Nostalgia, Transactive Memory, Gladwell & Herndon...

I recently stumbled across Malcolm Gladwell's brilliant Revisionist History Podcast, which I've been consuming voraciously on slow sojourns across London. As a social anthropologist-cum-critical theorist, I've become even more enamored since hearing his lucid reflections committed to audio format. Its' vital, pertinent listening - and a finessed exercise in discourse which directly challenges the reductionist rhetoric of the newsfeed.

Amid the incredible material on offer, one episode struck me as personally resonant, in which Gladwell touches on the idea of transactive memory, or the notion that individuals in a collective / relationship effectively act as storehouses or portals of a kind of collective memory system - at once holding and forming a more complex memory system. I'm new to the concept, but it feels fascinating to me - a notion which dovetails into my studies into 'hauntology' and nostalgia.

Here's Malcolm Gladwell speaking a little more about this....

And some further reflections on the notion of nostalgia, from Holly Herndon, who's work I find wonderfully populist in the very best of ways.

How do transactive memory systems serve to invent orthodoxies in arts practice? There's so much to unpack here - more questions than answered. Gladwell's reflections on transactive memory and Winston Churchill are fascinating..
 

 Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Nostalgia can also lead into certain kinds of orthodoxy within genre, and I think that gets really dangerous. Once you create this entire rule structure of what something’s supposed to be like, that’s when I get completely bored and turn off. I’m more interested when things are mixed up and mashed up and people are able to experiment outside of orthodoxy. I’m not completely anti-nostalgia, but it’s not really a sensibility that I strongly play into. I think we can find new forms and new paradigms.
— Holly Herndon

Mark Fisher - Neoliberalism & LOST FUTURES (Selected Articles)

Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS.
— Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

 "When I eventually got a job as lecturer in a further education college, I was for a while elated – yet by its very nature this elation showed that I had not shaken off the feelings of worthlessness that would soon lead to further periods of depression. I lacked the calm confidence of one born to the role. At some not very submerged level, I evidently still didn’t believe that I was the kind of person who could do a job like teaching. But where did this belief come from?"

"When I eventually got a job as lecturer in a further education college, I was for a while elated – yet by its very nature this elation showed that I had not shaken off the feelings of worthlessness that would soon lead to further periods of depression. I lacked the calm confidence of one born to the role. At some not very submerged level, I evidently still didn’t believe that I was the kind of person who could do a job like teaching. But where did this belief come from?"


 "Where postmodernism embraced difference and plurality, parody, and complicitous critique (to use Linda Hutcheon’s phrase), it now takes for granted this challenge and itself becomes, along with modernist styles, a frozen aesthetic, an expressionless commodity decorating the background of our life world. “Capitalism,” as he so eloquently puts it, “is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”

"Where postmodernism embraced difference and plurality, parody, and complicitous critique (to use Linda Hutcheon’s phrase), it now takes for granted this challenge and itself becomes, along with modernist styles, a frozen aesthetic, an expressionless commodity decorating the background of our life world. “Capitalism,” as he so eloquently puts it, “is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”


 "While 20th Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st Century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century, just as Sapphire and Steel were incarcerated in their roadside café. "

"While 20th Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion. It doesn’t feel like the future. Or, alternatively, it doesn’t feel as if the 21st Century has started yet. We remain trapped in the 20th century, just as Sapphire and Steel were incarcerated in their roadside café. "


 "Consider the fate of the concept of ‘futuristic’ music. The ‘futuristic’ in music has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be different; it has become an established style, much like a particular typographical font. Invited to think of the futuristic, we will still come up with something like the music of Kraftwerk, even though this is now as antique as Glenn Miller’s big band jazz was when the German group began experimenting with synthesizers in the early 1970s."

"Consider the fate of the concept of ‘futuristic’ music. The ‘futuristic’ in music has long since ceased to refer to any future that we expect to be different; it has become an established style, much like a particular typographical font. Invited to think of the futuristic, we will still come up with something like the music of Kraftwerk, even though this is now as antique as Glenn Miller’s big band jazz was when the German group began experimenting with synthesizers in the early 1970s."


