Nicholas Rombes by Andrew Gallix

May 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

This piece appeared in Bomb Magazine on 8 May 2014:

Nicholas Rombes by Andrew Gallix

Constraint as liberation, knife-wielding film scholars, and the human brain as total cinema machine.

Still from the ten-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

Still from the ten-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

There was a time when movies lived up to their name. They moved along and, once set in motion, were unstoppable until the end — like life itself. What you missed was gone, lost forever, unless you sat through another screening, and even what you had seen would gradually fade away or distort along with your other memories. I recently happened upon a YouTube clip from a film I had first watched in 1981. I thought I knew the scene well, but it turned out to be radically different from my recollection: the original was but a rough draft of my own version, which I had been mentally honing for more than three decades. Such creative misremembering — reminiscent of Harold Bloom’s “poetic misprision” — is now threatened by our online Library of Babel.

According to Nicholas Rombes, who is spearheading a new wave of film criticism, movies surrendered much of their “mythic aura” when they migrated from big screens to computers via television. Indeed, since the appearance of VCR, spectators have been able to control the way movies are consumed by fast-forwarding, rewinding, and — most importantly, at least for digital film theorists — pausing. If such manipulations run counter to the magic evanescence of the traditional cinematic experience, Rombes manages to recast the still frame as a means of creative defamiliarization and re-enchantment. In 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, he freezes movies at ten, forty, and seventy minutes. The resulting motionless pictures take on the eerie quality of Chris Marker’s 1962 masterpiece La Jetée, famed for its cinematic use of still photography. But soon the frozen frames Rombes burrows into start to move again — and in mysterious ways. They are rabbit holes leading to subterranean films within films.

In the bowels of an appropriately warren-like cinema, I met up with Rombes, whose criticism, artwork, and fiction are taking on the shape of a beautifully intricate Gesamtkunstwerk. Over several (too many?) espressos, we mapped out the treacherous critical terrain he excavates in this latest book. The danger “of staring too long into frozen images” and the fear of being swallowed up by gaps between frames were visible in his eyes.

Andrew Gallix For you, digital film theory is an attempt to retrieve something — “traces of something that was always there, and yet always hidden from view.” From this perspective, the 10/40/70 method has led to a significant discovery: the importance of what you call “unmotivated shots” — shots that do not strictly advance the storyline but, rather, contribute to the general mood. You go so far as to say that such moments, when directors seem to be shooting blanks, are “at the heart of most great movies.” In The Antinomies of Realism, critic and theorist Fredric Jameson argues that the nineteenth-century realist novel was a product of the tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was being explored in increasingly experimental ways. Can we establish a parallel here with your two types of shots — plot versus mood? Are these unmotivated shots the expression of a film’s eternal affective present, perhaps even of its subconscious?

Nicholas Rombes This opens up a really fascinating set of questions about cinema’s emergence coinciding with the height of realism as both an aesthetic and as a general way of knowing the world. I’ll backtrack just a bit. In his 1944 essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” Sergei Eisenstein explored the relationship between Dickens-era realism and montage in cinema as pioneered by D. W. Griffith, specifically in his use of parallel editing. Eisenstein quotes Griffith explicitly acknowledging that he borrowed the method of “a break in the narrative, a shifting of the story from one group of characters to another group” from his favorite author, Charles Dickens. And that tension between the ever-present affective experience of watching a film or reading a book and the internal world of narrative time is beautifully explored in Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. He draws a distinction between “story” (events, content) and “discourse” (expression). I prefer Chatman to Jameson here only because there is a boldness and a confidence to Chatman’s structuralist rendering with its charts, diagrams, and timelines. But yes, the messy correlation between the informational mode of a film still and the affective mode is a mystery. For me, a sort of enforced randomness — selecting the seventy-minute mark, no matter what — is an investigative tool for prying open this mystery. The element of chance is key. This method of investigation is opposed to hermeneutics, insofar as it approaches the text backwards. That is, rather than beginning with an interpretive framework, it begins with a single image I had no control over selecting. Whatever I’m going to say about the image comes after it’s been made available to me, rather than me searching for an image to illustrate or validate some interpretation or reading I bring to it.

AG The seventy-minute-mark screen grab of The Blair Witch Project (1999) just happens to be “the single most iconic image of the film,” but such serendipity is rare. In the case of a monster movie like The Host (2006), for instance, the 10/40/70 method fails to yield a single picture of the creature. As a result, your approach tends to defamiliarize films by pointing to the uncanny presence of other films within them — phantom films freed from the narcotic of narrative:

Such moments could be cut or trimmed without sacrificing the momentum of the plot, and yet the cast-in-poetry filmmakers realize that plot and mood are two sides of the same coin and that it is in these in-between moments — the moments when the film breaks down, or pauses — where the best chances for transcendence lie. [...] It is in moments like these that films can approximate the random downtimes of our own lives, when we are momentarily freed from the relentless drive to impose order on chaos.

As this quote makes clear, your constrained methodology is “designed to detour the author away from the path-dependent comfort of writing about a film’s plot, the least important variable in cinema.” It is often a means of exploring the “infra-ordinary” — what happens in a film when nothing happens, when a movie seems to be going through the motions. One thinks of Georges Perec, of course, but also of Karl Ove Knausgaard, who recently explained that he wanted “to evoke all the things that are a part of our lives, but not of our stories — the washing up, the changing of diapers, the in-between-things—and make them glow.” When such in-between moments lose their liminality, do they become “moments of being” (to hijack Virginia Woolf’s expression) during which a movie simply is?

NR I think they do, and I very much like that phrase from Woolf. At the heart of this is the notion that films — all films — are documentaries in the sense that they are visual records of their own production. In a narrative film, for instance Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013), we have a documentary record of so many things: the actors playing their roles; the landscape, whether natural or constructed; and of course filmic technology itself, insofar as the film is created with equipment that, in recording the narrative, is also leaving behind traces of itself. This is much easier to see in older films that are historically removed from us (i.e., a Griffith film “looks” filmic and reminds us of the technologies of, say, 1906 or 1907) or films that call for immediate and sustained attention to the process of their production (again, The Blair Witch Project). And, in that sense, as documentaries, I like to think that no matter how controlled, how airtight, how totalizing their efforts to minimize chance are, there will always be gaps, fissures, eruptions of the anarchy of everyday life. Even in something so small as the accidental twitch of an actor’s face, or the faint sound of a distant, barking dog that “shouldn’t” be in the film but is, or the split-second pause in a actor’s line and the worry that crosses her face that suggests she is really thinking about something else, something far apart and far away from the movie at hand. And so that’s one of the things I’m hoping to capture in pausing at ten, forty, and seventy minutes, though any numbers would do.

AG What was experimental in the context of the nineteenth-century novel has long been deemed conservative in the field of film. This, you argue, is due to “the near-total triumph of montage,” which “mutilated reality” through its depiction of “fractured time.” But Eisenstein-style dialectic montage is now the “dominant mode of advertising and a tool of media industry” — think “fast-paced cutting and MTV.” This led, by way of opposition, to the rise of neo-realist “long-take aesthetics,” ushered in by digital cinema, paradoxically a technology once thought to “represent a final break with the real.” Could you talk us through this?

NR The single-shot films of the Lumière brothers, though most lasted less than a minute, contained no cuts: they were continuous, real-time shots. These early films are often discussed as “actualities,” which is not helpful in that it suggests that cinema evolved out of this into its “inevitable” status as narrative/fiction, a supposed higher-order form of storytelling. Although it’s been an enormously productive way to think about early single-take cinema, it’s also created a binary that privileges so-called artifice (“art”) over so-called naive representations of reality. For André Bazin, long-take aesthetics, based in the Lumière films, are in some ways a moral act, one that had the radical potential to reveal, rather than to obscure, God’s created world. In his 1955 essay “In Defense of Rossellini,” he wrote:

[T]o have a regard for reality does not mean that what one does in fact is to pile up appearances. On the contrary, it means that one strips the appearances of all that was not essential, in order to get at the totality in its simplicity.

It’s easy to see why Bazin came under such withering assault by the post-structuralists in the 1960s and 70s, for whom words like “essential” were anathema, and for whom reality itself was always already a construct. And yet, a society gets the technology it deserves, and Bazin could only praise the long takes he was given — those in the films of Orson Welles, for instance, or Theodor Dreyer. This was an era when the typical motion picture camera magazine only held enough film for a ten to twelve-minute shot. So I would say that we have come full circle. Films like Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) show that narrative film can be made without any montage.

Still from the forty-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

Still from the forty-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

AG One of your sources of inspiration was Roland Barthes’s 1970 essay, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills.” Do you share the French critic’s view that a static movie frame is neither a moving image nor a photograph?

