What are we talking about when we talk about “technology?” We mean iPhones, computers, Bluetooth, Uber, new dating apps, but never pencils, levers, pills. These items, detritus of life, act as nodes in our work day, whatever that is under quarantine (are we still in quarantine, or some other place?). What they accomplish is the simple valorization of capital—productivity has gone up, up up, but do we feel better for it?
Technology reflects and creates mores and social relations. Don’t use your phone while someone else is talking, unless you don’t like them; don’t use your work computer for Twitter, unless your boss doesn’t care. If you swipe right on someone, start off with something better than “hey how are you?” be interesting, be fun, show how great you are. We often hear complaints about time spent on the phone: we now have push notifications telling us how much time we spent per week (mine last was 3 hours and 44 minutes per day, down 31%). That notification often gets lost in the other ones demanding my attention—the paradox of our dreaded neoliberal “moment:” desires for austerity; desires for surplus.
The oversaturation of stimuli comes at a mental health cost. It is no surprise that amidst the Covid Pandemic, we have an opioid one, a depression one, an anxiety one. To borrow from The White Album, looking back, a sense of depression and anxiety does not seem an unnatural response to the years of living in America since 1980. In its stead, we are often prescribed a wide range of alleviants. We have an upper, a downer, all of those betwixt and between, but the most pernicious technology would be the term “self-care,” bastardized from Angela Davis, turned into a commodity and sold by the likes of GrubHub. “You had a tough day today didn’t you? You deserve a moment of self-care, so let us bring you food.” This mode of existing accomplishes the same end. You are being cornered by stimuli into aesthetic and economic choices alienated from the way capital slithers behind them. The technologies of the everyday are designed to make you fitter, happier, more productive—even when it doesn’t feel that way, even if it doesn’t work, it’s never the products fault, its your own, you, the individual are at fault, overwhelmed in feeling, desiring only to grasp at some control, spiritually unmoored, economically destitute, or if you’re (economically) stable like I am, on the edge of precarity lest you step out of line.
These technologies exist not to make your life easier but to distort it, obfuscate it, continue the saturation and alienation started in your workplace back home. I call people I only know online “my friends.” More aptly, everything, everyone, is it in its right place. What are we talking about when we talk about technology?
This post then begins my discussion of feelings and alienation through two pieces of art. The first, an album, Kid A by Radiohead from 2000, and the second, the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh published in 2018, whose main events take place from the summer of 2000 to the summer of 2001.
Everyone who read the book saw the same piece of art. It follows an unnamed narrator in her desire to sleep for one year. One could argue that she needed pills because of “shitty men.” One could argue she misused psychiatric medicine and under the correct supervision she would see growth, happiness, even silence in her mind. One could even argue she is the daughter of rich bad parents and she is a rich bad person. All of this is true. Here is what I saw.
A woman “aroused too much” by TV, friends, people. She is “compulsive about the remote clicking,” she scoffs at everything, agitates herself. The narrator believes the “constant barrage [of TV] made it hard not to hate everyone and everything” and so she concocts a plot to stay completely sedated for one year with the help of a coterie of pills prescribed by a willing psychiatrist. In my understanding, she wants, as Keats once wrote, “the feel of not to feel.”
For her, sleep is “productive.” She doesn’t want to die or become nothing, no she wants something much simpler, all of her feeling to simply disappear. How else would you disappear completely?
Then the album. In 1999, buttressed by the success of their third album OK Computer, Radiohead entered the studio the next big thing in rock music. They produced an album that was allegedly “controversial” or difficult for average listeners. The album was, according to The New York Times, Dark Side of the Moon solipsism for the “Me-Decade.”
I first heard it when I was in high school. The album felt like something I was supposed to like and I didn’t get it. The controversy to me, and I imagine from the original listeners in 2000, came from a belief that Radiohead produced a certain kind of music (what we used to call rock music) and this album, with its obscured lyrics and fuzzed out sounds felt like a different band. Though taking the long view, especially twenty-one years later, the album is of course neither the most experimental thing ever produced for a mainstream audience, nor is it beyond the pale for Radiohead anymore. In fact, I’d argue that following OK Computer, they had to produce Kid A, otherwise, they would be Coldplay, or worse, the Foo Fighters. Creative anxiety fueled the band.
It is clear to me the resonances these two products have. They are both responding to the End of History sure, but that’s merely a nice sounding turn of phrase from a card carrying member of the American Left-Wing. The year 2000 has plenty of significance: Y2K, new millennium, the last year of the end of history (if I can place it there, though it may be more accurate to suggest the end of the end of history was from 2000-2008). In my understanding, the feelings these products respond to come from that anxious moment. Briefly, these feelings are an overwhelming sensation of either doom or oncoming death, overstimulation (of light and sound), the feeling that something is changing, getting worse, or not as good as it gets, exhaustion, like fuzzed out wires. One can only imagine the German words for these feelings.
The novel, until perhaps its final page, resigns itself to the situation of the year 2000. That last page, however, is crucial to my reading.1 The album, existing in an entirely separate mode of artistic production, renders the situation similarly, and I want to argue with the same sort of movements: meaning becomes clear in the final song. History must continue; we are not finished.
I want to return then to technology. Once called “machinery,” technology guides the different speakers in these two cultural products. In the novel, technology around her distracts, annoys, delays and populates her thoughts. She is moored to it; she loves Whoopi Goldberg on TV. On the album, produced at the beginning of ProTools’s rise in popularity, whirls, whistles, brills, BBC broadcasts, and synthesizers new and old, season the album with its signature “weirdness.2” But more than that, the technology distances the band from their previous “rock”3 position and moves them into new territory. Further, the intentional obfuscation of lyrics (no lyric book was included in the original pressings) deepens the relationship to the technologies in use and their attendant genres (pop music, rock music, art music).
