Thursday, 13 January 2011

Illyas Ahmed 'Between Two Skies'

Like the sound of the desert. At night. Whilst the echo of Sufism closes in on you. Why can't all new(ish) music be as utterly compelling as this?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Dusty Grooves

Published in SMITHS magazine, 2010

Record collecting comes on like a sudden disease, like that cold you never saw coming that keeps you in bed for a week. I don’t know if anyone intends to start collecting records. It simply seems to be the inevitable consequence of not being able to get enough of new sounds, of simply not being able to stop with a Finders Keepers or Jazzman compilation which does all the digging and research for you. Offering an enticing glimpse into all that lies above and beyond, there is no way to resist delving into all those hybrid genres with hyphenated names: space-jazz, acid-folk, psychedelic-soul, sister-funk etc. Eventually, you will find yourself spending hours at record fairs, trawling through Ebay and reissue company websites and chatting to like-minded folk on record collector forums. Now, despite what mainstream films like ‘Ghost World’ and ‘High Fidelity’ suggest, record collectors are not boring. They tend to have a wide range of interests, are highly articulate and have an unforgiving sense of humour. They live and breathe their particular passion and are very generous when it comes to sharing information about music. They’re laidback. They like weird B-movies. Basically, they’re pretty good company.

And yet, as you immerse yourself in the culture, become acquainted with the language of record grading and categorisation, contentious issues start to arise. It is generally accepted that vinyl is superior to CD’s and any other formats. The reasons for this tend to come down pure visual and tactile appeal (record collectors love to fetishise that modular groove) and, somewhat predictably, the question of authenticity. To extol the virtues of vinyl is to speak to it as living history, as a product of formal classicism flying in the face of an incessant modernity. Essentially, it is implied that to exclusively own vinyl is to prove your commitment, investment and attachment to music itself. Because it pre-dates tapes, CD’s and all other formats, it engenders a sense of ownership or discovery of originality. It is perhaps not unfair to say that the obsession with rare records has everything to do with a sense of satisfaction and bragging rights as it does the actual music itself.

Of course, such arguments are not exactly new. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin wrote any reproduction of a work of art will always lack the original ‘presence in time and space, its unique existence of the place where it happens to be...that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’. Much later, Baudrillard defined the postmodern age as that in which the simulacrum has effectively replaced reality. The former decries reproduction; the former accepts its inevitability as ‘reality’ as we have understood it, no longer exists. It’s not hard to figure out what side most record collectors would be on. And yet, you don’t have to adopt Baudrillard’s mode of thought wholesale to offer up a counter argument. It is certainly true that records have a very particular sense of history but, as it always has done, history comes at a price. Original copies nearly always cost considerably more than reissues and reissues on CD are considerably more available than records. When it comes down to either waiting desperately for an original first pressing of excellent weird psych-folk artists like Coven or Simon Finn to show up and then paying hundreds of pounds for it or buying it a much cheaper CD copy from Amazon, I know which one my desire and bank account will go for. Perhaps there is something to be said about patience but the only way someone becomes a collector of music in the first place is because they love to listen to it. It is the listening experience and the desire for that experience that needs to come first. When all of that is placed secondary to its format, it seems that the way in which record collectors privilege vinyl is more to do with the values of collecting than the values associated with being a music lover. That is, cataloguing and assessing its monetary importance rather than sitting back and enjoying the music for what it is, in whatever format it is available in.

Let’s be clear: I’m not at all suggesting that record collectors do not care about or appreciate the music. Nor am I endorsing bad quality music, illegally bootlegged and given away for free on the internet. Nor do I have anything against vinyl. I own vinyl. I also own CD’s and MP3 copies of super rare records that I will probably never have the opportunity to own (kindly sent to me by the record’s original owners). My point only has to do with those occasional moments in record collector culture when it seems that it’s possible to lose the wood for the trees. Records are not like antique figurines or dolls, destined to collect dust inside a glass cabinet and look pretty. Yes, they do look pretty but the privilege of owning them should lie squarely in the fact that that attractive modular groove produces all manners of interesting and exciting sounds. And maybe sometimes, its lack of ‘aura’ needs to be forgiven. Beside, regardless of its format, music is always so much more than a mechanical reproduction.