NR Yes. One of the things Barthes suggests in that essay is that a “still is the fragment of a second text whose existence never exceeds the fragment; film and still find themselves in a palimpsest relationship without it being possible to say that one is on top of the other or that one is extracted from the other.” With digital cinema all sorts of wonderful complications come into play: in what sense, say, are film frames “frames” in digital filming, processing, and projection? And what’s the ontological status of an image that exists as ones and zeros? But no matter what the technology, the idea is the same: a “stilled” image from or of (in the case of a still versus a frame) a motion picture exists at a weird threshold, and, Barthes suggests, we might as well say that it’s not the paused image that’s extracted from the film, but the film itself which is extracted from the paused image. That’s the secret world I hoped to enter through intense scrutiny of an individual frame. This secret world, however, is perilous, and my own experience dwelling for so long in these film frames is that the tug of motion is sometimes still alive in them, perhaps like a cadaver that suddenly shudders for a moment with a trace of life. I found the experience altogether unsettling and even frightening.

AG Have you ever considered applying the 10/40/70 method to movies you’d never seen before? What kind of result would that produce, in your view?

NR I very much like this idea — sort of like flying blind. Without the context of having seen the movie to appreciate not just its plot but its texture and mood, the 10/40/70 method would coerce me into focusing even more on the formal qualities of the three frames in question. This would be especially true if it was a film that I not only hadn’t seen, but also had never even heard of before. Stripped of context, I wonder if the frames would assume something more akin to the status of photographic images, truly “stilled” in a way that’s impossible if you’re already familiar with the film.

AG Could you comment on the pleasing congruence between theory and practice — the “frozen moving image” being, as you point out, “the ultimate long take”? Something similar happens in the “Intermission” chapter, where your text mimics the split edit technique under discussion. In fact, one could argue that the 10/40/70 method itself produces a series of textual approximations of split edits. Is this continuity between writing and film a quest for a cinematographic writing style?

NR The theorists who’ve meant the most to me — such as Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Laura Mulvey, Robert B. Ray, bell hooks, Eugene Thacker — perform their ideas through the shape and tenor of their prose, and that’s something I’ve aspired to, especially in 10/40/70, where the split edits between formal analysis, personal reflection, and theory hopefully generate, if only in flashes, the same sort of feeling you get when a film suddenly bares its teeth and shows you that it wasn’t what you thought it was. But I will also say there is a dark gravity at work in certain of the film frames, perhaps because portions of the book were written during a very low point for me. The film frame — motionless — doubling as a long take was an idea born of desperation, of staring too long into frozen images.

AG You quote André Bazin, for whom the power of a movie image should be judged “not according to what it adds to reality but to what it reveals of it.” Do you agree that this would provide an excellent description of your own analytical method, which is all about revealing something as yet unseen? On at least a couple of occasions, you acknowledge that there is “very little to say about [a] scene that is not outstripped by the scene itself.” On others, however, you adopt a more hands-on approach — by projecting a scene from The Passenger (1975) onto Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), or by splicing together a movie and a novel — as though the 10/40/70 constraint were no longer enough.

NR Well, I do think some films theorize themselves and suffer from the words we use to untangle them. I’ve gotten in some terrible rows with colleagues about this over the years. In fact, one of the sections I deleted from the book described a knife fight between a fellow graduate student and myself at Penn State in 1992. It was about Wild at Heart (1990). After a long night of arguing and drinking Yuengling, I said something like, “that movie doesn’t need your theory because it’s already theorized itself,” then there was some unfortunate language that escalated into an actual, awkward fight with knives. Some film moments are diminished, rather than enlarged, by the words we bring to bear on them. As I’m answering this question I’m reading a novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Annihilation, and there’s a moment when the narrator realizes the enormity of the mystery she’s trying to understand: “But there is a limit to thinking about even a small piece of something monumental. You still see the shadow of the whole rearing up behind you.” For me, during the writing of 10/40/70, that shadow was the realization that the constraints I established were weak and insufficient against the tyranny of interpretive intention.

AG Your book is, among many other things, a rehabilitation of Bazin — what is his significance today? Could you explain what you mean when you claim that his “total cinema” is the “end point” of digital cinema?

NR Bazin was interested in excavating the desires that fueled the invention of moving images — desires that he suggests were based on a passion to create an utter and complete replication of nature. In his 1946 essay “The Myth of Total Cinema,” he suggests that what energized this desire was “the recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.” He says that the myth (i.e. the desire to replicate reality entirely) preceded the technology that made it possible. The tricky thing here is Bazin’s use of the term myth, which he doesn’t seem to equate with “false.” Instead, he almost suggests that this myth is achievable, as in his point that the flight of Icarus remained in the realm of myth only until the invention of the internal combustion engine. In this regard, Bazin occupies a fascinating and precarious place in film theory. While his approach has something in common with the later “apparatus theory,” which historicized film production, he decidedly didn’t share their assumptions about the ideological contamination of cinema’s very technology, instead framing that ideology within the larger and more important (for him) question of human desire and aspiration. By linking total cinema to a terminal, or end point, I’m wondering if we have achieved, on a symbolic level, Bazin’s notion of the recreation of the world in its own image. Doesn’t the surveillance state suggest this? On a practical level — and linking straight back to Bazin’s terms — it’s possible to have a camera, or multiple cameras, capture in a continuous, uninterrupted shot an object or a place and to keep recording this for as long and longer than you and I shall live. This one-to-one replication, to use Bazin’s term, of reality that unfolds contiguous with time itself, stretching decades with no interruption, with no need for interpretation, was not possible in Bazin’s era, except as a theory.

Still from the seventy-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

Still from the seventy-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

AG You suggest that the true, ultimate long take may be human perception itself: “a lifespan unfolding in real time, punctuated by cuts and fade-outs that take the form of blinking and sleeping and forgetting.” What’s at stake for you in film criticism is far more than just film criticism, isn’t it? I’m thinking especially of passages where you apply the 10/40/70 method to your own memories: “There was yet no logic. No 10/40/70. No sense that images could be tamed only to be let loose among their tamers.” Could you comment upon that last quote, which reminds me a little of Raymond Queneau’s definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”?

NR There was a deep sadness that accompanied the writing and assembling of the book, and your question touches on the nature of that sadness, which I think has to do with realizing that theory — whether it’s 10/40/70 or any theory — is an attempt on some level to structure and impose some sort of narrative coherence on our very selves and memories. Our brains are the most vicious total cinema machines of all. Our continual efforts when awake and when sleeping to work out the past, to smooth it into layers of meaning, must certainly wear the gears down until we can’t even hear or feel them moving. Forced into a high level of concentration we come to realize that it’s not films we’re talking about, but ourselves. Our fingerprints are already over everything.

AG At times, the book does become darkly autobiographical. This appears to be the case towards the end of the piece on Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) and clearly is throughout your Lynchian “Intermission” and “Epilogue,” which often read like short stories. The screenplay you’ve written, The Removals, seems to be, if the teaser is anything to go by, about the gap between life and art, which all the major avant-garde movements of the twentieth century aspired to bridge. Please tell us about the interaction between criticism, autobiography, and fiction in your work in general, and your forthcoming novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, in particular.

NR I’m reluctant to talk about this, so forgive me if my answer is a bit elliptical. There are certain things that have happened to me that don’t seem possible, but that bear witness to truth. The terrible knife fight is one. Criticism, autobiography, and fiction are linked by the desire to uncover what lies beneath and, as you suggest, to fatefully go into the gap between art and life. Once you enter this gap you use every genre and mode of writing to close it, only to realize that in the process you’ve created something new, something in between life and art, and it’s so fragile you dare not talk about it. The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing is about the frightful consequences of what happens when this gap decides it doesn’t want to be bridged and strikes back.

AG Your constraint-based approach was directly inspired by Dogme 95, but what about the Oulipians: how much of an influence were they? Were you, for instance, aware of the Oucinépo, launched by François Le Lionnais in 1974, which was later renamed Oucipo (Ouvroir de Cinématographie Potentielle) and appears to have done precious little? Could you also talk to us about other sources of inspiration: Laura Mulvey, certainly, but perhaps also Douglas Gordon’s art installation, 24 Hour Psycho?

NR Oulipo has always been a low-frequency inspiration, although I didn’t always know it. I think I was first introduced to them through Brian Eno and Brian Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, and then worked my way back to Georges Perec. Oulipo must have been somewhere in the back of my mind when coming up with 10/40/70, but it was much more, as you say, the Dogme 95 movement that served as a direct inspiration. It seemed more outrageous to me, more difficult to get a handle on in terms of sincerity and irony. 24 Hour Psycho — yes, but also, now that I think about it, there was a more obscure and personal inspiration. Our children and their friends went through a phase when they were maybe eleven or twelve (this would have been in the early 2000s) when they used the term “random” in a sort of complimentary way. I distinctly remember my daughter Maddy saying, from the back of the car, “that’s so random, Dad!” in response to something I had said. It signaled to me — and I remember very strongly feeling this — that I was, for that one brief moment, in her world, that I had accidentally and momentarily become “cool” because what I had said was “random.” And the movies and video games and even music they were attracted to had elements of this feeling of randomness: sampling, the choose-your-own-adventure-first-person-exploration video games like Metroid Prime (2002) and TV shows like Lost (which debuted in 2004) and which had this feeling of randomness, chance, and risk.

