Were there any contradictory elements in your original thoughts on your last book ‘Sad Boy Aesthetics’, and if so, how did you reconcile them before committing to print?
Alex: Georges Bataille wrote ‘truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.’ Contradictory elements have never bother me to be honest, an attitude I take from my reading of Emil Cioran, whose work referred to an ‘existence full of irreconcilable contradictions.’ The fact that the Sad Boy Aesthetic embodies, in some way, a bipolarity, an aesthetic that is held between two states, stands as a testament to this paradoxical reality. As Baudrillard says, ‘Since the world drifts into delirium, we must adopt a delirious point of view.’ It wasn’t enough to write a book that merely attempted to lay out the principles since I also wanted a text that sought to embody something of the aesthetic itself.
Can that embracing of the delirious effect accessibility and with that aspect cited, did you have an idea of who your audience is?
Alex: Society is so delirious today that it seems banal to even mention it. After all, delirium is not something we embrace anymore, but rather something we are born into. With this in mind, I don’t think there’s anything particularly inaccessible regarding the deliriousness of the work. Ironically, it is those appeals to reason and logic that seem increasingly unfamiliar to us, disappearing in real-time.
I’d published the article ‘The death drive of capitalist hyperrealism’ at Public Pressure, which had included the preliminary range of influences, everyone from Ted Kaczynski and Mark Fisher, to Jean Baudrillard and Lil Peep. It was well received. At the same time, I was discussing Lil Peep’s music with Aaron Kent, my friend and publisher at Broken Sleep Books, who later asked me to write a book about Lil Peep. I was somewhat reluctant at first, only because I didn’t know what that book would look like exactly – and I certainly didn’t know what kind of book Aaron expected from me. Luckily, he was very supportive. We talked for a little while about what the book would and wouldn’t be – which was important – and then Aaron, if I remember correctly, said something along the lines of ‘Look, I just want an analysis of Lil Peep from the perspective of Alex Mazey’. For better or for worse, that’s exactly what he ended up with.
Before going into specifics, just as a final opportunity for a disclaimer, can this book act like an introduction to Lil Peep, or should one be aware of who they are even if familiar with Baudrillard/Hyperreality?
Alex: I will take you up on your opportunity for a disclaimer and say nothing I write should be considered an introduction to anything, as it should not be considered the final word, either. I know people who have read the book with no knowledge of who Lil Peep is – or any of the central artists that inform the aesthetic, including Yung Lean, Drain Gang, etc – but they’ve certainly come away from the book with a newfound awareness of what a certain kind of music might look like, and how that music might be informed by a certain reading of the culture. Likewise, there’s been readers who’ve said they are familiar with Lil Peep, but had no idea about Jean Baudrillard or his theories, including those related to hyperreality. It is allegedly quite accessible to both parties, I am told.
Keen to know more about the bias against Lil Peep you believe is held by Vice and samesuch media (‘this music is virtuosically moronic’ – Vice). Is there anything you’re still trying to work out about that, or is it a rather open and shut affair in how Hip Hop culture is treated by agencies of culture?
Alex: I don’t think it should be read as a bias held exclusively against Lil Peep. What I am interested in, especially when it comes to points of mediation – those agencies of culture, as you say – is how these taste-makers go from ‘this music is virtuosically moronic’ to ‘this person deserves artist of the decade’. It seems there’s an aversion felt by these agencies towards genres of music that are initially quite popular but perhaps difficult to bring to mass-market because they are/were genres that are explicitly tied to critical positions. I recall the Hip Hop I grew up listening to, for example, Jedi Mind Tricks, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, many artists that seem so diametrically opposed to what Hip Hop is considered today by a chronically lowbrow media. You can certainly chart Lil Peep’s trajectory as an artist who was finding his voice quite publicly, who built an audience from communities like SoundCloud, and was subsequently subsumed by industry forces in quite a telling way. Henrik Burman’s documentary, ‘Yung Lean: In My Head’, is another very good example of how industry forces see human life today.
When we consider those industry voices it’s not a stretch to recall Tupac’s reformation, a response to critique from his fan base. What are the differences – if any – between internet based critique and offline based chin stroking by fans? Additionally, has the artist’s voice become shackled to corporate curated opinion? If that net is too wide then feel free to locate your musings within Lil Peep’s history.
Alex: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between states of being online and offline which is only an expression of the broader submergence into virtual worlds, which is happening in such pernicious ways that we don’t even see it happening anymore. Your online persona is always there, ready for engagement, terminally online. Whether or not you’re consciously interacting with that conception of yourself is – I suppose – what we mean by choosing to be online or offline. Such conceptions have not only become increasingly hyperreal in technologically-advanced societies, but a vital component of living through them.
What I find interesting is how Tupac could produce lyrics like ‘wake up in the morning, and I ask myself / Is life worth living, should I blast myself?’ and pursue a bittersweet melancholy in posthumous tracks like ‘Better Dayz’, for example, and yet today’s media still perceived once emergent Hip Hop artists like Lil Peep, who espoused similar themes, as something radically different. More cultural amnesia, perhaps?
I recall watching a video where some music critic, in his reaction to ‘Ginseng Strip 2002’, was astounded by Yung Lean’s shoutout to ‘Makaveli’ like these very young artists weren’t profoundly influenced by West Coast Hip Hop, and the commercially-orientated sound that emerged from it.
It seems to me that early Yung Lean, especially, was about taking certain elements of Hip Hop and filtering them not only through a different lived experience, but an experience that was explicitly connected to the hyperreality of the online persona. In many ways, the same can be said about Lil Peep’s trajectory as an artist.
