Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher and Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” — a Sonic Fiction of Capitalist Realism
In December 2019, the cultural theorist and P/A contributing editor, Macon Holt, published his first book, “Pop Music and Hip Ennui: A Sonic Fiction to Capitalist Realism”, from Bloomsbury Academic. In this essay Holt explains key points of the book and tries to answer the question, What is a Sonic Fiction of Capitalist Realism?, drawing on the writings by Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher and Slavoj Žižek, afrofuturist artefacts by Sun Ra and Drexciya, as well as pop music manifests by Jessie J and Beyoncé.
Essay by Macon Holt. Illustration by Joakim Drescher. Photo by Nick Lowe (creative commons).
It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. – David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest
We are surrounded by pop music almost all the time. By definition ‘popular music’ is the broadest cultural product, created by humans for our passing times. Even if we are purposely not listening to the charts, elements of pop permeate the supposedly “good taste” in music that we have cultivated. We find the formal traces of pop in the median tack length of three to four minutes, the curated shuffle functions of streaming services that emulate the pop radio DJs of old, and the very fact that, to date, so much music has even been recorded in the first place. It made it much easier to sell. Back when we could go outside, the cafés, the bars, the clubs, the shops, the malls all resonated with the hum of pop music. The air literally vibrated with the emotional and artistic intent of other people, sometimes teams of professional writers, formed into the commodities of the culture industry. This is a major part of the affective atmosphere of late capitalism; an atmosphere of potential and possibility, of desire and catharsis, of nostalgia and complicity. For better and worse this is the soundtrack to our lives as people, as subjects, as consumers, and as units of human capital.
I wrote a PhD thesis about pop music in the conditions of life after the global economic crisis of 2008. But this meant that, from the start, I had kind of made a mistake. If I was trying to describe this situation in the strictly “real world”, then my terms seemed impossible to define without reducing them to descriptive inadequacy. What exactly were the conditions of life after the global economic crisis? Could I really describe the disparate experiences of this historical moment with a definite article? A moment in which economic instability has seen thousands suddenly relying on food banks and thousands more drowning in the medeterranean in the attempt to migrate to countries of ostensible economic safety. And at the same time, it was a moment in which the financial sector, which had caused the global economic crisis, was more profitable than ever. Simultaneously a technology sector—which was in the process of transforming music into something you rented access to rather than owned—was going through a moment in which seemingly any inane idea could gain billions in angel investment just by putting a social media platform front end of a service no one needed. The role of pop music in the lives of these disparate people was as incomparable as the lives themselves. And what even was popular music? Was it something everybody else listened to and only read about by people who didn’t really listen to it? When you look at a musicology curiculum pop just seems neither classical or jazz, unless you read Adorno.
Yet despite these limitations, the problems and questions I wanted to examine seemed to remain there, hovering at some point just over the horizon, or maybe just perpetually out of focus. The object of research was real even if it resisted easy empirical categorization. For a long time, I resisted it but in the end, as is nearly always the case, the best method for dealing with these kinds of problems in cultural research—of knowing an object of research is there by the traces it leaves around you but not being able to point to it directly—is to develop your method.
Sonic Fiction: Sun Ra to Drexciya
So, I engaged with a methodology called sonic fiction that was arguably invented by Kodwo Eshun in his 1998 book, “More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction”. I say arguably because it’s hard to make the definite claim that Eshun was inventing anything concrete in that book, let alone self consciously developing a methodology for academic inquiry. The book is a broadside against the mediocrities of music journalism and academic analysis that have held back our understanding of music for much of the 20th century and, albeit in a weakened state, still persist in doing so today. On the one side, you had music journalism which tended to treat any music that was not explicitly “concept” driven (usually white rock) as a kind of black box for the generation of “trivial” pleasure. Especially if the music was lyricless. This approach is captured in the sentiment that Eshun cites, that “[g]ood music speaks for itself”. On the other side, there were the misguided well-meaning sociologists and musicologists who would swoop in to tell you that certain musics aren’t “only” about pleasure (though as has been shown following the work of Richard Dyer, there is nothing wrong with that). No, they would tell you what they really meant in relation to this or that economic-sociopolitical context based on the supposedly universal significance of some formal aesthetic detail. As Eshun puts it, the arrogance of this position is that “like a headmaster, theory teaches today’s music a thing or 2 about life.”