AG You discuss the essentially random nature of the 10/40/70 constraint, but say nothing of the conscious choices that were made while composing this work. How did you go about selecting the films and their order of appearance in the book?

NR This is embarrassing, but prior to the book I had worked out what I thought was an arbitrary method for selecting films. This involved using the IMDB database of all films released in a certain year and having various acquaintances select one from each. But there were so many problems with that, not least of which is that for, say, 1997, there are over forty thousand movies listed, and what are movies anyway? Is a direct-to-TV movie a movie, or is a movie released directly to VOD a movie, or what about a movie made for TV but thought of as a motion picture — like Spielberg’s Duel (1971)? And there are thousands of porn titles listed there, too. And then there were other methods, including a Lev Manovich-like algorithm that used a database and random generator to select films. But finally all these seemed too impersonal and involved — a sort of fakery, a false sheen of objectivity. So I used the limits I had at hand: my own collection of films, which didn’t always represent my tastes because many of them I had purchased simply to illustrate a technique in my film class. My one strict rule was that once I selected a film, I’d write about it no matter what, no matter what it revealed, or didn’t reveal.

AG Perhaps you could say a few words about other similar projects like “The Blue Velvet Project” or “The 70s”?

NR The original idea for “The Blue Velvet Project” was to purchase a 35 mm print of the film, digitize it, and work on each frame, but of course there’s no way to do that in a lifetime, as there are close to 1,500 frames in just one minute of film time. This idea eventually morphed into the project that ran at Filmmaker for one year, where I stopped the film every forty-seven seconds, seized the image, and wrote about it. A goal there was to take a film I was familiar with and devise a method of writing about it that would, as much as possible, dispense with interpretive intention and to subject myself to the film’s interrogation. With “The 70s” I’ve opened the call to anyone who wants to send me a frame grab from the seventy-minute point of a film, partly to see whether there is any weird correspondence, affinity, or secret knowledge passed back and forth between films at seventy minutes.

AG Post-VCR technology has transformed film theory, but has it also influenced film practice? Was this something you took on board when writing the script for The Removals, directed by Grace Krilanovich?

NR Yes, in the sense that I still don’t believe we’ve acclimatized to the radical displacement of actually seeing and hearing ourselves broadcast back to us, as film made possible only a little over a hundred years ago. This displacement — or removal — of ourselves from ourselves was first made adjustable by the VCR and other early forms of image playback technology. The Removals is a thriller in the sense that it’s about the revenge of this second or third or fourth copy or iteration of ourselves on ourselves. Robert B. Ray has written elegantly — in How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies — about how film theory, especially in the US, suffered a blow to the imagination by adopting a vague sort of social sciences approach to hermeneutics. One of his suggestions is to view film theory as a form of radical experimentation. What would happen, say, if I adopted the editing style of film X as a method of inquiry? The overall goal is to find something new and unexpected, not just in the film itself, but in the writing about the film.

AG Would you like to try your hand at directing some day? Perhaps you could ask Grace Krilanovich to write a script for you.

NR I have all the props to be a director: an eye patch, a Colt single-action Army revolver, and an ascot à la Dom DeLuise in Blazing Saddles. If I directed a film it would be incoherent, but hopefully in the way that Robin Wood uses that term in his great book Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan.

AG Your earlier work, Cinema in the Digital Age, highlights the ways in which digital films were haunted by their analogue past. Do you think this is still the case?

NR Perhaps not so much as I thought when I wrote that book, and in fact I’m working on a new edition which will address just this question. I bring, as someone born in the 1960s, a certain generational perspective to the analogue/digital transformation, as it unfolded in real time for those of us from that era. But my university students today were born in the 1990s and came of age in the 2000s, on the digital side of history. Also, the haunting that I described, especially in self-consciously digital films, such as those from the Dogme 95 movement, seems to be characterized by suppression. It’s in the efforts to suppress vestiges of cinema’s analogue customs — mise-en-scène, depth of field, shot reverse-shot, etc. — that digital cinema, paradoxically, reveals traces of those very customs. In their absence, they remain. In Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), for example, efforts at ugliness are undermined by our own weird form of metatextual tmesis, which Barthes described as skipping or skimming around in a text, rather than reading it word-for-word. In the sort of tmesis I’m thinking about, we as the audience sporadically fill in the empty spaces and derail The Idiots’ digital attempt to break free from analogue aesthetics: we substitute blank ugliness with mise-en-scène and we credit shaky camera movement. In this sense it may be that it is the spectator herself who haunts digital cinema.

AG Punk is another important point of reference we have failed to mention so far. You have written a book about The Ramones’s classic debut album and A Cultural Dictionary of Punk 1974-1982, as well as edited an anthology devoted to New Punk Cinema.

NR I’m almost ashamed to talk about punk, as I was drawn to it because it repelled me. I wanted to learn more about what this thing was that came along, then destroyed and made laughable the music that I loved. I read Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces and then Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, and I suppose, to be honest, I wanted to write heroically, as I felt they had. My goal in the 33 1/3 book, devoted to the first album by the Ramones, was to bring to bear upon that material a highly rigorous, almost exaggerated academic method and tone to try to capture what I felt was the cold, removed, distanced feeling of that album. For A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, I switched gears, and will be ever grateful to my editor David Barker (then at Continuum Publishers) who gave me full permission to drive the bus off the cliff, as it were, to see what the crash would look like. So there’s an alter ego in that book — Ephraim P. Noble — who despises punk and who writes some of the entries. But it’s also a heavily researched book, and I hope that it succeeds in drawing connections between the deep tissue of punk and other cultural forms that it corresponded to in coded ways.

AG To return to 10/40/70, does Zeno’s (the bar which casts a Lynchian shadow over the autobiographical “Intermission” chapter) really exist? It seems too good to be true, given that the Greek philosopher — a digital film theorist avant la lettre — is known for his paradoxical arguments against motion.

NR Zeno’s seems too good to be true, but it exists, and was a favorite watering hole for those who wished to get drunk on more than theory in grad school. There was a woman there who tended bar whose face really was melted like wax and who would say things under her breath in a language I didn’t understand, but that someone — a linguist we used to hang out with — said was Coptic. I haven’t been back there for twenty years, but I remember it was one of those bunker-like places beneath an old building, very dark, and the space was difficult to understand. Was it an enormous room, or simply a room that, by its lighting, seemed enormous? Sort of an interior version of the Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

AG Has Detroit — where you teach — influenced your work?

NR I’m sure it has — both the city and the place where I work, the University of Detroit Mercy, which has been supportive of all my work, no matter how much it has strayed. The university was founded by the Jesuits and their mode of intellectual inquiry about the created world has inspired and sustained me. I was hired in the mid-1990s as an early Americanist in the English department, having written my dissertation on the late eighteenth-century rise of the gothic novel in the United States. I still teach and do research in that field, but the connections I sensed between the messy dialogism and heteroglossia of the early novel — especially emerging out of a Puritan context, as it did in the US — and similar dialogic noises that punk made, felt natural to me and worth pursuing.

And I drive each day through parts of the city that still bear physical scars of the 1967 riot — or insurrection, as it is called by many in these parts. It can be a strange and exhilarating feeling, like looking at sedimentary rock with its exposed layers of time. Where other cities, through gentrification, “urban renewal,” and the like, have eradicated traces of their past, unless they are pleasing to look at, Detroit retains an almost documentary-like record of its violent past, though not by choice. There is such a strong feeling in Detroit that you have to push very hard through history to be and to exist in the present, and this constant state of adjustment gives people here, I find, a very high sense of alertness and clarity.

****

The first question was cut during the editing process. I eventually worked part of it into the introduction. Here it is, for the record:

AG In the Preface, you claim that films surendered much of their “mythic aura” when they migrated from big screens to computers via television. This “demystification” — that represents yet another stage in Schiller’s disenchantment of the world — is largely due to the fact that movies have lost their relentless forward momentum. Since the “advent of VCR,” spectators have been able to control the way films are watched: they can fast-forward, rewind, and — most importantly for digital film theorists — pause. The “ability of even the most technically handicapped users to capture video and film frames” runs counter to the traditional “fleetingness” of the cinematic experience — “the impossible-to-stop movement of images across the screen, the ways in which the audience remembered and misremembered certain moments”. Do you agree, with the likes of Mark Fisher or Simon Reynolds, that what we have lost in our digital age is loss itself?

NR I think it’s the feeling of loss, rather than loss itself, perhaps something akin to what Steven Shaviro describes as affect that doesn’t merely represent, but structures subjectivity. Lately, though, I’ve taken my deconstructive cues more from literature and film and less so from theory, so my responses will reference those sources a bit more than the usual theory suspects. A super-abundance, or plague, of meaning. That’s our curse. It’s not just cinematic images: our data centers, digital archives, cached pages, cloud storage — these suggest a weird distorted image of the surveillance state. It is not we who watch films, but films that watch us. My feeling is that this is expressed best through genre, horror specifically, perhaps because of all of cinema’s dirty genres, horror has always been about scopophilia (Laura Mulvey) more than anything else. Theory can be found, today, in the haunted images of the V/H/S films, the first three Paranormal films, and several Ti West films (especially The Sacrament) because the horror genre gives permission, somehow, to theorize not just space within the frame, but the nature of the frame itself. The V/H/S/ horror anthologies, for instance, remind us every twenty minutes or so (or whenever a ‘new’ tape is inserted) of the embodiment of horror in its precarious, unstable situation as its medium shifts from analogue to digital.

