Reflections: The landscape of counterculture (and a digression on black metal)

During 2003 I was quite besotted by a TV series about a girl who wrote a zine about her life. While the presence of the zine seemed to be a mere plot device for communicating her life; I had hitherto come across the notion of the zine.

Upon some wiki-researching and later years coming across accounts of zine-culture. I learned that the zine was a form of proliferating various cultural media. The zine could concern music scenes, such as hardcore, thrash metal, the punk consortium, or the feminist riot grrl (sic) movement.

Zines were the expression of the voices of those otherwise had not a voice in popular or mainstream culture. This included people such as women, varied youth cultural categories (analytical issues concerning the operationalisation of youth cultural issues remains a seperate but important issue), or the disenfranchised (such as the powerless, the young, political radicals…).

When I grew up, I was not exposed to zine culture, and I suspected that by the time of my teens and early adulthood, zine culture was dying or was already dead. I had heard during my student days of the exchange of zines but were largely an eccentric practice of false-authenticity (like wearing 80s flannel shirts to mimic 90s grunge culture during the 00s).

The role of counterculture has come to my awareness for this post for a couple of reasons. Here are some thoughts that I intend to connect:

1. The zine culture was in some way superceded by the potentiality of the internet
2. Did the mass consumption of the internet allow for a proliferation of greater countercultural exchange? I think not; the memetic subculture of the internet is largely conformist: those in the know and who command knowledge of every increasingly related internet memes seem to command respect or humour
3. The humour of meme-culture is openly (without irony) discriminating and panders to old and uncouth prejudices. An age where the geek has become a bully-a jock if one will. Lets not mention ignorant as well
4. The emergence of the internet has in some large way become a cloud of ignorance for many – people ironically think less and are less technically oriented than the computer geek counterparts of previous generations

The decline of zine culture

I take it as part of my moral mission to keep a track on various countercultural movements, most notably; feminist news internationally and domestically. It came to my attention when I seemed to know more about feminist groups and discussions than any other person (especially women, and Antisophie) that I know personally.

During my teens, the zine culture hardly existed. Cafes and other such places of zine proliferation became commercialised centres of leisurely living; instead of the dank and dark refuse of the revolutionary. During my youth, life was far too comfortable and numbing to want to be challenging (or to see reason to challenge).

It is often said that a group such as the feminists, or environmentalists for that matter; are increasingly civil and I would deem, part of the establishment. When people who used to be called eco-warriors, or tree-huggers have stopped wearing their dreadlocks and started to wear broques and dress shirts; they have sold their soul to the wrong lobby. The current face of hitherto transgressive movements such as the feminists and environmentalists have become so conformist that their comfortable relationship with the establishment has left a vacuum in the internal and external critical analysis of their core values, and instead; left them largely unquestioned; we can thus see a ‘conservatising’ force among the feminists; such as a group where wooly jackets and comfortable clothing become the norm, instead of the former iconoclast of the bald and defiant woman. Feminism as an establishment has an axe to grind, most of all considering its own comfortable place. Environmentalists have become so ubiquitous that their ideologies sport a form of unquestioning set of dogma that are unthinkable of being questionned.

The Transition Town movement, for instance, has been reported among my many philosopher bretheren (Mark Vernon, for example), as holding a thinly veiled form of political apathy. Many of these ‘transition’ists are millenarians in disguise. The allure of appealing to book of revelation-like scientific data (when convenient) serves as the basis of their mad-max vision of an ecological apocalypse. If the Frankfurt greats such as Mercuse and Adorno were alive today; I’m sure they would find some resonance to the ideological certitude and sheepish nature of such millenarian behaviour. Despite this apparent substantiation of data to promote their aims, very little is addressed to critique or question their fundamental values; they are rather asserted like some Nuremburger rally. This is a failure of the counterculture. Inauthenticity, as insincerity and dogmatism are ubiquitous; like the hemp suit blazer and pair of vegan broque blacks.

It is the illusion of the increasing media of countercultural forms that suggests that our openness and avenues for challenging conformity and dogmatic thinking would have more space to grow. Unfortunately, it seems not the be the case.

Is there a genuine countercultural form? – the internet as culture industry speculation

There are many cases in which, viz internet usage and applciation and social media such as facebook; twitter and so forth, genuine challenges can be addressed. The Trafigura injunction last year, for instance; the Iran election troubles; or other information leaks or scandals can be brought to our awareness to a greater degree.

There is however, a certain passivity in the media of the internet. No media is ideologically neutral and it is important always to realise that we are never privvy to the media in a wholesale manner; there are means of mediating and hermaneutically structuring our reception of any given information. This can happen through a variety of accounts; governmentality, psychology and cognitive bias, or the role of active or passive agent. It is superficial a retort to say that by means of slacktivism, we genuinely effect change by joining a facebook group that asserts some political sensibility that we won’t really act terribly strongly towards.

