Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Knowledge interview from earlier in the year about the hardcore continuum with me plus Martin 'Blackdown' Clark, Gabriel 'Heatwave' Myddleton and MC Sway

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

RENEGADE ACADEMIA: THE Cybernetic Culture Research Unit
director's cut of unpublished feature for Lingua Franca, 1999; short remix appeared in Springerin, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Smack in the middle of the United Kingdom, Leamington Spa is like a less picturesque Bath--genteel, sedate, irredeemably English in a Masterpiece Theater sort of way. But the town has darker undercurrents: Aleister Crowley was born here in 1875, and today it's home to a mysterious entity called Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. Now in its third year of existence, CCRU's institutional status is, to say the least, disputed. Which is why its membership is currently holed up in an office on The Parade (Leamington's main street), rather than working c/o the Philosophy Department of Warwick University a few miles away, as was the case the last academic year.

Since my knowledge of CCRU stems from its disorientating textual output--the journal Abstract Culture--plus a few wilfully opaque email communiques, I've scant idea what I'll encounter after pressing the button marked 'Central Computer'. Inside CCRU's top-floor HQ above The Body Shop, I find three women and four men in their mid to late twenties, who all look reassuringly normal. The walls, though, are covered with peculiar diagrams and charts that hint at the breadth and bizareness of the unit's research.

But before I can enquire further, I'm entreated to sit in the middle of three ghettoblasters. CCRU have prepared a re-enactment of a performance-cum-reading given at their Virotechnics conference in October 1997. The first cassette-player issues a looped cycle of words that resembles an incantation or spell. From the second machine comes a text recited in a baleful deadpan by a female American voice--not a presentation but a sort of prose-poem, full of imagery of "swarmachines" and "strobing centipede flutters". The third ghettoblaster emits what could either be Stockhausen-style electroacoustic composition or the pizzicato, mandible-clicking music of the insect world. Later, I find out it's a human voice that's been synthetically processed, with all the vowels removed to leave just consonants and fricatives.

Even without the back-projected video-imagery that usually accompanies CCRU audio, the piece is an impressively mesmeric example of what the unit are aiming for--an ultra-vivid amalgam of text, sound, and visuals designed to "libidinise" that most juiceless of academic events, the lecture. CCRU try to pull off the same trick on the printed page. Their "theory-fiction" is studded with neologisms, delirious with dystopian cyberpunk imagery, and boasts an extravagantly high concentration of ideas per sentence. Bearing the same distillate relation to its sources (Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Paul Virilio,William Gibson) that crack does to cocaine, CCRU-text offers an almighty theory-rush.

What CCRU are striving to achieve is a kind of nomadic thought that--to use the Deleuzian term-- "deterritorializes" itself every which way: theory melded with fiction, philosophy cross-contaminated by natural sciences (neurology, bacteriology, thermodynamics, metallurgy, chaos and complexity theory, connectionism). It's a project of monstrous ambition. And that's before you take into account the the most daring deterritorialisation of all--crossing the thin line between reason and unreason. But as they say, later for that.

Founded in the 1960s, Warwick rapidly became the epitome of a modern university.
Through the early to mid Seventies, the university was rife with militancy--not just student unrest, but discontent amongst the staff (70 percent of whom at one point gave a vote of no confidence in the Vice Chancellor). Socialist historian E.P.Thompson was a "thorn in the side of the adminstiration", recalls one Warwick veteran, and eventually left because he wasn't given the Labour History Unit he was promised. At the same time, Warwick was ahead of its time in terms of seeking corporate funding, such that by the mid-Eighties Margaret Thatcher could describe it as her favourite university. "Warwick University Inc." (as E.P. Thompson titled a book) is financially buoyant compared with other British universities, and well prepared for any future withdrawal of government funding that may be up the current Labour administration's sleeve.

Warwick also has a very modern Philosophy Department. It is Britain's largest graduate school in philosophy outside Oxford, with about 120 postgraduate and masters students, and a similar number of undergraduates. The majority are lured by the department's reputation as the country's leading center for Continental Philosophy. Events like the October 1997 "DeleuzeGuattari and Matter" seminar and "Going Australian", a February 1988 conference devoted to the new school of Australian feminist philosophy, indicate the kind of work going on at Warwick. It is to this cutting edge Philosophy Department to which CCRU was linked in a fatally ambigous fashion.

In a typically gnomic e-mail, CCRU outlined its history. "Ccru retrochronically triggers itself from October 1995, where it uses Sadie Plant as a screen and Warwick University as a temporary habitat. ...Ccru feeds on graduate students + malfunctioning academic (Nick Land) + independent researchers +.... At degree-O Ccru is the name of a door in the Warwick University Philosphy Department. Here it is now officially said that Ccru does not, has not, and will never exist'. " CCRU sees itself as the academic equivalent of Kurtz, the general in Apocalypse Now who used unorthodox methods to achieve superior results than the tradition-bound US military. CCRU claim that its frenzied interdisciplinary activity embarrassed the Philosphy Dept, resulting in the termination of the unit. Just as Kurtz disappeared "up river" into the Vietnamese jungle, the CCRU have strategically withdrawn to their operational base above the Body Shop.

"There is no conspiracy, it's so pedestrian," insists Professor Andrew Benjamin, Director of Graduate Studies at Warwick's Philosophy Department. Benjamin is a well-respected post-structuralist scholar with numerous books to his name. As editor of the Warwick Studies in Philosophy (the best-selling Continental Philosophy series in the English language), he's responsible for anthologies like The Difference Engineer: Deleuze & Philosophy Audibly beaming with pride, the Australia-born Benjamin talks up Warwick as "an incredibly fabulous philosphy dept where Deleuzians lie down with Derrideans, and even lie down with analytic philosphers. Basically, there isn't any postmodern crap done here, it's quite rigorous stuff."

According to Benjamin, CCRU was originally set up for Dr Sadie Plant, freshly recruited from Birmingham University to be a Research Fellow attached to Warwick's Faculty of Social Science. But the unit--organised around her interests in cyber-theory and involving a number of postgraduate students she'd brought over from Birmingham--was initially tied to the Philosophy Department, owing to Plant's particular interests, like Deleuze & Guattari. The plan was for the unit to become an independent, freestanding entity, with the postgrads registered as CCRU rather than philosophy students. But Dr Plant unexpectedly quit her job March 1997, before the paperwork was completed. The university decided to wind CCRU down, with Plant's main ally at Warwick, Nick Land, taking over her role as Director for the unit's final year of official existence.

But when Benjamin elaborates on the procedural intricacies, it's easy to empathise with CCRU's paranoia. "See, there isn't such a thing as the CCRU," he insists. "Within the university system you can set up a thing called a center for research, then you take the planned center to various committees and put it through this system in whose terms that center would be legitimised, have an external committee overseeing standards, et cetera. Because Sadie left early, that procedure didn't happen. Officially, you would then have to say that CCRU didn't ever exist. There is, however, an office about 50 metres down the corridor from me with CCRU on the door, there's a group of students who meet there to have seminars, and to that extent, it it is a thriving entity. Informally, it did exist, still does, lots of things go on under its aegis. But that office will disappear at the end of the year. A number of students thought there was a conspiracy, there's a lot of gossip and carry-on, but the fact is--had Sadie decided to pursue an academic career, CCRU would have been a viable, ongoing entity."

Thin as rake in her brown leather jacket, dragging on a Camel Light, Sadie Plant looks every bit the cyberpunkette. Currently, she's the most famous "media academic" in Britain--writing for quality newspapers, pontificating on the famous BBC Radio programme "Start The Week" (a sort of highbrow Howard Stern) alongside Gore Vidal and Martin Amis. Plant's elevation to intellectual celebrity status began well before the late 1997 publication of her acclaimed Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + The New Technoculture. Although she's far from happy with the marketing of Zeros as a Nineties cyberfeminist equivalent to The Female Eunuch, there are striking parallels between Plant and Germaine Greer (who taught at Warwick's English department before quitting to write Eunuch). "When I went to see the Vice Chancellor about leaving, he said 'I don't believe it, Germaine Greer pulled this on us as well'", says Plant, flashing her buck-toothed smile.

We're in a cafe in Birmingham, the industrial Midlands metroplis where Plant grew up and where she returned after quitting Warwick.The way Sadie tells it, she never really wanted to be an academic in the first place, but just fell into a university career. After transforming her Manchester University philosophy PhD on Situationism into The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International In A Postmodern Age, Plant accepted a Lecturer's position at Birmingham University's Department of Cultural Studies. Back in the Seventies, when it was called Centre For Contemporary Cultural Studies, the department was a vibrant place, home of the "resistance through rituals" school of neo-Gramscian subcultural theory (Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, Stuart Hall, et al). But the CCCS spirit was long gone by the time Plant arrived. The only redeeming aspect was the undergraduate and graduate students, who shared Plant's enthusiasm for rave culture and digital technology.

Plant was on the verge of quitting academia for good, when the opportunity of a Research Fellowship at Warwick presented itself in 1995. Warwick was already a cyber-theory hotbed, what with its 1994 and '95 Virtual Futures conferences. There were strong alliances between like-minds at Birmingham and Warwick: the VF events had involved some of Plant's Birmingham proteges (who appeared at VF95 in their proto-CCRU incarnation Switch), while Plant and Nick Land had actually been creative-and-sexual partners for a couple of years and remained close. With the promise of her very own research center dangled before her, Plant decided to give academia one last shot, and brought many of her Birmingham students with her to form CCRU.

For the first year of its existence, 1995/1996, Cybernetic Culture Research Unit was characterised by "a frantic atmosphere" of interdisciplinary excitement, involving reading groups, lectures series, research-sharing sessions, seminars like 1996's Afro-Futures, and the confrontational journal ****Collapse. There was an exhilirating sense of being at the heart of something new. This first phase of the unit's life climaxed with Virtual Futures 96: Datableed, which was wholly organised by the CCRU (the first two VF's had been put together by postgraduates attached to Professor Benjamin's Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature). Advertised as "an antidisciplinary event" aiming "to explore the smearing of previously discrete cultural spheres", VF96 alternated DJ sessions with sound-and-vision enhanced talks by a diverse range of guests--theorist Manuel De Landa, journalists Steve Beard and Mark Sinker, SF writer Pat Cadigan, and cyberfeminist Linda Dement, to name just a handful.