La faim du livre

November 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

Along with Gérard Berréby, Augustin Trapenard, and Hervé Laurent, I was interviewed by Linn Levy for a piece entitled “La faim du livre” which appeared in the December 2013 issue of Swiss magazine Edelweiss. The article features on pp. 44-47; my interview is on p. 46.

La faim du livre

Edelweiss part en quête de la littérature contemporaine, des mots qui dérangent et se demande si être écrivain veut encore dire quelque chose par les temps qui courent. Quatre intellectuels se penchent sur ces questions et nous éclairent.

«Nous sommes les visages de notre temps», clamaient les futuristes russes, le poète Maïakosvki en tête, il y a exactement un siècle, pétris de la conviction que l’art qu’ils inventaient allait renverser l’ordre des choses, qu’en récrivant le monde ils façonneraient le futur. Et aujourd’hui? A qui appartiennent les visages de l’époque contemporaine? Peut-on encore écrire? Et quels sont, parmi le demi-millier d’ouvrages publiés cette rentrée en Suisse et en France, ceux qui tordent la littérature, l’éprouvent, l’inventent? Oui, dans quels livres trouve-t-on les questions que nous ne nous sommes pas encore posées? Difficile pour le lecteur de se retrouver dans le magma de fictions qui ornent les étals des librairies comme les marchandises envahissent les hypermarchés. Le divertissement, devenu la norme au risque d’endormir insidieusement les esprits, laisse peu de place au doute, la tension semble diluée, presque rien ne dérange, pas grand-chose ne dépasse. Alors, pour celui qui a faim d’autre chose que de spectacle et qui ne déteste pas être dérangé – «Etre scandalisé, un plaisir», assurait Pasolini –, il s’agit de résister en cherchant les lignes qui dévient, la littérature, la vraie, ce souffle qui a «la faculté d’empêcher la folie du monde de s’emparer totalement de nous», comme l’écrit Alberto Manguel. Quatre experts nous éclairent sur les mots d’aujourd’hui, l’influence du web, la mort imminente du droit d’auteur, celle de la figure de l’écrivain, sur le remix aussi, et l’irrévérence anglo-saxonne ou helvétique… L’éditeur Gérard Berréby, l’écrivain et professeur Andrew Gallix, le journaliste Augustin Trapenard et le critique d’art Hervé Laurent ont accepté de surcroît de dévoiler leurs titres préférés de la rentrée.

Andrew Gallix
Ecrivain, éditeur, professeur à la Sorbonne

L’écriture a cinquante ans de retard sur la peinture – triste constat de l’artiste Brion Gysin dans les années 60… «Et, pour le philosophe et romancier anglais Lars Iyer, la situation n’a fait qu’empirer. Le roman, censé échapper au monde des genres, est lui-même devenu un genre. Pour lui, la littérature est morte (comme la musique classique avant elle) et les livres que l’on peut encore écrire doivent exprimer la distance qui nous sépare de la grande littérature du passé. Cette «postlittérature» s’inscrit d’ailleurs dans un contexte politique et culturel plus général: pour Mark Fisher ou Simon Reynolds, par exemple, la modernité est derrière nous. Cette nouvelle crise du roman, symbolisée par Reality Hunger, le manifeste de David Shields, se traduit souvent par un rejet de la fiction.» Les idées se bousculent dans l’esprit brillant d’Andrew Gallix. L’écrivain britannique, professeur à la Sorbonne, collaborateur du quotidien The Guardian, punk depuis l’âge de 12 ans, a lancé en 2000 le premier blog littéraire en anglais, «3:AM Magazine»1, dont le mot d’ordre est le très groucho-marxesque: «De quoi qu’il s’agisse, nous sommes contre». Un webzine si avant-gardiste qu’il a donné naissance à un véritable mouvement littéraire, The Offbeat Generation, regroupant des plumes anglophones non conformistes (Tony O’Neill, Ben Myers, Tom McCarthy notamment), rejetant la culture dominante et le monde traditionnel de l’édition. «La littérature est quelque chose qui résiste, analyse-t-il. Même s’il n’existe plus vraiment d’avant-garde – le web l’a diluée en quelque sorte –, je remarque que l’écriture conceptuelle, expérimentale prend de plus en plus d’importance. Il y a toute une génération d’auteurs qui reste très influencée par la théorie poststructuraliste de Derrida, je pense notamment à Rachel Kushner. Il y a un autre courant d’écrivains, américains pour la plupart, qui s’inscrit dans la directe lignée de l’éditeur Gordon Lish – celui qui a en quelque sorte fait Raymond Carver. Pour eux, tout se passe au niveau de la phrase. Et, pour finir, je trouve passionnante et à suivre la scène littéraire qui s’est formée autour de la revue new-yorkaise n+1 (nplusonemag.com).»
1 http://www.andrewgallix.com / http://www.3ammagazine.com

Il lit:
Au départ d’Atocha, Ben Lerner (à paraître)
C, Tom McCarthy, L’Olivier
Nue, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Editions de Minuit

Writing Itself

April 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Simon Reynolds, “Paperback Q&A: Simon Reynolds on Retromania,” The Guardian (website), 10 April 2012:

[A] book continues to write itself after you’ve finished and handed it in.

Invisible Tradition

February 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

Simon Reynolds, “Greil Marcus: A Life in Writing,” The Guardian Saturday 18 February 2012 (Guardian Review p. 12)

At once epic and fragmentary, the book [Lipstick Traces] argues for the Sex Pistols as the culmination of ‘an unheard, invisible tradition’ of apocalyptic protest-poetry stretching back via Situationism and Dada all the way to medieval millenarian sects like the Brethren of the Free Spirit. ‘Johnny Rotten is speaking for himself but all those other voices are in there speaking with him too. All kind of demands on society, on life, on ontology, on epistemology are present in the noise of punk and in that vocal sound, boiled down on to a little 7-inch piece of plastic’.

Hauntology

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

This appeared in Guardian Books on 17 June 2011:

Hauntology: A Not-So-New Critical Manifestation
The new vogue in literary theory is shot through with earlier ideas

[Haunting presence ... Jacques Derrida, who coined the term hauntology, in a still from the documentary Derrida]

Hauntology is probably the first major trend in critical theory to have flourished online. In October 2006, Mark Fisher — aka k-punk — described it as “the closest thing we have to a movement, a zeitgeist”. A mere three years later, Adam Harper prefaced a piece on the subject with the following caveat: “I’m all too aware that it’s no longer 2006, the year to blog about hauntology”. Two months ago, James Bridle predicted that the concept was “about six months away from becoming the title of a column in a Sunday supplement magazine”. Only four months to go, then. My hunch is that hauntology is already haunting itself. The revival starts here.

Like its close relative psychogeography, hauntology originated in France but struck a chord on this side of the Channel. In Spectres of Marx (1993), where it first appeared, Jacques Derrida argued that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave. In the original French, “hauntology” sounds almost identical to “ontology”, a concept it haunts by replacing — in the words of Colin Davis — “the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”.

Today, hauntology inspires many fields of investigation, from the visual arts to philosophy through electronic music, politics, fiction and literary criticism. At its most basic level, it ties in with the popularity of faux-vintage photography, abandoned spaces and TV series like Life on Mars. Mark Fisher — whose forthcoming Ghosts of My Life (Zer0 Books) focuses primarily on hauntology as the manifestation of a specific “cultural moment” — acknowledges that “There’s a hauntological dimension to many different aspects of culture; in fact, in Moses and Monotheism, Freud practically argues that society as such is founded on a hauntological basis: the voice of the dead father”. When you come to think of it, all forms of representation are ghostly. Works of art are haunted, not only by the ideal forms of which they are imperfect instantiations, but also by what escapes representation. See, for instance, Borges‘s longing to capture in verse the “other tiger, that which is not in verse”. Or Maurice Blanchot, who outlines what could be described as a hauntological take on literature as “the eternal torment of our language, when its longing turns back toward what it always misses“. Julian Wolfreys argues in Victorian Hauntings (2002) that “to tell a story is always to invoke ghosts, to open a space through which something other returns” so that “all stories are, more or less, ghost stories” and all fiction is, more or less, hauntological. The best novels, according to Gabriel Josipovici, share a “sense of density of other worlds suggested but lying beyond words“. For the reader or critic, the mystery of literature is the opacity — the irreducible remainder — at the heart of writing that can never be completely interpreted away. The whole western literary tradition itself is founded on the notion of posterity, which Paul Eluard described as the “harsh desire to endure” through one’s works. And then, of course, there’s the death of the author… All this, as you can see, could go on for quite a while, so perhaps we should wonder if the concept does not just mean all things to all (wo)men. Steen Christiansen, who is writing a book on the subject, explains that “hauntology bleeds into the fields of postmodernism, metafiction and retro-futurism and that there is no clear distinction — that would go against the tension which hauntology aims at”.

