Monday, November 10, 2008

Off with their Heads

A great post on Morrissey, class and the modern at Aloof from Inspiration: It is easy to interpret this pull towards community, even as it is disavowed, in terms of social conservatism and/or cultural nostalgia, but if The Smiths had simply been a throwback (...) then they would never have been so important, so compelling. The “sepia-toned” universe of their record sleeves cannot be understood as a simple desire to reconstitute a mythical 60s England, apart from anything else because these sleeves point towards popular culture itself as constitutive of community, a community that is self-willed; that does not exist a priori, or stand separate from its own cultural production.

This is one of the many things which distinguishes the Smiths from the parade of indie wretchedness that they unfortunately produced. In the same way as the persona incarnates the vengeful self-construction of the autodidact, there is a sense in which all this mid-century ephemera was used as a weapon against not so much modernity itself, but the form it took as the 1980s rolled on, the new barbarism that was so often expressed in culture by shiny surfaces, impregnable bodies and bright colours (and a revival of Victoriana and Imperial nostalgia, the latter of which Morrissey would later give in to). By making sex into something complex, and shattering rather than something athletically functional (cf old Reynolds essay 'Against Health and Efficiency') by writing of a working class desperate to escape its situation by education rather than acquisition, and by setting up a strange personal canon that encompasses the clearly rather conflicting icons of Shelagh Delaney and Joe Dallesandro, what was happening was more a a re-imagining of history rather than a surrender to it - rather than progressivism, a stress on the recent past's odd, unrecuperated moments, and in that way Morrissey was a hauntologist before the fact rather than a straightforward nostalgic. Similarly, the same service always needs to be performed for the Smiths themselves, 'saving them from the conformism that is about to overpower them': so look at Derek Jarman's video for 'The Queen is Dead' and imagine any of their indie-schmindie acolytes making something so apocalyptic, so electrifying, and so filled with all the rage of regicide.


Blogger pilgrim said...

owen, the first link in this post doesn't go where you intended. This is the Smiths post of which you speak...

8:56 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Ta Pilgrim, link now fixed.

9:05 pm  
Anonymous Justin O'Connor said...

Baudelaire is often mentioned in respect of Morrisey, which is fine. But I always thought of him as Benjamin's Baudelaire. I ried to write a piece seeing The Smiths in terms of Benjamin's 'moment of Danger', a point of crisis when something is about to disappear and to resurrect this image as a way of 'brushing history against the grain'. Morrisey's conservatism/ dodgy union Jack antics which is often raised are part of his backward looking strategy - but backward looking in order to hold an image of something about to disappear before it does. What is about to disappear is more elusive - the northern (or not just northern) working class in a particular incarnation faced with extermination by Thatcher. It always struck me how 'a-political' The Smiths are portrayed - moping teenage angst etc. - whilst they now appear as the most incisively political band of the 80s. What hides this is that it was done within the cultural codes of 'rock/pop' as these moved from margins to mainstream. As such, for me, what is so powerful is that a politics of disappearing working class was linked to a destruction from within of the whole ideology of pop. Goodbye to both, but take me with you in your disappearance.

2:49 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Quite: he is a very Benjaminian figure, Morrissey, I hope you do write that piece.

2:00 am  
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11:50 pm  

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