In the case of Yung Lean, however, these experiences laid outside of the purely American landscape, of course, but nevertheless, it was an experience that found influence in the simulation of America and its globally pervasive iconography, (hence the prevalence of things like AriZona Iced Tea). What makes Lean’s early work quite uncanny is how these images and themes revelled in the disconnect from a broader familiarity, which is to also say, points of direct reference. I don’t think it’s enough to say, as so many critics have done since, that this is merely a Eurocentric take on Hip Hop, since Yung Lean and the associated artists have as much to do with virtuality and worldbuilding than they do with any geographical limitations.
Perhaps this response hasn’t answered the question exactly, but what I think this analysis reveals is how the artist’s voice is not necessarily shackled to corporate curated opinion, as you say, but to dominant subjectivities and dominant notions of what reality is and can be.
Not an exact answer, no, but the latter conclusion is sufficient for our investigation. On page thirty-eight of your book you observe ‘You can go through your entire existence and only ever experience romance vicariously.’ And also ‘the prevalence of romantic comedies that make up for both romance and humour’s distinct absence in real life.’ Is it too soon to make such a bold statement, and at such a young age? I do believe there is something to be said for such a critique of this element of the hyperreal, I’m just wary of people as young as us deciding on such a grand generalisation.
Alex: Byung-Chul Han has presented some good theories of our culture in books like ‘The Burnout Society’ and ‘The Transparency Society’. I think we could probably add a third aspect to that and say we are a Limerent Society, fantasizing about what a seductive capitalism can offer in the most abstract sense whilst it simultaneously denies basic human needs. The observations you isolate there come as a broader theory concerning that culture of Limerence. I would love to be wrong about all the outrageous things I say. Maybe I am wrong. Even so, I think it’s worth asking how much of our emotional and physical expenditure is reciprocated?
‘On the Heights of Despair’ was written when Emil Cioran was twenty-three years old. As far as I’m aware, Nick Land started lecturing at the University of Warwick when he was twenty-five. Nietzsche was twenty-seven when he wrote, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’. By the time he was thirty-one, Yukio Mishima had written both ‘Confessions of a Mask’ and ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion’. By the time he was forty-five, he had committed suicide by seppuku. If I really wanted to confirm something of the simulation, I’ve got fifteen years of writing left.
To qualify a statement which pertains to going through ‘one’s entire existence’ on the subject of romance implies a POV from the vantage point of old age. Keen to know what you’ll make of your stance in fifteen years. Maybe the qualification of such a well researched and profitable experience is best delivered through citing young writers who specifically specialise in the topic at hand. What do you think?
Alex: Like I say, the style of the text is designed to embody something of the aesthetic par excellence. Perhaps that includes a perspective where old age doesn’t exist. We’re dealing with sad boys, after all. To be honest, I don’t want this book to be considered a strictly traditional, non-fiction text where the objective was to forward a research paper offering the simulation of a ‘total knowledge’, so to speak. As a consequence, ‘Sad Boy Aesthetics’ was consciously written as a theory-fiction. It’s coming out of another tradition we’ve seen develop in contemporary philosophy which attempts to step away from the restraints of philosophy as it appears at the level of the academy.
As such, I’m taking peripheral influence from Robin Mackay’s ‘Urbanomic’, a publishing house primarily interested in publishing philosophy that operates beyond what it calls ‘academic isolation’, which is to say, otherwise boring philosophy ‘subordinated to the norms of academic thinking.’ The set of texts I’ve decided to draw upon then, whether that’s Fisher’s ‘Flatline Constructs’ or Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, for example, were often chosen as they fit into the trajectory of a theory-fictional position that, in the words Urbanomic’s mission statement, ‘engender interdisciplinary thinking and production.’
It’s perhaps a somewhat self-indulgent critique of the work, but I also like how ‘Sad boy Aesthetics’ has developed an almost hyperstitional quality to accompany its theory-fictional design. One of its few anecdotes recalls the absurdity of hotel breakfasts. I’ll briefly quote it here:
‘Something can be said about the nature of hotel rooms as totally creepy and weird places – non-places that you sleep and dream in – and wake up and have obscenely calorific breakfasts and do things that no normal person does, like sit in a sauna for ten to fifteen minutes at 8AM with a hangover. At a hotel in Liverpool, I once made a Bloody Mary at the ‘Bloody Mary Self-Service Bar’ located beside a pile of all-butter croissants, not because this had anything to do with any normal morning routine, but simply because the option was available to me.’
It seemed especially odd to include that at the time of writing the book in 2020, and yet in 2021, Bladee released the album ‘The Fool’ which featured the track, ‘Hotel Breakfast’, a song that embodies practically every aspect of the aesthetic, right down to the interplay of ghosts and angels and demons. I enjoy the significance the anecdote now holds, recalling something of the aesthetic before it even appeared. It has since become perhaps the most important anecdote in the book for me, personally.
A slight change of focus now. Melancholic Hedonism. Do you think there is a precursor to such a mindset in New Romantic subculture of the eighties, or would you consider that groupthink not quite as jaded as the likes of Drake and Kanye West? In any case, if there is one aspect of the book that I wanted further insight (perhaps a whole book dedicated to the subject?), it would be the departure of pride let alone any feeling once a celebrity hits a certain kind of fame. Moreover, the feeling being a wellspring for more artistic observations has quite a history and potential for social commentary on the legacy of neo-liberalist economic structure’s imposition upon the goals and enjoyment of said achievements by the person, let alone the artists who mirror them, wouldn’t you say?