By the second year of its existence, tensions emerged between the CCRU-virus and its host, the Philosophy Department. Warwick had expected something closer to traditional notions of cyberculture: Internet studies, basically. But what actually took shape reflected Plant and Land's interest in hooking up cybernetics in the original Norbert Wiener sense (information flows, dissolving the difference between living and non-living systems) to compatible elements of Deleuze & Guattari (schizo-analysis, machinic desire, the biomechanical continuum of material reality), plus chaos, complexity and connection theory. "Cyber", as CCRU conceived it, also connoted "cyberpunk": the theory-fiction goal of academic writing that rivalled the hallucinatory rush you got from Neuromancer and Blade Runner.

Warwick clearly got more than it bargained for. Benjamin admits to having "mixed feelings about what Sadie and Nick do", professes to be mystified by "the meaningless term" that is cyber-theory, and keenly stresses the fact that CCRU and the Philosophy Department "are quite separate things". One of Benjamin's administrative colleagues notes drily that "very little" CCRU work "was published in philosophy journals." For her part, Sadie Plant emphasises the practical problems caused by the CCRU students' interdisciplinary approach, like "the need for external examiners.... It would have suited us to be able to just sweep all that away, but it's not so easy."

CCRU are less diplomatic, railing against "disciplinary templates" that obstruct "real research". "You're not allowed to follow these things where they want to go," says Mark Fisher, a cleancut young man who speaks with an evangelical urgency and agitated hand gestures. "You're not allowed to find anything out.... Because who would mark it?!". He cites the example of the PhD work of CCRU's Suzanne Livingston, which was challenged by one Philosophy Department member on the grounds--"what's neurology got to do with capitalism?".

After Plant left, CCRU embarked upon a second phase of trying "to occupy the university" and create a "non-disciplinary" atmosphere by forging links with postgraduates in the Mathematics and Science departments. But this petered out "with no real engagement". The final breaking point came with the Fall '97 Virotechnics conference, which CCRU decided to hold off campus at a media conference center in Wolverhampton, 35 miles from Warwick. According to CCRU, Nick Land effectively had to resign his lecturer's job in order to attend Virotechnics. "Nick had to cancel a simultaneously scheduled seminar at the university, hastily set up as an opportunity for him to explain the increasingly perplexing direction of CCRU's research", explains CCRU's Steve Goodman. Every couple of years, the staff of university departments make an assessment of the publications the department has produced. Since the kind of work Land and his proteges were producing was not considered philosophy, and therefore not counted in any departmental assessment, Land felt obliged to resign, effective the end of the academic year.

Virotechnics was the culmination of the unit's second-phase attempt "to rigorise a kind of diagrammatic study programme in the university," says Land, referring to CCRU's alloy of science and philosphy. "That was really not acceptable, it's fair to say, to the Philosophy Department. So the third phase is take that programme outside the university." While CCRU members continue to finish their PhD's and teach, they regard these activities as " lower-order intensity"; the real action takes place at the Leamington HQ. "There's nothing more unproductive than engaging in this lifelong struggle to get intensity into the academy," says an exasperated Fisher. "It's hopeless and thankless." He maintains that the Philosophy Dept's attitude to CCRU ranges from "outright hostile" to "embarassment", but the general strategy "is to wait for it to die rather than to actively kill it."

Nick Land is the kind of "vortical machine" (to use a fave CCRU trope) around which swirl all manner of outlandish and possibly apocryphal stories. Didya hear about the phase Nick went through only talking in numbers? Or the time he was taken over by three distinct entities? True or not, there's no deying the fact that, as Lecturer in Continental Philosophy, Dr Land has been a "strange attractor" luring students to Warwick purely through his personal reputation. A colleague who sat in on Land classes in the early Nineties remembers both his "impressive pedagogic commitment" and his charisma. "Despite his diffident, tentative way of suggesting things, Nick had a real presence.... It was conspicuous that his gang of groupies did fall apart during his sabbatical term."

The Thirst For Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, Land's sole book-length publication to date, is a remarkable if deranged mix of prose-poem, spiritual autobiography and rigorous explication of the implications of Bataille's thought (if taken seriously, comparable to "syphilis of the mind"). Prefiguring CCRU's struggles with university bureaucracy, the book drips with anti-academic bile, occasionally spilling over into flagellating self-disgust. Philosophy itself is castigated as "the excruciation of libido". Thirst For Annihilation's polymathically perverse range of learning (thermodynamics, cyclone formation, the Menger sponge), and phrases like "vortex of vulvo-cosmic dissolution" that blend scientific language with darkside mysticism, anticipate the CCRU's work.

In the early Nineties, Land was wont to describe himself as a "professor of delirial engineering", recalls the colleague. He also went through a "glorious phase in which he offered millenial prophecies for the next global meltdown in world markets, a deduction based on past such cycles. It rather smacked of an infatuation with the power of numbers."

As much chaos magician as chaos theorist, Land is said to be thoroughly versed in the gamult of occult knowledge and parapsychology: the I Ching, Current 93 (Aleister Crowley's kundalini-like energy force), Kabbalist numerology, H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, and the eschatological cosmology of Terence McKenna (a neo-hippy evangelist for plant-based hallucinogens like psilocybin and DMT). Much of CCRU's thought seems to emanate from an uncanny interzone between science and superstition. (Both of which appeal to rigorous method, of course.)

After reading Thirst For Annihilation's valedictory salute to "the saints, shamans, werewolves, vampires, and lunatics with whom I have communed,", and his self-description in ***Collapse as "a palsied mantis constructed from black jumpers and secondhand Sega circuitry, stalking the crumbling corridors of academe systematically extirpating all humanism", I expected Land to be an emaciated and eldritch figure. Stick insect thin, he is. But Land's gentle voice and impishly twinkling eyes make him closer to a playgroup leader than a dark magus. He and the CCRU crew ply me with endless cups of tea while explaining the curious diagrams on the walls.

There's a chart that synthesises Kabbalah's Tree of Life with H.P. Lovecraft, and is related to a magickal system called tangential tantra. "Instead of summoning or invoking, you're setting up a magical event that will be cut across from the forces of the Outside, so unanticipated events will happen," explains Land. Another poster--influenced by J.G. Ballard's concept of "deep time" as outlined in his catastrophe novel The Drowned World--depicts a cross section of the human spine, with different vertebrae aligned to different phases of human prehistory. And there's a chart that divides human history into a series of periods--"the primitive socius, the despotic state, capitalism" --culminating in a post-human phase named "Unuttera", which I learn refers to "The Entity or polytendriled abomination" at the End of Time.

The most recent diagram represents the culmination of CCRU's forays into the occult numerological techniques of digital reduction and triangular numbering. A spiral bisected by a number scale that descends from 9 to one, the diagram looks rather ordinary. But as CCRU explain its implications to me at considerable length (something to do with allowing them to understand "concepts as number systems) it becomes clear they sincerely believe it contains something on a par with the secret of the universe. The 9-spiral mandala--the Barker Scale, they call it--is the end-product of CCRU's determination to abandon "the fuzziness of discursive articulation" (philosophy) and move into "a much crisper, more rigorous and productive diagrammatic style", says Land. ("Crisp and rigorous" is one of his favourite phrases, despite the stress it puts on his weak 'R').

The diagram was a gift from "Professor Barker". Inspired by Professor Challenger--the Conan-Doyle anti-hero reinvented by Deleuze & Guattari in "The Geology of Morals" section of A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia--Barker appears to be a sort of imaginary mentor who hips the CCRU to various cosmic secrets. "But we'd be a bit reluctant to say 'imaginary' now, wouldn't we?," cautions Land with a mischievous glint in his eye. "We've learned as much--well, vastly more from Professor Barker --than supposedly 'real' pedagogues!". As CCRU's "avatar", Barker has revealed the "Geo-Cosmic Theory of Trauma". Following the materialist lead of Deleuze & Guattari, human culture is analysed as just another set of strata on a geocosmic continuum. From the chemistry of metals to the non-linear dynamics of the ocean, from the cycles of capitalism to the hyper-syncopated breakbeat rhythms of jungle, the cosmos is an "unfolding traumascape" governed by self-similar patterns and fundamental processes that recur on every scale.

Libidinising "flows" and investing them with an intrinsically subversive power,
Deleuze & Guattari have been criticised as incorrigible Romantics. CCRU develop this element of A Thousand Plateaus into a kind of mystic-materialism. Discussing what CCRU call "Gothic Materialism" ("ferro-vampiric" cultural activity which flirts with the inorganic and walks the "flatline" between life and death), Anna Greenspan talks about how "the core of the earth is made of iron, and blood contains iron", about how the goal is to "hook up with the Earth's metal plasma core, which is the Body-Without-Organs". Body-without-Organs (B-w-O) is the Deleuzian utopia, an inchoate flux of deterritorialised energy; Greenspan says they take the B-w-O as "an ethical injunction", a supreme goal.


O[rphan] D[frift>] also talk about "metal in the body" and seeking the B-w-O. Another Land-influenced theory-fiction collective, O[rphan] D[frift>] are CRRU's prime allies: they performed at VF96 and are staging an event in collaboration with CCRU/Switch at London's Beaconsfield Arts Centre, October of this year. Maggie Roberts and Ranu Mukherjee, the core of OD, originally met as Fine Art students at the prestigious-but-conservative Royal College, where their ideas about creating a form of multimedia-based synaesthetic terrorism oriented around "schizoid thinking", pre-linguistic autistic states and man-machine interfaces proved way too radical. Formed in late 1994, OD was shaped by two mindblowing experiences: "experimentation with drugs and techno", and a 1993 encounter with Nick Land.

"Before CCRU started at Warwick, Nick latched onto us very intensively for a while," says Roberts. "We fed him image experience, tactile readings of the stuff he was buried in theoretically. He wanted his writing to kick in a much more experiential way. For us, there was something wonderful about having a man you could ring up and ask: 'what's radiation?', 'what's a black hole?'".