Source: https://www.wired.com/beyond-the-beyond/20...

Economies of the Heart - Some Incomplete Reflections

The year was, 2010. The place was Berlin.

I was given a book, "The Gift", by Lewis Hyde.

"The Gift" felt like a much needed philosophical retort to the dense individualism spruiked by books like "The Secret". Field notes, perhaps, for those among us weary of constantly 'manifesting' wealth, power, advantage, divine blessing and contriving gratingly self-referential memes and Instagram posts.

Perhaps there remain different ways of considering wealth / power / blessing / cultural collateral and exchange? Perhaps some of these modalities might even be worthy of anthropological invstigation?
 

the gift.jpg

After 5 years bouncing back and forth from the antipodes to the German capital, I had settled at last into the bosom of (now achingly hip) Neukölln, just to the West of the former Berlin Wall. All was giddy with possibility - without equivocation I had committed myself to the 'Berlin experiment' of trying to ply my trade from 'music alone', in a foreign nation, without the security of a 'day job'.

Committing to Berlin was a decision which has profoundly changed the course of my life - one which has served to fortify some quiet personal convictions regarding what possibly constitute enduring 'value' in life.

As ubiquitously branded, Berlin was most certainly 'arm, aber sexy' (poor, but sexy!).

Whilst feeling no inherent virtue in poverty, removing over zealous fiscal aspirationism (as opposed to the very real need to meet basic needs) from life's daily tapestry did honestly feel like such a gift, leveler, a wonderful social blessing. At Berlin's beating heart, a quiet suspicion (even disdain) enduredover such aspirations. How did certain aspects of this far 'poorer' culture actually equate to a far richer cultural experience than one I'd previously experienced? I'd argue that, existentially at least, many fundamental aspects of the day to day were radically simplified, and this came to offer unlikely social salve.

Berlin nascent Socialist hangover was something I was in so many ways thankful for. Comforting realpolitik anchoring the curiously cadenced grammar of the city's multitude stories.

Forget picket-fences and quarter-acre blocks - how would I best make use of state healthcare, transport, shared public space? How could locals creatively steward the innovative potential of state-funded education? How would we all make mirthful sense of long, dark winters in close proximity?

What's REALLY important here? Were there inevitable spectres haunting the corridors of this strangely earnest utopia?

*cue the brilliant film, "Goodbye Lenin!' (we'll revisit Lewis Hyde again a moment).

---- SNIP ----


Value - how could this look, taste, stretch, expand and seed if not derived not from income, but rather intention, awareness, discourse and basic gratitudes sewn into the minutia of life's most seemingly 'insignificant' exchanges?

Inhale, exhale, render, loop, repeat.

For many far more enlightened than myself, 'arts practice' is an unnecessary prerequisite for exploring these notions - yet personally, music has continued to offer up profoundly helpful tools for self analysis and reflexion. Tools I might perhaps not naturally possess.

I'm rambling here, I realise. Im attempting to tie together some disparate threads. Trying to focus things sharply through the best lens I've been afforded - 'art', abstracted (even nominally) from 'commerce', or 'product', or 'publishing'.

Why do we 'do', what we do? Does art infact 'do' us?

What if arts work might be considered indicative of a different, parallel value-system - one invested in (at least some) useful moral predicates expunged from the discourse saturating late-stage capitalism?

What it, most fundamentally, 'arts work' might just be the most interesting excuse we can come up with to share a meal, a drink, a bed with people who we don't really know, but would like to imagine we could trust as part of our tribe?

Enter Lewis Hyde, who continues to speak to these questions, and who's anthropological insight is both comforting and inspiring. In "The Gift", Hyde oscillates from a firm thesis (at the books outset) to a less clear conclusion - and herein also lies his charm. He's willing to be proven wrong.

---- SNIP ----

 

Unfinished reflections Part 2.... (3, 4, 5.....)