Alex: Yes, parts of the book are concerned with producing a ‘connective analysis’ of the rappers, producers and cultural manifestations that have come to share in the aesthetic. I particularly enjoyed writing at length about Joji’s ‘Ballads 1’, and looking at specific tracks taken from Bladee albums like ‘Eversince’, ‘Redlight’ and ‘333’. In reference to the music video for ‘Sugar’, I recall ‘Bladee walking down a corridor reminiscent of an urban underpass; a liminal space dissevered by the cold reality of fluorescent lamps. He approaches a grimy stairwell. ‘I can’t take the truth today / So tell me a fairy tale’. Following these lyrics, there is the obvious contrasting of the black and white footage of a desolate and bleak underpass with the sudden and prevalent colour saturation of the natural world, a pink hydrangea and such, the classical architecture of sculptured representations and ionic columns. Within the invocations of such distant and mythologised imagery, we have entered the heavenly principalities of Bladee’s ‘fairy tale’ dream world.’
I include this here in relation to you mentioning the ‘New Romantic subculture of the 80’s’, which, if my referred knowledge serves me well, seems connected to the relevant themes of androgyny, fashion, fairy tales, and so on.
Whilst they refused the categorisation, go ahead and read the lyrics – or even watch the video – to Adam and the Ant’s ‘Dandy Highwayman’. Those lyrics – especially – wouldn’t appear out of place in a Drain Gang track. Similarly, the Thaiboy Digital lyrics, ‘I be on a yacht, feel like the navy / Designer drugs, it feel like the 80’s’, could be entirely referential to the seemingly coked-up aesthetics of Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’. Is there anything that adheres to the sad boy aesthetic more than lyrics like ‘With a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue / Dissolve the nerves that have just begun…’ from Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ which also happened to be sampled on Nelly’s ‘N Dey Say’, a song I used to listen to on my sisters’ ‘Now That’s What I Call Music 61’ compilation album when it was released back in 2005. That was a year after Jay-Z and Linkin Park had made ‘Collision Course’, which I think was released in the same month as Gwen Stefani’s ‘Love. Angel. Music. Baby.’
I think these make for good examples of the creativity in popular music at that time, which was later dampened somewhat, especially in the UK, by the commercial popularity of cookie-cutter indie music and all that second-wave Britpop which didn’t interest me in the slightest. As a side note, I think it’s really interesting how the Y2K aesthetic, especially as it appears in Hyperpop, is making a huge comeback today.
Personally, I’m not all that interested in celebrity culture, and haven’t committed much thought to it beyond what I felt was necessary for the book. Although, I think much can be said of that ‘neo liberalist economic structure’ which largely repackaged a pride in Cool Britannia, the working-class image of Oasis, for example, that so many artists – for better or worse – had attempted to break away from throughout the 80s with the popularity of the New Romantics, and so on. Under neoliberalism it was like everything was returned to the state of crass stereotype. I’m often drawn to Fisher’s comparisons between Bryan Ferry and David Sylvian’s singing voices, the subtextual implications of both men trying to avoid exposing their working-classness. It’s worth noting that Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’ is one of the few records I have on vinyl.
I make mention of Morrisey and ‘The Smiths’ in the book because I think they tried to acknowledge the misery of Thatcher’s Britain whilst also offering a vision for the working-classes that went beyond the bravado of pints down the pub whilst simultaneously rejecting the vapid otherworldliness offered by New Romantics like ‘Duran Duran’. The central paradox of ‘The Smiths’, however, will be forever located in how they offered no escape from the rain that falls on the humdrum town. In many ways, they could never surpass their melancholic fixation with it.
Sad Boy Aesthetics, on the other hand, seems to successfully offer a vision that acknowledges, at times, a seductive elsewhere – an outside – whilst also pertaining to something of the listener’s experience in a world governed by the hyperreal.
Page forty-three of your book touches upon a long held curio for a certain generation: a-ha’s video for ‘Take On Me’, right on up there with Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ as a source of childhood fear, excitement and confusion. Keen to know your thoughts on the unique aspects of both videos with that Baudrillardian lens of yours.
Alex: The art style which appears at times in the music video for Peep’s ‘Lil Jeep’ offered the most tenuous link into discussing a-ha’s video for ‘Take On Me’. I always liked the bit in ‘Family Guy’ where Chris, having gone shopping with Lois, falls into a satirical pastiche of the music video whilst grabbing some milk from the fridge. It certainly does fall into the category of curio, falling behind perhaps Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ in terms of generational interest.
That being said, it is extremely difficult to pin down the exact appeal of these things. One thing I will say about the pencil-sketch animation style of both ‘Lil Jeep’ and ‘Take On Me’ is how they possess the strange quality of what I think Baudrillard might have called ‘hypersimilitude’. Through the use of this animation style, reality is rendered into the state of an image, which simultaneously reforms and banishes something of the actual just as Pixar Animation Studios takes today the cutest and most cherished features of an animal and heightens them for audience enjoyment, caricaturing something to the point where reality is surpassed and thoroughly aestheticized. When I observe Lil Peep seamlessly blended into animation, it recalls for me the power of images to murder reality. This might also explain why the sad boy aesthetic can be found in such close proximity to the anime aesthetics we often find on YouTube, and elsewhere.
