Voices and Noises in (Un)real Mafotherlands
By Nikolina Nedeljkov.
Reforgotten turntablist poetics in Stewart Home’s Memphis Underground (2007) is a postfuturist excavation of the socioscape and the inner tissue alike. Remapping the vocabularies of mafotherlands, the book presents the topoi that have geographical correlatives, but a metaphorical meaning in their own right, too. For example, Finland, Minnesota, and New York symbolize dislocated spatial experiences. Along with relativizing the notion of physicality, the narrative technique captures commoditization of space and colonization of life by the global military-entertainment complex.
The cultural plane is filtered through a literary experimentation in genre. The book is written in a form of a fictionalized, loose diary-style autobiography with a plethora of woven metafictional and metacritical reflections about literary fabric, which, in this remixed autobiography of somebody else’s life, acquires the properties of phantasmagoric imagery:
What I’ve just written…is in many ways more like a diary than autobiography. I’ve tried to exclude reflections about how random incidents on the road contribute to a general lack of pattern in my life. I’ve simply taken a slice of (un)reality, and what I’ve left out is just as important as what’s been put in […] Autobiography as science fiction. Journalism has always played a role in shaping my fiction. For many years I’ve modeled my prose on pulp styles that were in turn influenced by the popular press. Although I want a critical relationship to all modes of writing, this does not necessarily prevent me from being amusing (Memphis Underground 307-8).
Home’s remix features broken linearity, discontinuous storyline, syncopated chronology, fragmented characterization, and the tone oscillating from affective blankness, via bizarre sparseness and darkly paralyzing detachment, to paralyzingly deadpan humor. The antisentimentalist tactic in question is rooted in provocative, destabilizing manoeuvering. It is a lateral path in the exploration of the uninvestigated frontiers of living under circumstances not entirely of one’s choosing. As a critique of life conquered by reckless commodification, Home’s work can be read in the light of Antonio Negri’s reflections in The Labor of Job (2009):
The crisis of value and of labor leaves us with a decisive choice between alternatives. Either the continuity of a mortal ailment that expands in the inertia of the world, in the confusion of every choice, in the irrational determination of Power; or the creative discontinuity and its system – the system of the alternative, the river that courses and the banks that it gradually constructs around itself – a system of power. We propose to follow the second course. It is the one that, against the backdrop of the tragedy that invests us, illuminates the human power of creativity. This creativity, this hope and risk of reason, I call Job (15).
Creation is a mighty sword that silently confronts materialist culture’s violation of freedom. The fusion of a creative quest and practice is a redemptive means of “talking back” to the power of constructed realties whose valences are strikingly incompatible with the chemistry of playfulness. The subversive language in Home’s book is the shadow undercurrent disrupting and reconfiguring the delusional belief in the totality of a discursive confinement. Antonio Negri: ”The idea of liberation is an idea of creation” (2). On the innovation-historicity scale of the legacy of the last century, Home is reworking the static-kinetic dialectic through postfuturist literary remixing. Parodying formal aspects of prose writing, simultaneously “demystifying” the conduct of a character through “decoding” of the train of thought of the other, Home presents an “antiliterary,” avant-garde announcement:
Claire thought I was pulling some kind of Samuel Beckett routine, that I was sick of film-making and was going to switch to fiction. She imagined I’d spend my days composing lures of the following type: ”I have nothing to say but I’ve yet to run through the effluvium with which I might describe my taste for dissipation. My contribution to avant-garde fiction is to announce its exhaustion, which is merely another way of proclaiming it must live out its own death, since there is exhaustion and exhaustion—as well as lethargy, languor and lassitude. (Memphis Underground 210).
The response to a particular kind of exhaustion is in the transformative powers of the unuttered. In terms of literary elements, it is the tone that directs the course of the quiet action of the silent uprising against the tyranny of the stale, imposed ways of speaking and living. Deploying a remixing approach, this work stems from the assumption about the reading-writing fantasia leading the DJ through the narrative labyrinth, mapping the path from the old school soul, blues, and funk tracks to today’s eclectic, polyphonic scenes. Home’s absorbingly mutable journey through historical audio occurrences is, at the same time, a silent revisit to the part of the literary, and cultural by and large, thematic that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century, has been hemorrhaging and marked the predicament thereafter.
The tone is inextricably connected with characterization. The character of London in this book is deindividualized, like its re/ci/denizens and like the other characters who aimlessly wander from one entrepreneurial attempt to another. Hoping to recuperate life and regain human dignity, London is waiting for its refacement. Between the swinging Sixties, punk-rocking Seventies/Eighties, raving Eighties/Nineties, and the Millennial confusion, London is walking in solitude, brooding over its own abandoned streets: “I’d never known London to be as boring as it had become at the beginning of the twenty-first century, even the early eighties had been better” (292).