As a reflection of the zeitgeist, hauntology is, above all, the product of a time which is seriously “out of joint” (Hamlet is one of Derrida’s crucial points of reference in Spectres of Marx). There is a prevailing sense among hauntologists that culture has lost its momentum and that we are all stuck at the “end of history“. Meanwhile, new technologies are dislocating more traditional notions of time and place. Smartphones, for instance, encourage us never to fully commit to the here and now, fostering a ghostly presence-absence. Internet time (which is increasingly replacing clock time) results in a kind of “non-time” that goes hand in hand with Marc Augé’s non-places. Perhaps even more crucially, the web has brought about a “crisis of overavailability” that, in effect, signifies the “loss of loss itself”: nothing dies any more, everything “comes back on YouTube or as a box set retrospective” like the looping, repetitive time of trauma (Fisher). This is why “retromania” has reached fever pitch in recent years, as Simon Reynolds demonstrates in his new book — a methodical dissection of “pop culture’s addiction to its own past”.

Hauntology is not just a symptom of the times, though: it is itself haunted by a nostalgia for all our lost futures. “So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants?” asks Owen Hatherley at the beginning of Militant Modernism, “Can we, should we, try and excavate utopia?” It might just be worth a shot.

Unheard Melodies

June 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

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This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Garageland (issue 8, pp. 30-33).

Unheard Melodies

Andrew Gallix goes in search of the most elusive of the phantom bands — L.U.V.

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“As a rock critic, when you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder if all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in this music was such a shrewd move,” wrote Simon Reynolds in the introduction to Rip It Up and Start Again. More recently, he wondered if “searching for utopia through music” had not been “a mistake” (Totally Wired). To ascribe such doubts to impending middle age alone would be to forget that there was a time when music truly was a matter of life and death, when days were whiled away listening to records and poring over album covers in some ill-defined but all-important quest. Instead of producing plays or paintings, the best and brightest were busy perfecting one-note solos on replica Starways from Woolies. Rock’n’roll was central to contemporary culture: it was where it was at.

Needless to say, no band could ever totally live up to such high expectations. Malcolm McLaren shrewdly ensured that the Sex Pistols made precious few live appearances in order to enhance their mystique. Spandau Ballet would use a similar trick at the beginning of their career by playing invite-only gigs. Keats (Morrissey notwithstanding) was right: heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. After all, bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up. Some — like the Libertines whose Arcadian rhetoric was often far more exciting than their songs — are condemned to remain pale reflections of their Platonic ideals. By the same token, a record is always a compromise: The La’s famously spent two years recording and re-recording their first album without ever achieving the desired effect. Even at its best, music cannot vie with the silence it comes from and returns to — the silence inhabited by phantom bands.

We are not talking dead silence here, but rather something akin to the background noise during a performance of 4′ 33″ or the tinnitus burned on to the mind’s ear by imaginary songs overheard through the static in between radio stations. A living silence, perhaps. According to the great academic and critic George Steiner, “A book unwritten is more than a void”. The same could be said about songs unrecorded or unplayed: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian iPod of Babel. Phantom bands themselves are not complete figments of the imagination either: to qualify, they must have some kind of shadowy existence, leave some kind of (lipstick) trace. The Chris Gray Band never existed beyond a few graffiti around Victoria Coach Station in the early seventies, but the idea of forming “a totally unpleasant pop group” designed to subvert showbiz from within would obviously be a major influence on the Pistols project (1). The London SS — whose short lifespan was one long audition bringing together most of the major players on the future London punk scene — is probably the most influential group to have neither released a record nor played a single gig. Synthpunk pioneers The Screamers were described by Jello Biafra as “the best unrecorded band in the history of rock’n’roll”. Typically, their first photoshoot appeared in a magazine when they were yet to play live (2). At a later stage, they were approached to release an album cover containing no record — an art stunt which never materialised but would have been a fitting metaphor for this textbook phantom outfit from Los Angeles. The Screamers managed to become local legends although — or perhaps because — they only did a handful of gigs and never got round to cutting a record (3). The Nova Mob from Liverpool did not even try to go that far. Fronted by Julian Cope, they were a purely conceptual group dedicated to never playing a single note of music. Instead, they would hang around caffs discussing imaginary songs — a practice they referred to as “rehearsing”. Definitely one for the Borgesian iPod.

“It’s like being in love with a woman you’ve never had,” says Dominique Fury, trying to account for the enduring fascination exerted by the group in which she briefly played guitar more than three decades ago: “The relationship hasn’t been consummated”. She smiles. A ray of sunshine has crept into her artist’s studio near Belleville. Through the open window, I can glimpse the pink apple blossom in the middle of the dappled courtyard. All is quiet. All is still. When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love L-U-V. For me, the most phantomatic of phantom bands has always been L.U.V., an elusive and largely illusive all-girl punk combo from Paris. I remember reading tantalising news snippets about them in the music or mainstream press at regular intervals. A quote here, a namecheck there. Just enough to whet my appetite. And then — nothing. A tale told by an idiot, full of silence and fury, signifying nothing. Nostalgia for a band yet to come.

Only one picture of the complete line-up was ever published (in the long-defunct Matin de Paris). Granted, it is worth a thousand words, but the fact that there seem to be no others speaks volumes about the fragility of L.U.V.’s collective identity. It is also rather paradoxical given that style was all the substance they had. From left to right you can see Aphrodisia Flamingo (the rebel), Dominique Fury (the femme fatale), Liliane Vittori (the cerebral rock chick) and Edwige Belmore (the It girl). Wearing matching sunglasses, Aphrodisia and Dominique — the terrible twins who formed the nucleus of the group — stand very close to each other as if they are an item. Aphrodisia stares the world down, her full mouth a smouldering moue of utter contempt — Bardot gone badass. Dominique, in terrorist chic mode, adopts a far more glamorous, almost provocative pose. Liliane, for her part, seems to be fading into the background, a faraway look on her anguished features. Edwige towers above her like some Teutonic titan, sporting a Billy Idol hairdo and the blank expression of a Galeries Lafayette mannequin.

L.U.V. (4) was the brainchild of Aphrodisia Flamingo (Laurence “Lula” Grumbach) who, having mixed with the likes of Nico, Lou Reed and Patti Smith in New York City, returned to Paris determined to launch a girl group of the punk persuasion. One night, down at the Gibus (France’s answer to CBGB), she caught sight of Dominique Fury (née Jeantet) (5). It was L.U.V. at first sight: “I just made a beeline for her because I instantly knew I wanted her in the band”. The fiery, long-haired brunette and the glacial, short-haired blonde were attracted to each other like polar opposites. Dominique speaks repeatedly of a “magnetic relationship”: “There was chemistry between us — something magical that was more than the mere sum of its parts”. Both came from very wealthy but troubled backgrounds (6). Aphrodisia lost her father when she was only eleven; Fury never really found hers (which may explain her penchant for collective experiences) (7). The latter was a revolutionary heiress who made donations to the Black Panthers and bankrolled a couple of utopian communities that she describes as “a quest for something beautifully wild”. Once the opium fumes of the communal dream had dissipated, she embarked on an equally eventful American road trip (almost meeting her fate near the Mexican border) and was soon drawn towards punk’s “dark and romantic aesthetics” — which brings us back to the Gibus circa early 1977.

Although L.U.V. revolved mainly around these two soul mates, the most famous member at the time was in fact Edwige — a striking bisexual amazon who was already a face on the local clubbing scene and would soon be crowned la reine des punks. For fifteen minutes, Paris was at her feet: she ran the door at the hippest joint this side of Studio 54 (Le Palace), was photographed with Warhol for the cover of Façade magazine, formed an electronic duo called Mathématiques Modernes, posed for Helmut Newton and allegedly had a string of affairs with the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna and Sade (“The Sweetest Taboo” is rumoured to be about her). Given her stature, Edwige seemed destined to bang the drums for L.U.V. As Fury puts it, “The group was primarily an image — a work of art — so it was great to have this iconic figure”.

This conception of the band as tableau vivant or performance art was (and indeed remains) at odds with some of the other members’ more conventional aspirations. “Aphrodisia gave me the opportunity to create something,” says Fury, but that something was not rock’n’roll. When L.U.V. petered out, she joined Bazooka, an art collective (where she famously found herself embroiled in a convoluted ménage à trois with two artists of either gender) rather than another band (8). But Liliane, the bassist (9), simply could not understand why Dominique showed no interest in musical proficiency and insisted on teaching her how to master her instrument. Fury reckons “she just wasn’t mad enough”. “She simply didn’t get it,” concurs Aphrodisia. Whenever journalists or A&R people attended rehearsals, they drafted in Hermann Schwartz — Métal Urbain’s axeman — who would play concealed behind a curtain while Fury struck guitar-heroine poses (10).