I’ve written about the power of images in my first book – ‘Living in Disneyland’ – with specific focus on the way the artifice of the image shapes our (hyper)reality in relation to things like water consumption. I’m referring specifically to ‘the look’ of products like ‘Fiji Artesian Water’, to give one example. It is not unusual to see the actuality of the product becoming augmented by its image to the point of reality’s total degradation. There was once a time where consumers would take great delight in comparing ‘the look’ of the burger as advertised with the burger they actually received. It seems many have grown accustomed to the artificiality of the image, just as we have grown accustomed to the artificiality of life today. Are we still naive enough as consumers to assume we are purchasing the product as it stands in reality, or are we becoming increasingly aware of the metaphysical surplus – the sign-value – attached to the products we consume? The ‘Happy Meal’, for example, is more than a burger and fries, it’s an experience that embodies the globalised standardization of convenience and simplicity, everything wrapped and delivered in neat little parcels as if arranged in some rightful position. Every time the consumer pours fries into the lid of the burger tray, or dips a McNugget, they participate in the communal ritual of it all, which only facilitates the ecstasy – the happiness – of the affordable experience.
It is the demonstrable reality to say the interplay of images and the reality they (re)produce has extended to human subjects, which was – perhaps – no better captured than in the hyperreal ecstasy that surrounded the life of Michael Jackson. It is an understatement to say that Baudrillard’s take on Michael Jackson would probably not pass a ‘sensitivity reading’ today. In ‘The Transparency of Evil’, he writes on how ‘the look’ of MJ, ‘foreshadows’ an ‘ideal future’ coming off as ‘…an innocent and pure child – the artificial hermaphrodite of the fable, better able even than Christ to reign over the world and reconcile its contradictions; better than a child-god because he is child-prosthesis, an embryo of all those dreamt-of mutations that will deliver us from race and from sex.’
The starkness of the analysis would be briefly mentioned in a review of the book’s reprint under Verso in 2009, when Nicholas Lezard, a literary critic working for the Guardian, would write how ‘the nature of Baudrillard’s thought is such that it will always have a fresh savour to it, as well as that period savour that comes off when he writes, as he does here, of La Cicciolina or Michael Jackson. This is Jackson before the child abuse allegations; but these accusations would have come as no surprise to Baudrillard, and are not in the slightest way inconsistent with what he has written in this book.’
It doesn’t take long to find Jackson’s relevance to the aesthetic, of course, as you only have to listen to Bladee’s ‘Gatekeeper’ to find reference to ‘Thriller’, the sample of Vincent Price’s laughter which seemed not only iconic at the time, but generationally relevant today, as you say. Alternatively, you can listen to the early Bladee x Yung Lean track, ‘MJ’ – a little more on the nose, perhaps, but nonetheless relevant to the discussion.
As for a specific Baudrillardian analysis of the music video for ‘Thriller’, I’d be drawn to comment on the visual aestheticization of the dead, the desire to go beyond the sacrality of interment, to have the dead communicate beyond their silence, to have them reanimate and perform as spectacle with all their decay and decomposition exposed and rendered transparent. Children love such things, don’t they? I always liked the start of that music video in particular, where we see Jackson’s character engrossed in the violence on screen, and in reply to those appeals from his partner – who wishes to leave the cinema because they are disturbed by the film – Jackson responds, ‘No – I’m enjoying this’.
‘What I am, I don’t know. I am the simulacrum of myself.’ This quote from Baudrillard on page forty-nine of your book is juxtaposed with an admittance from you ‘wasting your potential as a human being.’ Keen to know more about the personal aspects of your life which are, unlike your previous book, confessional in nature. What prompted the shift in being more candid in this work and what do you gain from arguably Baudrillard’s most revealing quote.
Alex: Yes, that’s a good interpretation of Michael Jackson, especially when it came to the way MJ really leaned into that Christ-like image of himself. I haven’t read the book, but I know Mark Fisher edited a collection of essays called ‘The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson’ that was published in 2009. Your reading of MJ also recalls a couple of things for me, personally. I recently watched a YouTube video someone sent my way called, ‘Jean Baudrillard – There is no Red Pill | Philosophy Hip-Hop Ep.2’. The video ended with a JB quotation that I’ll put here in order to save readers the trouble of looking for it.
‘The futility of everything that comes to us from the media is the inescapable consequence of the absolute inability of that particular stage to remain silent. Music, commercial breaks, news flashes, adverts, news broadcasts, movies, presenters—there is no alternative but to fill the screen; otherwise there would be an irremediable void…. That’s why the slightest technical hitch, the slightest slip on the part of the presenter becomes so exciting, for it reveals the depth of the emptiness squinting out at us through this little window.’
Probably an understatement, but it doesn’t take long to find a few good examples of that ‘technical hitch’ in the life and times of Michael Jackson. One of my favourite demonstrations of that hitch has to be when Jarvis Cocker went on stage during MJ’s performance of the ‘Earth Song’ at the Brit Awards in 1996. What was meant to be this big appeal to God, Jackson taking on all the suffering of the world, and so on, was totally diminished by the appearance of Cocker to reveal, as Baudrillard states there, ‘the emptiness squinting out at us through this little window.’ Watch the video of that stage invasion and you can pinpoint the exact moment Cocker intercepted the presentation of the image to reveal the depth of its emptiness.
