Macon Holt Interview
Macon Holt has just recently published his first book, entitled Pop Music and Hip Ennui: A Sonic Fiction of Capitalist Realism. Any book that references David Foster Wallace, Mark Fisher, and Kodwo Eshun in its title is going to get a bit of interest from yours truly, which is why I decided to interview Macon late last month via email.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
Well, where I am today is a member of the academic precariat, which is itself a position I am only able to occupy because of the various structural advantages and privileges I started out with. But in terms of the specific route I have taken, I think I was a nerd who took some time to find out what kind of nerd I was. As a teenager, I desperately wanted to make music but the kind of stuff that I wanted to make was over-ambitious both in terms of technical resources and my abilities.
I studied music technology and sonic arts composition in my undergraduate and master's degrees, and while I loved that hands-on work and still miss doing it, I was never 100% invested in it. I had always been interested in politics and had thought that I could maybe find some artistic way to broach it through music but found everything I was doing lacking in that respect. This was also the period following the financial crisis of 2008 and with the austerity cuts of the coalition government in the UK starting to bite, the idea of pursuing a career in the obscure audio arts seemed more and more impossible. Also, it seemed like, and still does seem like, there needed to be some more direct interventions in the debate surrounding the roles of art and capitalism in people's lives and the role of art in capitalism.
During my masters, I wrote some essays that were pretty well received. I also started reading more. For the first time in my life, I became excited about the idea and practice of writing. From there I applied to study for a PhD in cultural studies at the now-defunct Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmith, University of London. Essentially, I dived into a massively intimidating and exciting intellectual trip that completely transformed how I see and understand everything. It was an intense place to be for a number of good and bad reasons. The book which is based on my thesis, can, I guess, be read as me grappling with the myriad new perspectives, concepts, and methods for thinking about culture and cultural production I encountered there. Its convolutions are like a working-through of these things. Only now, looking at the thing in its totality, can I claim to have some kind of particular position as a critic and a theorist.
During my PhD, I moved to Denmark. Here I have been trying to navigate my way through a much smaller but still vibrant cultural scene. Over the last few years, I have been teaching in various places and engaging in para-academic employment, participated in various indie writing and publishing projects, and this last year became a contributing editor at the music magazine, Passive Aggressive.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I guess I would have to say my two supervisors, the late Dr. Mark Fisher and Dr. Anamik Saha. Mark's influence on me is obvious. The title of his most famous book, Capitalist Realism is part of the subtitle of mine. He was a theorist who was determined that the critical analysis of culture should be politically impactful. He was and is still a major inspiration. Even more so because he did not stop there. His claim was that works of cultural production were in fact already engaged in this critical political work and, to a certain extent, the role of the theorist was just to amplify this. While I don't think I have managed to get there yet, this latter approach is always my goal when writing about music. Anamik too has made some really important interventions in the debate around the structural racism that permeates the cultural industries of the UK and, through his work and analysis, posed intricate ways in which to challenge this. This is an area I need to get better at addressing in my work because when I don't consciously think about it, I end up centering whiteness in ways that can really undermine my project on the whole. Anamik was also a super supportive supervisor and basically gave me a model of what a good supervisor student relationship should be.
In the time since my PhD, I would have to say Prof. Holger Schulze has been a massive support. He has helped me so much in navigating the world of academic publishing. This has been both in logistical terms but also by working to help produce the field. His work on sonic fiction as a methodology for sound studies has helped to bring it from the exciting but obscure corners of outsider theory into a more secure position inside academia. Without his earlier battles for this kind of work to be recognized, I doubt an academic publisher would have agreed to publish my book.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?
The book is basically a rewrite of my PhD thesis, minus the academese of someone nervous about passing an exam. It is still a pretty dense work, but hopefully it's dense in a more interesting way. Basically the kernel of the idea came to me in my Masters research project. I was frustrated with studying obscure musical works that people weren't listening to and wanted to work with the popular music that they were. From here I got to think about all the things in life that drive people towards what used to be called "chart music" and away from artistic and musical works that are more demanding and challenging.
There seemed to be this unacknowledged but widespread Adornian point of view amongst certain parts of the sound art world, that basically held that people had been duped and distracted by the shiny things of mass culture. This seemed totally inadequate to me. At the same time, if you asked people outside this enclave about it, they would just tell you that the weirder stuff wasn't their thing, or that it felt like hard work to engage with such music, which while valid also seemed a little lacking.
Around this time I also read David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest (where the phrase Hip Ennui in my book's title comes from). It's an encyclopedic novel that explores the kinds of psychic pain experienced by people living in a dystopian near-future America (it was actually pretty much the present when I read it). It is a heartbreaking, funny and complicated book that examines the question of what people get out of entertainment under the conditions of capitalist alienation, and it does so with care and nuance which is so often lacking in critical theory texts on the subject. Reading this made me think there was some way to theoretically address this topic that could both be critical and generous and hopefully say something new about it. Then I went to Goldsmiths and had the complexity of this already complex question turned up to 11.
Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal?
My examiners for my PhD, Holger and Dr. S. Ayesha Hameed, were unanimous in saying that the thesis should become a book. This was a massive boost. Holger was underway with some projects at Bloomsbury and said he'd be happy to pass on a proposal to his editor. I put together a proposal and it garnered some interest and so began the proposal peer-review process. I had the full range of possible feedback from the three reviewers; from full support to utter dismissal to partial support with caveats. The first two canceled each other out so I was just left to address what felt like the stinging accuracy of the third reviewer. But having worked through the problems and presented the revisions to the publisher, they decided to offer me a contract.
