In the recent Anti-Hauntology debate Matt Bluemink and Matt Colquhoun discussed ways out of a current mode of culture that can be called postmodernism. While Bluemink favored the term anti-hauntology, Colquhoun suggested to call strategies out of postmodernism accelerationism. In this article I want to use another term: popular (neo-)modernism. This term alludes to positions of Mark Fisher and Alex Williams.
Popular modernism is a term Fisher used to describe a cultural atmosphere that was prevalent in the 70s. Neomodernism is another term Williams suggested for accelerationism, because the term accelerationism is connected to a problematic movement metaphor.[i] In what follows I want to delineate Mark Fisher’s popular modernism, how it vanished and what consequences it brought with it. To understand the importance of this concept for me, I want to explicate the notion of novelty – thereby referring to the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux. The writings of Fisher and Williams are further used to explain what is needed to surpass the dreary cultural landscape that followed popular modernism which can be called postmodern or capitalist realist.
Modernism can be understood as a cultural mode with the goal of finding new ways to do and understand things. Taking new perspectives, experimenting with emerging technologies, making them visible and audible – thereby creating new visual and sonic landscapes – previously unimagined. Mark Fisher highlighted the period of the 70s in which post-punk as well as public television operated in this manner. After the destructive tendencies of punk, post-punk went on to construct new forms of music in a world that wasn’t governed by any musical laws. Public television experimented with sound: There was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and within it the extraordinary Delia Derbyshire who is best known for her realization of the Doctor Who intro. Classic Doctor Who is worth mentioning not only because Fisher was a huge fan, but also because it tried with minimal budget to dive into psychedelic visuals and sound. Broadcasting in the 70s not only showed weird Sci-Fi series, but also movies by soviet filmmaker Andrej Tarkovski.
This cultural atmosphere supported and consumed by the public Mark Fisher called popular modernism.
It is important to separate this notion of modernism from a modernism that is equated with capitalism. The latter notion can be found in misreadings of Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung. A certain reading of this text sees modernism as the cultural logic of capitalism in the first half of the 20th century. Every mode of cultural production is tethered to institutions – for example: clubs, labels, platforms, etc. These institutions are effected by different modes of capitalism and political decisions. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they are completely captured by capitalism. If that would be true, no resistance or alternative would be possible. Popular modernism is a term for a set of institutions and their policies that enable a broad reception of contents of very different nature. The later explanation of novelty is concerned with the contents, while in the second part of this essay I hint at institutional and social problems.
Postmodernism can be a confusing word because it is used in different contexts with different meanings. Here postmodernism can be understood as cultural logic – best analyzed by Frederic Jameson. Postmodernism can be described as a position that thinks that there will be nothing new, that we live at the end of history and already have reached the peak of civilization. Culture in postmodernism doesn’t even strive to be new. Everything has been there before. The only possibility to create something that appears to be new is an interesting “new” recombination of the past. This is in many aspects more fitting to the Adorno/Horkheimer model of Kulturindustrie than popular modernism.
Mark Fisher mourned the vanishing of popular modernism and the victory of postmodernism. The analysis of the end modernity is something that was realized by many thinkers of the 80s and 90s: Jameson, Baudrillard, Lyotard – to name just a few. Francis Fukuyama – a then famous proponent of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism – declared 1992 with the book The End of History and the Last Man that after the fall of the Soviet Union representative democracy and capitalism have finally triumphed. All alternatives – fascism and communism – have failed. In his parochial thinking fascism is equated with Nazi-Germany and communism with the Soviet Union. This kind of thinking links postmodernism not only to culture but also politics.
One could argue – as Fisher does – that it is not coincidental that after the 90s popular music stagnated. Connecting the political atmosphere to the cultural.
What is a Novelty?
One of the underlying premises of these views are different notions of novelty. On the one side there are real novelties that can be created for politics, culture and society. On the other side postmodernism denies the possibility of novelties: Everything comes from something and novelties aren’t really “new” but only new constellations of the old or revived old ideas. To understand the question of novelty, I’m comparing two extreme philosophical positions: strong determinism and speculative materialism (the name Quentin Meillassoux used for his philosophical project). Determinism resembles in many ways the logic of postmodernism, while speculative materialism offers a conception of ontological novelties that enables a thinking outside of postmodernism and is possible to lead to a popular modernism. Meillassoux is only one of many thinkers who tackles the problem of novelty (other prominent examples are Alain Badiou, Gregory Chaitin, Luciana Parisi and Gilles Deleuze – each in their own way). His project is not convincing in every aspect. Therefore I’m making an excursus to the world of finance and risk management to show that – if not his answers – at least his questions concerning novelty are important. These questions aren’t answerable – or even thinkable – within a strong determinist framework.
