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<nettime> Interview with Kodwo Eshun
geert lovink on 25 Jul 2000 14:07:03 -0000


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<nettime> Interview with Kodwo Eshun


First published in the Online Magazine Telepolis:
http://www.heise.de/tp/english/inhalt/co/6902/1.html
German translation: http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/special/med/6901/1.html

"Everything was to be done. All the adventures are still there."
A Speculative Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun
By Geert

Reading Kodwo Eshun's sonic fiction debut "More brilliant than the sun" is a
hallucinating, addictive experience. For months, I carried this theory bible
on me, inhaling sentence after sentence. As a DJ and music critic, Eshun
speaks in record tracks. Sitting on the oblique, waving designer floor of
Rotterdam's V2 medialab, the following dialogue did not focus on Eshun's
thesis of electronic black music as science fiction. Rather, we were
investigating the genre of speculative thought. My experiences with this
particular text mode as a member of the Foundation for the Advancement of
Illegal Knowledge (adilkno/bilwet) had shown how bewildering yet
invigorating it is to go beyond fixed definitions and interpretations.
Ignore the academic mind police, journalistic codes and the postmodern
Zeitgeist. Concepts can freely and very precisely be pushed, streched,
reversed, blurred, recombined, negated, mutated. What are the rules of the
intensive textual explorations? Certainly not all bids are succesful. Theory
craze can turn into paranoia, disgust, intellectual exhaustion. It is
possible to misread the signs of the time in search of the right mix of
cultural artifacts and turn cynical as a misunderstood genius. One gets
easily lost on the wide planes of immanence. Obviously, a brilliant concept
can as well turn you into a millionaire, pop star, or at least a celebrity
inventor.

For a while speculative thought and the rise of new media had been a
productive couple. In September 1999, when this interview with recorded, I
felt that this historial situation, the "short summer of the Internet", had
already come to a close. Kodwo Eshun's golden days of techno, drum 'n' bass,
drugs and psychedelic theory, Deleuze and Guattari and cybernetics must have
been revealed to him around that same periode, in the mid-to late nineties.
Kodwo was still under the spell of it. We both felt that the primal energy
was there. One just has to tap into it, no matter what the historial weather
forecast said. To me, negative thinking and speculative thought were allies.
The "alien" pole and engagement of the critic in the everyday both move away
from the ritualized phrases of today's advertisement and PR discourse.
Speculative thought heads way beyond today's visionary - and is much more
risky. Rather than than promoting linear growth scenarios, radical models
for unlikely futures are being assembled. The game with ideas is all yours.
But what are its rules?

GL: Where in your biography would you trace the origins of speculative
thought?

KE: One of the key inputs is McLuhan. There is an interview he gave in 1968
called "Hot and Cool". Here I realized that McLuhan had anticipated my
project. He was saying that the extraction of concepts from any field
demands that these concepts be used as probes in order to get into a
possibility space. Not to contextualize and historisize, tracing the
archeology of concepts, where they come from, which is what academics are
trained to do. Often it helps if the concept is quite empty. McLuhan was
really fascinated by this.

It works well with science fiction, specifically J.G. Ballard. Science
fiction as theory on fast forward. In Ballard's theory fiction, especially
his "Atrocity Exhibition" in 1970, and "Myths of the Near Future", his
trilogy "Crash", "Concrete Islands" and "High Rise" and in lots of his
essays you have a particular obsessive figure who is trying to work out and
stage a particular project: WW III, or the assassination of JFK and Malcolm
X all over again. In order to do that they are forced to go out and
construct a theory kit. Take for example a painting of Max Ernst, which will
then have an aggressively speculative meaning and function, which will then
lead you into a new space time. On the other side you have the scientist,
who using speculative analysis to understand the anti-hero's speculative
projects. Here we have two levels of speculation, embedded inside fiction.
The other thing is that Ballard is doing a science fiction of the next
minutes. He drops away the Star Wars space opera, with its galactic and
robotic elements. What you are left with is a science fiction of nine
minutes from now, the technology of plastics, the pill. He is drawing a
zodiac of the present.