However, this should not be understood as a nostalgic cry, but rather vision of the present as a reimagined history, resurrected to redeem the future DJing decades. It is a NO to the culture of denial and a YES to remixing it, along with its own identity of a ghostless apparition in a ghost townlessness:
The Shoreditch and Hoxton I’d once loved had receded into the mists of history. Money trampled everything before it, and in the case of this and other recently gentrified neighbourhoods, what got destroyed were the very things that had attracted these fatal attentions in the first place. I was the last of London, and now London was the end of me (153).
The prevailing global affective trend demands subjugation of uniqueness to uniformity, which is not to be confused with unity; on the contrary, it is atomizing and alienating. Commoditized arts and forceful real estate industry, are among the causes that have conquered the communicational channel and degraded humans: “Money destroyed truly human relationships” (134). All this noise made London a place where home cannot be found, a replica of Baudrillard’s “nonexisting” America: “That first doubling/coupling consisted of an unreal city of finance generated from and mediated by an unreal city of cool” (129).
Is, thus, London an alienated creature? Is this book a story of alienation? Alienation from what? As a postfuturist response to the perplexities of postmodern ramifications, it clearly speaks about a “nonexistent” feeling of being isolated from something that “does not exist,” as Terry Eagleton reflects on postmodernist culture in Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985 (1986): “[T]here is no longer any subject to be alienated and nothing to be alienated from, ‘authenticity’ having been less rejected than merely forgotten” (132).
Amnesiac noise pollution. Phantom alienation is coupled with the critique of property/ownership/authorship indicating the prevalence of materialist culture emptying resistance of the potential for containing, rather than escaping the problem of power (McKenzie Wark, 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International, 2008). In the world that knows no alienation, one, presumably feels inadequately displaced. For that reason the characters are mutable and unidentifiable. Their identity cannot be contained within one. They are haunted by the inadequacy of feeling like misfits because, allegedly, there is nothing to fit into. Because of the mind-boggling meaninglessness, their grand life projects are, in fact, aimed at self-destruction. For that reason, towards the ending of Memphis Underground they are found in a psychedelic episode taking place in a phantasmagorical Minnesota. Amazingly, they are engaged in a somnambulist conversation with the Reaper. But then, one wonders, how the dead can encounter death? Is the fact that they are, actually, the living dead a sufficient explanation?
Does John Johnson have these thoughts as Tony Cheam’s failed impersonator, looming through the state of mind called Minnesota, Finland? What thoughts occupy Tony Cheam’s mind? Can he have any, given that somebody else is living his life? If proper names are the ultimate instances of constructed identities, what contains the power of real life? Facing confusion in every attempt to understand both the external and inner spatiality, the character meditates as follows: ”I was finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate London and Basel, Zurich and Hamburg, Mainz and Berlin. Real life was elsewhere. Real life was everywhere” (Memphis Underground 300).
John Johnson, Tony Cheam, Scotland, U.K., America, Orkney…Does John Johnson have these thoughts as Tony Cheam’s failed impersonator, ominously floating through the state of mind called Minnesota, Finland? What thoughts occupy Tony Cheam’s mind? “America is a state of mind, not a geographical location” (30). What occupies Tony Cheam’s mind? Has Tony Cheam withdrawn from life if he cannot rise to the occasion and keep the position of artist-in-residence in Scapa Loch, on the island of Hoy in Orkney, off the Scottish northern shore? Does Tony Cheam exist if he can no longer participate in his own life, if somebody else is living his life:
“Who am I?” I repeated. “Surely such a question lost any meaning it may have possessed once modernism went into decline. Who am I? Tell me that and you’ve solved the riddle of the sphinx. I am that I am. I am a man. And as for me, I’ve no interest in issues and debates that revolve around completely arbitrary notions of identity. As a proletarian postmodernist I am engaged in continuous becoming, and I’ve no time for nonsense about centered subjects.” (140)
He is a supposedly a talented artist, suffering from a stalled career syndrome (149). Thus, he suggests that John Johnson take over his career in the Scottish settlement, a demilitarized “American suburb.” Scapa Loch was originally built for the personnel of the U.S. Naval Intelligence, and now is under the control of the developer Retro Americana (Suburban) Homes, offering to failed property pursuers dreams come true at a reasonable price. John Johnson, a DJ-turned-music industry entrepreneur, finds himself broke and homeless after unsuccessful dot.com merchandizing, government welfare cuts, and his “council housing…deliberately run down” (130). For obvious reasons, he accepts the fake life of the Hoy’s artist-in-residence.