Aphrodisia, who is currently writing her autobiography, sees L.U.V. as a missed opportunity: “We never wrote a single song. We wanted to, but were probably too stoned” (11). She explains that rehearsals were constantly interrupted because someone always needed to score. She talks about major label interest. She remembers how Rock & Folk, the top French music magazine, would beg them to play a gig that they could cover in their next issue…

Some of us are still waiting for that next issue. Come, let us dance to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Endnotes:

(1) The eponymous Chris Gray was a member of the English section of the Situationist International (expelled in 1967) and the author of the seminal Leaving the 20th Century anthology (1974) which popularised Situationist ideas in Britain. Like Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid, he was involved with political pranksters King Mob.

(2) This is reminiscent of the Flowers of Romance (which included Sid Vicious, Viv Albertine and Keith Levene) who gave an interview to a fanzine although they had never played live (and would never do so). The Pistols would later cover the Flowers’ “Belsen Was a Gas”.

(3) The Screamers’ uncompromising music — all synthesizer, keyboard, drums, screamed vocals and not a guitar in sight — was unlikely to get heavy rotation, but delusions of grandeur were probably the main reason why the big time eluded them. A prime example of this was their decision to turn down a tour with Devo. There were also rumours that Brian Eno wanted to produce them, but the band felt that their histrionic live performance could not possibly be captured on vinyl. Instead, they envisaged a video-only release which would have been commercial suicide pre-MTV. It never saw the light of day anyway.

(4) The band’s name is obviously a reference to The New York Dolls’ “Looking For a Kiss,” but according to Laurence Grumbach it also stands for Ladies United Violently or Lipstick Used Viciously. Laurence’s nom de punk was chosen because she was born on 9 August which is St Amour’s day in the French calendar (hence Aphrodisia) and because she was fond of the Flamin’ Groovies (Flamingo). Apparently, it has nothing to do with John Waters’ 1972 film, Pink Flamingos.

(5) Dominique Jeantet reinvented herself as Fury in reference to Faulkner and the Plymouth Fury automobiles. She once owned a guitar with “Fury” inscribed on it.

(6) Fury recently discovered that her godfather was none other than the then future (and now late) President François Mitterrand.

(7) Fury’s father was a protean character. Among many other things, he was a spy with multiple identities who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Before the war, he had been a member of a far-right terrorist group.

(8) The two artists were Olivia Clavel, who introduced her into the collective, and Loulou Picasso. Bazooka are most famous in Britain for producing the cover of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces. Dominique Fury, who was once described as the Parisian Edie Sedgwick, also dated Lenny Kaye and Mick Jones of The Clash.

(9) Liliane was also a talented photographer who worked for the music press.

(10) Hermann Schwartz also acted as L.U.V.’s Pygmalion. It was he, for instance, who introduced the girls to The Shangri-Las.

(11) L.U.V. covered two songs: Nico & The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. Dominique Fury showed me some lyrics, both in French and English, that she had written for the band, but I’m not sure she ever shared them with the other members. Some are reminiscent of X-Ray Spex in that they describe a dystopian consumer society. Others stood out because of their violent imagery: “We’ll take the handle and you’ll take the blade”.

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All the Latest

March 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

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Check out “The Resurrection of Guy Debord” published today on the Guardian‘s website: “Guy-Ernest Debord would be spinning in his grave — had he not been cremated following his suicide in 1994. The arch-rebel who prided himself on fully deserving society’s ‘universal hatred’ has now officially been recognised as a ‘national treasure’ in his homeland.” For more, go here.

Many thanks to Alejandrino Delfos for translating my 3:AM Magazine interview with Simon Reynolds into Spanish.

Interview with Simon Reynolds

March 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

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This interview with Simon Reynolds appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 2 March 2009:

The Geist of the Zeit

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3:AM: Could you tell us how you came to start a fanzine — Monitor — while at Oxford University in 1984?

SR: We did one called Margin first, a pretty basic-looking zine about music and student stuff, e.g. like why most student parties were so boring. That turned into a wall poster that we hung up around town for free, and the content got more theoretical and manifesto-like. Monitor was started in 1984 after most of us had graduated and were living on the dole, and its focus was primarily music with some cultural overviews and some feminist pieces by the team’s female writer Hilary Little. We were keen to distinguish ourselves from other fanzines, which were generally quite scrappy-looking and descended from punk (they were anarcho, or indie-noise, or hardcore, or Goth…). So we had relatively high production values and a striking design aesthetic courtesy of Paul Oldfield, the editor in chief, and Hilary, who was an art student. In the first issue I wrote a critique of fanzine culture, in fact.

monitor-issue-5

We didn’t want to have interviews or reviews like regular zines, but be more of a pop culture journal with just thinkpieces and manifestos and rants (courtesy of David Stubbs, mostly). Then after three issues and a bit of a reputation that we’d garnered for ourselves, we came into an unexpected source of financial support, which allowed us to dramatically rachet up the production values: we had glossy, high quality paper stock, really clear typefaces and proper layout (courtesy of the early word processing programs that were just becoming available and which Paul mastered — and I happened to live above a business that offered computers for postgraduates to do their dissertations on). The last three issues of Monitor looked fantastic and the writing of the team — Oldfield, Little, Stubbs, Chris Scott and myself — really hit a synchronised peak.

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3:AM: How did you graduate to Melody Maker?

SR: I sent them some sample reviews. Steve Sutherland the reviews editor at the time was immediately enthusiastic, whereas NME at that time was difficult to penetrate. So although Melody Maker was very much the underdog then in terms of circulation and reputation I joined it and found it to be a very encouraging environment. Later in 1986, David Stubbs followed, followed the next year by Paul Oldfield. Stubbs and I were both given staff writer positions.

sr-in-1985
[Simon Reynolds circa 1985 in his Monitor days]

3:AM: Did you then decide to go freelance in order to have enough time to write books?

SR: No, I fell in love with an American, Joy Press, who, after a year of doing a postgraduate course in London, was obliged to return to New York. I couldn’t keep the staff writer position and be always going over to America for lengthy stays, so going freelance was the only option. Initially I was quite trepidatious about the move, calculating how much money in the bank I had and how many flights to America that would pay for before running out. It never occurred to me that spending half the year in America would actually be a boon for a freelance writer!

In terms of books, my first one Blissed Out came out almost exactly around the time I quit Melody Maker, but I had no particular notion I would do other books at that point, Blissed was a collection of the Melody Maker-era, mostly late Eighties stuff, it seemed like a one-off.

3:AM: Were you able to witness the whole Strokes/White Stripes rock revival scene?

SR: Not really. I was in New York when that happened but still focused largely on the dance scene which in the late 90s and early Noughties was pretty vibrant.

3:AM: Initially, you became famous for writing about rave music which is interesting since it is a phenomenon which rock critics (and the traditional British music papers) usually had a hard time dealing with. You turned this into an advantage…

blissedout

SR: Well, initially I was more known for writing about underground rock in the late Eighties — me and my comrades at Melody Maker were pushing groups like My Bloody Valentine, AR Kane, Butthole Surfers, Loop, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, etc. We also celebrated rap and electronic dance stuff and industrial things like The Young Gods, but that sort of neo-psychedelic rock is what I was generally associated with. And that is what Blissed Out is largely about. But yes the rave scene took over for me by 1992 and increasingly the various directions that came out that “chemical beats” culture — jungle, gabba, IDM, trip hop, big beat etc — were my primary focus in the Nineties as a writer. And that writing led to Energy Flash.

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[Simon Reynolds blissed out in Brockwell Park, Brixton, circa 1989]

Rock magazines and rock critics do tend to approach electronic music in the standard auteur-focused way, they liked your Aphex Twins and Goldies, eccentric or colourful characters who can give good quote and did these Grand Masterpiece type records. I used to write about electronic dance in those terms too, before I got actively involved in raving and club culture. But I soon realised that the focus of the scene was on tracks and the DJ, it was much more about the anonymous collective — the interaction between the music, the club space, the crowd, the DJ — and drugs too, of course. So you had to try to bring those elements in really prominently rather than just pinpointing the pioneers and the outstanding auteur figures. They exist in even the most hardcore underground scenes but more important is the evolution of the music according to this almost depersonalised logic, where it feels like the music knows where it wants to go. It’s what Brian Eno calls scenius as opposed to genius.

3:AM: In the introduction to Rip It Up and Start Again, you write: “As a rock critic, when you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder if all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in this music was such a shrewd move. Not exactly a crisis of confidence, but a creasing of certainty”. Similarly, in Totally Wired, you wonder if the “searching for utopia through music” wasn’t “a mistake”. Aren’t these doubts mainly due to the fact that music no longer occupies the central cultural role that it did during the punk and post-punk years?