We have the following: speculative theory embedded in science fiction,
science fiction re-interpreted as an analysis of the ongoing present. Add
that to McLuhan's idea of extracting concepts and using them as probes to
get to somewhere new. Once I had found these aspects I became more conscious
in applying them to sonic concepts which composers and musicians would
adopt. Often they would not make programmatic statements. The concepts would
rather be buried in track titles or within an album cover. You would be able
to see it, but they would be compressed, abbreviated, and I wanted to
unstuff them.

One of the key elements I took from Deleuze and Guattari's "Mille Plateaux"
was that philosophy should be reconstituted as concept manufacture.
Philosophy - Heidegger, Hegel, Merleau Ponty, Lacan - always gave me a
headache because it was imponderable. Content manufacture made it more like
being an electrician of thinking, trying to find circuit diagrams of the
present. D&G were so brilliant when they said: we can't help it if Proust
tells us as much how space time works as Einstein does. We can't help it if
Henry Miller tell us as much about desire works as Freud does. The theory
fiction border is utterly permutable.

These ideas came to me in 1994-96, when I met Nick Land, Sadie Plant, and
her PhD students Mark Fisher, Steve Goodman, Suzanne Livingston at Warwick's
Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. We were all working on the same thing, the
permeable membrane between certain concepts, embedded in science fiction,
wanting to radicalize certain aspects of Harraway's Cyborg Manifesto. We got
a particular boost from music. Sonically, drum 'n' bass meant that we left
the song far behind. There was new music coming out every week and this
obliged you to come up with a conceptual apparatus which was totally
post-human.

We were fascinated by the way in which rhythm had taken over. In the sixties
it was the guitarist who was the lead figure. In the seventies it was the
synthesist. And in the nineties it was the drummer. If you imagine a sonic
triangle, with the singer in front, with guitarist and dummer on each
corner. In the nineties the dummer had move to the front, and both the
singer and guitarist had gone. It was not even a human drummer. It was the
evolution of rhythm as information, from the drum kit, to the sampler, to
the virtual studio, going from a mechanization to a virtualization  and
complexification of rhythm. This meant that we could break with the tendency
within experimental music, where the further you would get into it, the
rhythm would drop away, rewritten into ambience and timbre. Listening to
drum 'n'bass meant that it would not necessarily be that way. Rather the
other way: you would go further into hyper rhythm. Once we did that it gave
us the confidence to use twentieth century sonic concepts, use Stockhausen
and Cage and reject their conclusion. Drum 'n' bass was using so much
remixology. Key drum 'n' bass tracks were often remixes of previous tracks.
All around us people were so sober, so heavy and moral, which used to
depress us. We found that we could use all this material as speculative
playground and have an adventure of concepts.

I was really pleased to find an old essay by Sylvere Lothringer which
explained how they wanted people to use Semiotexte books for speculative
acceleration. Instead, people started using these text to prove their moral
superiority, saying "You are wrong, you have misunderstood Foucault." They
used theory for prestige, to block speculation. That is why so many artists
used to resent theory. You would get these lame pieces, somebody trying to
apply Heidegger to Parliament-Funkadelic because they had seen the word
"ontology" on a cover, instead of taking Parliament to read Heidegger. They
always did it the other way round. Theory wasn't being used to pluralize, to
see that there was theory everywhere you looked, and everywhere you
listened.

When painters paint, they are theorizing immanently in the field of paint.
Sonically, when you compose, you are theorizing tonally. That was a key
breakthrough. When I wrote my book it did not have to be historical. It
could be a sonology of history, it did not have to be contextualization of
sound. It could be an audio-social analysis of particular vectors. Sound
could  become the generative principle, could be cosmo-genetic, generate its
own life forms, its own worldview, its own world audition. That's still the
key break between my book and most cultural studies analyses. They still
have not understood that sonology is generative in and of itself. Like every
field is. Every material force can generate its own form.