Yorke’s repeating “what is that you tried to say?” on the opening track demonstrates the distance created in technology. He is backed by a simple synth melody and drum machines and his lyrics earlier in the song were fuzzed out.
What purpose does the fuzz out operate as? Put another way, in literary terms, how does ambiguity operate? And where does that ambiguity come from?
Ambiguity allows for projection from the listener or reader. An unnamed narrator in My Year could be anyone—even you. Lyrics without clear meaning creates space for nearly everything. The title Kid A then becomes significant. In art, children (kids) operate as sites of relation and projection from adults and then the letter A suggests a beginning, an entry. We start to see these things as webs of connection rather than linear beats. They intersect and cohere, conflict and align.
The most prominent technology in My Year are the pills, mostly sedative, that the narrator ingests. Their sedative nature dulls experience, quiets the mind and then create an absence of feeling. The feel of not to feel brought to you by Pfizer. Sedatives, even minor ones like alcohol, function to keep you going at work. Technology produces surplus value, alter the character of the worker, and never stops changing.4 But technologies most base function is to extend the working day. Work from home, so long as you have you SSRIs.
Nature, technology, and thus together with social relations change not as cause-effect but as thesis, antithesis. Changes in machinery necessitates changes in other fields
Capital always uses technology to displace its desire for surplus (think colonialism) but what about when we ran out of land (think Manifest Destiny). What appears to me at least to be the remaining sources of value extraction are the mind and its attendant pieces, things like virtue or what was once called “the spirit.” The answer to these new problems of capital accumulation is not back but through them.
With sedation, this problem accelerates. Why would you want to move (difficult) through something when you could stay still (easy)? In the novel life “was repetitive, resonated at a low hum,” on the album “flies buzz around [the speaker’s] head.”
Towards the final third of the novel, the narrator enters forty hours in a semi-concious state saying “when you die of hypothermia…you don’t feel a thing. That sounded nice.” The biblical meaning of forty in this section shows some of the transformation of the narrator we see for the final third. Her massive effort to change her situation requires divine intervention, though the divinity in question is oxycodone. She places every one of her things “in the right place” and at one point the pills twist and sour her face, what in the album would be similar to when the speaker wakes up “sucking a lemon.”
And there is the supreme affect of these two products and our present historical moment. The taste of a lemon is sour, fresh but familiar, present and encompassing. You need an acid in a dish? Add lemon. Lemon is a strong flavor but something so simple it might as well not be a distinct sensation. Proust begins In Search of Lost Time with a madeleine cake (often baked with lemon zest):
“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me.”
Proust’s work is prescient now because of the disastrous outgrowth of autofiction in literature and the consistent coupling and blending of the speaker in pop songs with the artists’ voice: does Cardi B really have WAP, or is she playing a character in a piece of art regardless of the truth of the matter regarding, well you know, her WAP? I’d say she’s a speaker in a song, not the song itself. To connect it back to Proust, his desire to plunder consciousness created Modern Literature, but now we are truly in the self-conscious world he rendered, we know we are always being watched, always performing, always aware of those dual facts and always trying to break out from its double bind. Desires for surplus, desires for austerity.
The experience of these artistic products, their resonances, their affects to the present, past, and future come clear in that taste. Technology be damned, the world tastes like lemon.
Going forward and after more consideration, the outline of this series will be as follows. I will argue that Kid A and My Year render specific types of feelings from the end of history that vibrate into the present. Those feelings can be best demonstrated by discussing five things: technology, overstimulation, careerism, collective action, and exaltation. In future posts, there will be less about the context of the argument (things like “what is the end of history? What is the plot/narrative of the song/album at this moment? Etc.) and more argumentation about the way the affects and feelings produced from the artistic products congeal in those pieces. I do not wish to suggest there is a politics contained in these products (or any piece of art) but these things render and reckon with political feelings, ideologies, and moods. These works exist and were produced in the context of a politics of course, but there is an equally valid reading of each product without considering political feelings at all.5
As I’ve written elsewhere in this newsletter, I will emphasize that these things are produced—they are not revelations or spoken in tongues to us, but active works and labors done by a variety of people with differing relationships to their alienated labor. They are, to me, products of contradictory desires, moods, and most importantly material relations. I don’t say this so that I sound like your bummer cousin at a holiday dinner, I only have this addendum to emphasize that politics doesn’t happen in art and any argument that suggests art does something for politics will be laughed out of the room (the room being my email inbox). Art and culture respond to politics—never the opposite.
I want to finally offer thanks to the Brooklyn Institute of Social Research’s Practical Criticism podcast whose episode about Radiohead last year started me thinking about these resonances more seriously. You can find that podcast and support them here.
I’d also like to thank my brothers, Alec and Jonny, and Alec’s girlfriend, Sierra for engaging in some active communal listening of Kid A one evening. Each provided a perspective that I hadn’t considered on each and every track and helped me clarify my thoughts—mostly because I had to explain them to someone else with words.
There’s more to come and if you have questions or comments feel free to reach out!6
I plan on addressing why this is crucial in a future post
Mark Fisher defines “weird” in The Weird and The Eerie as “that which does not belong.” For a band like Radiohead at the time to have so much synth and electronics in an album, then is weird because it doesn’t belong on a “rock” record
Steven Hyden wrote a book in 2020 about Kid A that focused heavily on the genre of rock vs. Kid A and, while I enjoyed reading the book by the end, found the concrete distinctions of “rock” and “not-rock” boring (very Gen-Xer of him) but also analytically useless because other than maybe the first three songs, Kid A has standardly plotted tracks
This is borrowed from Capital, Vol. 1
I mentioned previously the other ways one could read the novel but for Kid A my brother argued rather convincingly that it could be read as about the process of making the album