Going back to the question of novelty in culture, I want to discern between ontological novelties (‘real’ novelties) and epistemological novelties (subjective novelties or novelties inside a cultural framework). With Meillassoux and the excursus I’m arguing for the importance of the acknowledgement of ontological novelties, while epistemological novelties are important on a cognitive level.
First I want to consider an extreme or strong version of determinism. This version is exemplified in Laplace’s demon. Pierre-Simon de Laplace was a French polymath around 1800. In one of his famous papers on probability (then a just emerging scientific idea) he wanted to defend the position that there is no probability in the world (ontological), but that probability is just an expression of our ignorance. In this context he stated that a demon – if he had a) complete knowledge about the initial state of the universe, b) complete knowledge about the laws of nature and c) could perform any calculation within a second – could deduce every past and future event. For some who support a scientific determinism this is still an intriguing position. The thought experiment of Laplace’s demon got updated over time and instead of a demon, it became an intelligence or a computer. In the scientific discourse there are also some conundrums: Is scientific determinism compatible with quantum mechanics and chaos theory?
The question I want to ask here is: How can extreme scientific determinism think the new? On the basic ontological level there is no novelty for the extreme determinist. You always have the same rules/laws and the same matter. You can rearrange that, but not create something completely new.
Now I want to introduce another position – the one of Quentin Meillassoux.[ii] For Meillassoux it is impossible to proof the necessity of laws. Necessitiy – for example in logic – is not a problem. The problem is ontological necessity: that something – god or the laws of nature – is inherently necessary. In some very complicated arguments Meillassoux tries to argue for what he calls the principle of factuality: There is only one necessity. Everything is necessarily contingent. To be contingent means to be specified, but not to be necessarily so.
Meillassoux is concerned with the famous problem of Hume. Hume asked how we can know that the laws of nature are necessary. His result was: There is no way we can know that these laws are necessary. Meillassoux makes a stronger version of this argument: We can know that the laws of nature are not necessary. Instead we have a stability of forces and laws. But we cannot exclude the possibility that they will change one day. Therefore we can never completely predict the future. Something can happen, something new, that nobody can foresee.
One example he gives is the emergence of life. From a detailed knowledge of the Big Bang one cannot deduce that there is will be live and how it will behave. A strong determinist would hold that this is possible. Meillassoux doesn’t say that what happened before the emergence of life wasn’t important. But he says that life is a creation ex nihilo – not literally that it came out of nothing, but in the sense that there is more in the effect than in the cause. He discerns two modalities to describe this process: potentiality and virtuality. Potentiality is what can happen according to our current (but contingent) laws. Virtuality is what can happen according to his principle of factuality, but what contradicts or transcends the current laws. The emergence of life in some ways contradicts the classic mechanist laws of the early universe and creates a realm that is governed by its own (contingent) laws.
In such a world view an ontological novelty is possible. Something can happen that contradicts every prediction and orders the world in a completely new way.
There are some questions concerning Meillassoux’s approach. For example he sees time as linear and – I think – his argument collapses if you work with another concept of time. But that doesn’t mean that the problems he tackles aren’t real problems. There is a debate in finance and risk management where his problems protrude.[iii]
In 2007 Nassim Taleb published a book called The Black Swan. The Impact of Highly Improbable. The title refers also to Hume’s problem. Part of Hume’s problem is concerned with induction. Induction is a method of reasoning that considers many similar cases and creates a law. The famous example is: You see a swan and it is white. You then research swans and every swan you see is white. Therefore you conclude that every swan anyone will ever see is white. The problem that arises is: How can you exclude that someone will see a black swan? With the method of reasoning you can’t. After Hume people therefore called induction truth extending (in contrast deduction – the method of applying a rule to a case – is called truth preserving). This is the reason Taleb called his book Black Swan.
Taleb realizes that our model – especially financial models – are concerned with probability. In probability you consider cases that could happen and you try to figure out which cases are likely or not likely to happen. There are cases that are improbable and people often regard these cases therefore unlikely. But what if such a case happens. In many areas – e.g. risk management and finance – this kind of reasoning that excludes the improbable can lead to desastrous effects.
Elie Ayache – like Taleb working in finance – wrote a reaction with the title The Blank Swan. The End of Probability. The main theses is: If we construct probabilities, we choose events that can happen. But what about events that we don’t or even can’t know that they will happen. Therefore his title Blank Swan. The swan we never could have known it will be there. Ayache is in many respects interesting: He explicitly refers to philosopher who try to think novelty. Meillassoux and Alain Badiou have a very prominent place inside his book.
These examples show that outside of philosophy these are real problems: Financial modelling based on probabilities and a disregard of novelties is problematic. And a lot of other fields who work with probabilities – e.g. risk management – get into similar problems.
The two positions of determinism and speculative materialism showed two poles of thinking. The importance of the consequences in many areas I tried to delineate here. Now I want to think about their connection to culture.