I was really inspired by the Futurists and Marinetti. For ten years I only
read critiques of the Futurists, saying they were fascists. In fact, they
were the first media theorists of the twentieth century. They were amazed by
X-rays, by artificial light and lamps, out in the street, by new camera's
and photography. They just wanted to explore how new technologies broke up
the solidity of the organism and involved lines of force. Futurism,
supremacism and constructivism were the science-fiction of the first machine
age. The fantastic adventures of the early modernists, from Tatlin to
Malevich. Machines, media and art thinking were one and the same. Some
artists are just extremely good theorists. Still hard to find, this
material. Go and look for the essays of El Lissitsky. The same counts for
the speculative writings of the photographers Robert Smithson and Gordon
Matta-Clark. I realized that Barthes never had an academic degree. And why
McLuhan used to structure his ideas with number or the alphabet, not be
bored to death by the academic obligation to seriousness.

GL: Speculative acceleration, in my experience, can go two ways. The one is
going further and further into innerspace, exploring the spaces within
spaces. Opposite to this movement is a speculative thought which wants to go
out, towards the utopian, the Alien.

KE: The first move towards innerspace is the microscopic analysis. It scales
right down from the imaginary sound worlds that a record generates in your
head towards particular figures within that world. If you talk to people,
this is what they are really fascinated by. The sense that all these sonic
life forms are crossing from the world of the records into the world of your
head. When you put on headphones the functional expansion of your listen
capacity your brain grows to the seize of the universe. R Murray Schaefer,
the inventor of terms such as soundscape and schizophonics, talks about
headphones as a headspace which is not geographical but expansive. Both
moves--towards the inside and outside--are endless.

The drive towards the utopian and the alien works really strongly. I wanted
to break with the compulsory pessimism at the time. During my cultural
studies period I used to work on authors such as Franz Fanon, Edward Said,
Homi Bhabha. The premis was: because social relations in capitalism are
bleak this sets the parameters of our thought. I did not see why this was
the case. I felt all thought was being hemmed in, and locked, at certain
point. It allowed a fatalism, where the more blocked and frustrated the
thought was, the more there was some strange kind of dignity. There was this
nobility in pessimism and failure. Then I read D&Gs "Anti-Oedipus", and
Foucault who said: "Do not think you have to be sad in order to militant."

GL: At what point do you think a concept can hit reality and be transformed
into material practice? Speculative thought can easily drift away and become
irrelevant. I find it fascinating,  almost addictive, to see concepts being
implemented into software, network architectures, artworks, living
discourses. How do you think it is possible, to get from the level of the
individual author, like you and me, onto a level of more complex
organization, to jump from individual subjectivity to a level where
discourse gets materialized and hardwired, where it gets witten into
software and networks?

KE: Once I left Warwick University I went abroad, to Vienna in 1996, meeting
Berlin people, Paul D. Miller in New York, reading Erik Davis from the
westcoast, getting in contact with Nomadsland magazine from Paris, I
realized that there are several people with a similar structural position,
who had left academia, infiltrating pop cultural spaces. They did not
footnote their work and refused to contextualize their work. I wasn't alone.
There were sectors in every city who were moving along similar tendencies.

GL: We believe that theory can explore unknown land and does not have to
reduce its task to recite other people's work. It has a certain avant-garde
position in it, a sense of anticipation. I do not feel ashamed by this,
despite all the criticisms and the fact that the avant-garde has been
declared dead at so many occasions.

KE: I have given up listening to people saying all adventures are over, all
heroism is done, we are all born too late and have got no options but to sit
around and recombine the forms of other, greater people than we are. How
many years I have heard this? The grand narratives are all done. There is
nothing left to do. It is always told in our own good fortune. Once I
started meeting Sadie Plant and Nic Land at CCRU I realized
this wasn't at all the case. Everything was to be done. All the adventures
are still there.
Sadie Plant's "Zeros and Ones" is a heroic book with a massive scope. It
crossed centuries, it generalizes wildly, it is rigorous, but it is also
gigantic. Sadie rejects all metaphors, nothing is like. Everything is scale,
can be on the one hand microscopic, and totally macro as well. Everything
can be molecular and molar.

