Interview with Kodwo Eshun

"Everything was to be done. All the adventures are still there." A Speculative Dialogue with Kodwo Eshun

Reading Kodwo Eshun’s sonic fiction debut “More brilliant than the sun” is a hallcinating, addictive experience. For months, I carried this theory bible on me, inhaling sentence after sentence. As a DJ and music critic, Eshun speaks in record tracks. Sitting on the oblique, waving designer floor of Rotterdam’s V2 medialab, the following dialogue did not focus on Eshun’s thesis of electronic black music as science fiction. Rather, we were investigating the genre of speculative thought. My experiences with this particular text mode as a member of the Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge (adilkno/bilwet) had shown how bewildering yet invigorating it is to go beyond fixed definitions and interpretations. Ignore the academic mind police, journalistic codes and the postmodern Zeitgeist. Concepts can freely and very precisely be pushed, streched, reversed, blurred, recombined, negated, mutated. What are the rules of the intensive textual explorations? Certainly not all bids are succesful. Theory craze can turn into paranoia, disgust, intellectual exhaustion. It is possible to misread the signs of the time in search of the right mix of cultural artifacts and turn cynical as a misunderstood genius. One gets easily lost on the wide planes of immanence. Obviously, a brilliant concept can as well turn you into a millionaire, pop star, or at least a celebrity inventor.

For a while speculative thought and the rise of new media had been a productive couple. In September 1999, when this interview with recorded, I felt that this historial situation, the “short summer of the Internet”, had already come to a close. Kodwo Eshun’s golden days of techno, drum ‘n’ bass, drugs and psychedelic theory, Deleuze and Guattari and cybernetics must have been revealed to him around that same periode, in the mid-to late nineties. Kodwo was still under the spell of it. We both felt that the primal energy was there. One just has to tap into it, no matter what the historial weather forecast said. To me, negative thinking and speculative thought were allies. The “alien” pole and engagement of the critic in the everyday both move away from the ritualized phrases of today’s advertisement and PR discourse. Speculative thought heads way beyond today’s visionary – and is much more risky. Rather than than promoting linear growth scenarios, radical models for unlikely futures are being assembled. The game with ideas is all yours. But what are its rules?

GL: Where in your biography would you trace the origins of speculative thought?

KE: One of the key inputs is McLuhan. There is an interview he gave in 1968 called “Hot and Cool”. Here I realized that McLuhan had anticipated my project. He was saying that the extraction of concepts from any field demands that these concepts be used as probes in order to get into a possibility space. Not to contextualize and historisize, tracing the archeology of concepts, where they come from, which is what academics are trained to do. Often it helps if the concept is quite empty. McLuhan was really fascinated by this.

It works well with science fiction, specifically J.G. Ballard. Science fiction as theory on fast forward. In Ballard’s theory fiction, especially his “Atrocity Exhibition” in 1970, and “Myths of the Near Future”, his trilogy “Crash”, “Concrete Islands” and “High Rise” and in lots of his essays you have a particular obsessive figure who is trying to work out and stage a particular project: WW III, or the assassination of JFK and Malcolm X all over again. In order to do that they are forced to go out and construct a theory kit. Take for example a painting of Max Ernst, which will then have an aggressively speculative meaning and function, which will then lead you into a new space time. On the other side you have the scientist, who using speculative analysis to understand the anti-hero’s speculative projects. Here we have two levels of speculation, embedded inside fiction. The other thing is that Ballard is doing a science fiction of the next minutes. He drops away the Star Wars space opera, with its galactic and robotic elements. What you are left with is a science fiction of nine minutes from now, the technology of plastics, the pill. He is drawing a zodiac of the present.

We have the following: speculative theory embedded in science fiction, science fiction re-interpreted as an analysis of the ongoing present. Add that to McLuhan’s idea of extracting concepts and using them as probes to get to somewhere new. Once I had found these aspects I became more conscious in applying them to sonic concepts which composers and musicians would adopt. Often they would not make programmatic statements. The concepts would rather be buried in track titles or within an album cover. You would be able to see it, but they would be compressed, abbreviated, and I wanted to unstuff them.

One of the key elements I took from Deleuze and Guattari’s “Mille Plateaux” was that philosophy should be reconstituted as concept manufacture. Philosophy – Heidegger, Hegel, Merleau Ponty, Lacan – always gave me a headache because it was imponderable. Content manufacture made it more like being an electrician of thinking, trying to find circuit diagrams of the present. D&G were so brilliant when they said: we can’t help it if Proust tells us as much how space time works as Einstein does. We can’t help it if Henry Miller tell us as much about desire works as Freud does. The theory fiction border is utterly permutable.