SR: I think you’re right, to an extent, but it’s also questioning what was actually achieved during those periods when it was central and seemed to have enormous power to motivate individuals and mobilise populations. A lot of great music was made but beyond that… Some nowadays would say, ‘well what did you expect?’, but at the time, something else, something extra, was expected. It felt like the music had a transformative power, a promise. Perhaps it’s just the slow fading of the Sixties dream (or delusion?), with punk/postpunk being the next and in some ways just as intense and far-reaching spasm of that excessive belief in the power of music, and rave in its own different way being another.

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3:AM: You’re known for having introduced critical theory into music journalism: wasn’t this in part a way of providing an intellectual justification to what you were doing?

SR: No, I don’t think so — I’ve never felt the need to justify or aggrandise music in that way. Music asserts its own importance and crucialness without any help from me or the books I’ve read! What it is, I’m a fan of critical theory, of that kind of philosophy and writing, and it just seemed like there was a natural fit between certain ideas and what was going on in the music. It wasn’t about legitimising “low” culture in high culture or highbrow terms, but just about intensification — the ideas would potentiate (to use drug terminology) the most radical aspects of the music. The combination of the music and the theorisation seemed to create a bigger buzz, basically.

3:AM: You point out that there is “a lot less theory” in Rip It Up than in your other books partly because many of the actors on the post-punk scene were themselves “musician/critics” who were already “eloquent in meta-talk”. I was wondering if post-punk bands had turned you on to theory in the first place?

SR: To an extent, because people like Green from Scritti Politti or the guys in Gang of Four (although they like to downplay it now) were fluent in a lot of neo-Marxist ideas. But really it was the NME journalists of that time who turned me onto the French theorists. When you read about one of your favourite bands and there’s chunks of Barthes or Kristeva or Foucault flying about, the sparks created light a fire in your brain. The music is enriched by the theory, but the theory is also enflamed by the music, if you get me. You might say that the theory is justified by the music, in a way. Much more so than the other way round. It’s brought alive by the music, and substantiated by the music.

3:AM: In his Guardian review of Totally Wired, David Sinclair claims that you don’t “so much put words into [your] subjects’ mouths as ram them down their throats”. Your response?

SR: I really think that’s rubbish, to be honest. The specific example he quoted, when I’m talking to Andy Gill, comes out like that because nowadays the members of Gang of Four like to downplay their debts to theory and make out they were never particularly Marxist. That’s probably got something to do with how they’re all involved in the business world nowadays! My question to Gill is naturally informed by reading the interviews they did back in the day, and of course listening to the lyrics of their songs — which are clearly shaped by awareness of concepts like reification and commodity-fetishism. It’s really not my fault if Andy Gill wants to make out that Gang of Four weren’t especially influenced by Marxism!

Generally the interviews are more like genial conversations than interrogations. I’m not looking to ambush them or find holes in their statements, but nor am I imposing my view of things. I’m asking questions and listening, finding out stuff I didn’t know, following up tangents. But there’s obviously areas and issues I’m looking to be covered. And I have my own opinions.

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3:AM: Surely, you must have been tempted at times to write literary criticism or perhaps even fiction?

SR: I’ve written some book reviews. I have some pet projects, dream projects, that would be largely about literature. As for doing fiction myself, a long time ago, when I was a teenager maybe. I once wanted to write science fiction but was handicapped by my inability to come up with plots! I could do the s.f. scenario but not the narrative bit.

3:AM: Rock stars used to want to be writers; today writers want to be rock stars (at least that’s my theory)… The punk and post-punk years were undoubtedly the “golden age” of the music press (“The day the new issues of the music press came out was the best day of the week”) which explains why you were “as passionate about the journalism as the music”. However, why did you choose to “contribute to the music through writing” instead of producing music yourself? After all, many rock critics from that period (Nick Kent, Kris Needs, Giovanni Dadamo, Mark P, Paul Morley, the Vermorels spring to mind) made the move from the page to the stage with varying degrees of success and seriousness…

SR: Um, well, no offence to the above, but “varying degrees of success” — you’re kidding right! Chrissie Hynde would be a better example by far. There are music journalists who’ve acquitted themselves just fine as music-makers — most recently the grime/dubstep journalist Martin Clark aka Blackdown was the co-creator of a very fine dubstep-influenced album, Margins Music. I admire the balls of those who attempt it.

I’m never made any serious attempt to make music because I’m aware of my limitations. But really I just always wanted to be a writer. It never seemed like a second-best option to me, not at all.

That said, if I had a shred of musical talent, I would probably have a go — why not, it would be fun, it would be challenging, I’d probably learn something that would make me a better critic.

3:AM: You argue that journalists could be as important as musicians in those days: bands would form after reading articles by Lester Bangs or Paul Morley. Do you think your writings will have a similar influence? Do you know if Rip It Up, for instance, had any impact on the recent post-punk revival?

SR: Rip It Up came out smack bang in the middle of the postpunk revival, which had a big momentum already rolling by the time it was published. It probably helped to keep the revival going a bit longer, maybe. It’s still ticking a long, isn’t it?

I’m not sure if any of my writings had a direct motivational effect on musicians. I do know some musicians who grew up reading my stuff but I can’t see how it’s affected what they do. In the late Eighties and early Nineties the kind of way me and my comrades at Melody Maker wrote about My Bloody Valentine and AR Kane probably contributed to the vibe at the time that led to shoegaze, but it’s obviously primarily the music itself — MBV, AR Kane, Cocteau Twins, etc — that birthed shoegaze. Whether having a role in it would be something to be proud of, I’m not sure! There were certainly things going on in that music which we as writers articulated and glamorized — this sort of narcoleptic, swoony, blissed-out dream-daze vibe — all that became hegemonic with shoegaze, and frankly rather predictable and played-out. But that was being articulated in the original shoegaze-inspiring music too, in the song titles and lyrics and things like Daydream Nation. It was all the Geist of the Zeit. So our writing was symptom rather than agent.

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3:AM: In both Rip It Up and Totally Wired, you talk about the “accidental innovation syndrome”: when post-punk bands tried to play music that was technically “beyond their reach”, it often came out wrong which is why it sounded interesting (you mention, for instance, the Gang of Four’s take on disco which you describe as an “abstraction of disco”). When these bands became more competent, their music often became bland and uninteresting. Was there a similar “accidental innovation syndrome” in rock criticism?

SR: I don’t know about that. I think rock criticism breaks the rules of other forms of journalism, but quite consciously most of the time. It is deliberately and even contrivedly more informal and sloppy, or more theoretical and neologistic, or…

When I started out I didn’t know any of the rules of reported journalism or feature writing — the idea of starting with a lead, having the nut graph, using a well-observed scene to draw in the reader — none of that I knew about, at all. I picked all that up much later, in the late Nineties really. My early Melody Maker interviews always started with some kind of bombastic micro-manifesto or oration, then slipped into a kind of Platonic dialogue, an exchange between disembodied minds. I seldom did any scene-establishing observational type writing, about clothes or where the interview took place or the gestures made by the interviewee and so forth. So you could say that was accidental innovation, perhaps. The pieces might have been improved by having some of that conventional journalistic framing, but they were also quite intense hits of rockcrit, through being so stripped down.

3:AM: You distinguish two types of rock critics: the gonzo “prophet/catalyst” who has been replaced today by the “analyst and historian”. Do you regret this trend? Even though rock criticism is far less influential than it was back in the punk/post-punk days, the British music press still played an important part in the rise of Suede, the subsequent Britpop phenomenon as well as the post-Strokes rock revival, so it’s not completely dead is it?

SR: I kind of have a foot in both camps, and enjoy both modes — the Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus approaches. I suppose the first form, the messianic mode, is the one that sets my heart on fire. I love to read that kind of stuff, and to write that kind of thing. The more measured and balanced kind of writing, I can do that easy enough, but…

The messianic mode I would distinguish from your standard hype-hype, “here’s a hot new scene” type journalism, though, since the prophetic style is always gesturing towards some kind of salvation for rock/music, which in turn would be a salvation or redemption or something like that for the world, given that the messianic mode of rockwriting is predicated on the attribution of monstrous world-historical importance to rock music (or rap, or rave, or whatever…). That explains both the born-again fervour and the rage at rock music when it fails to live up to its potential or goes through periods of doldrums.

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[Simon Reynolds, Williamsburg, 2007]

3:AM: “Post-punk completely inverted punk’s organization of sound: the guitar became more sporadic and thin-bodied; the bass becomes the melodic voice and centre of emotion in a song” (Totally Wired). You are renowned for your accurate descriptions of music (see the spot-on example above), but you also believe that “Myth is what rock music is all about”. In other words, you seem to be (or to have become) an “analyst and historian” but you’re also clearly a “prophet/catalyst”. Rock critics were important when rock was about far more than just music, right? In your case, one could even argue that you invented post-punk as a genre: nobody had brought all the threads together before…

SR: The problem with the “myth is what rock is all about” statement is that you can only have an insight like that from a fallen state of consciousness, a demystified mindset. To even say that statement is to already be incapable of participating in myth, falling for myth. People who think mythically don’t see it as myth, you see, they see it as The Truth.

