Time and Space, Music and Crisis

The following is a lightly edited version of the paper I presented at the Historical Materialism conference held at SOAS University of London from November 10 – 13. This was part a panel which also featured contributions from CS Becerril and Adam Turl, dedicated to the launch of my new book Shake the City: Experiments In Space and Time, Music and Crisis, now available from 1968 Press. Slides from the paper are also included here.

I would be remiss if I did not provide some space to bring attention to both the conference and the publication Historical Materialism. Readers are encouraged to subscribe.  

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Shake the City is a book I’ve had rattling around my head for the better part of seven years. And while I know that may be rather far from the longest amount of time it’s taken for a book to go from idea to page – particularly in academia – it is nonetheless quite significant and humbling to finally have it written and published. Particularly in collaboration with the good comrades at 1968 Press. And of course, I’m grateful to everyone for being here to gain a small glimpse of it.

That being said, summarizing a book like Shake the City in a twenty-minute talk is pretty close to impossible. This isn’t an author being self-aggrandizing. Nor am I holding back spoilers in the hope that you’ll buy the book. No, Shake the City is one of those books that is attempting to do something which is, at first glance, impossible. One of the ways I’ve characterized it is attempting to plant our feet more firmly on the ground by pulling our heads further toward the clouds.

Nobody needs to be reminded that we find ourselves in a bit of a state, an impasse, a roadblock in front of our ability to imagine a future better than one of climate catastrophe, and the socialized sadism of far right. Positing that what is missing from our discussions of revolutionary strategy and vision is consideration not for the theoretical, but the aesthetic, the creative, is bound to furrow a few brows. This isn’t because the argument indulges in fantasy, but because it demands of us that we take a more probing view at the fundamentals of daily life and the role that aesthetics and creativity might play in them.

And so, instead of starting with an attempt to map a theoretical framework, I’d like to start the way the book does: with a brief sketch of our relationship with music. Prior to the 20th century, music was, by its nature, an open-air experience. Listening to music, most typically, required someone playing it in front of you, and very likely included others listening too.

With the advent of recorded sound one could start to privatize this experience, to keep it locked away in private homes, and even then there was always the possibility of someone else in the house, or out an open window, hearing and enjoying it. But it was only after World War II, when personal headphones became commercially available, that music could be made into an exclusive, individualistic experience.

The contrast between possibility and reality in music is stark. Streaming services and personal mobile devices have made it feasible to put the virtual entirety of recorded sound in human history at our fingertips. And yet, they also blunt, in fact severely, music’s historically social nature.

When Mark Fisher, in Capitalist Realism, described the state instilled by this mode of listening as one of “Oed-I-pod consumer bliss,” he was not being haughty or elitist. Rather he was emphasizing the anhedonia that seemed to come standard with this state, the way in which it cut the listener off from social interaction, again, in sharp contrast to the way in which music has been, historically, shared, be it in the form of a concert, or listening to a record with friends.

This runs in conjunction with a generally and increasingly privatized existence generally. In our cities, public spaces have been privatized, commodified, policed, made so hostile to contemplation and organic gathering to such a degree that to call any of them “social” can only be done with great generosity to the term. And, notably, music – or at least sound – plays a role in maintaining the alienation of urban space, be it restrictions on public performance of music, such as busking, loud amplification of classical music to keep away undesirables, or even the use of acoustic cannons to disperse protesters.

This is not the only way in which the privatizations of music and of public space converge, however. They do so on a far more elemental level. For when capitalism spread through colonialism, imperialism, and industrialization, one of its most dramatic changes was to bring the entire globe into a very specific, universal, relationship to time. The repetitive, tightly wound rhythms of commodity production, of the assembly line and scientific management, came to dominate.

Mark Abel, in his book Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time, brilliantly maps how this impacted the composition of popular music, not just in encircling musical production in the industrial process, by forcing workers and artists from all over the world into the same space. This necessary cosmopolitanism created a tight rhythmic mode – not just exhibited in percussion but in virtually all instrumentation – that is unique to music under industrial capitalism. Its characteristics are shared in the blues, Afrobeat, rock and roll, samba, hip-hop, reggae, techno, and virtually all popular music produced in a system of global capital.

Is this entirely extrinsic to the way our spaces are organized? Marxist urban geographer Henri Lefebvre thought no. His “rhythmanalysis” identified and sought to illustrate the ways in which our cities have also been shaped to instill certain rhythms in the behaviors of those who inhabit them: the ways in which certain streets, town squares, or intersections are designed to usher certain amounts and certain types of people in and out of them as suited to the needs of work and commerce. This is even more true in the age of the algorithm, whose own ordered structures are intended to insinuate the logic of commodity and policing into every hidden corner of the city.

