the ouroboros of stupid :: adventures in fascism, feminism, and fallacies in the industrial music scene
i originally wrote this piece for heathen harvest as an editorial about a month ago in response to an article that was probably best left ignored, the sort of thing that is just so ignorant that you know you're just wasting everyone's time by even trying to argue. my logic was that people are debating donald trump's ideas seriously and the crazier he gets, the more popular he gets, so it might be dangerous to assume that some arguments are so ridiculous that they don't warrant any response, even if the arguments are about a music scene that almost no one ever thinks or cares about.
after a week or two, i contacted my editor at hh and told him to scrap the article. i'd started feeling like the fire had burned itself out and there wasn't much point in trying to poke the embers. furthermore, since i was taking an irascible tone with two different groups, i felt like i was potentially provoking a fight with a lot of people and possibly creating more of the same crap i say i'm sick of dealing with. [i want to make it clear that it was my choice to pull the article, not heathen harvest's.]
having thought about it for a couple of weeks longer and seen the tenor of public debate fall a couple of weeks lower, i've changed my mind again. yes, this is an unnecessary response to a poorly written article. the article appeared on a marginal web site and now i'm using an even more marginal web site [mine] to answer it. both articles are written about music for which "obscure" is arguably too generous a definition. yes, its audience is deeply passionate and the internet has made it possible to think that we constitute a larger group than we actually do. but this is really one unknown fan of electronic music throwing mud at another. i can accept that.
what i no longer accept, and what made me decide to go ahead and publish this, is the idea that ignoring something makes it go away. giving it attention may seem to make it more important than it actually is, but part of being passionate about these weird genres of music is caring about the fact that i constantly hear these arguments and the most common responses to them and get angry. angry has no place in my relationship with music. these sorts of people are fucking up one of the few respites i have in my wretched, ultimately meaningless life.
i'm not the only one who's frustrated by what she sees, but i am one who has a blog and difficulty holding her tongue [or fingers].
make of it what you will. [also, if you have no idea what i'm talking about, don't worry. it will never, ever have an impact on your life, i promise.]
A little while ago I awoke to a message from a friend who enjoys pissing me off that read “More hand-wringing feminist shit”, with a link attached to an article entitled “Fascism in Ambient Music”. As I read it, I did have to concur that it was a piece of shit. I’m not sure about labeling it as strictly “feminist” (although it does appear on a feminist web site and is written by a feminist, I think its arguments go well beyond those of gender) and I would have characterized it as whining rather than hand-wringing, since hand-wringing to me implies a sort of emotional conflictedness that the article lacks; but a piece of shit it undoubtedly is.
Shortly afterwards, I saw the article appear on another friend’s Facebook feed. Then another. Then a second friend sent it to me via message. Then it was posted in a couple of group pages I belong to. Then it was everywhere, stinking up my online world.
My reaction to the article was simple: it offended me equally as a writer, a music fan and a feminist. Published on a niche music site, it’s a mealy-mouthed attack on a niche music genre (or rather, genres, since the author randomly conflates different musical worlds to fit her hypothesis, but more on that shortly). But worse than what it is, is what it inevitably awakens, a monster I refer to as the Ouroboros of Stupid. This rapacious beast is my metaphor for the endless cycle of anti-logical faux scholarship that begets the sort of ignorant responses that would make Donald Trump cringe, which in turn are used by the supposed scholars to justify their specious arguments, which in turn generates the rabid wrath of reactionaries, forever and ever, ad nauseum.
I know that by addressing this subject, I’m giving attention to something that doesn’t deserve it. But there is something at work in both the article and the responses to it that should be considered and called out for the ideological septic tank that it is.
When I say that the article isn’t deserving of attention or thoughtful response, I want to emphasize that I mean that on every level. It’s replete with spelling and grammatical errors, which is surprising, given that the author, Evelyn Malinowski, is a professor of English. Her piece makes reference to something called the “Hilter haircut” and “linear notes” from an album. If this were a comment thread, pointing these things out would be pedantic, and would signal an unwillingness to take on the meat of the argument presented; but if you’re presenting yourself as an academic and an intellectual in a piece that was written with publication in mind, these sorts of juvenile errors undermine your claims to expertise. As for the meat of the argument, stick with me, I’m getting there.