I am no expert in the subject by any means; but I am suspect that Adorno’s analysis of the culture industry is privy to a correleating analysis with the internet media. There are many ways in which internet consumption appeases very weakly held political and moral sentiments with little commitment; and there is also a means in which the formulaic presentation of data is limiting to our ways of thinking. We are not used to zines, surprise, or irregularities. Challenges become far more difficult when our hermeneutical scheme becomes limited.

To find counterculture, you have to dig deep.

Digression: musical countercultures

One of my old supervisors was a researcher on musical countercultures. The proliferation of various genres during the 1980s occured in a process known as bootlegging, which had a large ideological challenge to the mainstream discourse which would simplistically refer to it as ‘piracy’.

Bootlegging is an expression of fandom. I once came across a website that boasted an archive (not accessible to the visitor) that was very comprehensive of live performances of Metallica over the past three or so decades. For those metallica fans; noticing subtle differences in performance; Hetfield’s banter; set listing or unique gems (such as unexpected cover songs) become the stuff of legend. With the emergence of the cameraphone and recording performances, a precious youtube joy can be found in locating your favourite band and performer and noticing their every nuance. Indeed our ways of consumption have diversified.

Why is this address of bootlegging important? Bootlegging, in many respects, was the basis of many musical genres; there is a large sense in which not only the message of the music, but also the method of production and consumption (alas I put on my Marxist hat) have an important play in the ideological construction of a counterculture.

Bootlegging was one way of spreading the interest of early punk. Fandom and ‘popular’ music would no longer dictate the conditions for acceptable social behaviour during the 1960s-70s and bootlegging grew to garner interest in wider forms of music, as well as the channels for consumption. Not only did some genres spread (such as Punk and the NWOBHM style of heavy metal); cross-fertilisations also occurred. The mix of hardcore, punk and NWOBHM proved a basis for the emergence of thrash metal. The early NWOBHM bands also provided a basis (in addition to thrash metal) for some truly revoultionary and challenging musical genres.

Enter Venom and their iconic ‘Black Metal’ album; or the early work of Mayhem. The search for authenticity, and the challenge to the conservatising force of the establishment could never accept Black metal (although gothic and grunge culture easily became absorbed – as evidence for the latter – notice that 2009 fashion season trend of glunge – a complete conceptual stupidity). The ideology of the Modernists back in the early 20thC was to change the message by means of changing the means of expression. Black metal perfectly encapsulates the authentic and challenging nature of music and its challenging cultural and ideological sensibility

To be countercultural; a significant message is needed, as well as the media of the message. An analytic philosopher would do little good by writing in the pantheon of the journal system which is far too institutionalised, for instance. And those environmental campaigners have failed if they realise that their conservatising nature (which by irony, makes them seem legitimate and yet inauthentic by their own internal standards) cannot effect change by taking part in the mainstream discourse; as no true dialectic is established, let alone an inner dialectic concerning the verity of their own internal values.

I have recently found a slew of black metal artists, from a slew of countries: Sri Lanka, Jordan, Qatar, Finland, Malaysia, and South Korea. These artists often run solo projects and self released material rarely with the assistance of a recording label, or even a good studio. Lo-fi was once a symbol of authenticity. The sound of air in the recording gives a  raw aesthetic edge that contrasts to the clean and sterile pornography of studio music.

The messages of black metal vary. Some black metal bands promote the values of pre-Christian european spirituality. For countries such as Finland and Norway, black metal artists often perceive Christianity in explicitly negative terms, as a denying force on the richness of the local ‘pagan’ culture and imagery. In some respects, the religious sentiment of such black metal bands use mythical and mystical icons for poetic use more than anything, although stories of burning churches are well founded.

My preferred genres of black metal at the moment are those which challenge the typical heavy metal idiom; as if heavy metal has become a seperate entity from the ‘metal’ notion itself; bands are increasingly commercialised, touring countries, selling low quality condoms with band logos on them (that’s another story). Black metal challenges the stereotypes of cock-rock; meeting metal riffs with ambient repetition reminiscent of IDM; showing complex and diverse influences from modernist composition to shoegazing. The ideological message is also challenging, and sometimes not necessarily in a good way.

There are well known demonised cases of bands promoting the open expression of self-harm, or nationalist-racist views (DSBM and NSBM respectively); although the genuinely critical and openly challenging nature of them is something not to be sniffed at. The bounds of acceptability are social constructions, and within the same means of constriction we also have the media that can inspire a politic of change. When I find solo projects and underground black metal; I listen passionately, I am genuinely challenged (mentally, physically, emotionally and sonically). The conceptions of aesthetic musical value, such as the value in clean studio productions; virtuoso guitar solos (or cock-rock); or self-indulgence are genuinely challenged. My personal hunt for the increasingly authentic leads me to constantly search and meander through different technological means to pursue the frontiers of the avant-garde. All too often have I seen people complacent in their musical preferences and their moral and intellectual sentiment.

in order to grow, you must make yourself small; a relaxed muscle is more flexible than a tense one. rising to the challenge also includes a constant state of unrest in the pursuit of moral and intellectual growth.