OD's collective debut was a multimedia installation at London's Cabinet Gallery. What began as a catalogue for the show escalated into an astonishing 437 page book, Cyberpositive. Like Plant's Zeros + Ones, Cyberpositive is a swarm-text of sampled writings that aren't attributed in the text. But where Plant offers footnotes; OD merely list the "asked" and "un-asked" contributors at the end. Published in 1995, Cyberpositive serves as a sort of canon-defining primer for the CCRU intellectual universe, placing SF and cyberpunk writers on the same level as post-structuralist theorists. "We treat Burroughs as clearly as important a thinker as any notional theorist," says Nick Land, "At the same time, every great philosopher is producing an important fiction. Marx is obviously a science fiction writer." For her part, Sadie Plant regards the Eighties cyberpunk novelists like Gibson and Cadigan as "more reliable witnesses", precisely because, unlike theorists, "they don't have an axe to grind".

The most highly-charged passages in Cyberpositive are the hefty chunks of Plant/Land writing and Roberts's and Mukherjee's evocations of the techno-rave-Ecstasy-LSD experience. "I used to write a lot in clubs, which probably looked really pretentious," recalls Roberts. "Tracing what's happening in all the different sound channels and what they're doing spatially and physically to you". The language veers from masochistic mortification of the flesh ("deep hurting techno", "the meat is learning to know loss") to imagery influenced by voodoo and shamanic possession ("white darkness", "the fog of absolute proximity", "psyclone", "beautiful fear"). "It's trying to process the dissassembling of the self," says Roberts. "Maybe what you're calling abject, we'd call melting. The violence of the sounds in techno, it's like you're being turned inside out, smeared, penetrated."

Despite her facial piercing and techno-pagan accoutrements, Roberts has a sort of burned-out, aristocratic air that suggests Marianne Faithfull circa 1969. A half-smile flickering on her lips, as if she's privy to some kosmik joke, Roberts speaks in a faded falter--as though some unutterably alien zone of posthuman consciousness hasn't quite relinquished its hold. Which may be a pretty accurate description of the state of play. If CCRU have something of a cultic air about them, OD go a lot further. Combining Mayan cosmology with ideas about Artificial Intelligence, they sem to believe that humanity will soon abandon the "meat" of incarnate existence and become pure spirit. Throughout Cyberpositive there's the recurrent exhortation "we must change for the machines"; while the book ends with the declaration--"human viewpoint redundant."

Not only do OD reckon Charles Manson had some good ideas, their East London HQ contains several cages of snakes--proof of their determination to get really serious about voodoo rites. The obsession was sparked by Gibson's Count Zero, in which cyberspace has spontaneously generated entities equivalent to the loa (the spirit-gods of voudun cosmology). Throughout the interview, a shaven-headed OD member called Rich sits with baby boa constrictors wrapped around his body. His other contribution to the evening is to make some sandwiches--daintily quartered, but containing peanut butter mixed with sardines. "Too radical for me", I confess after one nibble. Rich's eyes light up triumphantly: Mind-Game Over.


"Cyberpositive" was originally the title of an essay by Sadie Plant and Nick Land. First aired at the 1992 drug culture symposium Pharmakon, "Cyberpositive" was a gauntlet thrown down at the Left-wing orthodoxies that still dominate British academia. The term "cyberpositive" was a twist on Norbert Wierner's ideas of "negative feedback" (homeostasis), and "positive feedback" (runaway tendencies, vicious circles). Where the conservative Wiener valorized "negative feedback", Plant/Land re-positivized positive feedback--specifically,: the tendency of market forces to generate disorder and destabilise control structures.

"It was pretty obvious that a theoretically Left-leaning critique could be maintained quite happily but it wasn't ever going to get anywhere," says Plant. "If there was going to be scope for any kind of....not 'resistance', but any kind of discrepancy in the global consensus, then it was going to have to come from somewhere else." That elsewhere was certain passages in A Thousand Plateaus where Deleuze & Guattari suggest that, in Plant's words, "you don't try and slow things down, you encourage them to go fast as possible. Which was interestingly connected to Marx's ideas about capitalism sweeping away the past. So we got into this stance of 'oh well, let it sweep away! Maybe it should sweep away faster'." Other crucial influences were neo-Deleuzian theorist Manuel De Landa's idea of "capitalism as the system of antimarkets", and, says Plant, historian-of-everyday-life Fernand Braudel's conception of capitalism as "an amalgam of would-be free market forces and state/ corporate/centralised control functions. So there isn't really any such thing called 'capitalism', it's just a coincidence of those two really extreme and opposed tendencies."

Plant and the CCRU enthuse about bottom-up, grass-roots, self-organising activity: street markets, "the frontier zones of capitalism", what De Landa calls "meshwork", as opposed to corporate, top-down capitalism. It all sounds quite jovial, the way they describe it now--a bustling bazaar culture of trade and "cutting deals". But "Cyberpositive" actually reads like a nihilistic paean to the "cyberpathology of markets", celebrating capitalism as "a viral contagion" and declaring "everything cyberpositive is an enemy of mankind". In Nick Land solo essays like "Machinic Desire" and "Meltdown", the tone of morbid glee is intensified to an apocalyptic pitch. There seems to be a perverse and literally anti-humanist identification with the "dark will" of capital and technology, as it "rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities". In "Meltdown", Land declares: "Man is something for it to overcome: a problem, drag".

This gloating delight in capital's deterritorialising virulence is the CCRU's reaction to the stuffy complacency of Left-wing academic thought; a sort of rubbing salt in the wounds (as when Land jibes at the "senile spectre" of Socialism, an allusion to The Communist Manifesto). "There's definitely a strong alliance in the academy between anti-market ideas and completely schleroticised, institutionalised thought," says Mark Fisher. "Marx has been outdated by cybernetic theory. It's obvious that capitalism isn't going to be brought down by its contradictions. Nothing ever died of contradictions!". Exulting in capitalism's permanent "crisis mode", CCRU believe in the strategic application of pressure to accelerate the tendencies towards chaos. The real struggle, says Fisher in fluent Deleuzian, is within capitalism and between "homogenisation processes and nomadic distribution.".

What feels from any everyday human perspective like catastrophic change is really anastrophe: not the past coming apart, but "the future coming together". Where Land gives this idea a millenial spin (he's described capitalism as "an invasion from the future", a virus retrochronically triggered by some kind of artificial intelligence to create the conditions for its own assembling--an idea that reads like it was spawned by watching Terminator on acid), Plant's attitude is more humanely ambivalent. In the mid-Eighties, for instance, she supported the Coal Miner's strike, a revolt against Thatcherite modernising policies and an attempt to preserve a traditional working class culture. Since then, she has come to believe that the privatisation and anti-welfare policies pursued by the Conservative goverment in the 1980s really did constitute "a revolution". She talks approvingly of the end of "the dependency culture", arguing that this helped catalyse the Nineties upsurge of British pop culture, fashion and art.

"Obviously it is painful for any particular community that ends up on the scrapheap of history", Plant says, looking appropriately pained. "But I've got a far more evolutionary view of history these days. Just as particular species or ecosystems flourish and die, so do human cultures". In the face of this "reality", she argues, the British Left is comparable with the Church of England: "Every so often it comes out and makes some moral statement about how terrible things are, but what's it going to do about it? Nothing."

Many Left-wing theorists would retaliate by arguing that the Plant/Land/CCRU pro-market stance is merely an intellectual accomodation to "realities" imposed by top-down corporate forces; that by mapping techniques appropriate for natural phenonema (chaos theory, non-linear dynamics) onto capitalism, they've effectively naturalized the free market, resulting in a kind of post-Deleuzian version of Social Darwinism. Judith Williamson--Professor of Cultural History at Middlesex University, and writer for the left-leaning newspaper The Guardian--accuses the CCRU of "inevitabilism".

"All these excitingly eroticised ideas about the flows of capital absolve one from morality," she says. "Most of capitalism's flows are deeply pernicious." The trouble with inevitablism is that it removes human agency from the picture, complains Williamson. "But human will is not nothing -- there have been these huge acts of courage and altruism throughout history." As neo-Deleuzians devoutly committed to impersonality, agency is precisely what Plant and the CCRU demote. "Nothing takes the credit--or the blame--for either the runaway tendencies at work or the attempts to regulate them," argues Plant in Zeros + Ones. "Political struggles and ideologies have not been incidental to these shifts, but cultures and the changes they undergo are far too complex to be attributed to attempts to make them happen or hold them back".

Williamson is an old sparring partner with Plant, Land and CCRU, having had
several public fights with them at various academic events. The author of Consuming Passions: The Dynamics of Popular Culture, Williamson belongs to an earlier, Marx-influenced phase of British cultural theory, so the the clash between her and CCRU is partly generational. Recalling a famous spat in the bar of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, she recalls finding it "spooky that Nick Land and all these people spoke as one. You could not get 20 of my postgrad students in a room and have them agree with me. I find that scary--that messianic quality, like they've got the message"...A lot of what they say reminds me of tripping experiences, where you have that feeling that everything coheres and makes sense."

Another Williamson accusation--that CCRU lift ideas from chaos and complexity that describe material process but "apply them in a metaphorical way... as if using a concrete thing for a metaphor makes it not be a metaphor"--would especiallly infuriate CCRU. Metaphor, figurative language, the whole realm of representation and ideology: these are the enemy, as far as CCRU are concerned. "Our analysis is materialist, rather than ideological," says Goodman, "Whether the scale is geological, oceanic, socio-cultural, there are parallels going on at every scale". Despite drawing a lot from post-structuralism's assault upon the sovereign ego, CCRU detest deconstruction, precisely because of its treatment of the text as a cosmology and everything as metaphor. "The only thing that's powerful about books--their ability to plug into other machines outside themselves-- is completely destroyed by treating them as this macro-interiority that spreads over everything," spits Fisher, co-author of the hilarious and coruscating Abstract Culture rant "Pomophobia".

Hungry for intellectual reasons-to-be-cheerful, CCRU simultaneously renounce postmodernism's wan fatalism (the idea that we're at the end of everything) and the guilt-wracked impotence of the Left (Fisher talks, cyborg-style, about the relief of having "the false memory-chip of Socialist authenticity" removed from his brain). In the process, they've jettisoned the concept of "alienation" in both its Marxist and Freudian senses. They speak approvingly of "surplus value", sublimation and commodity-fetishism as creative tendencies. Where "Cyberpositive" noted how how runaway capitalism had accessed "inconceivable alienations", CCRU's collective essay "Swarmachines" goes further and climaxes with the boast: "alienated and loving it".