The first and most glaring problem with Malinowski’s article is how completely ignorant she is of her chosen subject matter. She erroneously conflates the chill out rooms of European raves, the glacial experimentation of drone music, old school 80s power electronics and neofolk. She doesn’t actually seem to know much about any of these genres, much less the people who follow them, choosing to cherry-pick isolated examples from each and implying that they are all linked, even though anyone with even as passing familiarity with any of these types of music knows that’s not the case. Her detailed description of the clothing style, dietary preferences, drug habits, spiritual beliefs (although she doesn’t actually say “beliefs”, rather that they “exude a certain amount of neo-paganism”) and, yes, hairstyles (the aforementioned “Hilter hairdo”) of her subjects seems uncomfortably like she’s describing an individual rather than a group, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and allow that she’s seen or heard something to make her believe that such a group exists in the semi-cohesive forum of a music scene. As someone with some familiarity with all of the types of music that Malinowski mentions (although I don’t claim to be an expert in most of them, because I’m aware of my limitations, which Ms. Malinowski obviously isn’t), I can say with total honesty that I’ve never met anyone who fits the description she provides.
The second problem is that her examples in the field of power electronics and neofolk are drawn entirely from another article (Josh Hall’s self-published Fascism and Colonialism in the work of Cut Hands and Blackest Ever Black), which is also, let’s say, selectively researched. Hall’s paper uses decades-old snippets of information about three specific artists (William Bennett, Tony Wakeford and Boyd Rice) and treats them as the sole influences in the industrial, power electronics and neofolk scenes. Malinowski’s argument is a flawed exaggeration based on a flawed exaggeration and it doesn’t take a scholar to figure out where that leads.
Furthermore, she insists on trying to link these artists to the world of ambient techno, a genre she decries as fascistic because of its focus on silent listening, which she perceives as uniform, unthinking and a process whereby the masses allow themselves to be controlled by the dictates of the DJ. She uses as an example of this “fascistic” culture the phenomenon of people in ambient rooms actively silencing (with words, not force) those who talk during the sets. I wonder if she takes the same attitude towards people who carry on during movies or in libraries?
Her argument does not even consider the (much more likely) possibility that, far from encouraging uniform and mindless “zoning out”, that being in a chill out room is an experience much like going to the movies: a set of intensely personal experiences that take place in the presence of others. She also equates the power of silent reflection with subservience, as if true freedom can only exist within a perpetual cacophony of voices, expressing the collective reaction to music (“discussing the scene or sound”, as she puts it). Having observed this active listening, she is able to determine without question that it is equivalent to a sort of hypnosis (her term), immediately implying that there is something sinister behind it.
Unable to link the ambient music she’s started with to actual incidents of violence or fascism, she immediately moves on to William Bennett’s Cut Hands project, the one targeted by Hall. How music made up almost entirely of thunderous rhythm qualifies as ambient is something she declines to address, but I think we've established that accuracy is not a concern. She does at least do Bennett the courtesy of giving him an indirect voice in a conversation about him, quoting his blog post response to typical internet rumours about him; however she sneeringly adds that Bennett never said that he was not a fascist. Accusing someone of a moral crime because they have never explicitly denied having committed it is the logic of McCarthyism, as perfect an example of New World fascism as anything that Malinowski could think of and far better than any of the provocateur acts of a handful of artists whose work is beyond low profile.
Both her article and the original Hall piece from which she seems to have cribbed most of her background information, mention Tony Wakeford’s association with the fascist National Front. Both selectively omit that he has characterized this as the worst decision of his life, or that his frequently expressed political opinions have for years been on the progressive left of the political spectrum. Again, her logic is that of the fascistic right wing, the kind of thought process that demands a teenager caught breaking into cars spend the twenty years in prison and the rest of his life branded as a criminal.
From there, her arguments actually degenerate, because once she reaches the limits from Hall’s questionable research and strikes out on her own, the profundity of her lack of knowledge takes over. She makes a bizarre attempt to link the name of the band Vatican Shadow to approbation of centuries of violence committed by the Catholic Church. She also determines that all symbols of esoteric knowledge, of magic, and of Satanism are themselves fascistic because they are exclusively derived from the fascist society of ancient Rome. I will give her that Latin is the language that gave us the root of the word fascism, but the linking of all magical symbols to fascism would likely surprise a lot of Wiccans, as would the idea that they are all Roman in origin. The author’s ignorance is clearly not limited to music.
As the article started to appear on the pages of many Facebook acquaintances, I was encouraged, although completely unsurprised, to see that the comments about it were uniformly dismissive, criticizing the author’s dishonesty about every part of her subject matter, as well as her attempts to disguise her poor writing skills with academic language. But it wasn’t long before the Ouroboros of Stupid was awakened.
A few comments into the threads, the arguments shifted from the content of the article to ad hominem attacks on the author, particularly her gender. Thinking back to the original message that accompanied the article into my mailbox, this was to be expected; it wasn’t just a piece of shit, but a feminist piece of shit. In the name of defending the scene from accusations of fascism, sexism and racism, memes started to appear mocking not just her attempts to discuss gender in the context of industrial music, but any attempt to focus on gender in any context, dismissing wholesale the idea that it was possible, let alone meaningful to consider music, art, literature, or anything from a woman’s viewpoint.
