The Evil of Banality

My review of Nietzsche and the Burbs by Lars Iyer. The Stinging Fly, 9 April 2020:

According to one school of thought, authors — whether consciously or not — always write the same book. As they never get it right, they feel compelled to start over again. Some give up the pretence, spending most of their careers toiling away at a single magnum opus. Others, cursed with beginner’s luck, are henceforth condemned to produce inferior iterations of their debuts. Lars Iyer — an enthusiastic exponent of Mark E. Smith’s ‘three Rs’ (‘Repetition repetition repetition’) — both proves and disproves this theory. To say that his first four novels are much of a muchness is an understatement, but their cumulative effect has led to a glorious breakthrough. Imagine the Spurious trilogy (2011-2012) and Wittgenstein Jr (2014) as two identical loops, running at slightly different speeds, falling in and out of sync, and you get a good idea of Nietzsche and the Burbs, which manages to be different from (and superior to) its predecessors, while remaining essentially the same. It may well be the first instance of verbal phase music.

This hilarious but also bittersweet coming-of-age tale chronicles the last ten school weeks of a group of disaffected sixth-formers — Paula, Art, Merv, and Chandra — in a bog-standard English comprehensive. United by their ‘rogue intelligence’ and outsider status among their peers — the beasts, trendies, and hordes of drudges for ever snacking and checking their phones — these self-styled ‘black holes’ form a ‘gang that hates everyone’ (or purports to do so) save for the new boy with the word ‘NIHILISM’ on his notebook. The latter is soon adopted as their intellectual guru and nicknamed Nietzsche, owing, in part, to a vague, but disputed, resemblance to the German philosopher:

Who? Merv asks.
Friedrich Nietzsche — the philosopher, Paula says. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of Nietzsche.
Merv, investigating on his phone. Showing us a photo. The new boy doesn’t look anything like him!
You have to look beyond the moustache, Paula says.
How? Merv says. All I can see is moustache.

The resemblance (if there is one) is not merely physical. Nietzsche’s life closely mirrors that of his namesake: he suffers from mental health issues, has a meddling, supercilious sister; falls in love with Lou (Lou Andreas-Salomé) who leaves him for Paula (Paul Rée), etc. Although we do hear his voice in conversation with the other smart-alecs, as well as through his intense blog entries — couched in grandiose, incendiary rhetoric — Nietzsche’s presence always seems distanced, almost spectral, as though he were hovering on the verge of erasure; never quite all there. His real name, significantly, is not disclosed at any stage. He is, above all, a talismanic figure: a figment of the gang’s collective imagination and constant subject of their choric speculation, gossip, and myth-making. ‘Pessimism,’ as Eugene Thacker observes, ‘is the last refuge of hope’ and this is what the new boy seems to offer from the outset: ‘The feeling that Nietzsche is the key to something. But what door will he unlock? The feeling that something’s going to happen. That something important is about to happen’. This feeling even outlasts his presence (he ends up in a mental hospital while the novel plays out without him). In fact, one could argue that he better embodies this feeling once he is no longer there and the gap between fantasy and reality — never more perceptible than when he is spotted behind the deli counter at Asda — is closed:

Nietzsche, in a hair net, taking orders from customers. Slicing meats. Cutting into wheels of brie. Scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs.
How can this be? The best mind of our generation, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs? The great philosopher of our time, scooping peanut satay and taramasalata into tubs?