The idea, says Fisher, comes from a mix-and-blend of Lyotard and Blade Runner--"the proletariat as this synthetic class, of a revolution that's on the side of the synthetic and artificial. The concept of 'alienation' depends on the notion that there's some authentic essence lost through the development of capitalism. But according to Barker's Geo-Cosmic theory of trauma, everything's already synthetic." If reality really is a bio-mechanical continuum, there's no reason to resist capitalism's escalating dynamic of anti-naturalism: addiction to hyper-stimulus, the creation of artificial desires.

Willamson condes that "if there's one thing that's quite endearing about CCRU, it's the search for a kind of optimism.... Today it's very hard to have those sort of Sixties feelings of 'oh God, things are exciting, things can get better, new things can happen'". The mania of CCRU's texts--a mood-blend of euphoric anticipatioin and dystopian dread that Mark Dery called "dysphoria"--is certainly contagious. "A lot of things are exciting, but is it true?," cautions Williamson. "Music is a good parallel--you don't think 'this music explains the universe' just because you finds it charges you up". Again, the CCRU would fervently disagree. "The musical model is really key to us," says Land. "It's absurd to say that music doesn't represent the real and therefore it's an empty metaphor. Every theorist who hasn't a real place for music ends up with one-dimensional melancholia."

Not only do the CCRU derive a lot of their energy from music--specifically, the British rave genre of jungle a/k/a drum & bass--but popular culture is where their ideas seem most persuasive. Right from its late Eighties beginnings, rave culture's motor has been anarcho-capitalist and entrepreneurial: from promoters throwing illegal parties in warehouses and fields, to drug dealing. Even after its co-optation by the record and clubbing industries, rave music's cutting edge comes from the grass-roots: small labels, cottage-industry producers with home studios, specialist record stores, pirate radio.

Sadie Plant attributes these bottom-up economic networks to the end of dependency culture, forcing people "to get real and find some ways of surviving" but also to invent "new forms of collectivity" (the micro-utopian communality of the rave).

As a postgraduate in Manchester, Plant was swept up in that city's legendary 1988-90 rave scene. Currently, she's co-running a jungle club in Birmingham called Kleptomania, for which she creates back-projections involving "video feedback", an "orgasmically beautiful" effect that makes "everything looks like it's come from another world". Plant is also writing about book about the interface between drugs and technology. CCRU has a musical sub-component, Ko-Labs, engaged in making jungle tracks. The unit's latest recruit is Jessica Edwards, a researcher who has no affiliation with Warwick University whatsoever, but who used to be a professional dancer at raves and recently completed an undergraduate thesis entitled "Mapping the Liminal- Pentecostalism, Shamanism and Drum & Bass".

Despite being rave theorists and "sub-bass materialists", CCRU are surprisingly cagey when the topic of drugs is introduced. Acknowledging the cyborgizing, viral usefulness of drugs--as anorganic elements that enter the nervous system and engineer precise changes in consciousness--Land nonetheless resists the "relapse into a biographical narrative". Anna Greenspan talks of the negative "crash-and-burn" syndrome caused by drug abuse, and says the CCRU are more interested in building sustained plateaus of intensity. One outcrop of this is Suzanne Livingston's research into "long term rewiring of perception"--techniques of flash and flicker that restructure the brain, as already used by advertising, MTV, and rave promoters (lights, lazers and strobes).

As well as being galvanised by music, the CCRU are also influenced by the theory-driven leading edge of music journalism. One of their associate members is Kodwo Eshun, contributor to magazines like iD and The Wire and author of the forthcoming More Brilliant Than The Sun, a study of "sonic fiction" in black music from Sun Ra to jungle. He was guest of honour at CCRU's Afro-Futures seminar and gave a talk at VF96. Eshun describes himself and the CCRU as "concept-engineers", as opposed to thinkers. Critique, he argues, is a rhetorical mode that puts the heavy burden of History on your shoulders, whereas the concept-engineer is into speculation. "Most theory contextualises, historicizes and cautions; the concept-engineer uses theory to excite and ignite," Eshun proclaims. Where "thinker" evokes an effete and impotent ivory-tower detachment, "engineer" suggests someone who gets down-and-dirty with the material word (in Deleuzian terms, someone who operates and maintains desiring machines). Like a DJ or jungle producer, the concept-engineer is "a sample-finder": s/he's free to suspend belief in the ultimate truth-value of a theory and simply use the bits that work, in the spirit of Deleuze & Guattari's offering up of A Thousand Plateaus as tool-kit rather than gospel.


"Concept-engineer" is a good tag for the outerzone of "independent researchers" and amateur autodidacts to which CCRU is connected. Renegade theorists like Howard Slater, a Deleuze-freak whose techno-zine Break/Flow brilliantly analyses rave music in terms of "nonconceptual thought" and "impulsional exchanges", and celebrates the techno underground as a rhizomatic, insubordinate, post-media economy. And like Matthew Fuller, a media theorist/activist with a background in anarchist politics and links to the hacker underground. Fuller's CV of cultural dissidence includes flypostering, pirate radio, a non-Internet bulletin board called Fast Breeder, the scabrous freesheet Underground, and a series of anarcho-seminars like "Seizing The Media" dedicated to the theory and praxis of media terrorism. Fuller also put out the anthology Unnatural: Techno-Theory For A Contaminated Culture, which included Plant/Land's "Cyberpositive" and an essay by CCRU member Steve Metcalf.

Discussing his own cyber-theory writings, Fuller talks about dismantling traditional "modes of political address" and developing a sort of post-ideological realpolitik of resistance. A true concept-engineer, he believes in ransacking theory texts for task-specific ideas. "Publishers like Autonomedia and Semiotexte produce material that you don't have to be an academic to get into, so it circulates outside those milieux. When I give presentations at academic events, it's easy to see I'm in a more powerful position than the academics--I can steal all the advantages of their discipline, plus do something else with it that fucks it up totally."

Noting that Deleuze & Guattari are already being institutionalised into "the most dreary, saintly area of discourse", Fuller says he's dedicated to "cracking open those texts again, thinkers who originally opened stuff up to delirium and the irrational. I mix up different linguistic registers and narrative strategies so that the text writhes in the hands of the reader, so to speak. In that respect, there's a lot more to be learned from fiction than theory." Here Fuller chimes in with Sadie Plant, whose work-in-progress, Writing On Drugs, includes a fictional component. Plant says she hopes that subsequent books will become "pure fiction".


"The most enjoyable aspect of CCRU is that they are a gang -- PhD students with attitude!," says Eshun. Loathing the "necrotic side of philosphy, the chewing-over of dead thinkers' entrails", and bored limp by the "delibidinising" atmosphere of seminars, CCRU used to attend academic events, claims Eshun, expressly "in order to disrupt, undermine and ridicule.... They'd get into pitched battles with Derrideans!". Enhancing this picture of intra-academic gang-warfare, two of CCRU's allies from another university once turned up to an event sporting "colors": they'd printed up T-Shirts that mimicked the logo of Dolce & Gabbana, but stood for Deleuze & Guattari!

Weary of such sports, Plant, Land and CCRU have all enthusiastically embraced the idea of escaping "institutional lockdown" by going freelance. In addition to her drugs book, Plant is working on a film screenplay and says she can't imagine ever returning to academia. The CCRU hope to become a kind of independent think-tank, selling "commodities" on the intellectual free market--like their strikingly designed Abstact Culture (each "swarm" consists of five separate monographs bundled together) and, in the future, CD's, CD-ROM's and books. "The whole saga of the first phase of the CCRU was to do with negotiating bureaucratic space," says Fisher. "But we quickly realised that the institution didn't depend on university space itself , but on the collectivity."

It seems unlikely, however, that Plant and her erstwhile cronies will rejoin forces once they're out in the freemarket wilderness. Some kind of ideological rift seems to have occurred. Plant says she couldn't really go along with the trip into numerical mysticism, not least because she didn't like finding herself "in the role of the sensible, conservative one --not a role I'm used to!". CCRU, for their part, seem to have resented her premature departure from Warwick. Perhaps CCRU's fervent emphasis on collectivity stems in part from what Kodwo Eshun characterises as "an adaption to this harsh feeling of abandonment by this person who they really admired and who they decided to devote three, four years of their lives around." Plant, meanwhile, says she felt uncomfortable with being a guru figure.

"Nick's hermetic, he wants acolytes", says Eshun. "Whereas Sadie's this total communicator. Zeros + Ones is the return of the grand narrative with a vengeance. I can't think of any other writer with the same ambition. Sadie wants the world and I think she'll get it. " CCRU, meanwhile, are toying with the idea of relocating wholesale to India.
Feed, 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Drug theorist Sadie Plant sucks on the long, bendy tubing of a hookah at Kush, a Moroccan-style bar in downtown Manhattan, and exhales a cloud of tobacco smoke. "This is the real thing, not like the crap you get in these", she says, gesturing at the packet of name-brand cigarettes next to her glass of mint tea. "And it's really quite potent". Half way through the six dollar chunk of apple-scented tobacco, she does indeed look at bit dizzy.

Referenced in Alice In Wonderland and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit", the hookah is one of countless examples of the way drugs have long been identified in our imagination with the mystic Orient. From its flow-oriented spirituality to its ego-dissolving herbal potions, the East beckons those who yearn to defect from the Occidental tyranny of sober reason. And Sadie Plant shares this view: she sees drugs as the anti-Enlightenment in powder or pill form, directly challenging Western humanist confidence in the power of will. "It's a big Western error to think that individual humans, or even groups of them, can control things," she says. "Drugs are a perfect place from which to interrogate that notion."

35 year old cyberfeminist and renegade from British academia Sadie
Plant has always been interested in anything that unsettles and
undermines control structures. Her first book, written as a PhD, was
a study of Situationism, the Dada-influenced anarchist movement
whose ultra-extreme theories influenced the May 1968 riots in Paris
and inspired many key combatants in British punk. Zeros + Ones:
Digital Women + The New Technoculture, written while Plant was a
research fellow and director of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick, has been hailed as a Nineties equivalent to The Female Eunuch. "With Zeroes, Sadie was working on the cutting edge of understanding cyberculture from a feminist perspective," says N. Katherine Hayles, a professor at UCLA and author of the acclaimed How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies
in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. "Her really important
contribution is recovering the secret history of women working in
computing, which is still seen as a male dominated field."