Coming up: The internet as
cloud of ignorance (the subject of a future post…)

Michael (in conversations with Destre)

Adorno on rigid thinking

In my readings, I have encountered an anti-metaphysical view from the corpus of Adorno. Adorno claims that the system-building kinds of philosophy, that goes back to Aristotle is unhelpful to the picturing we have of the world. For Adorno, putting things into a system is like how people commonly typify as ‘pigeonholing’. In the previous post concerning ‘types’, I addressed the kind of view that Adorno opposes. Adorno’s rejection of system-thinking is a strong statement that makes him typical (excuse me for pigeonholing) of the Continental philosophers (or so-called ‘critical theorists’, or as some hard analytics would call, ‘bullshit merchants’ or ‘frauds’) insofar as they oppose what they see as the large rationalisation of reality by the imposition of metaphysics and dense systems.

It is also true that analytic philosophers in mixed portions are resistant to the kind of system-building philosophy that the early 20thC continentals had opposed. It was championned perhaps at its worst by Hegel, and at its best by Kant or perhaps Aristotle himself.

For Adorno, putting things into a system makes the mind stale. We categorise, systematise and sterilise. Philosophy, or analysis becomes cold and clinical, it becomes a lifeless and unchanging model of our analysan, be that history or social theory or knowledge itself. Adorno was certainly right in pointing out that the historicism of Hegel and Marx, which was essential to their own ‘system’ of thought, made them almost dogmatic in their insight as to how their philosophies related to their historical situation. For Hegel, he believed that history was unfolding in a process, the world-spirit was moving towards its point of perfection which funny enough, happened to be located within early-mid 19thC Prussia (or as Hegel would have known it: the present). For Marx, the social mechanisms that started from early human civilisations would culminate in a process of thesis and antithesis and continual oppression of the lower caste (be they deemed so by brute force, religion, or capitalism). The communist revolution was inevitable in the historical process of things and it was coming very soon.

Adorno was right that theorising through philosophy should not be so fixed as not to be real. The heart of Adorno’s worry was this insight: the system-building tendency of philosophy was problematic insofar as abstraction eventually becomes detached from reality in how the latter is described by the former.

Being a systematicity advocate, this is certainly something to be concerned about. Often, sceptics of scientific theories point that our grounds for disbelieving current theories is to note how every theory until the current theory has been legitimately dismissed. I think this objection can be met by Kant’s notion of the regulative a priori, paired with the notion of the reflective equilibrium character of theories where experience modifies our insight, and our theories in turn have a place in placing predictions which succeed insofar as such predictions obtain.

System building requires a few foundations. One of them is to expect that the structure of a theory can and probably will change. Kant’s systematicity account acknowledges this, and makes the even stronger claim that such a dictum of changing theoretical strata is a desideratum for any future theory; scientific or metaphysical.

Perhaps the most salient point is a psychological adege. Rigid thinking is always bad. For Adorno, systematic thinking meant a solidification of what should be fluid. Our understanding of the social world, and metaphysics should be open minded so as to account that our theory may be wrong, but if we are informed by a theory from the outset; we end up being dogmatic and so closed minded as to make the world fit our theory, instead of vice versa. The notion of a desiderata for theoretical reflective equilibrium would account for this.


Everything must have a class

I take this proposition to be almost axiomatic, a truism, a necessary truth. The domain of everything consists of all concievable things; even things such as the set of inconceivables (where inconcievables are undefined); all objects, propositions, truthmakers, logical atoms and operators, and the space in which any logical system may subsume.

We may distinguish between ‘everything’ and any such thing that may be other than such a term ‘everything’ could capture. If the latter could be an object of genuine distinction; without some absurdity (such as: ‘everything’ captures those objects and referents that may be impossible either logically or conceivable, or absurd in some other way), we may introduce the notion of a Noumenon; but this is not necessarily needed for such a constructible set ‘everything’ to maintain, even eliciting the objects within such a set are not necessary, merely that it is there would suffice.

Kant maintained that the experience and knowledge could only be grasped by means of an active part of human nature (or conscious nature) to operate in such a way where all things are forced under the principle of seeking categories; what these categories may be are not terribly important (for this post) but may be debated. It would seem to me hard to argue for something so basic and primal as the phenomena that is immediately present to us. When we feel an immediate pang of pain, or that capture of laughter; we hardly come to the first thought or experience of questioning whether we have such an experience at all, or whether there is such a thing as a quale; but we come to reside in that experience. Humean nature is also true in that there is a brute fact-ness of how human nature is enslaved by experience.

It is a misnomer to deride the notion of categories; to deride any given notion of categories would be fine, but categories as a wholesale notion would be harder, insofar as any correlation system may be made. Association is but inherent to conscious experience. Whether such an experience is veritable, is immaterial to that brute insight.

It is however, presumptuous to pose that human experience is objective experience. If we are to speak of objective knowledge (in a putative sense of the term); we may note it as being in some way indexical to the principles or conditions of experience itself. Talk of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ can be muddied in that respect.