Autobiographical writing appears in my first book, but it is certainly more subtle than it is here. This book, on the other hand, is confessional to match an aesthetic that is confessional. I always loved the roman-à-clef style of writing that we saw in the twentieth century, the way fiction could be used to conceal something of reality, the way a reader needed to be presented with ‘a key’ of sorts in order to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t. In fact, the very first line of ‘Sad Boy Aesthetics’ is designed as a contemporary pastiche of Sylvia Plath’s famous opening line from ‘The Bell Jar’. To say, a lot of this book is operating at the level of the subtextual, which I didn’t considered nearly as much when it came to writing my first book. What I will say, without going too far in this direction, is that I am interested in the school of confessional poetry that came out of writers like John Berryman. I hold degrees in the area of poetics, which also explains my interest in Baudrillard’s notorious poetization of ideas. I think it’s interesting how philosophy, especially academic philosophy, has largely removed the literary and poetic qualities from the equation, choosing to pursue an intense focus on what we might call ‘the analytic tradition’. It’s speculative, but I suspect you can likely correlate the disappearance of the poetic in philosophy with the universities’ subsumption into neoliberalism. There are exceptions to this, of course, like the work being done at Goldsmiths University, for example, or Byung Chul-Han’s literary flair, etc, but there’s a definite hostility towards ambiguity, which only highlights the broader violence of transparency that exists today. It is very difficult for a world of images, where the image and sign-value are important to the promotion of an ontological realism, to accommodate images that are deliberately divisive to a particular conception of the world that is reductive by design. The Left is not immune to this demand for material clarity, of course, and you see this in the way contemporary Marxists have treated Slavoj Žižek, for example, or been extremely quick in dismissing Baudrillard as yet another cut and dry postmodern nihilist, etc. As for the JB quotation you’ve highlighted then, I believe there’s a paradoxical honesty in his philosophy, an honesty that not only acknowledges a state of having been implicated with this world of simulation, with a quote here, for example, that recalls our personal subsumption into images, especially those images that relate to the mythologies we build around ourselves.
I remember being happy to see Jarvis Cocker sending up Michael Jackson, and although a relative dismissed him as being mad, Cocker’s decision to invade that stage was just as important (if not more important) as the release of ‘Common People’. Your aside regarding mythologies and simulation is noteworthy. What is your relationship like with the presentations of yourself on social media and how have they changed in the last decade? Given your studies, it’s safe to assume they have evolved somewhat.
Alex: Yes, exactly that – I remember people, not even people who liked Michael Jackson’s music necessarily, being sort of angry that his performance was interrupted. I suspect it hit a nerve with some people who found that if the image of MJ could essentially be revealed for what it was, then what hope was there for the rest of us?
What my social media is, I don’t know… I find the presentation of myself on social media difficult since it exists in a virtual space whose architecture is built to serve the most superficial parts of ourselves. (Like Baudrillard, I often worry about how superficial I am.) Nevertheless, we can go down the rabbit hole in regards to what these social media companies really want from us be it more transparency or – as Yanis Varoufakis has suggested – an age of techno-feudalism, but in the end what social media provides is images, and whilst those images are often empty, and entirely without substance, the world they present has become enough for people who are ultimately looking to be comforted by the silliest cat video or whatever edgelordery and/or political statement is in vogue. If the collective melancholy is anything to go by, I suspect these images will not sustain us in the end. Nevertheless, it is this reality subsumed by images that I will likely live and die in, and as Rick Roderick might’ve said in 1993, it is within that world where we have to learn to carve an existence for ourselves.
I was struck by something someone said to me recently in regards to my social media. They said my social media appears impenetrable, that it was difficult to imagine having a ‘real’ conversation with me since so much of my presentation is mediated by theory. At the same time, I remember hearing someone say they would never take a person with an anime profile picture seriously on social media, that such profiles on Twitter were the lowest of the low etc. which immediately made me want an image that would terrify the liberal intelligentsia, and as a consequence, I changed my picture to Hu Tao from ‘Genshin Impact’.
We will chance upon more personal discoveries of how your image affects those who’ve yet to meet you further along in this discussion, for sure. For now…
On page seventy-two of your book, you discuss visuals that present the subject in a post emotional state. If dissociation is the hyper instinctive response to an overstimulated culture, do you have any theories as to how artists would address this new normal? Happy to allow you to limit your hypothesis to a genre of your choice.
Alex: A few things come to mind when I think about these kinds of questions, which are essentially, what kind of application does philosophy have when it comes to the level of the societal? Straight away, I recall that Žižek quotation which partly summarizes how I feel in regards to offering people advice – ‘I despise the kind of book which tells you how to live, how to make yourself happy! Philosophers have no good news for you at this level! I believe the first duty of philosophy is making you understand what deep shit you are in!’ In all seriousness, I also recall something Cioran said, ‘Everything that is formulated becomes tolerable.’ For me, personally, literature is about the negation of loneliness.
I think an articulation of that overstimulated culture is enough for me without telling people how to cope, or how to live their lives, which almost always ends up as this insincere or reactionary moment in books, I think. The worst possible turn any analysis can take is in that act of reversion, the walk back into the ‘violence of positivity’. To say, I’m not interested in making people feel good about this world, which isn’t the same as saying I want to sell readers a superficially nihilistic diatribe. Apart from the appeal of Baudrillard, and Cioran, for that matter, can be found in a philosophy that isn’t necessarily trying to sell you anything beyond the formulation of the world as seen through a particular perspective.
… And if this were a game show you would have indeed moved a significant incremental step towards winning that holiday. Let’s move a little further on and discuss your observations on music clips. Is the excess incursion of liminal spaces in music videos indicative of a lack of genuine communal culture or is that a reductive conclusion?
Alex: When residential tower blocks were first built in Britain, architects promoted the concept of communal culture within their designs. After decades of socio-economic neglect, the kind of neglect that ultimately leads to events like the Grenfell disaster in 2017, a lot of those communal spaces became almost the exact opposite of what was intended. I think that’s significant because it highlights the unintended consequences of design, particularly as that consequence relates to the use of space, and that space’s total failure in carrying out what we might even call an intended purpose.