© 2010 Emma Mould

'Nothing to Say': 'Black Skin, White Masks' and Gender

Excerpt from academic essay entitled 'Dismantling The Master's House: Strategies of Resistance in Post-Colonial Feminist Writing', 2010

Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks is an excellent example of a powerful critique of colonisation which nonetheless replicates the rigid colonial attitude in his negating of gender differences. In the chapter entitled ‘The Woman of Colour and the White Man’, Fanon uses his criticism of Capecia to generalise about all women of colour. Unlike his careful consideration of the psychology of the native man, he is resolutely rigid and simplistic regarding that of the native women: ‘It is because the Negress feels inferior that she aspires to win admittance into the white world’.[1] There is a dogmatic fatalism to this statement which suggests that, for Fanon, native women cannot transcend either their inferiority or their desire to assimilate. It must be compared to the native man who, whilst also under great pressure to assimilate into the white world, can produce modes of resistance:

If the white man challenges my humanity, I will impose my whole weight as a man on his life and show him that I am not that “sho’ good eatin’” that he persists in imagining (my emphasis).[2]

It should be noted here that my analysis does not aim to re-inscribe Capecia’s particular dialectic as a feminist one, ‘immortalised as the lamb at Fanon’s sacrificial altar rather than victim of the sexploitive, anti-black colonial condition’.[3] However, it is the way Fanon uses her position as indicative of all women of colour that I deem highly problematic. It seems that he cannot help but use the insufficiencies he finds in Capecia’s texts to make a universal statement on women of colour: ‘For, in a word, the race must be whitened; every women in Martinique knows this, says it, repeats it’ (emphasis mine).[4] By refusing to problematise his use of Capecia as representative, Fanon not only bypasses any discussion regarding how gender differences operate within the psychology of colonisation but also subsumes that very difference into what he calls his ‘concentrat[ion] on the psychic alienation of the black man’.[5]

Indeed, Fanon’s consideration of the native women is understood ultimately as nothing more than either a barrier or an aid towards the native man’s struggle towards agency. The idea that native women would have their own particular struggle towards agency- other than desiring to become white- is foreclosed. When writing on Fanon, Bhabha’s relegates this issue to a short note at the end of his essay. Anne McClintock argues that this choice defers women ‘to a nowhere land, beyond time and place, outside theory’.[6] More specifically, in regards to Fanon’s work, Bhabha’s ‘note’ has the effect of implicitly legitimising Fanon’s sexism by explaining it away as a desire for locating ‘a shared origin’[7] between sexual and cultural differences. As I have argued above, the way in which Fanon disregards the native female is far less innocent than this. Ultimately, there is no shared origin because the issue of gender is simply not as pressing for Fanon as the liberation of the colonised man. In fact, it is seen as almost entirely irrelevant to his decolonising project. Furthermore, Bhabha’s curious insistence that a discussion of gender in Fanon ‘goes well beyond the scope of my foreword’[8] only further reveals an acceptance of the patriarchal terms of Fanon’s dialectic. Here, Bhabha also perpetuates Fanon’s disregard for gender by implying that gender is not important enough to be included in his foreword aside from a brief note. By suggesting that any charge of sexism would be ‘facile’, he mimics Fanon in his avoidance of gender and how it impacts the native’s identity formation. Essentially, his comprehensive discussion of Fanon does not view gender as integral to any project of decolonisation. He either fails or simply refuses to highlight that such a glaring omission can only hinder the liberating effects of Fanon’s work. As bell hooks crucially points out, ‘there can be no freedom for black men as long as they advocate subjugation of black women. There can be no freedom for patriarchal men of all races as long as they advocate subjugation of women.’[9]

In fact, Bhabha’s praise for Fanon takes on far more resonance when applied to colonised women: ‘the colonial subject is always “overdetermined from without”, Fanon writes. It is through image and fantasy- those orders that figure transgressively on the borders of history and the unconscious- that Fanon most profoundly evokes the colonial condition’.[1] Under the Spivakian double-bind, it is clear that no one has been more ‘overdetermined from without’ than the native female. As well as the Manichean discourse of the colonisers, they also find themselves codified within the patriarchal discourse of native men, whether through the nationalist trope of mother-land or decolonising projects like Fanon’s that, whilst denouncing Manichean colonisation, continues to perpetuate its own binary logic in regard to gender. Moreover, some work by Western feminists on ‘third-world women’ has had the unfortunate effect of employing ‘various analytical categories and even strategies which codify their relationship to the Other in implicitly hierarchical terms’.[2] In these cases, western feminist discourse is also guilty of homogenising native woman, establishing themselves as the normative referent and continuing a binary didactic. It becomes self-evident then that native women are positioned within a matrix of intersecting power structures.

