Steve Redhead

Steve Redhead

Steve Redhead is Professor of Cultural Studies in the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Law at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia.

Saturday, 17 September 2016 14:06

Modern Banality: Post-GFC, Post-Brexit and Post-Trump

Published in Cultural Theory

Professor Steve Redhead suggests the continuing relevance of Jean Baudrillard's post-political spirit.

Why are we where we, are post-GFC, post-Brexit and (maybe) post-Trump? Banality rules but Theory beckons. We certainly live, interestingly, in theoretical times. Previously we lived, theoretically, in interesting times. Study on the left globally has attached itself to ‘theory’ and ‘theorists’ as never before. And ‘high theory’ at that. But there has also been a delve into ‘the popular’ of culture as never before, too – both high and low popular culture. The celebrity intellectual culture which has developed inexorably over the past few years has produced open access online journals devoted to theorists such as Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard is one of the key theorists focused on, alongside Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Paul Virilio, in my forthcoming book entitled Theoretical Times partly being written through a website blog post, podcasts, vodcasts, tweets and various other social media. Baudrillard died in March 2007 from cancer but his work continues to be published a decade after his death. His posthumous publications have been very significant in shifting our long term view of Baudrillard - from a banal postmodern theorist to a global theorist with a mature system of thought which made sense of modern banality like no other. His most recent posthumous publication (in a new English translation) from the 1980s The Divine Left: A Chronicle of the Years 1977-1984 shines a light on the politics in France (and elsewhere) of the 1970s and early 1980s. Only French language versions existed in his lifetime. It fits in with his illuminating but misunderstood work of the time on what he called the silent majorities in books like In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities where he investigates the role of the masses in the ‘death of the social’.

The masses, he saw at an early stage of the proceedings which have evolved to the point where a Brexit could happen, banally just refused to play the game anymore. Anyone interested in why the Brexit vote occurred in June 2016 in the UK, or why Donald Trump defies electoral odds in the USA, or why Pauline Hanson’s right wing One Nation party can call for a Royal Commission into Islam in Australia would do well to go back to Baudrillard's texts from the early 1980s and explore notions of 'the divine left', ‘the death of the social’ and 'in the shadow of the silent majorities'. The chronicle of the years 1977-1984 in Baudrillard’s writings in The Divine Left show just how much things were changing in the years after punk culture took on the notion of modern power and how we have never really left the post-punk era.

But Baudrillard’s mature system of thought was already in train by the time the Sex Pistols, Clash, Slits and all emerged on the scene in 1976. By 1976 a key book in the Baudrillard oeuvre was written - namely Symbolic Exchange And Death. It was published in 1976 in French, but not really fully appreciated by English speaking readers until much later if at all. A 1993 English publication helped reorient somewhat but even today his work is thrown away into a dustbin labelled 'postmodernist'. Crucially, Symbolic Exchange And Death contained the theory of reversibility which would become so important to Baudrillard’s writing until his own death. As Sylvere Lotringer publisher of Semiotext(e) and long time friend of Baudrillard put it in the introduction to a posthumous Baudrillard book in 2010 called The Agony of Power 'reversibility is the form death takes in a symbolic exchange'. In 1976, the year zero of punk in global popular culture, punk cultural stirrings were embracing antecedents that Baudrillard shared – the pataphysics of Albert Jarry and Pere Ubu. In the mid-1970s a Cleveland punk band emerged with the name Pere Ubu to globally popularise the drama of writer Albert Jarry from the late nineteeth century which had so fascinated Baudrillard since the 1950s.

Baudrillard's first short book was on Jarry and Pataphysics. As popular music historian Clinton Heylin noted musician David Thomas in 1975 in Cleveland, Ohio named his band Pere Ubu after Albert Jarry’s caricature king because, to Thomas, it added a texture of absolute grotesqueness, a kind of darkness descending over everything which fitted the mid-1970s in America. When I was preparing my own book on the life and work of Baudrillard entitled The Jean Baudrillard Reader as Baudrillard lay dying in 2007, I never got the sense that he was aware of this pop culture connection. In his own lifetime, Baudrillard never declared any awareness of this popular music culture/Ubu connection, though he did once appear in a 'punk' costume of his own. He appeared in a gold lame jacket with mirrored lapels reading the text of his own self-penned 1980s poem 'Motel-Suicide', backed by a rock band at the Chance Event held at Whiskey Pete’s in Las Vegas in November 1996. The only surviving photo shows the short, balding, academic Baudrillard appearing as if he was auditioning for a place in a mid-late 1970s punk band and my publisher Edinburgh University Press duly used it as the cover shot for my book in 2008.