As a kid, I remember talking to two artists who had been commissioned to paint the local subway. After talking with them every day for two weeks, the artists were gone, the concrete walls now sunshine and rainbows and happy faces to the point where the colourful representations actually scared me tremendously since they seemed to contradict the reality of the subway environment. Over the next ten years or so I remember watching as their art faded to produce ghost-like images on the walls, images that would eventually disappear beneath the graffiti that I would stand and look at, attempting to decipher with friends. Back then, I didn’t know why it was all so disturbing, but I think there’s a similar paradox to be found in the waiting room environment too, the calming ambience of pine furniture and fish tanks that stood in opposition to the pain I would sense there as a child, whether that was the pain of people waiting to be seen by a doctor, or some other pain entirely. To say, I’ve always been fascinated by liminal space, even before I knew what it was called, and certainly before I had read the work of French anthropologists like Marc Augé.
It’s extremely fashionable to hate on liminality, though. There’s a kind of intellectual snobbery that arises when the topic is brought up for discussion, likely due to it being considered this immaterial thing without much everyday relevance or political application. I think it’s the intellectual disposition towards these concepts that makes them interesting to me philosophically. Along with Mark Fisher’s reading of hauntology, discussions around the liminal have acquired the status of trash theory, I think. From what I can discern, Baudrillard faced a similar sort of treatment around the turn of the century before many of his predictions and theories really began to take hold and materialise.
I also mention Fisher again because I believe he shared a similar view on the non-place, that their excess incursion, as you say, actually demonstrates a lack of genuine communal culture. In many ways, it is capitalism’s subsumption of that unfulfilled social need, our yearning for a collective experience, that delivers us to the coffee shop culture of Costa and Starbucks. Once again, we are presented with the profitable imitation of the thing we might’ve desired. That being said, I remain suspicious of those appeals to community since we see those appeals everywhere in capitalism today. What’s more, as those communities grow, it seems they become increasingly concerned with exclusivity, the distribution of resources, who has the rights and protection of the group, and who doesn’t. For a world very much concerned with how people use language, I find it really disturbing how some communities have even attached themselves to what is essentially the language of empire through the framing of the world into allies and enemies. I think a lot of this phenomenon plays into that lack of genuine communal culture, which is a reductive assessment only in the way it pertains to another world we could consider genuine.
Thanks for taking a limited question and expanding on the subject matter whilst sharing your community concerns. Back to you again and specifically page ninety-two, your Radiohead story … Why include it in the book?
Alex: Why include an observation on hotel breakfasts? I’d be interested to know what you make of that Radiohead story. I quite like the idea of leaving ambiguities for the reader to interpret. What I will say is a part of my intention towards the end of the book was really concerned with heightening a sense of cognitive deterioration. I’m not convinced the voice at the end of that chapter is a healthy one. I’ve always been interested in protagonists from Yukio Mishima novels plagued by obsessions and intrusive thoughts. I’m thinking specifically to Mizoguchi from ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion’, since it’s the book I quote on page eighty-five, ‘…it seemed as though the entire day was coloured by the gloom, the irritability, the uneasiness, the nihilism that belonged to youth.’ Yukio Mishima was an OG Sad Boy, influential to the aesthetic since his vision was so uncompromising when it came to exposing something of his characters, which were later read as facets of his personality, and an extension of his philosophical project as it related to his inner world of nihilism and death. In the end, Yukio Mishima was subsumed into the image of himself, similar to how Gustav Åhr was subsumed into the image of Lil Peep.
We may have already travelled down the strict interviewer and subject route for us to switch to a more conversational dynamic, that is of course if the ‘you’ in your enquiry is me. I do appreciate your candidness on cognitive deterioration, although, I can’t see how the voice at the end is unhealthy. Not expressing those concerns or repressing them would surely be more dangerous, no? In what is increasingly transforming from an interview into an appendix, I draw your attention to page one hundred and thirty-eight of Sad Boy Aesthetics. Is Fisher wrong or has he focussed on one plausible cancellation whereas you’ve detected another?
Alex: That could be the case, yes. I’m not really making the case that Fisher’s explicitly wrong there, and it’s certainly not the hill I’d die on, but I think it’s nice to think about what Fisher got right and what he might’ve got wrong, rather than dogmatically accept or dismiss, which is the common temptation these days. Although, I do think Fisher was somewhat tunnel-visioned when it came to limiting his criticism to the phenomenon of cancellation in regards to the future since the past is often subjected to a similar sort of cancellation. There’s certainly a reframing of the ‘evil’ past to make us appreciate the ‘enlightened’ present, which has its ideological function, a way to frame the realism we live today as something worthy of preservation. I suspect that’s always been the case throughout history, but I would have liked to hear Fisher’s thoughts on, say, Baudrillard’s essay on the ‘Necrospective around Martin Heidegger’ from 1988, where Baudrillard talks about our ‘desperate attempt to snatch a posthumous truth from history…’
That’s not to jump on some primitivist bandwagon either, the idea that the pre-agrarian past was a utopia whose ‘organic mud’ we are denied today, although I do enjoy listening to and reading their criticisms of Fisher, with some primitivists even perceiving him as a sort of crypto-Landian figure, I suppose. For some of them, Fisher’s ‘Postcapitalist Desire’ is techno-nihilism dressed up as fully automated luxury communism. I remember reading somewhere that behind Fisher’s eyes there was a real darkness that could be discovered through a close engagement with his writing. I also recall reading on social media that Fisher pacing around a classroom in his black suit, listening to Burial during the DOCH lectures, was the epitome of ‘big doomer energy’. It’s all speculative nonsense perhaps, but I’ve had good conversations with John Zerzan (via email) about techno-nihilism, Land, among other things. In fact, late at night, when I’m in bed, I enjoy developing this really wild, conspiracy theory that the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit never really disbanded, that Land and Fisher always planned to become faux-political adversaries, that in order to advance accelerationism, they had to co-opt both sides of the political dichotomy. I don’t believe that, of course, but it would make for a delightfully Gibsonesque novel. (Or perhaps I’ve just watched too much anime, (who knows what’s wrong with me?)) The antagonisms that existed between Fisher and Land certainly made for a good interpretation of ‘Akira’ (1988), available to watch on YouTube, the short-video titled, ‘u/akira’.