Does this mean, therefore, that popular music under capitalism compliments and supplements commodification and privatization of public space? One thinker who would have emphatically answered “yes” was Theodor Adorno. Adorno’s withering critiques of popular music are infamous by now. To him, the way in which popular music aped the rhythm of the assembly line could only be an attempt to capture our leisure time for our return to work, to content us with a life condemned to dull, repetitive drudgery.

However, this could at best be seen as only one side of the coin. It isn’t that Adorno is wrong – indeed, by now it is well-known that multi-billion-dollar streaming services like Spotify have a homogenizing effect on the rhythmic structures and content of songs – but that he doesn’t take into account the historical contingency of commodity’s domination over music.

Stuart Hall, in his “Notes On Deconstructing the Popular,” better captures the dynamism in this relationship, the ebb and flow depending on the balance of class forces. Every instance of culture under capitalism, certainly in today’s landscape, is shaped by both top-down and bottom-up influences. For Marxists, for people who believe human beings can collectively wield the productive process for their own interests, the question must be not of capital’s singular domination over music and, in turn, music’s domination over us, but rather how an inversion of these processes might take place. If the neoliberal musical experience serves to buttress what Fredric Jameson identified as the spatial domination of time, is there a way in which the intervention of working and oppressed people into music can reverse this domination, and, in doing so, open up a path to a future worth living?

The answer to this question is not so far-fetched. We might ask why it is that marches, demonstrations, occupations, picket lines and strikes so often include a rhythmic or musical component of their own, how these unexpected rhythms and sounds change the feel of an urban environment.

During the UK student rebellion of 2010, we saw poor and working-class young people, disproportionately people of color, rebel against funding cuts and fee hikes in education. The demonstrations were massive and militant, and certainly showed a willingness to transform space. There was the moment in November when students took over Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank. Even more significant was the night of the new education bill’s passage by Parliament, though.

Parliament Square, an open space that ostensibly exists for public gathering – however within very strict limits of acceptability – had its limits deliberately tested, through fire, graffiti, the defiance of police orders. But there was also, if you will, a transformation of time, specifically reflected in the music that wafted through the air that night. The night was famously dubbed “the grime rebellion.” But even though only a small handful of the songs played that night were in fact grime, there is something telling in that label.

Grime, as most people plugged even vaguely into UK popular culture over the past fifteen years will know, is rebel music par excellence. It has been targeted by police and at one time was all but banned from mainstream radio and video before being accepted, even embraced in many corners. But to look at its origins – among mostly the poor, young, and Black, in the context of hyper disinvestment to such a degree that literally the only space left for them are the neglected council estates – is to understand that this is a style of music that deliberately seeks to explore and expand spaces of subjectivity, creativity, and autonomy.

Grime’s relationship to time is consciously oppositional. The thudding beats, the buzzing instrumentation; these are intended as a shock to the placid acceptability that exists outside the tower block, replacing it with the threat of reconfigured use for the surrounding world. It is more than a bit symbolic that videos like Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” feature the MC using headphones as microphones. Almost as if to consciously reverse Fisher’s “Oed-I-pod consumer bliss,” forcefully reestablishing music as a social experience against its literal walling off.

Therefore, what we saw in the student rebellions, whether we wish to call them “grime rebellion” or not, is the inextricability of time with space. We cannot change one without the other. As curfews were defied, as lampposts were jacked into by sound systems, as the respectable, controllable rhythms of Parliament Square were brought crashing down, it was reimagined as dance floor, a space of freedom that reflected the deep and organic desire for a future worth living even as that future was being denied to the people within it.

This is not altogether different from the ways in which the rave scene of the 1980s and early 90s deliberately sought out disused and abandoned urban space – warehouses, overpasses, old factories – and transformed them. Just as Chicago house, Detroit techno or London drum and bass artists manipulated sounds into rhythms and melodies nobody had ever heard before, so did these locations transform from spaces of neglect into spaces of collective encounter. New meaning, as well as new ways of human relation, became apparent. And, of course, this was a scene that was also the bane of police and politicians’ existence at its height.