Ontological and Epistemological Novelties
Modernism can be compared to Meillassoux’s position. They strive for the invention or discovery of novelties, to restructure and rethink their circumstances. Connecting the different lines of thought one can push this further. Meillassoux and other philosophers like Badiou try to work out a framework that is able to think novelties. With Ayache one can see why it is worth paying attention to such theories. Probablity and the way we structure our world around it is problematic. Mark Fisher shows us that it is possible to create a cultural atmosphere where we aren’t stuck in recombinations of the same and that this doesn’t have to stay in the complacent atmosphere of art schools. It can be popular and used to (re)think the politics and culture of a time.
On this point it is worth paying attention to a difference in two forms of novelty: On the one side we have Meillassoux’s ontological novelty, but there is also a novelty from the standpoint of individual and cultural knowledge – that can be called epistemological novelty. Many of the novelties in culture are epistemological novelties and Meillassoux’s examples like the emergence of life are extremes.
Nonetheless I think that non-epistemic cultural novelties are possible. For example there is an artform called live-coding. Live-coding artists use programs for audiosynthesis (a very famous one is supercollider, but there are many more) where they code live a piece of music (and sometimes visuals). The algorithmic nature of this artform allows artists to create new beats based on mathematical and algorithmic theory. Some results can imho be called novel. If one listens to Renick Bell’s album Turning Points one can get an idea of these new soundscapes and rythms. Algoraves – an often used name for live-coding events – are places where musical novelties are created and can be experienced. It is ontologically new because it couldn’t be perceived or thought of 100 years ago. This enables this music to generate the effect Bluemink in his first article called – with reference to Mark Fisher – Future Shock.
But epistemic novelties shouldn’t be played down. Khyam Allami published a great article in which he explained that besides the western equal tempered system there are a lot of other tuning systems throughout history. Instruments, music programs and therefore music made with it is too often only based on equal temperament. This is one of the many reasons western pop music often sounds very similar today. Opening up the possibilities to other – non western – music systems allows musicians to explore other sounds. This is of course no ontological novelty because the systems are often very old. But I think there is a lot of importance on the epistemological level. Experiencing different tunings and more different music broadens a cultural horizon as well as the possibilities about what music can do. Too many western modern art is based on the assumption that tonal music has reached its limits. Openness to microtonality shows that this limit is based on a certain understanding of tuning.
To summarize so far: Philosophy offers approaches that are able to think ontological novelties. Ontological novelties are important to engage and rethink changes. Epistemic novelties are important as well, because they allow us to broaden our mind and think from different perspectives. A culture that is able to deliver this can be called popular modernism. But Fisher talked about the death of popular modernism. If it is lost, what relevance has it and how could it even vanish?
How to create a popular (neo-)modernism?
In my opinion the idea of a popular modernism has vanished, but – as the anti-hauntology debate shows – has potential for a return. The main tenets of popular modernism for me are a cultural atmosphere that is open to epistemic as well as ontological novelties. A cultural landscape not limited by deterministic or postmodern concepts of politics and culture. This is an approach that has as a goal not a stagnating culture, but an ever changing one.
Above points should made clear that such a goal is many respects worthwhile. We open our minds to the unpredictable and to different perspectives. It is important that in the anti-hauntology debate black, queer, trans and female artists are often prominent. This shows that there are different perspectives on culture and gender that are important to incorporate into a popular sphere. This can raise awareness. The artists featured – like SOPHIE or FKA Twigs – go often beyond classic conceptions of music and genre – enabling us to listen to new sounds.
The examples above can also be used to argue against a position that Alex Williams as well as Mark Fisher expressed: resource depletion. This position may have been an appropriate view from the late 00s. But we now see a lot of possibilities to transform music, to integrate programs and tools to go beyond the current listening habits. The technological resources are not depleted.
But this is not enough as the term popular modernism includes popular and as Matt Colquhoun wrote: ‘This is to say that I’d rather SOPHIE hadn’t produced a song for Madonna. I’d rather she was Madonna — a Madonna for now.’ Therefore we have not only to look for fantastic artists, or new ways of creating music, but we also should raise the question why such artists are marginalized and not prominent parts of popular culture. This should not only lead to an analysis of the content of this music, but we have to rethink how culture and music is embedded in society. Important questions that I cannot profoundly answer here and only sketch.
The historical point I sketched at the beginning is important. While the UK (and other countries) had a flourishing modern popular culture, this has vanished. Music is often ossified into genres that rarely develop and exist only in niches. To reach the goal of a new popular modernism one has to understand the mechanisms of media, politics, economics, work-ethic, infrastructure (e.g. clubs and platforms) and a lot more. Mark Fisher asked a lot of important questions and his posts on lost futures are not only concerned with contents. He tries to understand a cultural psyche, political agendas and then emerging technologies. In a dialogue with music journalist Simon Reynolds Fisher said:
‘[T]he changes that you can hear now are not massive rushes of the future, but tiny incremental shifts. That deceleration has brought with it a sense of massively diminished expectations, which no amount of tepid boosterism can cover over.’
