imposed social hierarchy, the status quo. Capitalism may have embraced technological change, but it forbade it from causing any social change. With 1989, we entered a strange afterlife, a post-history. The 1990s brought, in the form of Clinton and New Labour, a supposed new dawn after the darkness of the Cold War, the victory of optimism and humanitarianism. But these have turned out to be nothing more than red herrings; both have resorted to the tactics of Thatcher and Reagan.
The idea that humanity can progress any further has now become laughable to most people. For those emerging out of the Eighties, now the generation entering its twenties, there was no future; it had been exhausted. We can see, by the early 1990s, that the whole psychic atmosphere of the West was one of discontented, wearied resignation: as Elizabeth Wurtzel pointed out in the Epilogue of Prozac Nation, rates of mental illness, depression and suicide grew enormously in the early 1990s. The continual, exhaustive battering of our generation by the system of capital, its continual, oppressive presence and the sensory-information-overload that it has delivered into our lives, has made the past the only thing we have. The record is skipping; history has contorted into a Moebius loop. The smug, supposed victory of western capital has not even come into being: history is replaying itself just as Western politicians want, but with new ghosts haunting the song; the dangerous Other of fundamentalist Islam, birthed, you may remember, with the 1979 Revolution in Iran, then nurtured by the CIA in Afghanistan. Where we will go from here is anyone’s guess, but the one thing everyone agrees is that it’s going to be rough.