These ideas came to me in 1994-96, when I met Nick Land, Sadie Plant, and her PhD students Mark Fisher, Steve Goodman, Suzanne Livingston at Warwick’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. We were all working on the same thing, the permeable membrane between certain concepts, embedded in science fiction, wanting to radicalize certain aspects of Harraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. We got a particular boost from music. Sonically, drum ‘n’ bass meant that we left the song far behind. There was new music coming out every week and this obliged you to come up with a conceptual apparatus which was totally post-human.

We were fascinated by the way in which rhythm had taken over. In the sixties it was the guitarist who was the lead figure. In the seventies it was the synthesist. And in the nineties it was the drummer. If you imagine a sonic triangle, with the singer in front, with guitarist and dummer on each corner. In the nineties the dummer had move to the front, and both the singer and guitarist had gone. It was not even a human drummer. It was the evolution of rhythm as information, from the drum kit, to the sampler, to the virtual studio, going from a mechanization to a virtualization and complexification of rhythm. This meant that we could break with the tendency within experimental music, where the further you would get into it, the rhythm would drop away, rewritten into ambience and timbre. Listening to drum ‘n’bass meant that it would not necessarily be that way. Rather the other way: you would go further into hyper rhythm. Once we did that it gave us the confidence to use twentieth century sonic concepts, use Stockhausen and Cage and reject their conclusion. Drum ‘n’ bass was using so much remixology. Key drum ‘n’ bass tracks were often remixes of previous tracks. All around us people were so sober, so heavy and moral, which used to depress us. We found that we could use all this material as speculative playground and have an adventure of concepts.

I was really pleased to find an old essay by Sylvere Lothringer which explained how they wanted people to use Semiotexte books for speculative acceleration. Instead, people started using these text to prove their moral superiority, saying “You are wrong, you have misunderstood Foucault.” They used theory for prestige, to block speculation. That is why so many artists used to resent theory. You would get these lame pieces, somebody trying to apply Heidegger to Parliament-Funkadelic because they had seen the word “ontology” on a cover, instead of taking Parliament to read Heidegger. They always did it the other way round. Theory wasn’t being used to pluralize, to see that there was theory everywhere you looked, and everywhere you listened.

When painters paint, they are theorizing immanently in the field of paint. Sonically, when you compose, you are theorizing tonally. That was a key breakthrough. When I wrote my book it did not have to be historical. It could be a sonology of history, it did not have to be contextualization of sound. It could be an audio-social analysis of particular vectors. Sound could become the generative principle, could be cosmo-genetic, generate its own life forms, its own worldview, its own world audition. That’s still the key break between my book and most cultural studies analyses. They still have not understood that sonology is generative in and of itself. Like every field is. Every material force can generate its own form.

I was really inspired by the Futurists and Marinetti. For ten years I only read critiques of the Futurists, saying they were fascists. In fact, they were the first media theorists of the twentieth century. They were amazed by X-rays, by artificial light and lamps, out in the street, by new camera’s and photography. They just wanted to explore how new technologies broke up the solidity of the organism and involved lines of force. Futurism, supremacism and constructivism were the science-fiction of the first machine age. The fantastic adventures of the early modernists, from Tatlin to Malevich. Machines, media and art thinking were one and the same. Some artists are just extremely good theorists. Still hard to find, this material. Go and look for the essays of El Lissitsky. The same counts for the speculative writings of the photographers Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark. I realized that Barthes never had an academic degree. And why McLuhan used to structure his ideas with number or the alphabet, not be bored to death by the academic obligation to seriousness.

GL: Speculative acceleration, in my experience, can go two ways. The one is going further and further into innerspace, exploring the spaces within spaces. Opposite to this movement is a speculative thought which wants to go out, towards the utopian, the Alien.

KE: The first move towards innerspace is the microscopic analysis. It scales right down from the imaginary sound worlds that a record generates in your head towards particular figures within that world. If you talk to people, this is what they are really fascinated by. The sense that all these sonic life forms are crossing from the world of the records into the world of your head. When you put on headphones the functional expansion of your listen capacity your brain grows to the seize of the universe. R Murray Schaefer, the inventor of terms such as soundscape and schizophonics, talks about headphones as a headspace which is not geographical but expansive. Both moves–towards the inside and outside–are endless.