Fisher here declares (in 2010) that there are novelties, but they lack a broad impact, an effective change and a new vision. Later in the interview he says:
‘There’s no sense of the new anywhere now. And that’s a political and a technological issue, not a problem that’s just internal to music.’
This is exactly the point I tried to make above. The new should be something that influences many people and not only a few intellectuals who like strange music. This novelty is still missing in popular culture and needs a political vision that can change the direction to a future that is not only imagined, but reached. To use a phrase from Fisher: “Not failing better, but fighting to win.”
The novelties are needed in infrastructures as well as the content. Fisher highlights this in regard to Reynold’s understanding of the Hardcore Continuum (HCC):
‘Evidently, a large part of the importance of Simon’s discussion of the HCC was the identification of the music’s dependence upon “a certain social, technological, and distributive network”; in a sense, the HCC just is that network. So I fully accept that the problems are down to resource depletion rather than a new generation getting slack or losing its appetite for the new. Insofar as these phenomena are in place, they are symptoms of this exhaustion more than its cause. (Of course, they then go on to further reinforce the condition that gave rise to them in the first place, in a vicious spiral characteristic of postmodern reflexive impotence.)’
Even if there is no resource depletion per se in technology, there are still problems in the social and distributive network. The main resource depletion can be found in the whole network of problems concerning the reception of music: from our mode of consumption, the role it plays in our everyday activities (e.g. Fisher writes: ‘The use of headphones is significant here – Pop is experienced not as something which could have impacts upon public space, but as a retreat into private OedIpod consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.’) and how this is framed by platforms such as Spotify and the clubs and institutions that allow people to experience music collectively.
Alex Williams as well as Fisher ask the question of which strategies are necessary and enable us to break out of current constraints of culture and politics. Accelerationism can – especially when it is understood as a politique du pire or associated only with neoreactionist thinking – be a problematic word. The above mentioned problems of the inherent metaphor can be added. Williams’ suggestion to use neomodernism is useful. It allows to refer to a culture that was able to imagine radically different futures and works towards them. The prefix neo- uncouples it from an historic understanding as an era. It can be used to explain the difference between the 70s Fisher often talks about and a possible future. Popular (neo-)modernism is not a return to the 70s. It is looking for a never achieved future, that looks different from the 2020s than from the 1970s. But in the end it doesn’t matter if you call it anti-hauntology, accelerationism or popular (neo-)modernism. If the word accelerationism triggers people to look into the debate of the 2000s and if anti-hauntology helps questioning nostalgia, they can be used working towards another future. With popular (neo-)modernism I want to highlight the problems of cultural infrastructure and allude to the Fisher/Williams debate, whose importance cannot be understated. I’m not arguing against Bluemink or Colquhoun. I want to think with them which strategies and shifts are needed to exit the postmodern paradigm. Popular (neo-)modernism is an attempt to outline a goal. Problems besides the music itself are deep-rooted and I only hinted at a few of them. Strategies besides experimentation in styles and content are needed – and maybe Colquhoun’s suggestion to revive accelerationism as a debate around strategies for an exit is what is needed.
Finally my concept of popular (neo-)modernism should embrace an important aspect of Fisher’s original idea of popular modernism: institutions. Fisher highlights that the culture of the 70s as well as the electronic music in the 90s – sometimes summarized as Hardcore Continuum – consisted of institutions and networks. Rethinking why these institutions and networks failed and vanished is important. We shouldn’t rebuild the old institutions, but learn from them to build new institutions and networks that don’t exist solely in niches, but are embedded in society and able to transform it.
Even if I only scratched on the surface of some problems, I hope I could clarify the notion of novelty and why it matters; how philosophical, political and cultural debates are interconnected; and why a renewal of popular modernism, a popular neomodernism, is a goal worth fighting for and not only reached via some new sounds.
[i] https://vimeo.com/86089408 Williams’ talk starts ~30 min. The relevant passage where he talks about the problem of the term accelerationism and his alternative terms promethianism and neomodernism starts ~43 min. Later in the talk he still somehow defends the term. One year later Williams – together with Nick Srnicek – published the book Inventing the Future. Here they write:
‘We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has arisen around the concept, rather than from any abdication from its tenets as we understand them.’ (in the 1st edition p. 189)
[ii] His approach is mainly explained in his book After Finitude. A shorter very good paper that explains the tenets of his approach is Metaphysics, Speculation, Correlation in Pli 22 (https://plijournal.com/volumes/22/).
[iii] A really good and short overview of the debate can be found in Ayache’s contribution to The Medium of Contingency.