Beyond its gender polemic, though, Zeroes is also a poetically written verging
on anarcho-mystical paean to chaos--the promiscuous,
border-dissolving and mutagenic flows of information, desire, trade.
In her new book, Writing On Drugs, the first fruit of her
post-academic career as "freelance thinker," Plant adds drugs to her
litany of chaos-generating agents, messing with consciousness on an
individual level and causing all kinds of turbulence in the body
politic and internationally through the seemingly ineradicable black
markets they've created.

One of Plant's key polemics in Writing On Drugs--which is set for early summer publication by Farrar Strauss Giroux--involves demolishing the
real/unreal, authentic/vicarious distinction that still governs much
thinking about drug experiences. For her, the interesting thing about
drugs is that they are material substances that make relatively
specific, physical interventions in consciousness. Although she has
sympathies with the grand tradition of using drugs as part of a
spiritual quest for higher states of consciousness and as ritualized
encounters with a transcendental beyond, Plant has more in common
with the demystified approach of today's post-rave generation, who
increasingly explore drugs purely for the intrinsic interest of their
precise perceptual distortions and sensory enhancements, without
making the kind of investment in ideas of the visionary or shamanic
that characterized the generation of psychonauts that included Aldous
Huxley, R. Gordon Wasson, and Tim Leary. For Plant,
"the scrambling of perceptions" itself is the revelation -- the
discovery that reality is "just a deeply contingent effect of the
interaction between your environment and one of many possible
neurochemical brain-states", the realisation that the bandwith and
processing-speed of your cranial computer can be drastically
expanded. Plant's materialist approach makes her the Scully to Terence McKenna's Mulder--the cautious, sensible, almost incongruously grounded woman in the boy's club of crackpot speculation and wild-eyed messiah complexes.


IN HER NATIVE BRITAIN, Plant is one of the country's most famous
"media academics", writing for quality newspapers and pontificating
on the highbrow BBC Radio programme "Start The Week" alongside
fellow guests like Gore Vidal and Martin Amis. None of which is bad
for a woman who comes from "not at all a literary or intellectual
background... my parents left school at 15, and ran their own
engineering business, so I grew up amongst heavy machinery and
engineering blueprints". Born in 1964 and bred in Birmingham, the
dowdy industrial heartland of the UK, Plant spent her childhood
reading and writing, and her late adolescence revelling in and on the
"free festival" scene-- a nationwide circuit of drug-and-music fueled
bacchanals similar to today's raves or Burning Man but far more
disorganized. Going to her first festival in 1981, she remembers being
stunned by the sheer size of "what back then was known as the Peace
Convoy"--a nomadic hippy calvacade of thousands of trucks, van, cars,
and horse-drawn caravans that spent the summer migrating from
festival to festival, despite police roadblocks and persecution from
local residents. These events were Plant's introduction to anarchist
practice, and a key influence on the anti-politics of self-organizing
activity she subscribes to. "I used to love the way a town of sorts
would emerge in a few hours, with temporary landmarks and streets. It
still intrigues me how they did it. There was one festival I went
to that drew 50 thousand people and lasted a couple of weeks--long
enough to have its own urban history, with three deaths and an
outbreak of meningitis!"

It was through the Situationist pamphlets she found at the free
festivals that Plant also encountered anarchist theory. The result
was her first book The Most Radical Gesture, where she used
the Situationists's fervent utopianism as a stick to bash postmodern
defeatism. It was while she was writing the book as
her PhD at Manchester University that she witnessed another chaotic
outbreak of cultural dissidence: the rave movement, born of the
synergy between futuristic electronic dance music and the designer
drug Ecstasy. Her experiences at Manchester's clubs are the
seeds that bloomed eight years later as Writing On Drugs.

"What really got me started was the mystery of Ecstasy", she
recalls. "MDMA has been around for most of the 20th Century, it had
moments of popularity in the 1960s, but it never became a culture
until the late 1980s." Why this strange time-lag, given MDMA's
intense pleasures--euphoria, hyper-tactile sensuality, overwhelming
feelings of trust, intimacy and affection? Plant's answer was that
Ecstasy was "waiting" for the right technology to arrive and
"potentiate" it, to use the pharmacological term for the synergistic
interaction of two drugs. "There's something about the clean
precision of the MDMA experience that seems to fit digital
technology, the same technology that enabled the creation of that
very precise rhythmic dance music."" Beyond this, she sees Ecstasy
and rave music as training the nervous system and human sensorium in
prepartion for the Internet and virtual reality. In Writing On
Drugs, she describes how ravers in the raptures of Ecstasy feel
"overwhelmed by their own connectivity", merging not just with music
and with the crowd but with machines too: the sound-system, the
dazzling lighting effects and lasers, and all the other hi-tech
elements used to "engineer atmospheres". Melting what Reich called
character armor , Ecstasy creates a kind of porous, permeable ego
that's supple and open to connection and contact. It's a process
Plant describes as "positive self-destruction, a self-destruction
without death-wish".

Plant originally planned to write a single book on drugs and
technology that would cover the entire terrain she ended up dividing
between Zeroes & Ones and Writing On Drugs. "The Zeroes and Ones
element was gonna be the exterior technology--computing, the
Internet, VR. Drugs were like the interior technology, the "soft" or
"wet" technology that reconfigures the brain", she explains. Plant
sees drugs as cyborgizing -- anorganic elements "inserted" into the
body and interfacing with the nervous system to enable perceptions
and sensations inaccessible to the undrugged organism.

"Drugs are the perfect example of a subtle prosthesis, working on the
internal wiring of the body in a way that makes the traditional
notion of becoming a cyborg through adding robotic attachments seem
really quaint and archaic. And I'm sure there'll come a point where
drugs themselves will seem very clumsy and dirty--in that sense of
being imprecise--compared with future forms of enhancement."

The "bionic", superhumanizing aspect of drugs helps explain why the
military have had been so intimately involved with them in this
century, using stimulants like amphetamine to enhance soldiers's
fighting capabilities and R&D-ing the potential applications of LSD
and MDMA as disorientation-inducing weapons and/or "truth serums". In
Writing On Drugs, Plant traces this drug/warfare interface back to
the vegetable kingdom-- the "herbal", Gaia-given substances that some
drug enthusiasts regard as superior to synthesized man- made drugs
originally evolved to discourage animal predators by causing nausea,
delirium or death when ingested. Intoxicants are all, at root,
toxins; drug experiences, says Plant, are little infusions of death
into life. Which is why the shamanic traditions of using plant
hallucinogens tend to imagine the trip as a journey across the border
between life and death.


WRITING ON DRUGS IS ALL ABOUT the myriad ways in which the
production, trafficking, and use of mind-altering substances has
shaped our economic, political and cultural history. Half the book
is taken up with a survey of drugs's influence on literature, taking
in suspects usual and unusual (Coleridge, Poe, Rimbaud, Baudelaire,
Sherlock Holmes, Wilkie Collins, etc) and arguing that a hefty strand
of high culture has been precisely that--"high" as a kite. Plant
argues that even the most sober, abstemious regions of society have
been contaminated by druggy consciousness, because drug-derived
sensations get encoded in cultural forms--not just books, but movies,
music, TV commercials.

One of her more provocative arguments is that advertising in its
modern sense began as a surrogate for more direct forms of hooking
the customer. "The Coca Cola company was the first big company to
invest in mass advertising, and they did that in an attempt to keep
the market they'd first acquired when they still had a substantial
amount of cocaine in the drink. If you can't hook consumers one way,
you have to find another. Every commodity today tries to be as close
to a drug as it can possibly be without actually being a drug." The
intimacy of drugs and "normal life" goes much further than the way
they've insinuated their influence through all levels of our culture.
As Plant notes in Writing On Drugs, every single one of us is guilty
of "possession", because the human brain runs on neurochemicals that
are similar to or near-identical to illegal substances (endorphins,
for instance, are so named because of their proximity to the opium
derivative morphine). It's obvious, really: drugs wouldn't work if
the brain wasn't full of receptors pre-disposed to being activated by
these electro-chemical triggers. The upshot of human brain chemistry
is that there is no such thing as "sobriety"; consciousness itself is
an ever-shifting tissue of different drug-states. "There are all
sorts of non-drug activities that obviously change that neurochemical
balance--sex, exercise, food," notes Plant, sipping a
cappucino at a Lower East Side cafe where you still have to ask for a
key to the bathroom--a relic of the pre-gentrification era when it
was necessary to discourage junkies from sneaking in them to shoot
up. "Then there are all the more extreme techniques for achieving an
altered state, be it yoga or whatever."

There are points in Writing On Drugs where Plant flirts with the idea
that drugs can access certain "revelations." The twist is that it's
not a transcendent reality "out there", but one deep within the hard
wiring of the brain itself. She subscribes to Henri Michaux's
mescaline-inspired conviction that there's a kind of pre-cultural
commonality underlying all the many forms of psychedelic experience
through history and across the globe. The deranged geometry of
lattices, honeycombs, lacework, and spiderwebbing, the baroquely
infolding spirals and proliferating ornamentation, the mosaic vision
and kaleidscopic turbulence, seen by users of LSD, peyote, DMT,
psilocybin, and other hallucinogens, find a visual echo in such
cultural forms as the "coptic light" patterns of Arabian carpets and
the paisley fabric of the Indian subcontinent. Michaux speculated
that all this drug-induced eye-candy constitutes an amplification of
brain wave activity, especially that of the visual cortex. The fact
that some migraine sufferers see similar patterns--known as the
migraine aura--suggests that in certain extreme states, the MS/DOS
and subroutines of the brain can be apprehended by consciousness.
"Some people can get the aura effects without the pain of migraine,"
says Plant. "It's happened to me about three times in my life, at
times of extreme exhaustion. This almost kaleidoscopic stuff kind of
creeps across your visual field from one side to the other. It's
really quite stunning, and not at all scary. The fact that there are
'natural' equivalents to drug-induced experiences suggests the
possibility you are in some sense observing what's going on in the
brain." Noting the similarity between these psychedelic
hallucinations and the self-similar patterns of Mandelbrot's
fractals, Plant characterizes the drugged or migrained brain as a
cranked-up bio-chemical computer capable of picturing the
self-organizing behavior and non-linear dynamism at play within
normally staid reality.


THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO PLANT: One is the sane, pragmatic,
down-to-earth daughter of self-employed parents. This is the Plant
who diligently slogs through scientific writings for nuggets of
inspiration, who's prudently cagey about her "field research" for the
new book on the grounds that talking about her drug use might result
in problems with visas to foreign countries. The other side of Plant
is the anarchist free spirit--the 17 year old whose eyes were blown
by the free festivals, the avid reader of books by drug fiends like
Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, the writer who herself plans to abandon
fact for full-blown fiction, the neurophilosophical adventurer who
eventually reveals that she's tried almost all the illegal chemicals
mentioned in Writing On Drugs.

All these tendencies converge in Plant's controversial endorsement of
"market forces", which figure in the new book as an ambivalent
appreciation of the international drug trade- a dark parody of
globalization, the id of the New World Order. Appropriately enough it
was at Pharmakon, a 1992 drug culture symposium in Brighton,
England, that Plant threw down her gauntlet at the Left-wing
orthodoxies that still dominate British academia, in the form of a
paper co-written with Nick Land called "Cyberpositive". The title is
a twist on cyberneticist Norbert Wiener's ideas of "negative feedback" and "positive
feedback." Where the conservative Wiener valued "negative feedback"
(homeostatic equilibrium) Plant and Land re-positivized positive
feedback (vicious circles, runaway tendencies) and specifically
celebrated the propensity of market forces to generate disorder and
destabilize control. There's a gleeful, gloating tone to the way in
which the duo exalt capital as "a viral contagion" that scorns
national boundaries, deletes cultural traditions and over-rides human
priorites: "Everything cyberpositive is an enemy of mankind."

Today, Plant says the essay was written as a provocation. Her real
attitude is more humanely ambivalent. During the Eighties, she
opposed the modernizing policies of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative
government--the crushing of Britain's once enormously powerful labor
unions, the dismantling of the welfare state, the privatization of
nationally owned industries and utilities. But by the early Nineties,
she was coming to terms with the idea that Thatcherism's assault on
"dependency culture" really had been a revolution, creating the
climate for this decade's upsurge of British fashion, art, and pop
culture (including her beloved rave scene, which for all its
Ecstasy-addled utopianism is anarcho- capitalist to the core, from
its illegal warehouse parties and pirate radio stations to small
independent labels to the drug dealers themselves). Plant stresses
the fact that she's no fan of huge corporations--she sees capitalism
not as a coherent system but as a pluralistic warzone organized
around a perpetual tension between centralizing entities
(wannabe-monopoly corporations, government agencies) and bottom-up,
grass-roots activity (plucky entrepreneurs, street markets). You can
guess which side she's on.

Sympathy for the underdog and small-is-beautiful sentiments
notwithstanding, there are those who reject Plant's ideas as a merely
a postmodern update of 19th Century laissez-faire economics--the
update aspect being the way she uses ideas from chaos theory and
cybernetics to effectively "naturalize" what is really a human
construction, the free market. Natural's not in it, says Judith
Williamson, Professor of Cultural History at Middlesex University,
and writer for the left-leaning British newspaper The Guardian. "All
these excitingly eroticised ideas about the flows of capital absolve
one from morality. Most of capitalism's flows are deeply
pernicious." She castigates Plant's attitude for its fatalistic
underestimation of the power of human beings to change things on both
the individual and collective level. "Human will is not nothing. All
through history there have been huge acts of courage and altruism."
Indeed, Plant's understanding of how things change leaves no role for
charismatic, far-sighted inviduals, for a Bill Gates or Fidel Castro.

What Williamson denigrates as "inevitabilism," Plant herself
characterises as a Zen or Taoist view of the world--not so much
devaluing the power of human agency as putting it in perspective.
"Nothing takes the credit--or the blame--for either the runaway
tendencies at work or the attempts to regulate them," she wrote in
Zeros + Ones, arguing for a radically depersonalized conception of
how history works. "Political struggles and ideologies have not been
incidental to these shifts, but cultures and the changes they undergo
are far too complex to be attributed to attempts to make them happen
or hold them back". In Writing On Drugs, she sees a kind of
equivalence between drugs and capital: both are the quintessence of
trade and traffic, both make a mockery of national boundaries, both
resist governmental attempts to regulate their flows (the Soviet
Union, for instance, was ultimately unable to stay uninfected by "the
contagion of markets"). In the 20th Century's history of drugs
prohibition, she sees a powerful demonstration of human hubris: the
struggle to suppress the drug trade hasn't just failed, it's created
a monstrous, hydra-headed narco-military-industrial complex that
perfects its wares through refinement (cocaine>crack),
researches-and- develops new products, and aggressively markets its
wares to consumers. If the impersonal laws of supply and demand had
been allowed to play themselves out without interference, the global
drugs problem and its equally cancerous double (the industry of
policing, surveillance, incarceration, and civil rights infringement)
would never have reached anything like its current proportions.

When it comes to the war on drugs, neither cops nor crooks have
anything to gain from an armistice. "In Britain, there's a big
reassessment going on about drugs, and someone who argues the case for
decriminalization told me he'd been accosted at a public meeting by
a drug dealer, who asked 'are you trying to put me out of
business?!?'." Plant chuckles grimly. "There's a lot of very
different interests that are well served by the status quo." A sane,
pragmatic solution to the drugs problem? Plant isn't convinced we'll
see decriminalization in our lifetime. Sitting with the hookah pipe
in her hand in the mock-Moroccan murk of Kush, she doesn't look too
bothered, though--for there'll always be the fascinating trail of
havoc left by drugs for her to follow.
DFA and LCD SOUNDSYSTEM: label and band profile
Groove, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

For the last three years, DFA has been on a mission to make New York City live up to its own legend--"to be what it should be," as the label's co-founder James Murphy puts it. DFA's spiritual ancestors are early Eighties Manhattan labels like ZE, 99 and Sleeping Bag, pioneers of sounds like "punk-funk" and "mutant disco" that mixed dance culture's groove power with absurdist wit, dark humor and rock'n'roll aggression. The DFA sound flashes back to times and places when NYC's party-hard hedonism seemed to have both an edge and a point--Mudd Club, Hurrah's, Danceteria, Paradise Garage--but it rarely feels like a mere exercise in retro-pastiche.

The label's initial batch of vinyl-only singles in 2002--most famously "House of Jealous Lovers" by The Rapture and "Losing My Edge" by LCD Soundsystem--resurrected the idea of dance music spiked with punk attitude. Before long everybody was clamoring for a dose of DFA cool. Murphy, 34, and his English-born partner Tim Goldsworthy, 32, were touted as Superproducers, indieland's equivalent to the Neptunes. "Yeah I was the punk-funk Pharrell
Williams," laughs Murphy. "Which makes me Chad, I guess" adds Goldsworthy.

Janet Jackson phoned DFA and suggested collaborating, saying she wanted to do something "raw and funky" like "Losing My Edge." Amazingly, DFA sorta kinda forgot to follow up the call. Duran Duran were also interested in
getting DFA's magic touch. Most surreally, Goldsworthy and Murphy spent an afternoon in the studio with Britney Spears. "That was weird," says Goldsworthy. "Won't do that again. No offence to her--she's lovely. Got a foul mouth, though!" The brief session came to nothing, through lack of
common musical ground. "When we work with people, we hang out, listen to records, share stuff," says Murphy. "But with Britney we soon discovered we had absolutely no way of communicating. She didn't know anything that we
knew. I was excited when the idea was first broached, because I thought maybe there's something Britney wants to do, and it's fucking burning a hole in her, and we can find out what it is. And the collaboration could be embarrassing, a failure, but that's fine. But I think she's someone that's
very divorced from what she wants to do, there's been a set of performance requirements on her for such a long time, such that how would she even know what she wanted to do? And we never had time to found out anyway, because it
was like, 'she's available for four hours on Wednesday, write a song'. There's no way you can kid yourself you can make something real in those circumstances."

After these lost encounters with "the big time", DFA consciously backed away from the opportunities being thrust their way. "You stop returning phone calls, people get bored of you real quickly!" laughs Murphy. Instead, they concentrated on building up their own operation. The stance is bearing fruit now, with a freshly-inked global distribution deal between DFA and EMI. The first release under this new arrangement was the recent and highly impressive three-CD collection of DFA works so far, Compilation #2. It’s now followed by the brilliant debut album from LCD Soundsystem, which is James Murphy's own group.

Murphy and Goldsworthy originally met in inauspicious circumstances, as hired help for Irish deejay/producer/soundtrack composer David Holmes, who
was making his Bow Down To The Exit Sign album in Manhattan. Murphy did the engineering, Goldsworthy did the programming. The location was Murphy's West Village of Manhattan recording studio (now DFA's basement sound-lab). It didn't take long for the two technicians to suspect they were making most of the creative decisions. "Tim and I were forced to create a dialogue about how to
make sounds, because there was just this vague cloud of ideas coming from Holmes," says Murphy, gesturing to the back of the studio, where Holmes sat during the recording process. "Tim and I found we could talk about the most
subtle sonic things. Say, with Suicide, we could talk about the space between the two different organ sounds, or the lag between the organ playing and the drum machine beat, the way the two instruments don't lock together. Or we could talk about how earnest Alan Vega's Elvis-like vocal performance is, and how could we get that same quality out of the bass--a feeling that's earnest and embarrassing but saved by being actually totally for real."

Taking breaks from the recording grind, Goldsworthy and Murphy bonded further during Saturday night missions of full-on clubbing. Which is when Murphy, hitherto a typical indie-rock guy, had his dance music E-piphany. "Yeah, it's an unheard of story, isn't it?" he laughs. "A person who only
listens to rock goes off, does a mountain of Ecstasy, and gets converted to dance music".

The same thing had happened to Goldsworthy over a decade earlier, as an indiepop fan who got swept up in the UK's Ecstasy-fueled acid house revolution circa 1988. "I went from wearing an anorak and National Health spectacles into shaving my head and dancing in a field for eight hours!" In
the Nineties, Goldsworthy, like a lot of people, followed a vibe shift towards more chilled-out drugs (heavy weed) and moody, downtempo sounds, picking up especially on the music coming out of the early Nineties Bristol scene (very near where he grew up in the West of England). With his
schoolfriend James Lavelle, Goldsworthy co-founded the trip hop label Mo Wax, whose whole aesthetic owed a huge amount to Massive Attack's epochal 1991 album Blue Lines. Goldsworthy and Lavelle also made atmospheric and
increasingly over-ambitious music as the pivotal core of
UNKLE, a sort of post-trip hop supergroup that called upon diverse array of collaborators (ranging from DJ Shadow to Radiohead's Thom Yorke) on albums like Psyence Fiction. It's this background in "soundtrack for a non-existent
movie" music that led to Goldsworthy becoming the programming foil for David Holmes. Which ultimately led to him coming to Manhattan and meeting Murphy.