That said there have been times when the music has been so powerful it’s knocked my hyper-aware self off its feet and I have believed — early rave and jungle was one such phase, and when I wrote about jungle I was helping to construct a myth while also believing in it with all my heart.

Postpunk — this idea some people put about that I came up with the term or the concept is such nonsense. It was used from about 1979 onwards, not in a huge way but it definitely cropped up in the music papers (and I’ve read every single issue of the NME and most Sounds and Melody Makers and Faces etc for the whole period covered by Rip It Up and Totally Wired). By the time we did Monitor, starting in 1984, postpunk was generally accepted as the term for that period, I refer to “postpunk” in my early articles in Monitor, which were often digesting what had happened to punk’s energies and where all that idealism and creativity had gone.

3:AM: In Totally Wired you write that “The nineties felt like this blur of constant change” — an affirmation which, in my opinion, seems far more suited to the punk and post-punk days when things were changing from week to week. (What fundamental difference was there between, say, 1998 and 1999? But 1978 had a totally different feel from 1979.) This constant activity took place, paradoxically, within what you call an “economy of delay and anticipation” — music and music news weren’t instantly accessible like they are now. Don’t you think these two contradictory phenomena played an essential part in the rise of rock criticism? Rock critics were there to make sense of the frenetic activity that was taking place and music fans spent ages poring over their articles (just as they spent hours scrutinising album covers while listening to records)…

SR: My Nineties comment is referring to the electronic dance music culture, all the energies that came out of rave, in which category I also include post-rock and trip hop as adjuncts (trippy, samples-beats-electronics based mood music). That’s how it felt, from 1990 to the end of 1998! It was a rollercoaster ride.

You’re right though about the totally different feel between 1978 and 1979, and 1980 and 1981 and 1982. That was one of the things that I wanted to convey in Rip It Up, the reactive way that music evolved, rebelling against the preceding phase.

Back then, things took longer, but the culture as a whole felt like it was hurtling. Nowadays the sense of temporality is completely inverted: everything is too instant, too fast (the speed of downloading, the impatient, skimming way one reads text on the computer screen etc), yet on the larger cultural level it feels like everything is stalled. We have this paradoxical combination of acceleration and standstill. The worst of both worlds!

3:AM: The original idea for Rip It Up was a book chronicling the “punk diaspora”. Do you think you will ever return to this project one day?

SR: I think with Rip It Up I’ve kind of done the “good bit”. Tracking the other streams of the punk delta might not be so enticing — second and third wave industrial, or Pogues-y punk-folk, or…

Some of the tangents that came out of punk — Situationist, McLaren-imitator bands, for instance — are covered quite intensively in Blissed Out. During our Melody Maker days, me and the ex-Monitor types were often working through stuff that related to punk, to the hangover of its ideas, which we felt had become unhelpful and counterproductive. We talked about the need to un-punk British music culture. We got interested in reclaiming late Sixties type ideas and even progressive rock type values. Which of course was going on in the music of the late Eighties, it was getting wiggy and blissed out. We thought that was the current in leftfield music that was crucial and to be championed against stuff that was still tied to punk and the various “creation myths” of what 1977 had signified.

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[Robert Wyatt and Simon Reynolds, Hay Literary Festival, 2007]

3:AM: In Totally Wired, you write that the “shared point of origin — the mythic site of lost unity — is punk. That’s the ignition point. The Big Bang”. The strength of punk, and the reason why it was (and indeed is) so important, was its ambiguity: the political, arty, fun, fashion and hooligan elements all coexisted for a short but exhilarating time. More than with any other movement, there is a fascination with the origins of punk — the days before it even had a proper name (see John Ingham’s October 76 “Welcome to the (?) Rock Special” article in Sounds), when the movement seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, when the clothes and music still escaped categorization. All the disparate elements started going their own way as soon as the movement could be pinned down. Do you agree with this?

SR: The archaeology of the origins of punk is this massive thing, you’re right. One thing that interests me about punk is how long the idea was in circulation before it took off. Lester Bangs and others were writing about the need for something like punk from about 1970 onwards! There were various false starts, the most famous being The Stooges, and The New York Dolls, but you could also see punk figuring in aspects of glam rock, and obviously in pub rock. And you have stray figures like The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, or Ian Dury’s first group Kilburn and the High Roads…

I’m quite into this idea that the best phase of a music is before it is named, before it gets codified. Often there’s a semantic profusion/confusion syndrome. The early days of what would be codified as drum’n’bass were very unstable in terms of nomenclature — over about three years you had terms like “breakbeat house”, “hardcore techno”, “ardkore”, “jungle techno”, “darkside”, “jungle” etc all competing and overlapping. Or with grime, where it took the longest time for anybody in the scene to settle on a name, and Wiley even released a song called “Wot U Call It” addressing this issue.

But equally it’s the aftermath era that seems fruitful too. In some ways it’s the before and the after of any musical revolution that seems richer and more suggestive than the Moment itself.

3:AM: As you write in the introduction to Totally Wired, “Books continue to write themselves in your head long after the official end of the project” which is why you have several blogs which you use to publish “footnotes” to your books. What impact has the internet had on rock criticism?

SR: That’s too big a question, really. But one effect it’s had on me is this idea that I can put the left-overs and stray thoughts on the web — it has made me more comfortable with the cutting of things down to size, whether it’s an article or a book. I can run the director’s cut version or the ideas that were never integrated into the piece on the web, for the small minority of people who are interested.

3:AM: Were you disappointed by any of the people you interviewed for Rip It Up and Totally Wired?

SR: I don’t think I was, actually. Frustrated in a few cases. Martin Fry for instance has this thing of not replying to the question — not in the least! He’ll just talk about something else altogether. But after I realised this was going on I just let go of the reins and let him flow, and he did bring up a lot of interesting stuff along the way, even if there were many things I would have liked to have had discussed that weren’t. But you know it was cool to meet him, he’s certainly a charismatic guy. No, I can’t think of any disappointments.

3:AM: Who is your all-time favourite rock critic and why?

SR: It would be a close race between Paul Morley and Barney Hoskyns. But Barney would win. First off I suppose it comes down to taste. The definition, the sine qua non, of a great critic is having great taste. You can have the most elegant prose style and the sharpest insights and wittiest wisecracks, but if you can’t lead me to amazing music, then you’re of a limited use, I think.

Barney’s writing at the NME in the early Eighties introduced me to so much amazing music. So many of my all-time favourites, I wonder if I would have heard without his advocacy… He introduced me to Astral Weeks, John Martyn… The Blue Orchids… Meat Puppets… all the US hardcore stuff in fact: Black Flag, Flipper, Husker Du… But also things like Donna Summer, who I knew for her more famous hits but would I have otherwise bothered to chase down “Working the Midnight Shift/Now I Need You”, this amazing Moroderized electronic dreamscape song-suite, if he hadn’t written so alluringly about it? All kinds of soul music… old stuff, but also great New York black postdisco and club music of the early Eighties. But at the opposite end of the spectrum, he made certain heavy metal things intriguing. And it was actually his writing that got me interested in The Smiths, who I’d initially found a bit mundane-sounding.

Barney Hoskyns had this thing of having an incredibly wide range of music he wrote about but the effect was never merely eclectic, there was an overall vision that encompassed all these disparate and seemingly remote from each other things.

What I also really dug was this Dionysian view of music he was pushing in the early Eighties in reaction to the New Pop philosophy of Paul Morley’s that was so widely adopted by other UK journalists. Hoskyns was a renegade against that hegemony, he was celebrating music in terms of obsession, madness, dirt, danger, frenzy, sickness, “convulsive bliss”, druggy oblivion… This at a time when music was very much about cleanliness and health and non-intoxication and this sort of uptight hyper-rationality. He was championing Nick Cave and The Birthday Party and also placing them in a lineage that included The Stooges, The Saints, Suicide, The Stones and so forth. He was celebrating rock at a time when rock’n’roll was a dirty word, a complete no-no. But he didn’t reject New Pop completely, he championed certain artists within it who he felt had a certain excess and tragic intensity like The Associates, Soft Cell and Scritti Politti.

His writing style at its height is incomparable, the mixture of prose poetry and theoretical penetration, shot through with humour. And he was one of the NME guys who used critical theory and riffs from philosophers (Nietzche was a favourite) in a very effective way.

I suppose the NME-era Hoskyns was kind of my own Lester Bangs. Later on he switched to the other mode, he went from prophet to historian/analyst; he became an excellent critic and writer of histories and biographies, such as his Tom Waits books. But it’s the more adolescent phase — the fucked-up phase, a period he had to leave behind for his own well-being (because he was walking it like he talked it) that had the massive impact on me. It hit me at a very impressionable age. And it took me a long time to develop my own vision of music, incorporating Hoskyns’s ideas and developing them, embracing other approaches. Perhaps I only fully managed to invent my own identity as a writer and thinker thanks to rave culture, which was my own Dionysian moment but based around really radically different music.

Barney is also a really nice guy, which is not always the case with your heroes!

[This interview was translated into Spanish by Alejandrino Delfos and posted on his site on 17 March 2009.]

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