For centuries immemorial, the roll of much 'artisanal' discipline has maintained a close relationship with what we might call the 'gift economy'. This 'gift economy' is not an abstraction - but forms an ever-present, deeply important part of social function and community cohesion. The gift economy bears an often opaque, frequently flirtatious relationship with the market economy - but (to me) is indicative of what I call the 'economy of the heart'.

Previously in Sydney, I had been privileged to be awarded the ongoing roll of Artist in Resident for a group called Café Church based in the inner west suburb of Glebe - creating original digital work every week, and helping facilitate and empower the voices who were part of a very special fringe community of souls - namely many who had been excluded, burnt out, or outright damaged by traditional faith communities'.

Café Church was an unlikely experiment in patching up broken things, and set me very much on the path of investing in arts / music as a deeply healing work, beyond the model of conventional commerce.

The 'practice' itself was the reward - and the more this practice was shared, the more its value felt enriched, rather than diminished.

After 2 years in the roll at Café Church, I reluctantly relinquished my position - due only to travel commitments, and the deep sense that it was time I passed on what was truly an incredible gift to me. As Lewis Hyde puts it in The Gift:

When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.
― Lewis Hyde,

It felt time for me to honor the gift I had been given, by relinquishing myself of it, so that it might continue to breathe, thrive, become renewed.

My time at Café Church had reminded me, in a fundamental sense that music, art (cooking, gardening, breathing...) were all acts which might best be served by being considered acts of grace. After decades stumbling on through the undergrowth of arts-practice, fundamental questions remained about how best to 'monetise' my practice, however one thing was sure - my priority above all else, was really to make the best 'work' possible.

Imagining that 'work' might be valuable in its own right was precious realisation. Particularly in an an age of unprecedented automaton, considering reimagining a truly valuable 'work life for all' feels deeply important.

Prior to my tenure at Café Church, 5 years working as a designer / video editor in a rather more corporate environment had continued to lead me to new pastures - based purely on the (perhaps egotistical?) assumption that working within the realms of advertising / front end web design often meant that the work I was producing was compromised. There were only so many times I could get away with turning down jobs based on feeling they were morally compromised, or aesthetically patronising to clients.

I didn't feel like I could keep my heart tender creating army-recruitment, gambling, porn, big-pharma websites. And yet these sorts of 'jobs' were increasingly the types thrust before me.

Eventually, through natural attrition, I exited the corporate universe...and landed square in the centre of so-called 'community work', where the road rose up beyond all expectations to meet me. My income halved overnight - but suddenly this seemed largely irrelevant. I was making work I loved, relishing every hour of practice, bettering my skills, service, thesis.

This is not to say that my previous 'corporate incarnation' wasn't filled with incredible humans. Moreover, it truly was - hyper-intelligent, infinitely more skilled and visionary designers, copywriters and artisans, and some notable social visionaries. It was just that, as a 'coal face' pixel-pusher, I felt my craft couldn't grow in such an environment.

---- SNIP ----

So music became 'the thing'...and yet... I was privileged (deeply so) to have the freedom to allow it to be 'the thing' - a freedom initially afforded by being born into privilege, education and relative security. Same as it ever was.

Ironically, many aspects of the 'music industry' proved far more morally compromised than anything I had experienced in the corporate universe.

And yet.... somewhere amid the rubble, I encountered a radically different set of presuppositions, honor codes and modalities of trust, place, belonging,  gift exchange and....value....

Whats more, curious, experiences like playing clubs like Berlin's Berghain, revealed to me a parallel, if rather different experience of 'music as monument', or temporary homeland for those without a sense of historical place.

Art as a modality of creating psychic (un)realestate - temporary autonomous space, a new kind of cultural common, a kind of tangible, economy of the heart...and often a refreshingly non-sentimental one, in addition.

This question of space, place, belonging, and the place of 'non-place' remains a central thesis in my work - as an expat, a migrant currently wedged between continents.

I'll stop for now. It's late, once more, and there's too much to say. I'll leave for now, with this quote from Lewis Hyde, and gather more thoughts again later.