Goldsworthy had been through the whole dance culture experience and, like a lot of people, grown sick and tired of it. Murphy, a die-hard indie-rock/punk-rock guy, had always "loathed dance music. I thought it was all disco or C& C Music Factory. I didn't know anything about it and didn't
want to know anything about it. I'd really come up through the Pixies, the Fall, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, and all the Chicago noise punk stuff like Big Black." And in truth, when the two of them went out clubbing in New York while working on the Holmes record, there wasn't much going on in dance culture to counter either Goldsworthy's disillusion or Murphy's prejudice. The Manhattan scene was moribund. Goldsworthy had come to New York, a city that loomed large in his imagination because of hip hop and house, with high
expectations and was very disappointed. "I was shocked, it was so bad. You couldn't dance anywhere," he says, referring to Mayor Bloomberg's crackdown
on bars that had DJs spinning but didn't have the expensive "cabaret license" that nightclubs need to get to make it permissible for their patrons to wiggle their butts in time to the music. "It was fucking awful."

Beyond the specific malaise of Manhattan clubland, dance music at the close of the Nineties was going through a not very compelling phase. It was neither pushing fearlessly forward into the future with huge leaps of innovation like it had done for most of the Nineties, nor did it have that
edge-of-anarchy madness that characterized the rave scene in its early days. The superclubs were slick and soul-less. And technique-obsessed and genre-purist DJs had squeezed out an awful lot of vibe. By the start of
the new millennium, the new generation of hipster youth in New York and London had little interest in club culture, which seemed safe, passe and altogether lacking in cutting-edge glamour. These young cool kids were looking to guitar bands again, groups with stage moves and charismatic hair,
from the Strokes to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Murphy and Goldsworthy decided to rescue dance music from "McDepth--that McDonald's version of 'deep', where there's nothing there", Murphy explains. The duo cite everything from glitchy laptop musicians to Tortoise-style
post-rock to post-Blue Lines Massive Attack as examples of bogus profundity, chin-stroking pretentiousness, and terminal boredom. Revealingly, Murphy's MDMA revelation didn't occur listening to whatever passed for an Ecstasy
anthem in those days (Rolando's "Jaguar," say). No, the DJ dropped The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows"--one of his all-time favorite tunes--at exactly the point "when the drug was peaking" in his nervous system. And that gave Murphy the idea of "throwing parties and playing better music--like "Loose" by the Stooges--than what dance culture was offering at that time". Taking the name DFA--short for Death From Above, and originally the tag under which Murphy did infamously loud sound mixing for rock bands--they started throwing irregular parties in New York, based around the notion of bridging the considerable gap between Donna Summer and The Stooges. Soon, tired of endlessly playing their staple fare like Can and Liquid Liquid, the duo decided to make their own "dance-punk" tracks to spin.

"House Of Jealous Lovers" was their first stab. Dance distributors picked up the single purely for the house remix by Morgan Geist from cognoscenti-approved outfit Metro Area. "We'd heard his track 'Atmosphreak' and thought it was amazing," recalls Murphy. "One of the Rapture's friends,
Dan, was room mates with Morgan, and so we asked if he'd do a remix and he very kindly did one really cheap. It was only because of Morgan's remix that anyone took it--the dance distributors would often identify it in their orders as being by Morgan Geist." Ironically, and fatefully, it was DFA's original discopunk version that eventually took off.

"House of Jealous Lovers" arrived with perfect timing to catch the breaking wave of dancefloor taste shift towards edgy angularity--not just the rediscovery of Eighties groups like ESG and A Certain Ratio, but the emergence of neo-postpunk bands like !!!, Liars, Erase Errata, and Radio
Four (whom DFA also produced). But while The Rapture's slashing guitar and slightly-constipated, white-boys-getting-down funk bass flash you back to 1979 and UK agit-funk outfits like Gang of Four and Delta 5, Murphy &
Goldsworthy's production supplied the kind of pumping, monolithic regularity that made the track fully contemporary. "There were indie bands already
coming through doing that kind of rickety, Delta 5-style punk-funk, but we wanted to make records that house DJs would actually play," says Murphy. "We had a big talk with The Rapture about that Mr Oizo track 'Flat Beat', the
bassline in that tune. In 2000, when we were making 'House of Jealous Lovers', 'Flat Beat' was just about the only dance track around that was memorable. It was a tune you could remember, it fucked killed on the dancefloor, and it had incredible low end. So our attitude was, 'Jealous
Lovers' has to compete in that context. So we filtered the bass a lot, did a couple of layers of hi-hats and reversed them, took the drummer's playing and chopped it up." The drummer himself came up with the cowbell, which
eventually became a kind of DFA trademark. "House of Jealous Lovers" became a huge success on all kinds of different dancefloors. Some commentators regard it as the best single of the decade so far. It's certainly one of the most significant.

DFA's signature sound mixes Goldsworthy's computer wizardry and Murphy's background of engineering and playing in rock bands (DFA's remixes typically
feature his drumming, bass, and sometimes guitar). Two different kinds of knowledge mesh perfectly: Murphy's expertise at getting great drum sounds and capturing live "feel", Goldsworthy's digital editing skills and vast
sample-hound's knowledge of recorded music acquired during his Mo Wax days. Both guys look their respective parts. Slender, softspoken, and diffidently English in a way that often, he says, gets him mistaken for gay, Goldsworthy
seems like someone at home with delicate, intricate work--a century ago, you might have assumed from his intent, bespectacled gaze and fastidious manner that he was an engraver or watch-maker. Wearing a Taos ski resort T-shirt
and brown corduroy pants, the slightly pudgy and much more boisterous Murphy looks like your archetypal American indie-rock studio rat.

After a low-key spell in late 2003/early 2004--a steady flow of fine but not exactly throat-grabbing releases, from The Juan Maclean, Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom, and Black Dice--DFA came back strong in the last few months of 2004 with two of their most exciting singles yet. Pixeltan's "Get Up/Say What" is classic DFA discopunk, simultaneously raw and slick, while "Sunplus" by J.O.Y.--a Japanese outfit helmed by K.U.D.O, Goldsworthy's Tim 's former partner in UNKLE, and featuring guest vocals from Yoshimi P-We of the Boredoms--beautifully updates the thorny, fractured postpunk funk of LiLiPUT and The Slits. Like most DFA releases, these tracks came out as vinyl 12 inches. But don't fret if you've got no turntable--you can also find them on Compilation #2. Attractively packaged with the label’s trademark minimal design, the box set pulls together everything that wasn't on their first, not wholly satisfactory compilation, throws in a terrific bonus mix CD executed by Tim Goldsworthy and Tim Sweeney, and altogether
showcases a formidable body of work. Two highlights are Liquid Liquid's "Bellhead," a brand-new DFA recording of an old song by one of their Eighties postpunk heroes, formerly on the legendary 99 Records label, and the 15 minute disco-delic journey-into-sound that is "Casual Friday" by
Black Leotard Front (an alter ego for Gonzalez and Russom).

And now there’s the second release under the global distribution deal with EMI, the debut album from LCD Soundsystem, which people are already talking about as a contender for best album of 2005. In the studio, LCD is basically a James Murphy solo project with occasional help from friends who drop by, and some spiritual guidance from Goldsworthy. Live, though, LCD swells into a proper band, and a surprisingly powerful one, its sheer rock-funk force bringing to mind at various points Happy Mondays, the Lo-Fidelity Allstars, and The Stooges gone disco.

Released not long after “House Of Jealous Lovers”, LCD’s debut single “Losing My Edge” was the first indication that DFA weren’t just a pair of capable remixers, but that there was in fact a whole sensibility, aesthetic, and ethos behind the label, as well as a groovy retro-nuevo sound. Sung by Murphy, the song is the plaint of a cool hunter type--a musician, or DJ, or record store clerk, or possibly all three--who’s agonizingly aware that he’s slipping, as younger kids outdo his esoteric knowledge with even more obscure reference points. “I'm losing my edge to the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978,” the character whines. “To the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties”. The aging hipster’s claims of priority and having been first-on-the-block get more and more absurd: “I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City/I was working on the organ sounds with much patience… I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids/I played it at CBGB's… I was there in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan/I was there in Jamaica during the great sound clashes/I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988.”

As well as being a hilarious auto-critique of hipsterism, “Losing My Edge” obliquely captured something of the pathos of the modern era. All this massive ever-accumulating knowledge about music history, the huge array of arcane influences and sources available thanks to the reissue industry and peer-to-peer filesharing, all the advantages we have today in terms of technology and how to get good sounds, have resulted in a kind of a kind of crisis of “well made” music, where producers are scholars of production, know how to get a great period feel, yet it seems harder and harder to make music that actually matters, in the way that the music that inspired them mattered in its own day. “Record collection rock” is my term for this syndrome, although the malaise is just as prevalent in dance culture (look at the perennial return of the 303 acid bass, each time sounding more exhausted and unsurprising).

“Losing My Edge” was very funny, but also poignant. Murphy agrees. “It’s incredibly sad. It took people a while to pick up on that. At first they were like, ‘ha! You got ‘em’, like it was just a satire on hipsters. What’s truly sad, though, is that the initial inspiration for it was from my deejaying in the early days of DFA, playing postpunk and an eclectic mix of dance and rock. And suddenly everybody started playing that kind of mixture, and I thought ‘fuck, now it’s a genre and I’m fucked, I’m not going to get hired’. My response was, “I was doing this first,” and then I realized that was pathetic, that I was this 31 year old hipster douchebag. So at the end of “Losing My Edge,” that’s why there’s the long list of bands-- Pere Ubu, Todd Terry, PIL, the Fania All-Stars, the Bar-Kays, Heldon, Gentle Giant, the Human League, Roy Harper, Sun Ra, on and on--‘cos in the end that’s what my attitude reduced to, just running around trying to yell the names of cool bands before anybody else!”. He says that a big part of DFA’s attitude is that “we definitely try to shoot holes in our own cool as fast as we can, because being cool is one of the worst things for music.” He cites DFA’s disco-flavored remix of Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon” as an example, its softness representing a deliberate swerve from the obvious punk-funk sound that DFA were known for.