The drive towards the utopian and the alien works really strongly. I wanted to break with the compulsory pessimism at the time. During my cultural studies period I used to work on authors such as Franz Fanon, Edward Said, Homi Bhabha. The premis was: because social relations in capitalism are bleak this sets the parameters of our thought. I did not see why this was the case. I felt all thought was being hemmed in, and locked, at certain point. It allowed a fatalism, where the more blocked and frustrated the thought was, the more there was some strange kind of dignity. There was this nobility in pessimism and failure. Then I read D&Gs “Anti-Oedipus”, and Foucault who said: “Do not think you have to be sad in order to militant.”

GL: At what point do you think a concept can hit reality and be transformed into material practice? Speculative thought can easily drift away and become irrelevant. I find it fascinating, almost addictive, to see concepts being implemented into software, network architectures, artworks, living discourses. How do you think it is possible, to get from the level of the individual author, like you and me, onto a level of more complex organization, to jump from individual subjectivity to a level where discourse gets materialized and hardwired, where it gets witten into software and networks?

KE: Once I left Warwick University I went abroad, to Vienna in 1996, meeting Berlin people, Paul D. Miller in New York, reading Erik Davis from the westcoast, getting in contact with Nomadsland magazine from Paris, I realized that there are several people with a similar structural position, who had left academia, infiltrating pop cultural spaces. They did not footnote their work and refused to contextualize their work. I wasn’t alone. There were sectors in every city who were moving along similar tendencies.

GL: We believe that theory can explore unknown land and does not have to reduce its task to recite other people’s work. It has a certain avant-garde position in it, a sense of anticipation. I do not feel ashamed by this, despite all the criticisms and the fact that the avant-garde has been declared dead at so many occasions.

KE: I have given up listening to people saying all adventures are over, all heroism is done, we are all born too late and have got no options but to sit around and recombine the forms of other, greater people than we are. How many years I have heard this? The grand narratives are all done. There is nothing left to do. It is always told in our own good fortune. Once I started meeting Sadie Plant and Nic Land at CCRU I realized

this wasn’t at all the case. Everything was to be done. All the adventures are still there.

Sadie Plant’s “Zeros and Ones” is a heroic book with a massive scope. It crossed centuries, it generalizes wildly, it is rigorous, but it is also gigantic. Sadie rejects all metaphors, nothing is like. Everything is scale, can be on the one hand microscopic, and totally macro as well. Everything can be molecular and molar.

I felt I was on the same side with all these people who have a common enemy in the delibidinizers, the boring critics who take a sonic event and drain it, for example by reducing the music to the social crowds it attracts. Fat Boy Slim thus becomes students’ music. Instead we should see a formal analysis as a first stage of rethinking the social. Phase one was criticizing everything. Phase two was writing, being the hermit. Hiding away, refusing the phone calls, the trips, the jobs. Phase three is now, travelling, the network, when you realize that a book will never bring you any money. It is all about the communication vectors which a book makes possible. My next book will be an afro-futurist anthology with a historical section, with Samuel Buttler (The Book of the Machines) to McLuhan and some of the composers. The second part will start with David Toop and Greg Tate and will travel through Belgium, Germany and France, Holland, the east- and westcoast. It will show the spread of concepts, the linking of science fiction and sound, sonic fiction. Afro-futurism as a transversal tendency running through popular culture, acting to destabilize what people thought black identity was, what pop identity and culture identity were. There was not only a compulsory pessimism in theory when I started. There was also a compulsory ghetto-centricity of black popular culture. Always this hermeneutics of the street.

GL: The identification of, let’s say, German kids with gangsta rap has proven to be a trap.

KE: We could reject this and travel on totally different vectors. I wanted to make what started in Sun Ra as a vector. It was important to destroy the previous, like all avant-garde does and to move forward where black identity is intermittent and hazy, often non existent, nullified. This led me towards Identity as intermittent fluctuation, the epiphenomenon of convergent processes in the body. Identity and consciousness aren’t top-down. Artificial intelligence always started with modeling the world. Artificial life instead started from local tendencies, like a small muscle, and several of them combined together make the intelligence of the leg. Identity only arrives later, as communication amongst motor systems. In this way you can get away for the centralized approach which is only crippling and just leads to dead ends. This is where robotics becomes so fascinating. If you see a Hollywood film from the forties, the only role an Afro-American would have is that of an elevator person, the servant. Then read Norbert Wiener from the same period, saying that robots are the precise automatic equivalent of slave labor. Then I realized why all these voices in machines are women’s voices, because women used to do all these jobs. I really like Sadie Plant’s parallel of women and machines. The rise of automated systems frees women from these drugged roles.

GL: Instead of the writer offering some form of compensation, leaning towards a humanist position, and make sense of the world as it self, theory should try to imagine the impossible and transcend from the world of possible connections. Do you think this is favorable option?

