Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Pop Cultic

We went to see Current 93's eschatological vaudeville at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last week. Like the other Hidden Reverse types - Nurse with Wound, Coil - they mine a strange but potent seam of eldritch and whimsy: though David Tibet lists among his influences both the usual Magickal forebears - Crowley, Osman Spare - he also nods to, erm, Noddy .

This emphasis on both popular and cultic elements of the pop cultural equation was evident in various ways on the night. The band came on to the frothy pastoral of the Starland Vocal Band's Afternoon Delight , which was then progressively undermined by ominously roiling industrial noise. Tibet introduced one slab of catatonic riffage and prog mewling as a cover of Sweet Caroline by Status Quo . It wasn't. Even when Anthony and Marc Almond came on to sing their respective versions of the sublime Idumae,, they were folowed by another guy (whose name I didn't catch/ recognise), who sang this narrative of spiritual yearning and dispossession as a kitsch-camp cabaret turn. The whole night was like a cross between a feral bacchanal and a morris dancing exhibition on Blue Peter. The upshot being that I came away from the evening with exactly the same feeling I did on seeing the late, lamented Coil a few years ago, where the eerie drones and sidereal sonic affects were undermined by the fact that they were generated by what looked to be hairy Teletubbies .

A formal relation between the authentic and the inauthentic, the rockist and the popist, is nothing new of course. Its one of the key dialectics at work in left-field music and takes many forms. Laibach, The Fall, Sun Ra and Black Metal all trade in it to different degrees and in various different ways. Sometimes, however, I think there is a peculiarly English strain of this Pop Cultic sensibility. Its there in Blake for example, a connection that Derek Jarman makes in his early Bankside Super 8 films (and Jarman was of course linked to this whole Hidden Reverse scene too).

But now mention of Jarman makes me think that the most obvious source is Kenneth Anger, especially those films like Invocation of My Demon Brother where he speeds up footage of occult rituals and you're sitting there half hoping half fearing that the Benny Hill theme is going to kick in. Which reminds me in turn that Coil, when they weren't busy trying to immanentize the eschaton, famously covered the theme tune to Are You Being Served?.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Philosophy and Physiology

In Barison and Ross's The Ister (2004), Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe, cigarette permanently in hand, speaks of the Holocaust as 'a catch in History's breath' while the camera slowly circles round his ashtray's nacreous crater. Dead three years later of respiratory problems .

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Elegance and Brutality

Mishima speaks of two 'contradictory' aspects of Japanese culture, which are yet 'tightly combined'. His discussion of elegance and brutality, however, with its obvious nostalgic relish for violence and force as the opposite of 'refinement', seems to distinguish the two rather too carefully. In my experience in Japan (puts on pith helmet, shoulders elephant gun), a copious social brutality is simultaneously refined, ritualized, displayed and controlled. This can range from the delicate line-drawings of ferocious sexual violence that you find in some Manga, to the total silence and order with which people pile into tube carriages during the rush hour (I have experienced this only once but it was like something had detonated outside on the platform, pushing a shock-wave of bodies in on top of me in a matter of seconds). I'm aware that these are cliched examples, but my point is that Mishima's strict opposition between an over-refined, decadent 'sensitivity' which needs to be woken up with a 'sudden explosion' of brutality seems to ignore a more dialectical relation. The irony, given Mishima's political views, is that he adopts here a peculiarly Western, zero-sum, notion of the relation between violence and its others.

Barthes' Empire of Signs essay on the Zengakuren, or Japanese left-wing student movements (whom Mishima excoriates in the clip above) is apposite here. He's commenting on the, to European eyes, strangely formalized nature of Japanese student riots:

"When one says that the Zengakuren riots are organized, one refers not only to a group of tactical precautions but to a writing of actions which expurgates violence from its Occidental being: spontaneity. In our mythology, violence is caught up in the same prejudice as literature or art: we can attribute to it no other function than that of expressing a content, an inwardness, a nature ... The violence of the Zengakuren does not precede its own regulation, but is born simultaneously with it: it is immediately a sign: expressing nothing (neither hatred nor indignation nor any moral idea). The Zengakuren riot, entirely functional as it is, remains a great scenario of signs (these are actions which have a public) ... there is a paradigm of colors - red-white-blue helmets - but these colours contrary to ours refer to nothing historical; there is a syntax of actions (overturn, uproot, drag, pile), performed like a prosaic sentence, not like an inspired ejaculation; there is a signifying reprise of time-out (leaving in order to rest behind the lines, giving a form to relaxation)"

This leads me to note a categorical distinction between the current slew of U.S. Noise bands such as Wolfeyes and their JapaNoise antecedents and influences. It also gives me a chance to refer you to a slide-show of the legendary 80s Hanatarash gig which consisted of the great Yamatsaka Eye driving a mechanical digger through the wall of the club and careening over the stage while tossing debris around (overturn, uproot, drag, pile, as Barthes says).

The U.S. noise scene is insufferably Rockist, suffused with those notions of Dionysian authenticity and violence as expression that Barthes lists in the quotations above. Looking at the slide-show of the Hanatarash gig, with the audience quietly seated in tiers, it seems to me that there was something else going on, something, again in Barthes terms, 'arranged and regulated', rather than a simple Sturm und Drang. If U.S. noise likes to think of itself as 'oppositional' in the sense of being an alternative to mainstream culture, it is also oppositional in depending absolutely on its own binary. The Japanese noise performance, on the other hand, reinscribes the binary between brutality and elegance within the itself. On the first track on the Wolfeyes Myspace linked to above there appears to be someone in the audience pretending to be a dog. In the video below, which features Eye in solo vocal screamfest mode, stick it out until the obscene gargling and howling has stopped and you'll hear some polite clapping and a single voice from the audience say 'arigato': 'thank you SO very much'.