The reader follows his re(pro)gression through a series of events thematically unified as cultural hooliganism, launched within the Comparative Vandalism show. The character’s cultural engagement parallels an increasingly destructive lifestyle and gradual disappearance in the labyrinth of liquid identities, fake personalities, and the reality of heroin, cocaine, and LSD. This artistic extravaganza is a critique of arts and a sketch of a practice in response to such a state of affairs. It is a refiguring of modernist and the avant-garde legacy on the one hand, and, on the other, postmodernist authoritarian pluralism, excluding from debate questions like: How is it possible to feel the impossibilized alienation?
The episode featuring the Work, Talk, Rest, Play conference particularly invites reimagining of the twentieth-century heritage. Home’s critique of the institutionalized production of knowledge, reveals the dissolving spirit of solidarity and points out the obstacles to being creatively critical in “that multifarious enigma known as contemporary society” (77). Postfuturist approaches to the dilemma of this kind rely on Terry Eagleton’s refiguring the avant-garde-modernist-postmodernist trajectory in Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985:
From modernism proper, postmodernism inherits the fragmentary or schizoid self, but eradicates all critical distance from it… From the avant-garde, postmodernism takes the dissolution of art into social life, rejection of tradition, an opposition to ‘high’ culture as such, but crosses this with the unpolitical impulses of modernism. […] An authentically political art in our own time might similarly draw upon both modernism and the avant-garde, but in a different combination from postmodernism (146-7).
Crossing the politicized avant-garde remix of tradition with the modernist fragmented self approached from a critical distance, one is creating a postfuturist noise filter — refacement. McKenzie Wark, 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International: “Recuperation must be all or nothing” (10). Enduring shadow talks puncture discourse where nominalism puts naming on hold. It cuts across the circle of discursive self-referentiality — on its (discourse’s, i.e.) terms: “That’s why I had decided to give up writing, and it is also what made the resolution essentially meaningless. The point was that there was no point, that giving up was essentially the same as carrying on” (Memphis Underground 210-11). Because the fabric of literature is duplicity, all postufuturist reader-writers can do is never stop naming.
An endless loop of the recurring is an echo of the bewildering noise. The dissonance bombarding one’s capacities for clear imaginative reasoning hits the message at salient spots, thereby sabotaging the exchange through the communicational channel. The noise in this book comes in shapes and forms ranging from a denial of detectable subjectivity, cityscape face-lifting, real estate refashioning the bucolic periphery, destructiveness of commoditified art, individuals reduced to discursive self-referentiality, dispossession, annihilation/fabrication of history, dispassionate relationships (or the absence thereof), isolation, fractured potential for critical creativity, muted vitality of the cradle of radical sound, and a blocked vision of the future. Thus, towards the closing scene in Memphis Underground, after the tectonic trembling of the soil of Minnesota, Finland, under the veil of the grotesque conversation with the Reaper, the character, having met his exploding, (–)dead (–)conscious, is encountering yet another metacritical loop of disappearance that is not one:
I’m seeking radical incompletion. I want to combine critique, poetics and popular story telling. I want to combine poetics, critique and popular story telling. I want to combine poetics, popular story telling and critique. I want to combine critique, popular story telling and poetics. I want to combine popular story telling, critique and poetics. I want to combine popular story telling, poetics and critique. I am Death. I am Undead. I stopped living. Ad nauseam (309).
In the cacophonic whirlwind one is condemned to living between death and the undead. A life of the living dead. Temporarily so. Periods of noise alternate with those of green communication. But for the postfuturist twist to happen, remixing is needed in order to reanimate hibernated words. For that reason, Memphis Underground can be read as a call for reclaiming the genuine passion of a cultural force unifying fragmented, defaced entities and renaming them human beings, whose faces radiate reemerged life: the remix of the past, looking at the present to redeem the future. DJing in this vein relies on Eagleton’s vision of the excavations in the intersections of the time axes:
All historical epochs are modern to themselves, but not all live their experience in this ideological mode. If modernism lives its history as peculiarly, insistently present, it also experiences a sense that this present moment is also of the future, to which the present is nothing more than an orientation; so that the idea of the Now, as the present, as full presence eclipsing the past, is itself intermittently eclipsed by an awareness of the present as deferment, as an empty excited openness to a future which is in one sense already here, in another sense yet to come (Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985 139).
If this way of reimagining literature, practice, and life sounds too utopian for the pluralist critical taste, too bad for the consensus — subversive remixes find the challenge even more joyful. Because such remixing simply is in alignment with life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nikolina Nedeljkov, based in NYC, is a former Uslavian-born reader-writer-scholar, whose interest revolves around the creation-remix nexus as a means of exploring postfuturist storytelling, cultural flows, and forms of resistance to cultural, spiritual, and emotional oppression. Her work has been published by LIES/ISLE and kill author.
(Pictures by Andrew Gallix.)
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 1st, 2011.