For Eshun, the excesses of these positions have often produced some perniciously racist discourse. Letting “black music” speak for itself often reduces it to some kind of “soulful” return-to-nature primitivism. And explaining it in the terms that the academy already fully understood meant that this music could never be the manifestation of actual agency beyond the post-colonial redemption narrative of modern liberalism. Nothing could escape this “belated fate”. Rather than wasting more time with these methods that sought to tame music’s unruly potential and make it into an object of research about which one can make clever little observations while building a career, Eshun decided to create through and alongside this music. In the book, he tries to channel the flows of posthuman agency that afrofuturist music unfurls and, in so doing, articulate a future that could only be seen from the peak of this delirious high. In “More Brilliant than the Sun” book, Sun Ra is the Pharaoh from Saturn here to return the black people of earth to their rightful place ruling among the stars. The mythology of Drexciya’s “Neptune’s Lair” is combined with the engineering and science of music production to articulate new modes of techno-resistance in the Black Atlantis. And Eshun is participating in these projects not evaluating them. In short, sonic fiction treats music not as a text to be analysed and decoded but as an interlocutor to engage and argue with (for and against and through). Sonic fiction forces the critic to realise that rather than passing some kind of judgement on the art objects relationship to the “trad sublime”, they are creating a sonic possible world.
Eshun’s main purpose in inventing sonic fiction was to amplify the connections between a set of music works and practice, and a radical vision offered up by the political aesthetics of Afrofuturism. He saw a posthuman potential embedded in these aesthetics and practices. A potential that could move past these redemption narratives (the insistence on “fixing” what colonialism and slavary “broke” that, according to Stafano Harney and Fred Moten, still positions blackness as the problem) and instead play an active role in shaping the invention of the future. That when critics articulated something about music, they were part of the same cultural networks as the music that they believed themselves to merely be commenting upon. And that all of this only exists because we are able to engage in the semi-fictional activity of co-creating this culture. It’s because of this that I think that sonic fiction always has to have some kind of project in mind. An alternia motive that extends beyond musical immediacy. Some kind of orientation towards a future world the author/listener wants to bring into being. Or merely an intolerable present they wish to tear down.
While this sonic fiction of “More Brilliant than the Sun” was focused on intensifying the experience of what gets called “black music” to bring about some kind of afrofuture, I wanted to take this approach to amplify a different kind of material. I wanted to explore the connection between the popular music that surrounds us as a fact of day to day life and the political/economic/affective conditions of that life, what Eshun’s colleague and collaborator Mark Fisher had called in the wake of the global financial crisis, ‘capitalist realism’.
The role of a theorist was as an intensifier – Mark Fisher on/with Kodwo Eshun
Capitalist Realism: London 2012 and Jessie J
Capitalist realism is atmospheric. As I understand it, capitalist realism is a symptom of neoliberalism—a term that is as resistant to definition as it is in need of it. If neoliberalism describes the dominant political philosophy of the West following the conservative revolution of the 1980s in the UK and USA, then capitalist realism is the feeling or limit to thinking imposed by the project of making neoliberalism synonymous with realism itself—of making neoliberalism an invisible ideology. Capitalist realism is a way of describing how the world looks to us, how it can feel to move through it, and how it can induce one to act in order to survive in it. As Margret Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative” to free-market capitalism.
Capitalist realism is a way of coming to terms with this by getting with the program. While political decisions are being made to privatize public utilities and services in line with the ideological position of neoliberalism that such things are made more efficient by marketization, capitalist realism is the feeling that any attempt to resist this is defeated from the start. And this defeat permeates every corner of our lives and forecloses the future in an endless repetition of the present; scrolling for more precarious employment opportunities on smartphones of increasingly high resolutions. Under this reality, we detach from one another and adopt a disposition of hip ennui, lest the desire to change the world be transformed into the inevitable pain of failure. For Fisher, capitalist realism was an insidious idea virus that had infected leftist political organizing with a reflexive impotence and had trapped so many in conditions of anxiety and depression. And while it can be understood in these terms, one of the reasons that capitalist realism is such a resonant concept was Fisher’s use of movies, books and music to articulate it and how it works. Capitalist realism is best observed obliquely.