Nevertheless, Baudrillard’s attitude to power, law, culture, sovereignty and politics changed in this mid-1970s 'punk' period. The agony of power was as much about the power of agony. In his own agonising introduction to The Agony of Power Sylvere Lotringer claims powerfully, and in my view correctly, that Baudrillard’s two key ideas throughout his work were that, firstly, reality had disappeared and became replaced by simulacra and secondly that there was a potential symbolic challenge in this disappearance. This mid-1970s period is crucial for understanding Baudrillard’s work for the rest of his life, and especially its political implications for us today post-GFC and post-Brexit as we enter what Slavoj Zizek has hailed as a ‘new dark ages’ and ‘trouble in paradise’. What can be seen in hindsight as Jean Baudrillard’s 'post-punk' work is revealed in all its glory in The Agony of Power, a book praised from within by Sylvere Lotringer as nothing less than Baudrillard’s last'intellectual testament'.

Baudrillard’s posthumous The Agony of Power offers a different view of sovereignty and power from the classical legal conception of power often reproduced in major works of legal philosophy and sociology of law. Baudrillard’s perspective is a form of the 'patasociology' (echoing Albert Jarry's pataphysics) hailed by French theorist of 'the social' Jacques Donzelot who worked with Baudrillard at the University of Nanterre in France. Whilst there are many interesting books in the excellent Nomikoi Critical Legal Thinkers series produced by Routledge, the orthodoxy of the 'critical legal thinkers' chosen on law, politics and power contrasts strongly with Baudrillard’s radical late work on these issues underscored by his idea of integral reality and reversibility. There are books, so far, in the series on Law and Jacques Ranciere, Slavoj Zizek, Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Louis Althusser, Niklas Luhmann, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, amongst many others, but none yet on Jean Baudrillard.

In all this posthumous work, especially in The Agony of Power, Baudrillard offers up a unique theory of power incorporating what he calls 'a double refusal' by which he means the sovereign’s refusal to dominate as well as the subject’s refusal to be dominated. As he points out in another posthumous book Carnival and Cannibal in a passage repeated word for word from The Agony of Power (and partially extracted by Semiotext(e) as the quote on the back cover of The Agony of Power) the radicality of his thinking is in the argument that power itself has to be abolished. For Baudrillard 'it is power itself that has to be abolished – and not just in the refusal to be dominated, which is the essence of all traditional struggles, but equally and as violently in the refusal to dominate. For domination implies both these things, and if there were the same violence or energy in the refusal to dominate, we would long ago have stopped dreaming of revolution. And this tells us why intelligence cannot - and never will be able to – be in power: because it consists precisely in this twofold refusal'.

The refusal to dominate, or to exercise sovereign power, according to Sylvere Lotringer, seeking to illustrate Baudrillard’s theory at its most banal, can be seen in the agonies of those involved in the revolts of May 1968 or the activities of the self-proclaimed 'post-political' Italian Autonomists in the 1970s or the failure of the Communist Party and other parts of the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s in France. They were, in Baudrillard’s theory, according to Lotringer’s interpretation, less than confident in wanting to dominate – they agonised about power, in both their resistance to sovereignty and their unwillingness to become involved in its exercise. Indeed, as Baudrillard has written emphatically, 'power itself is an embarrassment and there is no one to assume it truly'. Although Baudrillard is no longer with us his post-political spirit lives on. There are lesson here for the politics of our own Theoretical Times.
When Pep Met Jose: From Northern Powerhouse to Northern Bauhaus
Wednesday, 31 August 2016 13:27

When Pep Met Jose: From Northern Powerhouse to Northern Bauhaus

Published in Sport

Professor Steve Redhead discusses the rivalry between Pep and Jose, the absurdities of the English Premier League, the popular culture of Manchester, Northern Powerhouse - and communist football.

Manchester is ‘buzzin’, as the locals would say. With the arrival this summer of the two best coaches in modern world football at Manchester City and Manchester United respectively a new global media circus narrative is being written. Manchester as Football City – Pep and Jose! Roll Up, Roll Up! Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho have met before as rivals in Spain with eye gouging and high drama on the daily agenda but I am starting to feel that we ain’t seen nothing yet. The new news story will be framed in terms of the persona of the coaches not the (mostly) overpaid prima donna footballers who rarely disturb their hair gel on the pitch and barely get out of second gear.