Then came the inevitable comments that the author deserved to be raped or beaten for writing such an article, the same comments that appear with regularity when the word “feminist” is brought up in a non-derogatory way. It clearly isn’t enough to criticize the article, or even to criticize the author as an academic and a writer. She needs to be subjected to violence. I can’t imagine how these people react when someone asks them directions to a common or obvious landmark if they think that every example of (female) ignorance requires correction with a club to the head.
As those comments began to pile up, they were criticized and those doing the criticism were told in no uncertain terms that their arguments constituted an infringement on the right to free speech. This perception of free speech is something that always befuddles me because of its utter stupidity: people arguing about an opinion they’ve freely stated in a semi-public forum claiming that those exercising their free speech to argue against them constitutes an infringement of free speech. Let’s be clear about this: no one is denying your right to make rape jokes, or sexist comments, or to post hateful material, and the evidence of that is to be found in the comments thread where people are complaining about having their free speech trampled. There is nowhere on earth where you retain the right to free speech without criticism, unless you are part of the government in a dictatorship. You are free to say what you want and so are others. That’s how free speech works. Those who react to criticism by saying it denies their rights are not defending free speech; they are trying to silence voices that disagree with them.
Even on social media, which is run by private companies that are under no obligation to permit free speech, it’s nigh on impossible to get content removed (unless it involves women’s nipples). Speech is tremendously limited by large media, who insist on narrowing the parameters of debate to such an extent that rational discussion becomes impossible and the voices of the majority end up excluded from any coverage. Laws in various countries prohibit speech that incites violence, particularly violence directed towards a specific group. There are some admittedly strange speech laws on the books in many places. But in Western Europe and the two northern countries of North America, your right to post rape jokes on Facebook is well protected.
Responses with this level of vitriol, especially when they come from artists, label owners and promoters who are high-profile within such a small scene, are sustenance for the uninformed, self-important views of people like Evelyn Malinowski and Josh Hall, who block any commentary on their pieces, including those which might provide them with facts, which begets more toilet-paper scholarship, which begets more loud bigotry… The serpent nourishes itself with its own crap.
What is infuriating is that it is extremely possible to critique the industrial music scene from a feminist or “left wing” perspective in any number of ways:
- Many industrial, power electronics and noise artists invoke the right to free speech when justifying the use of graphics and language intended to shock, however the voices that shock are overwhelmingly white, male and heterosexual and the images and words used are likely to be shocking only to a liberal/ left-wing audience. The background narrative is that women and minorities have risen to a dominant position in public life and that their words cannot even be challenged, however both of those things are easily disproved. So why have musicians in the field been so concerned with “punching down” and so reluctant to take on more challenging (and more timely) topics like the concentration of power among a small group of capitalist oligarchs, or the erosion of democracy, or the violence inflicted on citizens by the police or military, or the evils of the world that are buried by the media simply refusing to cover certain stories?
- Movements like punk and metal have spread around the world and different cultures have adapted them for their own use, yet industrial music, which has existed nearly as long as either, continues to be a force only in countries that are white and wealthy, with the exception of noise in Japan (wealthy but not white). Why has it taken so long for international voices to emerge in the scene?
- Women in the industrial scene must exhibit a level of tolerance for misogyny from other artists in order to be accepted in it. At the same time, they are excluded from the ranks of many female electronic musicians (by people like Evelyn Malinowski) who erase their work and silence their voices by refusing to acknowledge their contributions. How does this affect the ability of women to progress either among their musical peers or among women composers?
- Many artists in the industrial/ dark ambient field have made use of ethnic elements from outside their own culture, to the extent where “tribal” is considered a subgenre. What do they wish to accomplish by doing so? How is it perceived by members of those cultures? Does it constitute a perpetuation of colonialist or “orientalist” habit of borrowing certain elements to feed the white stereotype of those cultures, essentially a sonic blackface performance? Or is it indicative of a new cultural direction, similar to fusion cuisine, something permitted by the cultural sharing possible only in the modern world?
Those are a few starting points for conversations about the genre, ones that could provoke actual thought and proper research, not boorish chest-beating while attempting to shout the opposition down.
Malinowski’s piece ends with two words of advice: Be responsible. Responsible means being informed. Responsible means acknowledging the arguments against your point of view and refuting them, not weakly deflecting them. Responsible means being honest. Evelyn Malinowski’s article is completely irresponsible and so are many of the replies to it, and together they ensure that no meaningful dialogue ever takes place.
p.s. :: never eat parts of yourself. it's a terrible idea.