KE: Ballard said that the writer should access inconceivable alienations. People do not know what they want until they are presented with it. Nobody knows what they desire. There is a machine, but it takes the form of book. You know books are boring. Still, when you open my book it says at the top: “Discontents”. The writer is admitting right upfront his irritation, impatience and restlessness.

GL: I have experienced cycles in speculative thought, of discovery and excitement, travelling further and further, until you reach a moment of realization (or not). The concept then dies, fades away, loses its magic, and start to feel worn out. In certain cases, speculative thought is being developed in complete isolation. It is even likely that these journeys towards the end of theory are undertaken in uncontemporary circumstances. Though the hermit position is not always a voluntarily one. Forms of criticism which are engaging, searching for new languages and aesthetics, could be a way out. In your experience, how are speculation and criticism related?

KE: Everywhere around you, the death of critique becomes visible. But critique and criticism are not the same. In my case I started to connect music with art and science fiction. Then you start realizing they are already connected and social disciplinary apparatuses are at work to separate them. Once you see that they are connected, the effort stops to bridge them. You stop being reactive. It turns around. That’s when scale becomes more important than analogy or metaphor. You start thinking how across scale and materials general processes emerge which you can see and follow. That’s when cybernetics start to become more important. You want to be specific generalist. At a certain point you want to be maximalist. Think of that strange rectangular material in a recent work of the Berlin company Art&Com. Or the typographer David Carson with his giant word objects, which has these twisting 3D forms. I also like the hyper architecture of Lars Spuybroek with its non-Euclidean geometry. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is only a start. In ten years more and more things will use spine vectors. That is why the futurists and constructivists are so useful. They tried to extend the immanent processes which their medium suggested to them, which was coined at a moment of extreme mutation. The digital artists I worked with, all try to understand the psycho-geography and what computer networks are doing to location, topology and place. Where they are when they are on-line and what happens when they go off-line.

GL: That’s when concepts start to become functionality and are not just anymore idea, ideology or fashion.

KE: I started noticing how many neologisms were used in hyper architecture. I counted so many of them! All these architects were obliged to introduce neologisms, to carve out this space they are working in. William Gibson’s idea that neologism is the primal act of pop poetics. It is the fist phase of concept manufacture, which depends on immanent analysis of the forms of the medium you are in. Since this medium is the process of extreme change, this puts pressure on your language. I love the idea that digitization does not stop at the screen. Concept manufacture on the one hand is an indulgence of the intellect, on the other an absolute necessity. Everything is being digitally mutated. And all the descriptions are obliged to change as well.

GL: Let us look a bit closer at the moment where concepts, distracted from the speculative mind are out, and get transformed due to exposure to the outside. Now in my view some for these transformations are successful, whereas others fail. Like what you said during the talk you gave, here in V2: men find it more difficult to transform compared to women. Could we say the same about the art of metamorphosis onto higher cyborgian stages? Could we speak of failed transformations and successful attempts to become cyborgs?

KE: One is always inside mutation and certain ways of understanding are more useful than others. In the world of music the mutation has now moved in R&B and garage. A lot of ideas which were useful in jungle are of no use anymore. That is why in the talk I gave here I used terms I would never have used two or three years ago: intimacy and love. That is, intimacy inside the machine. Now all the energy in pop culture has moved there. That is the risk of the new. I would not say failure. It is more liveliness. Concepts which take the temperature of thought, and those which lag behind processes. New music demands new immanent analysis. Concepts have to live as much as the culture they are accelerating, or complicating. I would not say that have to be in a state of permanent revolution. Not failure or success. It is more rates of quickness and intensification. You want concepts to amplify states of mind, mood vectors. Opening up a possibility space which music suggests but never explicates.

Dance music is so covert. Everything is so buried in the song. If you make an interview with musicians they won’t tell you anything. They will speak about their personality and keep the sound world totally mysterious. Pop music is a public secrecy. This is opposite to the world of classical music where they will tell you everything about the music, its structure, and tell you nothing about themselves.

GL: There are experiments with Internet radio. MP3 suddenly became big. These developments tend to focus on distribution, not on production. How could we imagine networked music? Most musicians, in my view, still work under the conditions of Bach and Mozart. They act like the individual genius, compose a work offline and then dump it online, if they use Internet at all. Can we envision a production of music which is situated within computer networks?

