Chris Petit / Mordant Music – The Museum of Loneliness
Label: Test Centre
The fledgling field of Hauntology has by now more or less petered out as a potential source from which to draw political inspiration. Derrida’s gnomic, literary gymnastics in Specters of Marx generated some interest at the time, notably the symposium involving Fred Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and Toni Negri, later published as Ghostly Demarcations. But it was several years after the fact - this time sponsored by Wire journalists Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, that it re-emerged as a predominantly aesthetic concept with which to appraise musical forms. A whole raft of artists subsequently found themselves being analysed in a most peculiar fashion. There was talk of ghosts of past political possibilities haunting present cultural forms, of non-nostalgic appropriation, of ontology as conjuration, and a profusion of talk on the political value of re-using public educational broadcasts from the 1970s. Artists as different as Burial, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and the Ghost Box label were drawn into this admittedly minority form of writing as conferences were hastily organised and papers submitted. Predictably, when mediated through the apparatus of high brow music journalism, and subsequently re-filtered through networks of distributors, label promotional materials and countless appropriations by artists and commentators the concept now appears in a somewhat confused and ragged state.
Fortunately this LP, a collaboration between novelist and film maker Chris Petit and reluctant one time hauntological renegade Mordant Music has taken the best of what became the normative description for this music and improvised the rest, producing a dizzying fifty minute trip of text and textual interpretation that breathes new life into the genre. Petit’s themes signal his intent: The Museum of Loneliness acknowledges that the primary modern relation is with the screen, the digital screen as well as the psychological screen; he intones early on the second side. The basic framework may seem familiar; the mapping of cultural memory in the present, the exploding of conventional narrative, the relativisation of accepted idioms, all that might be subsumed under that loose signifier “post-modern”. Petit’s aesthetic however includes a psychogeographer’s concern with place and an almost obsessive approach to the ephemera of cinema. For the most part though the record revolves around Petit reading of some of the more Ballardian passages from his novels Robinson, The Hard Shoulder, and The Passenger. Mordant Music in turn provides a suitably dystopic and disorientating collage of rhythms, distorted field recordings and warped electronics.
The opening fourteen minutes of side one are perhaps the most uncanny. Petit’s narrative drawn from Robinson tells a vaguely noirish story of moral decay set amid a tattered London Soho. His nasal and slightly sneering tone is well suited to describe with clinical detachment the sordid games of Robinson in his underground video suite. Petit the psychogeographer is given free rein in the climactic fantasy where amid the flood Soho “breaks free from the rest of the city and the smoke and fire; Robinson the dirty roamer of Oxford street gone from the rupture”. This section also introduces the first of the lists that appear on the record. The context is absent, leaving tantalisingly ambiguous the sources for the images that range from William Blake walking down Poland Street (shadowed by a dog) to the only person not laughing in an audience. Is it a series of cuts from Robinson’s film? a piece of internal cinema? or a synthesis of both, thus deliberately blurring the borders between the digital and psychological screen. Other lists appear on the second side including one musing on what a museum of loneliness might actually be: museum as attitude; the museum of loneliness as a roving parasite; it is not funded by the CIA; it is most at home in the departure lounge; the museum of loneliness believes institutional thinking no longer reads the modern world. The third list which finishes the record harks back to Petit’s former calling as film editor for Time Out magazine and is made up of incidents, items and facts from the history of cinema. The music at this point provides an almost metronomic backdrop to the words which appear as equal parts liturgy and a series of options from an automated telephone exchange; Morricone’s music, Jane Birkin looking through a keyhole, Sue Lloyd to Michael Caine “do you always wear your glasses...
Here and in the other lists I recall a line from Derrida’s book: “The spectral rumour now resonates, it invades everything: the spirit of the “sublime” and the spirit of “nostalgia” cross all borders” (pg169). Amongst the infinite multiplicity of possible narratives Petit highlights the glaring dead end of hauntology as a form of thought to escape the “eternal now”. The sheer indeterminacy of cultural memory, how it is impossible to distinguish a truly political yearning for past possibilities from a nostalgic appropriation from a mere recalling of minutia from the past, undermines the claim to privileging some forms of recollection over others. One of signatures of post-modernity (or hypermodernity as Petit names it at one point) is the relativity of historical appropriation. Ghost Box records might imagine an alternative 1970s, while Burial laments the death of rave culture, and The Caretaker renders ballroom records from the 20s into creeping miasmas of sound. In each of these cases there is a technique at work much of which can be located in Pierre Schaeffer’s work on the acousmatic object in the 1950s and 60s. The idea made palpable by the advent of disk cutting lathes and soon after magnetic audio tape is that small pieces of sound, be they voices, instrumental sound, or field recordings, could be abstracted from their source and relocated in dislocated form into new compositions. These days we call it sampling. This uncanny effect of dislocation is the basic sonic logic at work in Petit and Mordant Music’s record to which they augment with the literary themes of memory aphasia.
Similarly with the image comes a necessity for intervention, for as Petit says during the excursus on the meaning of the Museum: “with the image bank exploded it behove someone to begin reassembling.” But without any normative criteria with which to appraise the images and competing narratives , with the effacing of the subject to whom this task would fall, the resultant cultural and historical word soup provides little more than the option of a higher gear for contemporary spectacle. A necessity to act, to build a narrative without any solid ground to build on; this is perhaps one way to understand what Derrida means when (quoting Hamlet) he refers to the world as being out of joint. And so as with Robinson the only thing that matters becomes the myth one makes for oneself. Petit’s record demonstrates the still existent aesthetic possibilities behind these ideas, but crucially it is at its most prescient when taking the post-modern hauntological condition itself as the material to be worked on; there is simply no escape, nothing beyond the spectacle.