“Beat Connection”, the even more impressive flipside to “Losing,” was also a meta-music statement, with Murphy accusing everyone on the dancefloor of colluding in lameness. “Everybody here needs a shove/Everybody here is afraid of fun/It’s the saddest night out in the USA/Nobody’s coming undone.” He explains that this was inspired by his and Goldsworthy’s experience of the “really uptight” New York club scene at the tail-end of the Nineties. When Murphy compares his lyrical approach to The Stooges--“really simple, repetitive, quite stupid”--he hits it on the nail. “Beat Connection” is dance culture’s counterpart to The Stooges 1969 classic “No Fun.” Which was probably the very first punk song--indeed the Sex Pistols did a brilliant cover version of it.

When people talk about LCD Soundsystem and DFA, though, the word that comes up isn’t punk rock so much as postpunk--Public Image Ltd (the band John Lydon formed after the Pistols broke up), Gang of Four, Liquid Liquid, etc. Murphy originally got into this era of music when he was working as sound engineer and live sound mixer for Six Finger Satellite, an abrasive mid-Nineties band who were precocious--indeed premature--in referencing the postpunk period well before it became hip again circa 2001. In a 1995 interview with me, Six Finger Satellite were already namedropping late Seventies outfits like Chrome and This Heat. They also recorded an all-synth and heavily Devo-influenced mini-album, Machine Cuisine, as a sideline from their more guitar-oriented, Big Black-like albums. “Going on tour with Six Finger Satellite was one of those super fertile times in my life in terms of finding out about music,” recalls Murphy. “They were like ‘do you know about Deutsche Amerikanishce Freundschaft? Do you know about Suicide?’, and they dumped all this knowledge on me while we were driving around the country from gig to gig. This was a few years before I met Tim, which was itself another very fertile and immersive period in terms of new music.” The Six Finger Satellite connection endures. DFA act The Juan Maclean is actually Six Finger guitarist John Maclean, making Kraftwerk-like electronica.

“Losing My Edge” b/w “Beat Connection” was followed by two more excellent LCD singles, “Give It Up” b/w “Tired” and “Yeah” (which came in a “Crass version” and a “Pretentious Version” and managed to make the 303 acid-bass sound quite exciting, against all the odds). These six early single tracks are collected on the bonus disc that comes with the debut LCD Soundsystem album. Running through a lot of the CD--particularly songs like “Movement” and “On Repeat”-- is that same meta-musical rage you heard in “Losing” and “Beat”: a poisoned blend of a desire for music to be revolutionary and dangerous, along with a defeatist, crippled-by-irony awareness that the age of musical revolution may be long past. “Movement,” the single, fuses the sentiments of “Losing My Edge” and “Beat Connection”, with Murphy surveying the music scene and pointing the finger--“it’s like a culture, without the effort, of all the culture/it’s like a movement, without the bother, of all of the meaning”--and then confessing to being “tapped”, meaning exhausted, sapped of energy and inspiration. Although the sentiment could apply just as equally to dance culture, Murphy says the song is specifically a reaction to all the talk of guitar rock making a comeback, “all the inanity that gets bandied about as rock journalism. It’s a complete rip of fashion journalism--‘the high waisted pant is BACK’. Like that's supposed to mean something. I mean, I hope you don't go around hearing ‘abstract expressionism is BACK! and HOTTER than EVER!’ in art mags.”

“On Repeat” is yet another LCD song about the ennui that comes when you’re been into music for a long time: the awareness of the cycles repeating, the eternal return of the same personae and poses, archetypes and attitudes, reshuffled with slight variations. “That attitude is where I’m coming from all of the time,” says Murphy. “The lyric referring to ‘the new stylish creep’--that’s me! The song is about hating what you are, and that giving you strength to hate everything else. It's weird. I love music so much that I want to drown it forever. Destroy everything.”

You can hear these conflicted emotions in Murphy’s singing voice. It has a weird tetchy texture that evokes a mixture of exasperation and fatigue, sounds at once spirited and dispirited. Murphy says that’s an accurate reflection of how he feels when he’s recording vocals. “It murders me. I hate hearing my own stupid voice in the headphones, with all the singerly bits and false poses. I sometimes have to sing things over and over until I hate the song, until there's no posy vocal bits in there that make me cringe. That song, ‘On Repeat,’ in particular was hell to do. But in the end I like it. Or at least I feel like I can stand behind it”. In terms of that frayed, worn-out quality to LCD vocals, Murphy says “I usually compress the shit out of the vocal with a VCA
compressor, which is really brutal. And I try to mix them so that the frequencies are like "Mother of Pearl" by Roxy Music or "Poptones" by PiL”.

Yet for all the lyrical and vocal notes of disillusionment and frustration running through LCD Soundsystem, the music itself is full of exuberance and playfulness, a delight in the sheer pleasures and possibilities of sound. “Too Much Love,” which seems to be a song about drug burn-out and excessive nocturnal socializing, features an awesome grating synth-whine that makes me think of a serotonin-depleted brain whimpering on the Tuesday after a wild weekend. Another standout track, “Disco Infiltrator” nods to Kraftwerk with its imitation of the eerie synth-riff from 1980’s “Home Computer.” It’s not a sample but a recreation, says Murphy. “It just an ascending chromatic scale, really. It's not rocket science!” The track also features some sweet semi-falsetto singing from Murphy that sounds like David Byrne circa Talking Heads’ Remain In Light. “It's just my shitty soul voice,” laughs Murphy. “Al Green has a beautiful soul, so that's what you hear coming through in his voice. My soul is absolute rubbish, so that's what comes out!”

The closing “Great Release” seems like a homage to Brian Eno’s song-based albums like Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy and Another Green World. “Actually, it’s Here Comes the Warm Jets-era Eno,” laughs Murphy. “It’s not a homage, though--I hate that word. No, I just like the type of energy that some Eno/Bowie stuff got, and some of the space of Lou Reed stuff, like ’Satellite of Love’. Some journalist got kind of stroppy with me about that song, and all I could think was, ‘is there seriously some problem with there being too many songs that use sonic spaces similar to early Eno solo work? I mean, is this really something we
need to talk about before it gets out of control?!?’”. I WISH I had that problem. Or is the problem just me--that I'm not being original enough? Because if it is, then let's just dump rock in the fucking ocean and call it a day, because I'm doing the best I can for the moment!”

Best of all is “Thrills,” in which Murphy comes off like Iggy Pop singing over a track that fuses The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” with Suicide’s “Dance,” over a fat bassline not a million miles from Timo Maas. Actually, Murphy says, the inspiration for the bass-and-percussion groove is Missy Elliott's “Get Yr Freak On”. “I made the original version of ‘Thrills’ right when that came out. I loved that era of mainstream hip hop, it was a free-for-all. And just the bass of it.”

Of course, all these comparisons and reference points only underscore the point I earlier made in reference to “Losing My Edge”: the poignancy of living in a “late” era of culture, the insurmountable-seeming challenge of competing with the accumulated brilliance of the past and creating any kind of sensation of new-ness. “Yeah, that is kind of tattooed on my stomach,” says Murphy, referring to this pained awareness of belatedness. He acknowledges that “great influences do not a great record make”. And yet despite all the odds, the LCD album is a great record.

When I mention the American literary critic Harold Bloom’s concept of “anxiety of influence”--which argues that “strong” artists suffer from an acute sense of anguish that everything has been done before, and that makes them struggle against their predecessors in a desperate Oedipal attempt to achieve originality--Murphy flips out. “It's hilarious that you say this--I mention Bloom's anxiety theory pretty regularly in interviews! This is the shit I've been screaming about for years. Learning and progress has always been based on learning from the past. Real originality never comes from trying to defeat the past right out of the gate. It's a spark of an individual idea caused by the love/hate relationship between a "listener" and the "sound". I love music, and it inspired me at first to copy it, then to be ashamed of copying it, then to make music in "modes" (genres) while trying to pretend they were original, then finally making music with a purpose--which for me was dance music. It made people dance. It was no longer just music to make you look cool and feel like you were part of something you admire.

“I don't feel like I'm in any danger of making ‘retro’ music, but at the same time, there are things about the ways various people who've come before me did things
that I prefer greatly to the way ‘modern’ things are done. I use a computer. I edit and do all sorts of modern shit, but there are things I consciously do that were done in songs I love from before me.”

As much as love, though, it’s hate that inspires LCD Soundsystem in equal measure. “I hate the way bands stand on stage, the gear they use, the crew they hire to tune their tedious guitars, the love they have for their special ‘guitar amp, the belief in their fragile, phoney little singer who's a fucking sham. They are not and will never be Iggy Pop. Neither will I, or my band, but we know it, and we're trying our fucking best to be the LCD Soundsystem. Complete with its laundry list of influences, failures and idiocies. At least you go onstage knowing that, good or bad, no one is like you.”

* * * * *

Many labels never survive the initial hype storm of being hip. Murphy recalls a peculiar, uncomfortable phase when "we kept seeing magazines with profiles of DFA, but we weren't really releasing anything at the time." Now,
though, he's thankful that "we're not ascendant anymore. At this point we're kind of cruising along. And it's nice. It doesn't feel like it's out of our control anymore."

And what about New York, the city whose mythos is so central to DFA? Is it living up to its own reputation at the moment? "It's a great city, but people get lazy here," says Murphy. "So we and a few other people we think
of as allies, we go into phases of trying to punch the city into being interesting, Then we go home for a couple of months and hang out with our wives and cook. And then it's like, 'okay, time to go out punching again'. And it's getting to be about that time again. For a while, we were like 'oh
fuck them, let them live in their filth of terrible parties, shitty DJs, just doing the same thing'. See I can't go to these parties where people play records that are sent to them by promoters 'cos they're genre djs, part of a genre. I've always loathed that. And then I found myself in that
situation again," Murphy sighs, referring to the way DFA gets lumped together with Black Strobe and Trevor Jackson of Playgroup/Output, the way genre-crossing becomes its own kind of genre. "That's not what I signed up
for, you know? I didn't leave indie rock to end up back in indie rock!"