Those antagonisms also take me to another moment in the book that pronounces Fisher ‘wrong’ in some ways. It’s a passage on page sixty-two, which is very peripherally concerned, I think, with Fisher’s essay on ‘Terminator vs. Avatar’. Whilst that essay is an example of Fisher’s mind at its best, I still think he commits a mistake, which is to say, another miscalculation regarding capitalism’s ability to completely reshape our notions of what reality is and should/can be. Our current conception of what a human being is could entirely disappear within the next one hundred years, for example, and that’s certainly the Baudrillardian interpretation picked up by Rick Roderick too. With that in mind, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine capitalism, or something akin to capitalism, operating without its human face.
Considering how much easier it is for new ideas to be perceived and then taken on board via fiction, I’d be curious to know if you have aspirations to write a novel addressing the aforementioned ideas?
Alex: You say that, and yet we live in a world where Elon Musk can say his favourite anime is ‘Evangelion’, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ or ‘Princess Mononoke’ without acknowledging the irony of those choices. You only have to look at cyberpunk to see how critique can disappear behind an aesthetic.
Before it was closed down, there was this multistorey, Borders bookstore in my town that would stay open most of the night. I spent the evening of my 18th birthday there in 2009, reading ‘Battle Royale’ in the basement level until around 11PM. In retrospect, that was a very significant moment for me as a writer.
I believe the copy I read was the 2003 English translation, with this really cool monochrome map of Okishima Island in the front. I was just so fascinated by these profoundly edgy characters like Kazuo Kiriyama and Mitsuko Souma. I’m not sure you could write a popular novel like that today – just look at all the shit Sally Rooney gets for her characters.
Genre fiction probably isn’t my thing – although if Robin Mackay ever wanted to commission me to write one of Urbanomic’s K-Pulp Switch books, then I’m more than happy to lower myself to something resembling pulp fiction.
I’ve had a few people ask similar questions concerning fiction, and I suppose in an ideal world, I would pull a Kōshun Takami, write something along the lines of ‘Battle Royale’, and never produce again. Truth be told, I’m just not forgiving enough to write fiction; all the novels I wanted to write have already been written.
You say you’re not forgiving enough but that sentiment is often tempered by age (I’d put money on it), especially given the fact those books you cite didn’t have the context of the culture you currently experience as a Petri dish, so to speak. Now, despite the fact I’m sure to earn a tenner out of you writing a story in at least fifteen years’ time. Approximate if you will what you mean when you say forgiving and hey, ‘lowering yourself’ to write pulp fiction? Isn’t there a mistake in considering genre fiction of such kind to be somehow beneath us? This could be a whole other interview if we’re not careful, where pop music in relation to blues is cited and Baudrillard in relation to The Matrix, nevermind Frankenstein and a novelisation of The Incredible Hulk. Anyway, offer us your comment on all that and we’ll discuss the slave trade reference in your book. Fascinating.
Alex: I mean, I don’t think I’m forgiving enough of my abilities as a writer to produce a novel I would be completely happy with – although I appreciate your confidence in me. I think writing pure fiction requires a very different process, don’t you think? I don’t know – perhaps I’m overthinking it? I suppose I can only really go on the differences I find between writing something like ‘Sad Boy Aesthetics’, and writing a small poetry chapbook like ‘Vending Machine’ – which should be available sometime soon.
From ‘The Transparency of Evil’, Baudrillard writes, ‘In the aesthetic realm of today there is no longer any God to recognise his own, Or, to use a different metaphor, there is no gold standard of aesthetic judgement or pleasure.’ With this dissolution of the hierarchy of aesthetics in mind, I think it’s safe to say the idea of lowering yourself to write in a specific style or genre is nonsensical, and I was only failing at being humorous in my last response since I couldn’t imagine a better genre to write in than something resembling pulp theory-fiction. One of the few consistencies in my life has been pulp culture, and to be completely honest, there’s often times when I’d rather go to the cinema than – say – a literary festival.
There’s a reason I chose to look at something like sad boy aesthetics through a Baudrillardian lens, and to a certain extent, that’s why Ken Hollings’ work is so important to me too, especially where it meets at the intersection of cultural theory, pop culture and autobiographical writing. That being said, I think Strange Attractor Press are really at the forefront in terms of reframing the discourse to include something of the ‘outer’ edges. Ken Hollings’ ‘The Trash Project’ – his conception of a trash aesthetics – was very influential, and I think the inclusion of May 68’ in his next instalment, ‘Purgatory, Volume 2 The Trash Project: Towards The Decay Of Meaning’ is going to make it a very significant book.
One of the lessons I picked up in one of my offline writer’s circles was the myth of creating something you’re one hundred percent happy with. The creation takes on a life of its own only when interacting with others outside of the artist’s mind. I for one look forward to you tackling a novel. I can’t imagine you never doing so.