During a heated exchange, Paula tells Nietzsche that he sounds ‘like some self-help guru’: ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and all that,’ she adds by way of explanation. The irony, of course, is that she ignores that this last pearl of wisdom actually comes from the real Nietzsche. God, it seems, is not so much dead as endlessly dying, the desecration of the highest values having now reached the German philosopher himself. This may also account for the rather odd choice of epigraph: ‘You must have chaos in yourself to give birth to a dancing star’ has become such a cliché that appending it to this novel is akin to slapping a picture of the Mona Lisa on the cover of a book about Leonardo da Vinci. Iyer, a former philosophy lecturer, was obviously fully aware of this. The quotation — which, incidentally, Marc Almond references in the title of his latest album (Chaos and a Dancing Star) — is even turned into an upbeat disco song (‘Dancin’ Star. No “g”, Merv says’) towards the end of the book: ‘Don’t want your apo-cal-ypse / Just want your lips to kiss’! The true explanation, I feel, is to be found in an earlier passage, where Chandra argues that ‘All adolescents are philosophers. And all philosophers are adolescents at heart’. The author is trying to recapture the detonation that occurs when such aphorisms collide with bright young minds for the very first time, but hindsight allows him to register the attendant po-faced zealotry and accidental comedy, as well as the impossibly beautiful dreams thus conjured up.

Term time provides the novel’s armature, or straitjacket, with almost every chapter subdivided into seven-day entries. Chandra — the narrator, who is of Indian descent (as is the author) and wants to study creative writing (which Iyer teaches at Newcastle University) — comes across like a nihilistic Adrian Mole as a result of this quasi-diary format. The same activities and locales are revisited time and again: school lessons, inevitably, but also band practice (‘The guitar’s not a lead instrument in our band. It’s a texture. It’s part of the mesh’), snippets from Nietzsche’s blog (‘The tagline’s The Uselessness of Everything, Art says’), psychogeographical forays into Thames Valley suburbia (‘Asda — is this where we’ve come? Asda — is this our destination?’), experiments with recreational drugs (‘We’re searching for a North-West Passage of the mind’), nights out at The Ship (‘Why do we come here? Why do we do it to ourselves?’) and The Idiot book club (‘Maybe only an idiot can understand The Idiot, Paula says. You’re our last best hope, Merv’). Plot is almost entirely subsumed into these loops of weekly routine — suburbia’s brand of eternal recurrence. This, then, is a novel in which nothing happens, unless (as Nietzsche conjectures in his blog) ‘the nothing-is-happening is itself an event’.

The budding Übermenschen of Wokingham (Berkshire) have internalised all the anti-suburban tropes peddled by intellectuals — chief among them, the real Nietzsche — since the late 19th century. According to them, suburbia is an experiment in ‘low-meaning living’ that embodies the sheer ‘impossibility of philosophy’ today, the death of God, and the end of history: ‘History ended in the plastic lip of double-glazed doors. It ended in QPVC gutters. It ended in the mock-Georgian division in QPVC windows. In the fake grout between the fake brick of poured driveways…’. Chandra, here, is singing from Zarathustra’s hymn sheet: ‘What do these houses mean? Truly, no great soul put them up in its image! Did a silly child perhaps take them out of its toy-box?’ When he and Art relish the prospect of Wokingham’s annihilation — as a result of terrorism or flooding — one inevitably hears an echo of John Betjeman’s ‘friendly bombs’ raining down on Slough. The gang’s main stumbling block, however, is the ‘sheer positivity’ of the leafy English suburbs, how benign and ‘perfectly pleasant’ they are; the way Wokingham ‘smiles back at your despair’, ‘hopes that you’ll have a nice day in your despair’. Tana (one of the two posh girls they regularly smoke spliffs with) points out that, according to the Telegraph, Wokingham is actually the best place to live in England. Chandra attempts to argue, counter-intuitively, that this may be the very reason why a fellow student committed suicide the previous year. Naturally, no one is really convinced. As Noelle (the other posh girl) puts it, ‘most people live in Hell compared to this’. Henley, which the gang visit during a revision break, turns out to be ‘so lovely’ that Paula, Merv, and even Chandra, start dreaming of living there happily ever after, despite Art’s righteous protestations: ‘These are islands of prettiness amidst the horror. But that only makes the horror worse’. Even Reading — rebranded the ‘anti-Paris’ after they discover, much to their disgust, that the Beckett archives are kept at the local university (‘probably the first post-thinking uni’) — has its charm on a sunny day.