© 2010 Emma Mould

[1]Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 2008), p. 42

[2] Ibid., p. 178

[3] Sharpley-Whiting, T. Deanean, ‘Engaging Fanon to reread Capecia’ in Fanon: A Critical Reader ed. by Lewis Gordon, T. Deanean Sharpley-Whiting and Renee T. White (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996), p. 161

[4] Fanon, p. 33

[5] Ibid., p. 34j

[6] McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 363

[7] Bhaba, Homi, ‘Remembering Fanon’ in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory, ed. by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) , pp. 123

[8] As above, pp. 123

[9] hooks, bell, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (London: Pluto Press, 1982), p. 117

[10] Bhabha, pp. 115

[11] Bulbeck, Chilla, Re-Orientating Western Feminisms: Women’s Diversity in a Postcolonial World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 15

Barefeet and Hot Pavements- Some Thoughts on Shoes

Published in SMITHS magazine, 2009

Let’s get the formalities over with: I have a love-hate relationship with shoes. I love nothing more than going barefoot; in an ideal world, I would go every day sans footwear. The soles of the feet may be the most under appreciated part of the human body, buried within socks and shoes like an uncomfortable secret. I have had friends and lovers who have felt closer to me than my own skin, who have shared their bodies and souls with me, but have remained strangely reticent about taking their socks off, citing dislike and embarrassment about their feet. My mother tuts disapproval whenever I go into the garden barefoot. And yet we seem to forget that it was only relatively recently, with the onset of mass production, that wearing shoes became commonplace for most of the world’s population. Now there seems to be something faintly indecent about going without footwear which of course makes doing so almost rebellious and certainly quite sensual. You definitely haven’t really felt grass or sand or marble until you’ve felt them with the soles of your feet. And there is something so sexy, so Parisian laissez faire about somebody in public, maybe in a coffee shop or late night bar with their shoes kicked off, bare feet curled under them or propped up on the lap of a friend. It’s the polar opposite of the shoe as status symbol game where it’s not just the shoe but also its label and price tag that must be displayed so that the wealth and success of its owner can be appreciated. Expensive and desirable footwear speaks so much of our modern Capitalist culture; bare feet, by contrast, hark back to previous eras where we all lived a lot simpler and closer to the ground.

This is not to say that shoes don’t always carry their own type of memories. So much of our autobiographical memory is produced by sensory-perceptual details, inanimate objects made three dimensional through the events and emotions we associate them with. I put on my battered vintage loafers and suddenly, my very bones tingle with the thrust of memory. I remember difficult conversations where I’ve been unable to look anywhere but down at them, long heady nights at university where I’ve danced in them and split beer on them and exciting first dates where I’ve used them to play footsie under the table. Shoes can offer a source of protection and reassurance that goes beyond their ability to allow us to more deftly navigate physical terrain. When I went out to meet my ex-boyfriend, painfully aware that he was going to break up with me, I wore a pair of satin ballet slippers that have moulded perfectly to every contour of my feet. I knew that having to walk away from him was going to be hard; I wanted to make that walk a little easier by doing it in shoes that reminded me of ballet classes at the age of seven, of a time before men and sex and matter of the heart made life so messy. And they did make it a little easier.

Maybe then it’s not so much that I have a contentious relationship with shoes as it is that I must have a relationship with them for them to mean anything. When I come across a new pair, it’s not whether I need them that comes into my mind. It’s whether these shoes will be able to travel with me whilst I engage in the blind fumbling I call my life. They must fit my life, not the other way around. This above all means that they must be wearable and functional. Putting them on must remind me of who I am, where I’ve been and how much I have left to do. As much as I admire the space-age geometry of an Antonio Berardi heel-less boot or the complicated molten beauty of a Rodarte by Nicholas Kirkwood heel, I know that I would never wear these shoes. I may as well just put them behind glass and stare at them like the work of art they are. I’m clumsy and careless; I’m always falling down and tripping over myself in more ways than one. I need shoes that can handle this kind of rough and tumble. I don’t need shoes that are too beautiful to be touched, let alone wear. I learned this the hard way after saving for a stunning pair of dove grey Kurt Geiger courts with chiffon bows at the heel whilst I was still a student. I worked hard for them and was ecstatic when I was finally able to take them home. But after one outing with them, after arriving home after several falls and the bows unravelled and muddy, I realised that I was never going to wear them regularly. Three years later, I’ve worn them twice and whilst I love to look at them, they don’t evoke an emotional response in me the way my more practical and far less artless shoes do. When it comes down to it, it really isn’t as much about the shoe as it is the distance travelled in them. For the new season, I have my eye on the utilitarian leanings of shearling lined hiker boots and sturdy clogs paired with cable thigh-high socks. I need shoes that will keep me cosy and encourage me to walk tall and confident. I need the promise of new memories and miles to go before I sleep.

© 2010 Emma Mould