We’ll have to chat about Trash Theory in a future interview, but I do appreciate your reasoning for mentioning Trash Theory here.
The abolition of slave ownership is hardly if at all discussed as a way of the system looking out for itself. The humanitarian awakening of its masters is the cover story, a narrative served up in schools to prop up the simulations of progressive governance. The goal being to create new forms of patriotism in agents who might otherwise question how invested the elite truly are in deconstructing an unfair playing field. There is always talk of the bottom levelling up rather than the implementation of deductions of the wealthy back into the state. Will this last understanding flow into popular music in a substantial way, or will the concept be co opted and aestheticised by future musicians? Considering the awareness of capitol and its place in the public discourse since the Occupy movement, well, surely such consideration will flow further downstream, yes?
Alex: It only occurred to me recently that some people *still* find a suspicion of that ‘progressive’ history to be deeply problematic – a pill too difficult to swallow – which really surprises me when it’s largely informed by a very surface reading of Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’. In that book, Zinn writes how, ‘Liberation from the top would go only so far as the interests of the dominant groups permitted. If carried further by the momentum of war, the rhetoric of a crusade, it could be pulled back to a safer position. Thus, while the ending of slavery led to a reconstruction of national politics and economics, it was not a radical reconstruction, but a safe one- in fact, a profitable one.’
We can talk about the dissolution of history into mythology all day long, but it doesn’t stop the demonstrable reality that a lot of people have bought into the idea of history as a series of those humanitarian awakenings, that as long as we pursue the sanctimony of a moral position, the world will ‘wake up’ and materialise correctives. We certainly have this very prevalent idea of progressive history as being a series of moral victories where hands are washed and so on, when really, it’s predominantly about the flows and changes of market economies.
I’m not an historian or an economist, so perhaps my thought is pretty limited here, but what I will say is in my first book, I give a brief historical account on John Snow’s discoveries in regards to the cholera epidemics in London, 1854. That investigation started not because factory owners cared about squalid conditions of their workers, but partly due to growing absenteeism of the increasingly sick workforce.
When I started looking at history, I realised that what I had been taught regarding those epidemics wasn’t necessarily true, and following Snow’s discoveries, filthy water was in fact still pumped from the River Thames right into the twentieth century. Again, in 2017, a water processing company in Britain was responsible for one of the biggest freshwater pollution cases with The Environment Agency calling it the biggest they’d ever had to deal with. We can talk about flying to Mars or whatever, all the combined hopes and dreams of humanity, but at what point do we actually safeguard this life-sustaining planet from the fatal ontologies of a nihilistic capture?
Second to that, I would say that when Frederick Douglass spoke about progress in 1857, it’s easy to picture what he meant by that, which is to say, freedom for black slaves. With that in mind, when politicians or leaders (or even everyday people) talk about progress today, what is it they are appealing to in terms of specifics there, and what do we *actually* mean when we use that word? With capitalism’s ability to subsume narratives, is it at all possible that progress is delivered to us today only as an imitation of a thing it used to represent? That’s a deliberately provocative question, and a lot of people still don’t want to accept the logic behind asking it.
Similar to that is Fisher’s idea that neoliberalism actually fell apart in 2008, but there was no parliamentary Left in place to actually pursue an effective and meaningful opposition to the bank bailouts. Who knows if there was an alternative that would have better prepared us for the world we contend with today? If we are so enthralled by a singular politics that has not only consistently failed but persists today without the dynamic approaches necessary to deal with the existential problems of the world, then that isn’t a democracy, that’s a death cult.
I suspect the Baudrillardian reading of a counter-culture proposes the necessity of presenting the other side of things, because ultimately it is within that simulation of antagonisms where the system sets the limitations on the discourse. Similarly, Žižek presents this idea that ‘the tragedy of our predicament, when we are in ideology, is that when we think that we escape it into our dreams, at that point, we are within ideology.’ That’s an important critique in a landscape of consumption that effectively augmented the sign-value of products to encompass the critique itself – so you have coffee manufactures who acknowledge the problems of worker exploitation or deforestation in their marketing, for example, whilst offering themselves as the solution to a problem they naturalised. In the end, all you have there is the perpetuation of feedback loops, with consumption now linked to a necessary moment of what I consider symbolic absolution. I would go a step further there and say we enjoy that symbolic exchange because it makes us feel good about ourselves, and I would even tie that assessment to Byung-Chul Han’s violence of positivity. The idea that one must work themselves harder to afford, for example, the ethical cup of coffee which is often out of reach for those on a budget, or for those looking for the cheapest stimulant to get them through the week.
Where will this place us in the future, who knows? We can only speculate, although this year I was somewhat interested in people’s ‘Spotify Wrapped’, especially with the prevalence of genres like Hyperpop making an appearance. That’s a genre that couldn’t have been given a more suitable name when we consider the Baudrillardian implications. The relevance of theories like hyperreality makes Jean Baudrillard seem almost like a time-traveller; and that was Fisher’s claim too, a claim that can be found in Repeater Books’ ‘Postcapitalist Desire’. In fact, Baudrillard’s strange way of communicating ideas only plays into that idea of his outsideness, as if he is communicating with us from another world entirely. I don’t know how much of the theoretical understanding will flow into and from these emerging genres and the like, but what I think we’ve seen lately, especially with culture that holds the popular imagination, is the ability for this kind of creative output to make us ‘hear double’ through the subtle presentation of ‘spectral traces’, to use Fisher’s words. Whilst Hyperpop is very much designed to work at the surface level, for example, there seems to be a critique that persists in the hand-crafted superficiality of it all, the human voice that disappears behind the autotune.
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