What Nietzsche sees, however, is far more sinister: a Ballardian nightmare of ‘infinite sprawl’; endless ‘suburbs without ‘urbs, without a city, without a centre’ orbiting the void. The suburbs — so easily overlooked owing to the evil of banality — grow dangerously uncanny as soon as one pays them close attention. Like his philosophical forebear, Nietzsche resolves to relinquish negative nihilism (the lament that life is meaningless or an aberration) in favour of positive nihilism (the affirmation of the world as it is). His mission becomes ‘to truly enter the suburbs’ by embracing their very nothingness — the eternal recurrence of the same. The closest we get to such an affirmation is through the eponymous band, Nietzsche and the Burbs, whose Dionysian music aspires to a radical transformation of life.

In The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), John Carey analysed how suburbia came to embody everything that was wrong with modernity in the eyes of (mostly) upper-class authors and thinkers. There is, however, an alternative, more recent, more working-class (or lower-middle-class) history of the English suburbs, written by young suburbanites themselves — the Bowies and Siouxsie Sues. In this version, suburbia is the blank space of boredom and conformity from which subversive and flamboyant pop culture springs. The non-place that tells you, once you reach a certain age, that life is elsewhere. In 1991 Jon Savage could still note that ‘The dreamscape of suburbia has a powerful and unrecognized place in England’s pop culture’ (England’s Dreaming). Thankfully, this terrain has been charted by countless writers and artists in the intervening years, most recently by Tracey Thorn (of Everything But the Girl) in her memoir, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia (2019). Lars Iyer’s anti-heroes recognise that they come too late to be truly part of this tradition — they even reference Simon Reynolds’ Retromania (2011) — but it does not stop them from taking their music very seriously indeed. For Art — whom Paula describes as the band’s Brian Eno — the solution is to embrace their belatedness — ‘to go posthumous’ — and produce ‘the music that comes after music’ (a strategy which recalls the author’s own 2011 post-literary manifesto). Such music cannot just be about music, however; it must be ‘about everything’:

The band’s got to be our whole life, Art says. We should live the band, do nothing else, just write and practice and play. It’s got to be all we think about, day and night. We can’t separate the music from our lives — not anymore. Living — that’s the art. We’ve got to start a new society. That’s what a band has to be: a clue to a new way of life.

The band is construed as an ‘escape-pod’ that will allow its members — should they succeed in crafting a great album — to redeem their suburban lives by making ‘retrospective sense of it all’: ‘There was a direction all along, we could say — our direction. We’ve become masters of time — our time’. Time — reclaimed, regained — is very much of the essence. The entire novel is steeped in impending end-of-school melancholia, which finds an echo in Nietzsche and the Burbs’ approach to music. On one occasion, at the beginning of band practice, the sound of the amplifiers turned up loud — ‘The feeling of forces gathering. Of something about to begin’ — prompts Chandra to reflect that they are only ‘going to ruin it by actually playing something’. Ahead of their first (and possibly last) gig, he wishes time could be frozen just before they cease to be a bedroom band for ever. ‘I like beginnings,’ he explains, ‘When it’s all potential.’ Art wants the band to play that potential without ever actualising it. In other words, he wants them, as he puts it (sounding like a deranged Martin Hannett-style genius producer) to ‘not play’ – to play without ever playing out. To play what they ‘could play, rather than anything [they] actually play’: music in which the songs are merely implied. To play ‘becoming without end’ or resolution: ’It’s like being on the verge of coming but never actually coming,’ he raves, during one particularly joyous rehearsal. This music is also Chandra’s (and hence Iyer’s). His waves of elliptical sentences, shorn of articles. Like jottings. Like language coming to life. In motion. Always provisional.

Above all, Art wants the band to play truant by absconding through the gap it has opened up between potentiality and actuality — that rent in the fabric of time. Nietzsche and the Burbs is a paean to those languorous summer afternoons, on the cusp of adulthood, when time stretches to eternity, allowing us to pull ‘moments out of moments like conjuror’s scarves’:

We learned real things by not paying attention. We heard true things by not listening, by letting our gazes wander. Time was our teacher: time between tests, between lessons.

 

Hauntology

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.