Repackaging the Archive (Part V): Vital Materiality and Milemarker, Part 2

Read / See Part 1.

In migration, the sun is no longer the terrestrial sun reigning over a territory, even an aerial one; it is the celestial sun of the Cosmos, as in the two Jerusalems, the Apocalypse.

—Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus[1]

Milemarker, Frigid Forms Sell (Arlington, VA: Lovitt Records, 2000)

Frigid Forms Sell takes Milemarker’s own self-aware aesthetic position one step further than simply commenting upon their own object production in a manner akin to what would be a musical/scenester/Skylab-Commerce version of David Foster Wallace’s “Octet.”[2] Though a clear awareness throughout the rest of their work of the hyperarchival forces they are inextricably bound to—coupled with the simultaneous awareness of how their own object-production attempts to resist such forces—is surely present, and to increasingly strange degrees,[3] Frigid Forms Sell (hereafter FFS)effectively changes the conversation in a far more politically ambitious way (than through recursive self-reference) by stressing the necessity of a perspective capable of attending to the relative vitality of all objects. What this album effectively signaled in their development as a band was a move that went beyond merely critiquing the contemporary consumer’s relationship to objects (whether they be a punk rock consumer or not), and imagined a politics centered around objects themselves, objects that, given the emergent properties of matter and the posthuman blurring b/t object/media/tool and human, now could be considered to display a kind of political “subjectivity.”

Though evident throughout the album,[4] its first three tracks display particularly effectively the inherent conflict b/t the idea of mute, inert, dumb matter, and matter considered as vital and/or vibrant, ultimately highlighting the dangers of a human-centered ontology, an ontology incapable of grasping the vital being of matter itself. The first track begins exploring the conflict b/t inert and vital matter formally, by performing this conflict as one b/t the digital and the analog. This brief “song,” an untitled introduction to the album, places one immediately in the realm of the wholly digital, both in terms of voice and sound. A mostly unparsable, heavily altered “human” voice says, well, something, [5] which introduces around twenty seconds of driving, electronic (if intelligent) dance music, only to be interrupted by a single, analog, distorted guitar, at which point begins “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” the album’s titular song.

This brief shift b/t the clearly digital and the clearly (if electronic) analog does three things: 1) signals what was then (in the late 90s) a quite complex node of problems (the analog vs. the digital, esp. w/r/t punk rock),[6] 2) gestures toward a mode of production and recording that Milemarker would continue to challenge in their work,[7] and 3) foregrounds the two primary modes that humans currently have of approaching the vibration of matter (i.e. sound): the analog and digital. W/ this shift from its digital “[intro]” to a more-familiar analog guitar introduction, Milemarker is, if not privileging, then at least noting that the digital has achieved primacy w/r/t considering vibrating matter, both in recorded music and elsewhere, and that despite the dominance of analog recording during the majority of the 20th c.,[8] it now takes a violent break, a classic guitar-violence, to place us back amongst the realm of the analog.

What is being performed w/ this break is not what it might at first appear to be: a condemnation of the instrumentalization of sound (i.e. vibrating matter) through digital recording practices, and thus a critique of anything digital. Rather, this break foregrounds that music, and thus sound (and thus matter), must realize that the beginning of the 21st c. is an entrance into a new sonic dispensation, a shift to a new ontic experience of matter at its most sensorial level (the aural), and that consequently we must radically re-think our relationship to matter itself now that our mode of recording and experiencing sound has fundamentally changed. One mode of doing this is to rethink the most common trope of rock-and-roll: the distorted guitar. Through this introduction of digital moving toward analog (rather than the other way around), Milemarker makes a claim that it is precisely the digital that allows us, indeed forces us to rethink our relationship to matter itself, not matter experienced as a cleanly articulated, smooth analog space of experience, but as a wildly fragmented, striated space that we can only map through ones and zeros. In other words, the myth of analog, the myth of the vinyl recording, was predicated on the notion that there was an inert object that could be known and recorded. W/ the introduction of the digital, experience is forced to acknowledge that the vitality of matter prevents such easy objectification, and, though the digital is surely less accurate at recording the material world (at the moment), it is, quite strangely (and I know this is an inversion of commonplace thinking), capable of glimpsing the vitality of the objects it records. In other words, our experience of the digital world forces us to confront its emergent vitality, the fact that a distorted guitar simply feels different in a digital medium, that it takes on aspects it never had before, or in other words, the internet is alive.