Was there much of a research process? What did that look like?
There was, but it was in the nebulous form of a critical theory education which ended up transforming how I experienced everything musical around me. Whether it was a YouTube video of a bootlegged TV performance or busker on the underground, I end up running it all through hundreds of frameworks and concepts to work out what might be going on there. Often I would find the theoretical conclusions insightful but also lacking. By which I mean they seemed unable to explain or express all the complexities of what is going on in some musical instantiation. In many ways, the second part of the book is a document of the research process or method as it developed.
How did you go about writing the actual book?
The book started life as a thesis and so initially the writing of it was done in those panicked bursts that can often structure how one produces work for examination deadlines. In the end, I treated the thesis as a draft and then went through it asking myself the entire time why were various sections included and was I making something that was in some way fun to read.
It was great to revisit these ideas again without thinking whether the words I was writing were going to be enough to pass an exam and instead think how I could make this compelling both as an argument and as a text. I took great pleasure in literally throwing away whole pages and chapters that were just there to demonstrate competence. This both made the text and its argument tighter and gave me space to develop new, more interesting ideas.
The ironic thing is it is very difficult for me to listen to music while I write. Especially if it has lyrics. It demands too much attention. But there are certain noise artists like Puce Mary whose pained, aggressive records seem to help me focus by obliterating some of the crippling voices of self-doubts that reflective and technical writing can engender. That and sometimes I would go on to YouTube and listen to hours of office ambiance for pseudo-company.
Did you get peer feedback on the book? If yes, can you describe how that process helped develop the book (or not)?
After the peer review on the proposal, the manuscript also went through peer review. This time there were two and they were completely opposed to each other. One pretty much full of praise while saying that my work clearly wasn't for everyone. The other seemed to hate every sentence in it. I guess this proved the first reviewer's point. Considering how unhappy the second reviewer was, there wasn't much for me to do to appease them but write a different book.
I took a couple of the more concrete points on board, but basically I could not address their underlying problems with the work because I simply hadn't made what they thought I should have. Normally I'm not so good at acknowledging praise, but the feedback from the first reviewer was actually surprisingly helpful because it let me know there was an audience for my work, which in some way helped me to better understand what I had made. And it gave me evidence with which I could argue that case to my editor, who I must say was very supportive throughout this process.
What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic you're writing about?
Well, the books are easiest; Infinite Jestby David Foster Wallace, Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, and More Brilliant than the Sun by Kodwo Eshun. There are references to each of these works in the title of my book. They each sort of pull in different directions but there are also real overlaps. I think it is the tension between these things that the book is able to explore.
On films, I'd say American Psycho. As a satire, it works much better than the book due I think to the judicious omission of violence. Basically, the film is a perfect send-up of the ridiculous fragility of the alienated white bourgeois patriarchy and its constant petty struggle for cultural capital in the midst of hoarded material abundance which is the hegemonic center of capitalist realism.
On videos, I'd say if you want a crystallization of how capitalist realism is expressed in music you have to watch the video for The Black Eyed Peas "I Gotta Feeling." The song came out right after the financial crisis and the video is basically an instruction manual for how to administer cycles of self-obliteration in a world that cannot be changed for the better. I remember once talking about this song with Mark and he said, "It's so fucking bleak, it's like a Beckett play" and he was not wrong. For me, this is a benchmark of pop at its worst.
But if we get into songs properly, then I think I should talk about them and the kinds of problems they connect to. Artists like FKA Twigs and a band like Xiu Xiu seem to be to have a lot of liberatory potential for imagining the world otherwise and perhaps even to build new kinds of networks of solidarity but they have the problem of obscurity. An album like Beyoncé's Lemonade, on the other hand, seems to have something of this potential as well and it has the popularity to really make a cultural impact but this comes at the price of being already co-opted by the status quo. But again, I think it is worth sitting with the tensions and contradictions of this constellation and others like it because I think in doing so we can both understand our world better—and perhaps imagine a future that may be otherwise.
What's one tip that you'd give someone looking to write a music book right now?
I always liked the tip from the TV writer Dan Harmon on writing which is "prove you are not a genius." The thing that can make writing difficult is the knowledge that what is in your head will come out wrong when written down. But while it is perfect in your head, there is no proof of that perfection. If you want your writing to prove you are a genius, you will produce nothing because nothing will be good enough. So you have to let go of the idea that you will produce genius work or that your ideas will ever be surprising or novel to you because they are your ideas; you have heard them before. But if you seek to prove the opposite, then there is something you can work with while you also put your ego in its place. Just by getting something out, you can let go of that anxiety to some extent, because even though it is not perfect, there is something there now. And something imperfect can be improved more easily than perfect nothingness.
That and, set yourself very achievable goals. Set low targets and then get the boost of surpassing them. You will beat yourself up enough about the content without having to worry about not meeting unreasonable logistical targets.
Anything you want to plug?
My book Pop Music and Hip Ennui: A Sonic Fiction of Capitalist Realism comes out from Bloomsbury on December 12th. It is stupidly expensive, so order it for university libraries if you can. Also the new zine from Passive Aggressive just came out this month. I have the essay an in it which critiques the depoliticized use of Brian Eno notion of the scenius by a state-funded music festival. The essay is called Scenic Capitalism, Nostalgia Machine, and Interpretive Communities. It is in short supply but is available in some select record stores around the world. details here.