KE: This is all true. Say, you go to an MP3 site and there are between 3000-8000 tracks, sitting there to be accessed. The question then becomes which site attracts you, draws you. So far MP3 is only threatening the middle range apparatus of the music industry. You can now have websites which act as virtual record labels and virtual studios, an entire strata of musical structures. It has not happened so far that the network is seen as the starting point of music. Even on the Net it is mainly Sony and other big record companies you hear about. It is only when their bulk starts to become a problem, and their massiveness turns into a flaw that the micro sites of post-media initiatives will start to appear on the radar. So far nobody knows they are there, until you are there, with them. What is disappointing to me about is that its sonic artifacts are not more radical than the music generated off-line. That is why I do touch the MP3 topic. Instead I would rather focus on something like Earshot (, which is simultaneously a search engine and an audio interface, combing the sound files the search engine pulls down.

GL: Apart from MP3 databases, there are free radios and webmasters jamming together and clubs connecting other clubs. What do expect from these online events?

KE: Can you download the parameters of emotion and affect that make a club? It is the sound of music travelling through bodies, the entire affective convergence which makes a club. There was an event I went to in 1996, Digital Diaspora, with Scanner in the ICA in London and DJ Spooky at The Kitchen in New York.

GL: But that’s already much too public. The pressure of representation in such a setting is huge. I think such linkages can only succeed in an informal atmosphere of freedom and relaxation. We have the technology now to cut out mediators such as record labels, shops and magazines and get in direct contact with each other, on a global level. Mediation is becoming a distraction, dominated by large, controlled portals which will try to monopolize live events.

KE: You could be right. The failure of linked project so far has been that things happen on a screen and then everybody is watching them. At some stage we will get music that amplifies the sound of the network. Soon we will witness the birth of an immanent Net sound which is produced and distributed within the networks. I got online only in 1998 and I turned this lateness into my advantage. Old media love the backlash of the Internet which is happening at the moment. Everybody gets caught in this fascination for rejection of no more online, back to the street, to drugs and sex. Under the radar of this fascination a net-based music culture could come into existence. Both the doom and boom aspect of the Net are over. Once they both collapse you get something else. Still, I feel this the lack because it is still not there yet. Net theorists are hoping too much for something to come out of MP3, but nothing is happening. Sonic evolutions happen when people give up on things. It is when you give up on breakbeats, that’s when drum ‘n’ bass happens and nobody notices it. Hiphop is dead. That is when you get extreme mutations.

GL: As a newcomer, what do you think of Internet criticism and media theory, all the work which is done outside of academia?

KE: I like the fluctuating bits, where theory loses its authority, deauthorizes itself and starts to become a babelogue. The Babel moment Pattie Smith used to talk about. Rigorous polylogues and all mashed, that is what networked thinking looks like. That’s what the readme! anthology of nettime looks like. Crosstown traffic of tones and registers. The next stage could be aphorisms, slogans and instructions. What D&G said: write with slogans. The best of Nietzsche has that. They make you feel brave and heroic. My book was rewritten eleven times, staying offline, making the text more clear, more compressed. If I would think of an online hypertext continuation, I would work with margins, extended footnotes, other text levels. On the other side, one of the worst books ever written is “Imagologies” by Taylor and Saarinen. The level of media theory is so banal, yet the design was so high level. I like the slim book of Lars Spuybroek, Deep Surface. There is lots more to be done yet. The format of the book can be reconfigured in a much stronger way.

GL: Is there any future for the cultural industries, cultural studies and pop in the UK under the third way regime of Blair?

EK: The convergence of pop and the Blair administration allowed traditional, old media back in. The Dome functions here as an attractor, from Britpop to cultural studies. Well known fashion designers certainly play a role it. On the other hand, there is fashion nowadays which operates at a conceptual level and barely sells anything, such as Vexed Generation from London. For the first time there are fashion theories. I liked the remarks of Bruce Sterling at the end of “readme!” where he says that there will be this demand for new content in the next years to come. The Dome is a wonderful container for all these people, walking around from exhibit to exhibit, showing each other how brilliant they are, captivated by their own excellence. They can stay there, casting a shadow over themselves. This leaves the rest of us quite free to do everything else. Britpop, Demien Hirst and Blair, that’s what they think the nineties was all about. Not Sadie Plant. Mutual flattery in the media really works and the Dome is the symbol of this mirror world. It is Debordian spectacle to the max. Some will always carry the Dome around with them. The Berlin Wall came down, but the Wall was still in people’s heads for another decade. You can never knock it down, it is stronger than ever. The Dome will be like that for a certain industry. It is not a visionary exhibition like the 1939 World Expo. There will be no spin-off products. Its only result will be a self-satisfied containment of culture.