Now 24 years old and a great example of Eric Hobsbawm’s idea of invented tradition, the English Premier League (EPL) gets more bloated, surreal and absurd every year and yet its global reach continues apace. But maybe we are on the cusp of a reaction. I am an ex-pat Manchester City fan living in Australia these days but  for the first time since I emigrated in 2001 media company Fox has given up on the EPL and concentrated its money on the live broadcasting of all matches in the home grown product of Aussie Rules and Aussie rugby league. Anti-modern football with attitude is starting to pick up adherents all over the world as obscenely priced transfers, player and coach wages, boring styles of play, ticket pricing, policing, transport to away games, safe standing, match fixing, doping and governance have all become major issues for fans. Maybe we will get a future football which is what I have called a ‘dialectical game’ – modern football as thesis, anti-modern football as antithesis and future communist football as synthesis.

Manchester, as the post-industrial city is ripe for this dialectial game of football, so watch this space in the culture. Football and popular music have crossed over in Manchester for decades. Pop goes the City! The first interview done by Pep Guardiola when he arrived in Manchester was not with a sports journalist but with Oasis and High Flying Birds’ singer, songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher, an avid and knowledgeable City fan. The popular culture of Manchester as a whole is taking off but not necessarily in the way that David Cameron and George Osborne perceived it. The Tory buzzword for Northern cities like Manchester in the London-centric UK has for a few years now been Northern Powerhouse - a phrase cynically regarded by those who live in the North West especially when it comes from the mouth of an effete and cold hearted Tory Chancellor like Osborne. Since the Brexit debacle new Prime Minister Theresa May has signalled the end of the phrase, and the policy. From Cottonopolis to Northern Powerhouse? I don't think so. My more appropriate label is Northern Bauhaus and it can be sustained in an argument about the city's popular music history as well as its football history.

Post-war Manchester boasts a rich pop cultural tapestry (football, film, poetry, art, popular music, TV drama) which is unlikely ever to be repeated in intensity in one city anywhere else in the world. The late Tony Wilson always used to answer reporter’s questions about ‘why Manchester?’ with the rather glib point that ‘Manchester kids’ record collections were better’ although he was actually quoting someone else when he said that. Some more substantial factors behind the city’s popular music overdrive have also been offered. One of those reasons is the choice of recreational drugs. Since the 1950s dope and speed (marijuana and amphetamine), some of the cognoscenti argue, gave Manchester its specific globally mobile city culture even though in the mediatised public mind it is Ecstasy (MDMA) which stands out as the drug with which the city is associated for the brief ‘Madchester’ (‘Rave On’ as the Happy Mondays’ Wilson inspired EP had it) period in the late 1980s. 

My own personal biography as an academic in Cultural Studies and Criminology and a long time popular music fan throws a light on the argument about the significance of popular music in one city and the various Cultural Studies attempts to capture it. I wasn’t at the Lesser Free Trade Hall at either of the two now historic Sex Pistol appearances in summer 1976 but I do vividly remember walking nervously through Collyhurst to see punk bands, including The Slits and Buzzcocks, at the Electric Circus in May 1977 just as massive flares gave way to straight legs and long hair mutated into spikey. Many histories start on the edge of this change in Manchester music and wider youth culture – Tony Wilson himself, an undoubted influence on all that followed as co-owner of Factory records and the Hacienda, was still going to see local rock bands like Sad Café (with Paul Young, later of Mike and the Mechanics, on vocals) in this period even in the wake of the Sex Pistols and all that ‘gobbing on life’ as Manchester's Albertos sang it. Iconic Salford punk poet John Cooper Clarke was reading ‘Beasley Street’ in Cheshire folk clubs just to get heard. Solstice, a local (non-punk) rock band, played alongside the Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. They are still gigging, whereas the Sex Pistols imploded thirty years ago. And they don’t do butter commercials!

One contemporary way of understanding music cities is through ‘creative industries’ debates and their refraction in the history of Cultural Studies. Popular music is seen to be one of more than a dozen industries classified as creative industries and subject to ever changing local, national and international cultural policies. Always interested in intellectual life, however obliquely, Tony Wilson, after a while, cottoned on to these debates and briefly fell, until he died in 2007, for the ideas of one of the gurus, US management theorist Richard Florida, in the mid 2000s. The idea of ‘the creative class’ in Florida’s work helped to explain to Wilson what the previous anarchic thirty years had been about. And what the future might hold for his beloved Manchester and surrounding hinterland. For Wilson, young creatives, or creative entrepreneurs, abounded in the North West and he even went as far as to write a Florida-influenced report on the ‘post-industrial’ Pennine region and its creative potential.  ‘Please don’t think the idea of name-checking Richard Florida is redundant for poor old East Lancashire - artists are already moving to Bacup, and Ramsbottom is already a desirable suburb for young creatives in Manchester’, stated Tony Wilson at the time.