Furthermore, this shift signals something esp. important w/r/t power and its particular emergence as control in digital societies,[9] and it is something Jacques Attali notes particularly well w/r/t music and what he calls “noise”:

More than colors and forms, it is sounds and their arrangements that fashion societies. With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion. In noise can be read the codes of life, the relations among men. . . when it is fashioned by man with specific tools, when it invades man’s time, when it becomes sound, noise is the source of purpose and power, of the dream—Music. . . . Everywhere codes analyze, mark, restrain, train, repress, and channel the primitive sounds of language, of the body, of tools, of the relations between self and others. All music, any organization of sounds is then a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, of a totality. It is what links a power center to its subjects, and thus, more generally, it is an attribute of power it all its forms.[10]

It is significant that Attali wrote this in 1977, if not only for the simple fact that the very ideological capture Attali is everywhere exploring in Noise has become exponentially easier, more insidious, and more total w/ digitally recorded  sound,[11] but b/c the “consolidation of a [digital] community” could be read in terms of Part 1’s emphasis on the fetish-object of punk rock vis-à-vis its various digital encodings—in other words as a perfect example of late-capitalism’s ability to absorb resistance into its own matrix of power and repackage it for easy consumption. The “[intro]” of FFS and its transition to the first proper song on the album, consequently, should be read as both enacting and resisting a complex (parallax) dialectic b/t the analog and digital, the laptop[12] and guitar, control and resistance, music and noise. The opening analog guitar riff of “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth” mobilizes a rock-and-roll tradition (the distorted guitar), that is, if not dead or dying, then re-coded digitally (i.e. the entire tradition is), sounding strangely hollow and inert after the vibrant and danceable digital introduction. The line b/t music and noise, clearly, is not only being blurred and commented upon, but the particular medium of that music/noise (digital/analog) blurs to become indistinguishable in this moment. The effect, in short, is that Milemarker is all of a sudden channeling, recording, producing, and reproducing something where, rather than fashioning a society through sound, code becomes foundational. In other words, though of course Attali is clearly applicable (still) to thinking through and w/ Milemarker, it might be more apropos to suggest that “everywhere codes. . . are the primitive sounds of language,” etc. In the introduction we are listening to code-itself, and the guitar, though briefly interrupting this digital moment in a (traditional) analog fashion, condemns the impotence of itself as a vehicle and weapon of resistance, thereby foreclosing a history that can now only be understood, in terms of sound, through its digital encoding, capture, and archiving,[13] while simultaneously opening a brief moment of utopian possibility, of the possibility to reconsider how we might negotiate the complex noise/music dialectic, only to also be foreclosed and shut down in posthuman apocalyptic glee by the first words sung on the album. What this all effectively does is redraw the boundaries of how to consider the object itself (the album) that a listener is engaged w/. Rather than imagining some idyllic, analog, distorted-guitar, rock-and-roll “pure” past that could be returned to if only we took a neo-ludditic stance toward the digital-objectival regime, it not only points out the inherent failures of considering the distorted guitar as a vehicle for revolutionary possibility, but points more productively toward the realization that sound, whether digital or analog, is now only code, ones and zeros, brutal ice-cubes of representation.[14] The material world, consequently, threatens to be completely broken down into code, and whatever vibrancy matter itself creates in sound, can only be approached as cold, inert, and objectival—i.e. translatable into code. This is the danger Milemarker confronts most directly on FFS.

The entirety of the lyrics to “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth” deserve full quotation here in that they quickly imagine the catastrophic outcome of such a code-based regime:

We keep waiting for the robots to crush us from the sky. They sneak in through our fingertips and bleed our fingers dry. There’s a product line attached to every form. The symptoms they ascribed to venereal disease all these years turned out to be side effects of the magnetic strips on the credit cards. There’s a product line attached to every form of suicide.

