Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Music as the Borg

There are, as Eliot might have said, two conditions which often look alike yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow. One is grumpy old man ‘kids today!’ eyerolling, the complaint that things have gone badly wrong since I was a lad, a grumble as old as time and one which says nothing substantive about kids today and everything about the declivity into bad-tempered intolerance and conservatism of the grumpy old man speaking. I don’t mean to gender this in an exclusionary way (there are of course grumpy old women), but only to notate in apotropaic mode my self-awareness, for I am old and male and prone to grumpiness.

But here’s Two: the idea that something has changed, that the being-in-the-world of the younger generations is different in some key way. Isn’t this likely? Or to turn it around, wouldn’t it be unlikely for the changes that have happened across the world in my lifetime to have had no effect on social being? — particularly the arrival, like lightning from a clear blue sky, of the internet, the comprehensive social mediatisation of experience, a radical massively-connective mode of intersubjectivity utterly new in human history.

In his last book — the last book he published, that is, before his suicide in 2003 — Ian MacDonald laments ‘the loss of inner pressure in modern Western society’ which, he thinks has ‘exchanged neurosis for depression.’ It’s not clear to me if this phrasing means that we used to be more neurotic and are now more depressed, or vice versa (the latter I suppose). But he goes on:

Sociocultural limits generate a productive friction. Now that institutional, moral and technical constraints are off, everyone can be a sort of individualist but at lower pressure. Personalities grow wild and insipid like untrained or unpruned plants. In a world of convenience and easy self-satisfaction there are fewer life trials by which to shape character. In addition to this loss of life-forming constraint, the centre of gravity of social discourse has shifted over the last thirty years, shifted from middle age to youth. It’s the freewheeling appetites and attitudes of those under the age of thirty-five which dominate the form and content of contemporary culture. Within this age range the focus is on instant gratification, sensationalism and light entertainment. As a result the kind of issues entailed in growing older and wiser are marginalised. Development has ceased to be a subject of art, which focuses on static states of situation and personality around which action (or inaction) is disposed for its own sake. Ours is increasingly an adolescent civilisation living chiefly for the thrill of the present; hence the popularity of the nostalgia industry, which essentially preserves the past thrills of earlier present moments as an array of cultural triggers and mood associations. [Ian MacDonald, The People’s Music (Pimlico 2003), 208–09]

Is there something in this, behind its Grumpy Old Man posturing? How does this assessment look two decades on?

For centuries before the present not only political action but belonging and therefore identity was a largely collectivised business: you were you, but who you were was a person with a particular place in your society and community. You belonged to a particular village or town; you had a particular job, were a particular a guild-member or location-specific worker; you belonged to a particular church; you were someone with a particular role in a family and so on. In all this, who you were was determined by these larger contexts, each in turn determined by larger-still contexts. I don’t mean to sound starry-eyed when I say so. In many ways this collective pressure on identity was oppressive, especially if you were a woman or belonged to another of the dalit-esque subgroups. But there were strengths to this community-determined sense of self too. MacDonald’s point, as I take it, is that we have gone from more collectivist identities to more atomised ones. This situation might ‘read’ to us as one of increasing freedom — for instance, the freedom to define your identity, your gender etc on your own terms rather than having it ‘imposed’ upon you by exterior forces like class, social convention and the like. Perhaps this is a freedom. But perhaps it also entails costs and losses (where do you think you got those terms from in the first place? Whose were they before you decided they were yours?)

I’m enough of an old-school socialist to believe that it’s only through collective action that meaningful workplace and larger social change happens, but I recognise we’re living through an epoch in which unions are withering away and political debate has dissipated into a hundred micro-affiliations, fissures, fandoms, causes, outrages, furies. The nature of social media is that you can always find, or be found by, a group that shares your idiosyncrasies of ideology or faith or belief; or more to the point that shares your neuroses or unhappinesses. This micro-community might supply some of the security a larger sense-of-belonging might. Some but not enough — for it seems to me that much online discourse, and arguably much sense of self in the modern age, is haunted by a lack of what is larger. QAnon, for instance, is a poisoned kaleidoscope of all the weirdest and maddest conspiracy bollocks you can imagine, right across the spectrum; yet their slogan is ‘where we go one we go all’ — a statement not of collective truth but precisely of a yearning for a collectivism that doesn’t actually exist.