Even before this, in the early 2000s, Wilson had been an enthusiastic participant at the inaugural meeting in the city centre of The Independents, a group of Manchester-based small entrepreneurs (from stall holders to music label owners) inspired by the theories of creative industries and the knowledge economy by British writers like Charles Leadbeater and Kate Oakley. In 1992, ironically just before the bankruptcy of Factory in the November of that year, Tony Wilson joined the board of the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture (MIPC) which I had set up with my colleague Derek Wynne at Manchester Metropolitan University. In the next three years he gave his time freely to us despite the enormous impact of Factory’s financial troubles and was always keen to plug into the MIPC debates about what I have called over the years ‘mobile city cultures’, especially where popular music and Manchester were concerned. The notion of mobile city cultures explains the longevity of Manchester as a ‘music city’. Whereas most music cultures in second tier cities (Liverpool, Seattle, Dusseldorf, Dunedin) have, as Wilson himself noted, their ‘three years in the sun’, Manchester maintained its pole position for at least the period 1976-1996.

The fact that Quando Quango’s bass lines were picked up by black Chicago house musicians in the mid-1980s and then recycled back to Manchester on the dancefloor of the Hacienda is one example of mobile city cultures. A DAT (Digital Audio Tape) belonging to Manchester exile Pete Carroll (Shaun Ryder’s cousin) passing between Manchester and Perth in the late 1990s expanding the roster of Western Australian labels Offworld Sounds (OWS) and littleBIGMAN is another. Another explanation for Manchester music’s sustainability is, though, the anti-Factory thing. Factory wasn’t a major, it was an independent. But in the context of Manchester and the North West, Factory was as good as a major. Its very existence, as well as its dominance in the media, caused resentment locally and the small labels which popped up from time to time over the years (Dave Haslam and Nathan McGough’s Play Hard, Paula Greenwood’s Playtime, for instance) were formed in a counterculture ‘against’ the Factory line. ‘Outside’ influences were important, too, implicitly questioning the one dimensional Situationism of Factory and expanding the range and reach of what Manchester music meant.

Tony Wilson’s famous theory of ‘thirteen year’ cycles in popular music also had its genesis in Manchester music history. The theory went that The Beatles (who often played in Manc beat clubs) in 1963 represented one musical upheaval, punk in 1976 represented another and acid house in 1989 yet another. The second Summer of Love in 1988 slightly altered this historical sweep but you kinda knew what Wilson meant when he expounded the theory. I remember directly asking Tony Wilson in a Manchester hostelry in 2002 ‘well, it’s time, where is the next big thing?’ and being met by an exasperated splutter! It certainly didn’t occur in Wilson’s lifetime and maybe it just ain’t going to happen anyway, anywhere. For a while The Ting Tings, from Salford, Everything Everything and Bernard Sumner’s Bad Lieutenant post-New Order project were interesting foragers but hardly the revolution in popular music culture predicted by Wilson’s enchanting linear theory of cultural change. However, pop hope always springs eternal. The Tens (2010 onwards) began with a solid suggestion that bands like Delphic, whose first record Acolyte was released to critical acclaim as well as a second album in 2013, were in the vanguard of a new New Wave, their modernist fonts and single-word song-titles allowing Delphic to be sons and heirs of New Order, while their ravey bleeps and beats recalled the city’s role in the acid-house movement of the late 1980s.

Then in 2012 young Manchester filmmakers Serious Feather produced a ninety minute documentary film, entitled Manchester: Beyond Oasis, documenting, in a diverse coverage of forty bands and singers from Manchester currently playing, the vibrancy of a new era of the Pop City of Manchester. New New Order and Peter Hook’s The Light roared back with theor own projects which are still lighting up the whole world. The post-industrial Sharp Project (named after Sharp the electronics company on whose abandoned premises the project stands), a creative industries project par excellence including work space in shipping containers, sound stages and cutting edge technology, also began and started to grow.

Theresa May ditched Northern Powerhouse very quickly but that is a good thing in my view. We all need to reimagine the city and its culture in the new dark ages we are being plunged into. A different history of art, music, media, sport and left politics beckons and gives a better explanation and hope for cities in the UK and elsewhere for a post-Global Financial Crisis future. Northern Bauhaus has a good ring about it, don't you think?