I felt I was on the same side with all these people who have a common enemy
in the delibidinizers, the boring critics who take a sonic event and drain
it, for example by reducing the music to the social crowds it attracts. Fat
Boy Slim thus becomes students' music. Instead we should see a formal
analysis as a first stage of  rethinking the social. Phase one was
criticizing everything. Phase two was writing, being the hermit. Hiding
away, refusing the phone calls, the trips, the jobs. Phase three is now,
travelling, the network, when you realize that a book will never bring you
any money. It is all about the communication vectors which a book makes
possible. My next book will be an afro-futurist anthology with a historical
section, with Samuel Buttler (The Book of the Machines) to McLuhan and some
of the composers. The second part will start with David Toop and Greg Tate
and will travel through Belgium, Germany and France, Holland, the east- and
westcoast. It will show the spread of concepts, the linking of science
fiction and sound, sonic fiction. Afro-futurism as a transversal tendency
running through popular culture, acting to destabilize what people thought
black identity was, what pop identity and culture identity were. There was
not only a compulsory pessimism in theory when I started. There was also a
compulsory ghetto-centricity of black popular culture. Always this
hermeneutics of the street.

GL: The identification of, let's say, German kids with gangsta rap has
proven to be a trap.

KE: We could reject this and travel on totally different vectors. I wanted
to make what started in Sun Ra as a vector. It was important to destroy the
previous, like all avant-garde does and to move forward where black identity
is intermittent and hazy, often non existent, nullified. This led me towards
Identity as intermittent fluctuation, the epiphenomenon of convergent
processes in the body. Identity and consciousness aren't top-down.
Artificial intelligence always started with modeling the world. Artificial
life instead started from local tendencies, like a small muscle, and several
of them combined together make the intelligence of the leg. Identity only
arrives later, as communication amongst motor systems. In this way you can
get away for the centralized approach which is only crippling and just leads
to dead ends. This is where robotics becomes so fascinating. If you see a
Hollywood film from the forties, the only role an Afro-American would have
is that of an elevator person, the servant. Then read Norbert Wiener from
the same period, saying that robots are the precise automatic equivalent of
slave labor. Then I realized why all these voices in machines are women's
voices, because women used to do all these jobs. I really like Sadie Plant's
parallel of women and machines. The rise of automated systems frees women
from these drugged roles.

GL: Instead of the writer offering some form of compensation, leaning
towards a humanist position, and make sense of the world as it self, theory
should try to imagine the impossible and transcend from the world of
possible connections. Do you think this is favorable option?

KE: Ballard said that the writer should access inconceivable alienations.
People do not know what they want until they are presented with it. Nobody
knows what they desire. There is a machine, but it takes the form of book.
You know books are boring. Still, when you open my book it says at the top:
"Discontents". The writer is admitting right upfront his irritation,
impatience and restlessness.

GL: I have experienced cycles in speculative thought,  of discovery and
excitement, travelling further and further, until you reach a  moment of
realization (or not). The concept then dies, fades away, loses its magic,
and start to feel worn out. In certain cases, speculative thought is being
developed in complete isolation. It is even likely that these journeys
towards the end of theory are undertaken in uncontemporary circumstances. Th
ough the hermit position is not always a voluntarily one. Forms of criticism
which are engaging, searching for new languages and aesthetics, could be a
way out. In your experience, how are speculation and criticism related?

KE: Everywhere around you, the death of critique becomes visible. But
critique and criticism are not the same. In my case I started to connect
music with art and science fiction. Then you start realizing they are
already connected and social disciplinary apparatuses are at work to
separate them. Once you see that they are connected, the effort stops to
bridge them. You stop being reactive. It turns around. That's when scale
becomes more important than analogy or metaphor. You start thinking how
across scale and materials general processes emerge which you can see and
follow. That's when cybernetics start to become more important. You want to
be specific generalist. At a certain point you want to be maximalist. Think
of that strange rectangular material in a recent work of the Berlin company
Art&Com. Or the typographer David Carson with his giant word objects, which
has these twisting 3D forms. I also like the hyper architecture of Lars
Spuybroek with its non-Euclidean geometry. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
is only a start. In ten years more and more things will use spine vectors.
That is why the futurists and constructivists are so useful. They tried to
extend the immanent processes which their medium suggested to them, which
was coined at a moment of extreme mutation. The digital artists I worked
with, all try to understand the psycho-geography and what computer networks
are doing to location, topology and place. Where they are when they are
on-line and what happens when they go off-line.