The old-school socialist in me (him again) thinks this is as much a consequence of Late Capitalism as social media, although the two, obviously, can’t be neatly separated out. It is in the interests of such a system to split and atomise potential opposition. So long as the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea are fighting amongst themselves Roman overlordship is safe. Freud’s Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen is a platitude, but no less true for that. You don’t need to spend long online to see that small ideological differences generate fury, outrage and cancellation where large ideological differences are dismissed with an “of course …” that goes nowhere. Labour Leftists hate Blairites and moderates and will put not just more but better focused and effective energies into undermining Starmer than will Conservative Central Office (ditto the US left, Democrats and the GOP). The new censors (‘hate speech is harm and must be banned and the speaker shunned’) hate free-speech liberals. Left-wing atheists hate left-wing Christians. ‘Centrist’ is a more contumelious term for many than right-winger. Collectivism as such has become ‘the enemy’ and is rendered into popular culture as The Borg, as ten thousand Agent Smiths fighting one valiant non-conformist Keanu Reeves. It’s a mendacious, though beguiling, idea. Still: when everyone is a nonconformist no-one is.

Extremely Online isn’t life, of course, although I daresay it’s a greater proportion of life for the younger generation — the people MacDonald is talking about in that quotation back there — than for older folk. From time to time people I follow on Twitter will, with disbelief and despair, or more likely with contempt for the voters as such, RT a ‘Westminster Elects’ opinion poll that puts the Tories ahead. But these things are not acts of God. They reflect a larger scale cause and effect. We dissipate our energies into a thousand trivial intensities and neglect the duller, more onerous business of working to build collective alliance and leverage actual meaningful change. We are in thrall to what Geoff Dyer in his new book calls the ‘so many little things that substitute for the lack of a larger goal that continue to crop up in the course of one’s journey through life’.

The result is that actual power, political and commercial, reverts to the actual right-wing, who find that with a little lip-service to diversity and the occasional artfully-displayed rainbow tag they can largely avoid the earnest intra-scorn of the congeries of groups who might, if united, threaten them more seriously. ‘We’ have won the right to be individuals, but at such a reduction in social pressurisation that we might as well be trying to breath the atmosphere on Mars.

To go back to MacDonald: I wonder if his life’s passion, music, isn’t one area in which people still congregate precisely to overcome this atomisation. Not, I think, MacDonald himself: to read his music criticism is to encounter a man living far from the city and immersing himself, singly, in musical experience, on headphones in his study or through the speakers in his living room. That’s also how I apprehend music as it happens. But it’s out of line with the larger music fanbase I think. The rise of festivals, budding off from the behemoth that Glastonbury has become, and the continuing importance of concert performances, of clubs and raves, speaks to a Nietzschean sense of music as a Dionysiac disindividuation. For many people, and perhaps most, music is community, and the experience of attending a concert or festival is valuable precisely to the extent that it supersedes the separate individualism of Late Capitalist social day-to-day. You’re part of something bigger. The entire Live Aid audience clapping in perfect time to the ‘Radio Gaga’ chorus had a more than superficial resemblance to a Nuremberg rally; though of course it matters whether you are inside or outside the experience. And more (of course) it iterates this key difference: the faithful attending the Nuremberg rally really were in the business of changing the world (alas), where the Live Aid audience were in the business of licensing a proxy to put some of their disposable income into a temporary alleviation of African hunger that did nothing to address the deeper structural reasons for the famine, and that moreover marked a sea-change away from governmental and inter-governmental social security (in the wider sense) and toward’s today’s neoliberal insistence that private charity is the way to address such things.

Counterpoint: this is just the type-1 complaining of another grumpy old man. So hard to tell.

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Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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