These kinds of encounters and constructed situations (to borrow a term from the situationists and Frances Stracey) are not just pretty edges around serious strategies of revolution. They are essential to instilling a collective sense of possibility, even of wonder in a neoliberal landscape that seeks to negate it at every turn. Yes, the construction of popular music under capitalism reflects a tight and ostensibly impenetrable domination of time over the individual. But it also contains an element of anticipation, in which the experience of every note and beat is dependent on those that came before, after, or simultaneous to it.

Each moment in a song, therefore, is also experienced as a moment of chance and potential change. This is very much akin to what Walter Benjamin, in his “Theses On the Concept of History,” called jetztzeit, now-time, time pregnant with the potential for revolutionary rupture, and departure into a radically different historical trajectories. A different human subject. A different relationship to time and space. A different future entirely.

To make this future collectively imaginable, then, is an urgent task. This cannot be done merely by reading history or theory, not just through resistance to the current state of affairs wherever possible, but by creating spaces in which different structures of feeling can be forged. If the weakness of our infrastructures of dissent is the result of decades of assault on unions, movements, community organization, as well as the viability of housing, education, and healthcare as public goods, then we would be remiss to ignore the ways in which this has in turn atrophied the viability of mass participation in the arts and culture. There is a reason, after all, that teachers’ unions, when going on the offensive, oppose cuts in arts and music education.

Several months into the pandemic in the United States, a new union was established. It is known as the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. Formed during the initial months of the pandemic, when live venues shuttered and stripped musicians of a prime source of income, the UMAW seeks to get a fairer shake from not just record labels, but streaming services like, first and foremost, Spotify, demanding more than a fraction of a penny per play. The UMAW also sees a clear connection between protecting the conditions of the wider world, outside of what is recorded and performed. They have working groups around the Green New Deal, universal healthcare, housing as a right, abolition of police and the carceral state.

During their day of action against Spotify in March of 2021 – held in front of corporate offices around the country, most often in some of the most gentrified parts of their respective cities – musician members were very deliberate in transforming the space around the offices into something other than easy-moving business as usual. One member I spoke to at the Los Angeles demonstration drew an explicit connection to Spotify’s role in manipulation of the musical experience and its role in gentrification.

“I don’t think people create relationships with Spotify’s playlist,” they said. “It’s actually an impossibility, because it’s a naturally ephemeral thing… the access to space that we used to have is dwindling. And when we have less space, it’s harder to make music.”

Less space, harder to make music. And difficulty to make music is indicative of the limitations placed on our ability to intervene in time, to put history on a different trajectory.

There are a great many steps between the initial, primitive accumulation of the infrastructure of cultural dissent and the kind of massive uprisings that put history on a different track. But the latter is impossible without the former. In Chile, the “estallido social” brought forth the kinds of links that need to be forged between unions and neighborhood councils, socialist and feminist collectives, and networks that reach into every profession. Including musicians.

Without gilding the lily – without either conflating the importance of political resistance with cultural, or underestimating the massive limitations placed on the left-wing government of Gabriel Boric that resulted from the estallido – we should ignore the role that artists’ mutual aid networks and musicians’ unions played in the uprising of 2019. It was these that were able to, for example, organize among classical musicians to take over the Plaza Bernardo Leighton during the height of the estallido, and lead thousands of protesters in a rendition of Quilapayun’s “El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido.”

The significance of this is not merely in “providing a movement with a soundtrack” or anything so trite and mundane. This, after all, is a song written and popularized almost fifty years ago, in anticipation of a new radical horizon for Chile, which the US-backed, far-right neoliberal Pinochet regime tried to literally erase from history, through prohibitions of its public performance and even bans on certain kinds of indigenous instrumentation. To bring it back on a mass scale – and with musicians from the classical music community no less, given the conservative associations the genre has in Chile – is to remind all involved that space and time are ultimately more pliable than we might think, especially when it comes to a history unfinished.

Songs, poems, novels, art works – these cannot take on new meanings unless new horizons of history are opened. And no new horizon can be opened unless masses of people imagine it as imminently possible. We would be woefully derelict in our duties if we didn’t give the role of music its due in creating this imagination.

3 responses to “Time and Space, Music and Crisis”

  1. Enjoyed reading.Sadly overwhemed by the way every detail of contemporary life is dehumanized. In less developed world the colonizing dominant world view is extrapolated by even more powerful collusion of occupation of time by space and space by time.


    • Thanks for bringing this up. And yes, you’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed by it all. The the matter of how this plays out viz a viz colonization was discussed briefly at the book launch and while I do raise in the book, it’s not explored particularly thoroughly. Hoping future work will do so.


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