Imagine a scene. It’s the middle of August 2012 and the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. This is the close of what, for almost a decade, every media outlet in the country had claimed we were building to. The star around which all political and public life must navigate. How will the global economic crisis affect the games? How will the riots of 2011 “tarnish” Britain’s image around the world ahead of London 2012? The opening had been a surprise hit. Yes, it had been sentimental but also surprisingly complex in its celebration of the British cultural milestones including literary figures, the blitz and the founding of the health service. There was even what seemed like a, not of ambivalence or subtle critique in the depiction of the industrial revolution with William Blake’s invocation of “dark satanic mills”. As ever, the violent legacy of colonialism was mostly overlooked but the casting of performers along the lines of politically correct liberal cosmopolitanism had at least pissed of the right newspapers with legacies of Nazi sympathies. Core to making the opening hit home had been the music. The mix of rousing anthems, the artefacts of Britain making pop history from The Beatles, to New Order, to Dizzy Rascal obscured the inherent nationalism of the event under a wash of emotional triggers. This was good, it seemed. This meant something. Unlike those riots the previous summer. Unlike the consequences of building an economy on toxic personal debt.
The closing ceremony was something different, however. Something that seemed, paradoxically, more artlessly decadent and cheaper. It was a pop concert for a, now, almost certainly almost entirely British audience, who, despite the clear presence of huge crowds in the stands, were predominantly watching on TV. The best albeit saccharine face forward opening ceremony that had cynically been deployed to both silence descent through a placating dose of positive affects and serve as PR for international business relations had receded. So the closing more about ideological maintenance. This project was crystalised at the moment when the singer Jessie J delivered the chorus “It’s not about the Money Money Money, I don’t care about the price tag, I just wanna make the world dance”, from the back of a Rolls-Royce in a motorcade of Rolls-Royces. The irony of this was palpable to me watching the event on TV. In the years following the financial crisis of 2008 and the election of the Conservative Party had led to deep cuts to public services from community support to unemployment benefits to healthcare, education and the arts. And yet while these “tough choices” were being made by the government, the Olympics had seemed to always have been able to increase their budget, despite the expenditure on such an extravagance clearly contradicting the line that the country had been living beyond its means for too long. So to be told that all of this spectacle was not about the money was galling because clearly it seemed the money was there for those who could benefit from the international PR boost.
But while the moment may have seemed ripe for parody—a Žižekian analysis of the ironic unconscious contradictions—one reason that there were no critiques of Jessie J’s incongruous lyrics at the time was that these words were not just inaudible but irrelevant. To find ways in which you can show you are smarter than the lyrics of a pop song in a specific context is a useless skill. Such critique deforms what it studies to make it more palatable to an audience who believe their tastes are too refined to actually listen to pop music but wish to have some control through knowledge of this part of the world. The affects of a song cannot be reduced to ideology. The pleasure that it engenders as it washes over its listeners, who may well be unaware of the identity or content of the song, cannot be dismissed as the spoonful of sugar to help the bitter medicine of life under neoliberalism go down. Because while this may be the case to a certain extent to understand contemporary popular music, it is not sufficient to dismiss the search for collective enjoyment as irredeemably complicit. In a world that seems intent on limiting the forms enjoyment can take to the privatised commodities of the attention economy, people take the collective where they can find it. What is more, as problematic as the Olympics were and continue to be, as much as they represent a gastly union between nationalism and global capitalism, they provided us with an opportunity to see a hunger for collectivity that we need to know is there if we are to escape capitalist realism. A hunger for collective enjoyment that pop can only provide in brief doses. A hunger that must be harnessed to give structure and force to our political demands.
The Epistemic Resistance of Beyonce’s “Lemonade”
In 2016, Beyoncé released the visual album “Lemonade” to international acclaim. It was a staggering success in terms of both the reach and the depth of its influence. For some it seems to be affirmation of the power of black women who had too long been scorned by the white supremicist patriarchy. Of course, as the theorist, bell hooks, was quick to point out, this welcome celebration of black female power was, at the same time, a celebration of “capitalist money making at its best”. While this is a valid point, it also forms the basis of a convergence of two reductive and seeming contradictory critiques of the album. These were the leftist critiques of Beyoncé’s deployment of sexuality as a way to get even with her cheating partner as somehow anti-feminist, and the conservative critique of the same that such action was immoral. That she would get more wealthy by promoting such behaviour was abhorrent to both groups. But, like the example with Jessie J above, these points of view load way too much significance on to the textual meaning of the songs on the record and then come in to teach this music “a thing or 2 about life”. What’s more in doing so it expressed a kind of racist misogyny. While many white male artists, like Father John Misty, are seemingly allowed to play with ideas and not fully commit to them, every utterance of a black female artist is taken as the expression of some kind of naive authenticity, even in the context of a record as sprawling and multifaceted in “Lemonade”, in its exploration of betrayal, grief and structural racism.