GL: That's when concepts start to become functionality and are not just
anymore idea, ideology or fashion.

KE: I started noticing how many neologisms were used in hyper architecture.
I counted so many of them! All these architects were obliged to introduce
neologisms, to carve out this space they are working in. William Gibson's
idea that neologism is the primal act of pop poetics. It is the fist phase
of concept manufacture, which depends on immanent analysis of the forms of
the medium you are in. Since this medium is the process of extreme change,
this puts pressure on your language. I love the idea that digitization does
not stop at the screen. Concept manufacture on the one hand is an indulgence
of the intellect, on the other an absolute necessity. Everything is being
digitally mutated. And all the descriptions are obliged to change as well.

GL: Let us look a bit closer at the moment where concepts, distracted from
the speculative mind are out,  and get transformed due to exposure to the
outside. Now in my view some for these transformations are successful,
whereas others fail. Like what you said during the talk you gave, here in
V2: men find it more difficult to transform compared to women. Could we say
the same about the art of metamorphosis onto higher cyborgian stages? Could
we speak of failed transformations and successful attempts to become
cyborgs?

KE: One is always inside mutation and certain ways of understanding are more
useful than others. In the world of music the mutation has now moved in R&B
and garage. A lot of ideas which were useful in jungle are of no use
anymore. That is why in the talk I gave here I used terms I would never have
used two or three years ago: intimacy and love. That is, intimacy inside the
machine. Now all the energy in pop culture has moved there. That is the risk
of the new. I would not say failure. It is more liveliness. Concepts which
take the temperature of thought, and those which lag behind processes. New
music demands new immanent analysis. Concepts have to live as much as the
culture they are accelerating, or complicating. I would not say that have to
be in a state of permanent revolution. Not failure or success. It is more
rates of quickness and intensification. You want concepts to amplify states
of mind, mood vectors. Opening up a possibility space which music suggests
but never explicates.

Dance music is so covert. Everything is so buried in the song. If you make
an interview with musicians they won't tell you anything. They will speak
about their personality and keep the sound world totally mysterious. Pop
music is a public secrecy. This is opposite to the world of classical music
where they will tell you everything about the music, its structure, and tell
you nothing about themselves.

GL: There are experiments with Internet radio. MP3 suddenly became big.
These developments tend to focus on distribution, not on production. How
could we imagine networked music? Most musicians, in my view, still work
under the conditions of Bach and Mozart. They act like the individual
genius, compose a work offline and then dump it online, if they use Internet
at all. Can we envision a production of music which is situated within
computer networks?

KE: This is all true. Say, you go to an MP3 site and there are between
3000-8000 tracks, sitting there to be accessed. The question then becomes
which site attracts you, draws you. So far MP3 is only threatening the
middle range apparatus of the music industry. You can now have websites
which act as virtual record labels and virtual studios, an entire strata of
musical structures. It has not happened so far that the network is seen as
the starting point of music. Even on the Net it is mainly Sony and other big
record companies you hear about. It is only when their bulk starts to become
a problem, and their massiveness turns into a flaw that the micro sites of
post-media initiatives will start to appear on the radar. So far nobody
knows they are there, until you are there, with them. What is disappointing
to me about net.radio is that its sonic artifacts are not more radical than
the music generated off-line. That is why I do touch the MP3 topic. Instead
I would rather focus on something like Earshot (www.deepdisc.com/earshot),
which is simultaneously a search engine and an audio interface, combing the
sound files the search engine pulls down.