To be continued.....

the more we allow such commodity art to define and control our gifts, the less gifted we will become, as individuals and as a society” He mentioned that commercial interests can’t take precedence in order for the creative spirit and “gift exchange” to blossom
— Lewis Hyde

Beefsteak.

Although she'd probably be deeply resistant to me posting this, I'd contend that Kate Crawford and her brilliant compatriot Nicole Skeltys are largely responsible for introducing me to a world of deeply engaged feminist thinking, through the lens of their compelling and brilliantly tongue-in-cheek project, B(if)Tek, in the mid 90s. Yes, they named their band after a cut of meat...

"A.I systems reflect the values of their creators" - Kate Crawford

I've been privileged to maintain a wonderful connection with Kate over the years, and even had the honor of contributing a small part to her wonderful book, "Adult Themes: Rewriting The Rules of Adulthood"

To call Kate and Nicole "feminists" would almost, curiously, feel patronisingly reductionist - they are simply much more, so much more - smart at f•••, politically engaged, exceptional media makers and exceedingly good humored. I was reminded of their work today, listening in the car to some new music by Holly Herndon who's own discourse on process and composition feel inspired and necessary in a music-only context.

Anecdotally, I also heard Rhythm and Sound for the very first time at a house-party at Kate's place, circa 2001. True stories. Somehow both music, media and academia have been central to parallel journeys - although mine took me rather deep into the bowels of Berlin clubland for over a decade of performances in Germany, and over half this time living in the nation's capital.

But I digress. Here's what Kate's up to now, followed by a glimmer from 2001.

...and finally, here's a little from Ms Herndon, who's trajectory feels similarly engaged, and who's relationship with technology feels entirely resonant with the work of Kate's...

Ghosts And Wanderings (Mark Fisher)

"And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”  - Genesis 4:11-12

The late, great Mark Fisher is one of the most potent 'latter day' voices in contemporary music critique for me. Like so many of us from his generation (and perhaps a little younger!), I felt like there was a sense that the 'future' we were sold in the 70s and 80s never quite came to pass - infact, in many ways it seemed to stop, abruptly, without warning, in a way none of us had the words to adequately intellectualise.

When we stood back, however, we DID hear a contemporary art and music suddenly sounding very much like the 'past'. What happened? What was lost? What happened to the beating heart of the 'now'?

When did 'authenticity' start to sound like the tape-saturated 60s? When did the vitality and danger of 90s techno suddenly become trope-ified, dogmatised? And more importantly, WHY?

Mark Fisher combines savage, compassionate critiques of neoliberalism with a deep and abiding love of music. There are simply few other writers of his ilk i reference so frequently.

Examining hauntology, hypnagogia and late-stage capitalism, Mark Fisher not only NAMES the sense of existential loss many of us feel in our weird cultural half-light, but perhaps also gives us tools to continue the work of exorcising the demons which terrify us.

He's also a bloody good writer, with a visceral love of electronic music - from Joy Divison to Burial and beyond. Vital, accessible, compassionate reading for anyone invested in contemporary music culture.




 

Masao Abe - Practice, Imperfection and Immanence

I don't mention Masao Abe too often, and he's not overly well known in the Western Buddhist tradition. As a voice of inter-faith dialogue and helping pioneer Zen dialogue in the west, he is a force to be recognised, however.

I remember first reading Steven Heine's Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue, Zen and Comparative Studies and feeling deeply affected by it - for a Buddhist 'newb' around 15 years ago, non-dualist concepts like "mu" or "non void emptiness" were so utterly foreign to me. Masao Abe shed a light on these in a way which was totally unexpected - and reverberated though my bones, my heart and my own musical practice.

Moreover, I feel that Abe was one of many voices who served to remind me, with a smile, that musical 'practice' was enough for itself.

Zen and its crucial roll in shaping the very fabric of artisnal practice (from music through to flower arranging, and perhaps most notable in architecture) via frameworks like Wabi Sabi
represent everything I find most beautiful about art, immanence and practice.

Sure, this is a deep and fathomless hole to fall down, but voices like Masao Abe's have been crucial for furthering the dialog in the west.

Chop wood, carry water.