But at the same time, we can’t just insist that this music “speak for itself” as that would just be a celebration of naive authenticity rather than a condemnation of it. Instead, “Lemonade” needs to be examined through the sonic fiction that it can be said to weave. And this sonic fiction reveals something about the forces of the atmosphere of capitalist realism that press upon it that may not be expected. I agree with the perspective of the sociologist Zandria Robinson, who blogged shortly after the release of the album’s lead single, “Formation”, that it offered a kind of “epistemic resistance”. “Lemonade” in general, and “Formation” in particular, pulls focus onto ways of being and forms of life that had heretofore not been considered appropriate for capitalist commodification. While one could argue that blackness had long been commodified through popular music, the articulations of blackness on display in “Formation” go beyond this limit of what is palatable for the average imagined white male (or white male adjacent consumer). As Robinson writes, “It is a recognition of one another at the blackness margins–woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant–before an overt action.”
In short, “Lemonade” as an example of capitalist money making at its best seems simultaneously to be at odds with those identities, bodies and class positions at the centre of the world produced by capitalist realism. While it is certainly an incredibly effective commercial product, “Lemonade” also ruptures the restrictions on who is allowed to make money. As we saw with Eshun’s sonic fiction of Afrofuturism, this is not a tale of suffering and redemption. It is instead a tale of suffering and conquest. However, unlike the despotism of the space pharaoh, Sun Ra, this conquest is not in the future but in the horrific conditions of the present. “Lemonade” forces us to ask, who can afford for capitalist realism to be maintained? Who does this reflexive impotence serve? Who can no longer afford to wait for this impasse to be overcome? And, as this new frontier of capitalist money making opens up through the popularity of “Lemonade”—because as she sings, Beyoncé “might just be a black Bill Gates in the making”—will the interests of capital stay aligned with the interests of those with bodies best suited to move through atmosphere capitalist realism?
In his book “Capitalist Realism”, Mark Fisher explores the old leftist cliché that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. But the way that he explores it is a little different than just a dire invocation that all hope is now lost. Indeed Fisher and Eshun shared a philosophical perspective that understands worlds not as the mere material word that surrounds us but as the way that matter comes to be meaningful to us. For decades the mechanisms of meaning making that maintain our world—in which popular music is entirely entangled and particularly effective—have seemed utterly unchangeable. In 2020, with a pandemic ranging around the world, this unchangeability is starting to seem a little shaky. But then, it looked shaky after 2008 too. And Fisher wrote in 2009 that “the long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity.” While attempts have been made on the left to tear down “the grey curtain of reaction” that is capitalist realism, they have, so far, been too limited in their effect. The neoliberal right, however, grasped that moment of the global economic crisis as an opportunity to institute crippling austerity and, in doing so, laid the foundations for the current crisis. It is afterall, as Philip Mirrowski has shown, their dogma to “never let a serious crisis go to waste”. So the question is not will the world be different after the pandemic? But how will it be different? And who will this new world serve?
If there is a criticism to be made about the use of popular music in Fisher’s book, it is that it serves mostly to illustrate exactly how fucked we are. Many have found solidarity in this and comradeship in knowing they weren’t alone in noticing the deadend aesthetics that surrounded them. But it somewhat leaves the project of inventing a liberated future to be the theoretical analysis. This is not representative of Fisher’s music writing more generally, which is always on the hunt for the imaginative resources that music can readily provide as theory tries to catch up. Indeed, as Eshun put it, “you don’t need any Heidegger, because Clinton’s already theoretical”. He goes on, “so, what I’ve done is extract these concepts and set them to work”. In a similar way to the musical afrofuturism explored in “More Brilliant than the Sun”, the pop music of contemporary capitalist realism is not in need of redemption. It’s entanglement in the systems of oppression, commodity production, capital extraction and affective management is constitutive of its essence, and what makes it so problematic and so powerful. Rather than foolishly trying to save pop music from itself, a sonic fiction of capitalist realism provides a way to mine into this affective atmosphere. It is a method by which to utilise the pop music commodities that surround and forms us—the horror it masks and the joy it ignites—to generate the resources to find spaces beyond this world of iterating crises, so we might bring to an end to it and build something new.
Macon Holt holds a ph.d. from The Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University of London and is a contributing editor of Passive/Aggressive. His book “Pop Music and Hip Ennui: A Sonic Fiction to Capitalist Realism” is available now via Bloomsbury Academic.