GL: Apart from MP3 databases, there are free radios and webmasters jamming
together and clubs connecting other clubs. What do expect from these online
events?

KE: Can you download the parameters of emotion and affect that make a club?
It is the sound of music travelling through bodies, the entire affective
convergence which makes a club. There was an event I went to in 1996,
Digital Diaspora, with Scanner in the ICA in London and DJ Spooky at The
Kitchen in New York.

GL: But that's already much too public. The pressure of representation in
such a setting is huge. I think such linkages can only succeed in an
informal atmosphere of freedom and relaxation. We have the technology now to
cut out mediators such as record labels, shops and magazines and get in
direct contact with each other, on a global level. Mediation is becoming a
distraction, dominated by large, controlled portals which will try to
monopolize live events.

KE: You could be right. The failure of linked project so far has been that
things happen on a screen and then everybody is watching them. At some stage
we will get music that amplifies the sound of the network. Soon we will
witness the birth of an immanent Net sound which is produced and distributed
within the networks. I got online only in 1998 and I turned this lateness
into my advantage. Old media love the backlash of the Internet which is
happening at the moment. Everybody gets caught in this fascination for
rejection of no more online, back to the street, to drugs and sex. Under the
radar of this fascination a net-based music culture could come into
existence. Both the doom and boom aspect of the Net are over. Once they both
collapse you get something else. Still, I feel this the lack because it is
still not there yet. Net theorists are hoping too much for something to come
out of MP3, but nothing is happening. Sonic evolutions happen when people
give up on things. It is when you give up on breakbeats, that's when drum 'n
' bass happens and nobody notices it. Hiphop is dead. That is when you get
extreme mutations.

GL: As a newcomer, what do you think of Internet criticism and media theory,
all the work which is done outside of academia?

KE: I like the fluctuating bits, where theory loses its authority,
deauthorizes itself and starts to become a babelogue. The Babel moment
Pattie Smith used to talk about. Rigorous polylogues and all mashed, that is
what networked thinking looks like. That's  what the readme! anthology of
nettime looks like. Crosstown traffic of tones and registers. The next stage
could be aphorisms, slogans and instructions. What D&G said: write with
slogans. The best of Nietzsche has that. They make you feel brave and
heroic. My book was rewritten eleven times, staying offline, making the text
more clear, more compressed. If I would think of an online hypertext
continuation, I would work with margins, extended footnotes, other text
levels. On the other side, one of the worst books ever written is
"Imagologies" by Taylor and Saarinen. The level of media theory is so banal,
yet the design was so high level. I like the slim book of Lars Spuybroek,
Deep Surface. There is lots more to be done yet. The format of the book can
be reconfigured in a much stronger way.

GL: Is there any future for the cultural industries, cultural studies and
pop in the UK under the third way regime of Blair?

EK: The convergence of pop and the Blair administration allowed traditional,
old media back in. The Dome functions here as an attractor, from Britpop to
cultural studies. Well known fashion designers certainly play a role it. On
the other hand, there is fashion nowadays which operates at a conceptual
level and barely sells anything, such as Vexed Generation from London. For
the first time there are fashion theories. I liked the remarks of Bruce
Sterling at the end of "readme!" where he says that there will be this
demand for new content in the next years to come. The Dome is a wonderful
container for all these people, walking around from exhibit to exhibit,
showing each other how brilliant they are, captivated by their own
excellence. They can stay there, casting a shadow over themselves. This
leaves the rest of us quite free to do everything else. Britpop, Demien
Hirst and Blair, that's what they think the nineties was all about. Not
Sadie Plant. Mutual flattery in the media really works and the Dome is the
symbol of this mirror world. It is Debordian spectacle to the max. Some will
always carry the Dome around with them. The Berlin Wall came down, but the
Wall was still in people's heads for another decade. You can never knock it
down, it is stronger than ever. The Dome will be like that for a certain
industry. It is not a visionary exhibition like the 1939 World Expo. There
will be no spin-off products. Its only result will be a self-satisfied
containment of culture.

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