There are complex array of issues at stake here that continue to find expression throughout the rest of FFS, and these issues immediately signal Milemaker’s transformation of what at first might appear as merely a specific critique of media (digital vs. analog) into a crisis that fundamentally threatens (something like) “being itself.” W/ the first line (“we keep waiting for robots to crush us from the sky”), Milemarker has effectively washed up upon the shore of the (hyper)archive, upon a new dispensation of data- and object-relations having little-to-no connection to the safety previously found aboard the ship of anthropocentric metaphysics afloat in a sea of clearly definable limit-relations b/t humans, objects, data, and noise; they are suddenly deposited into a wholly posthuman world where objects (robots: the technological singularity) emerge from code, emerge from the very things (fingers) which were initially responsible for entering that code into the database in the first place through its primary entry point: the keyboard.[15] These robots, these vital objects, these machines w/ all the properties of being-itself, are archival machines, and they parasite back upon the very human input that made them possible, turning the most bodily of functions, sex and disease, into mere expressions of material force: magnetism and capital.[16] Suicide, the last, final act of will permitted to “life,” becomes not merely a “product line,” something to be reified and sold, but the various horizons previously available to this act can now only be understood within the robotic regime: the horizons have been redrawn by the robots “bleeding our fingers dry” in the same moment we create them through our most obvious archival process (typing). We wait for the robots to crush us from the sky b/c we have this holdover notion of a Terminator­-esque eschatology, of a limit-break where objects rise up to end “life,” but these vitally material objects interact w/ the human to the point of making that limit that consciousness cannot pass, death, merely another expression of an objectival-regime; what Milemarker reveals here is the brute reality of matter itself, w/o distinction b/t life and death, b/t “artificial” or “natural” intelligence/life, and consequently they reveal their engagement w/ a political ecology of things. What is stake w/in such an ecology, is that w/o a new perspective on the robotic-regime threatening the “human,” indeed, w/o radically rethinking the horizon of the human itself, current modes of relating to matter can only have as their horizon an eschatological closure in which the human disappears into the digital-objectival archive. The disappearance of the human should not be read here as a disappearance of the transcendental subject, nor even as tragic in any way, but of a fundamental inability to think anything other than traditional forms of political subjectivity. When suicide becomes a product line, a radical necessity is revealed, and this necessity is fundamentally ontological at its horizons.

“Signal Froze,” the third track on FFS, makes what is at stake—politically, ontologically, and archivally—even more explicit.

And the lyrics to this song also deserve full quotation: “The shipwreck survivors contemplate their icy tomb. Captain abdicates command over the intercom. No signals received on the radio. They’ll send a search party when it thaws. They’ll send a search party. . . right? My S.O.S. smoke signals froze and clattered down in cloudy ice cubes. Turn on the microwave and defrost the world.” To extend my ship-of-Western-metaphysics metaphor above, the ship has smashed upon the rocks of an objectival-archival world that the human can only perceive as an “icy tomb.” In the face of this, traditional sovereignty, traditional forms of power abdicate, and their “sign-off,” the captain of the “ship-of-state” sends out one last coherent analog signal transferring power to the icy-tomb itself (the cold object/archive). Language, as a result, can only take the form of an “S.O.S.,” a distress signal that, b/c of its newly instantiated objectival-archival medium, is not only transferred into code—absorbed, frozen, and reified—but clatters down, breaking into ambiguous, non-signifying, “cloudy ice cubes.” Language, the call, the distress signal, the plea for help, the primal (impotent) scream culled from the pain of individuation becomes mere cold geometry here. The only solution: nuke the world. The only solution: absolute radiation.

And it is from such a dismal perspective on the future of posthumanity that the true political stakes of Milemarker’s intervention become apparent. “Signal Froze” and “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth” designate the political perspective available to the thinking of matter, of objects, of things as inert, bounded, nonhuman, non-vital, dead. To make this visually clear, consider the following (reposted) archival apocalypse:

Clearly the premise of the above video is that matter (or code) does contain some amount of vitality, and that it will indeed organize into some coherent form. This form, matter’s final instantiation, its transformation of the earth into a giant black cube, perhaps a single digital (void-)pixel, however, reveals an underlying assumption about matter and its political horizon. Here, matter is always already poised toward entropy, toward non-complex singularity, and consequently, the political perspective available to thinking through matter in this mode is equally limited: it always approaches the heat-death of politics, there is no agency, subjectivity, or possibility for matter to do anything else but absorb us w/in its all-encompassing inertia.

“Tundra” makes the same point on FFS: “The ice age is coming. Better get a sweater or something. I don’t think the mammals are going to make it this time. Better get a prescription, so why you’re frozen you can still be smiling. You can’t outrun the tundra. So you might as well go under.”

Considering matter as entropic heat-death, as always moving toward an all-encompassing frozen tundra enclosing the world—this perspective does not leave room for anything except an acceptance of a quiet catastrophe, a silent eschaton. One “might as well go under.” Rather than go under raging against the dying of the light, attempting one last super-hero-type coup against the order of things, the only answer available to matter considered as non-vital is an absolute loss of agency, of revolutionary possibility. This isn’t merely passivity and resignation in the face of inevitable death. This perspective makes resistance into: “better get a sweater or something.” The irony of this “something” is total. It does not matter what thing one gets, what piece of matter one chooses to harness, what tool constructed from matter one tries to use. The very fact that it is matter itself, the sweater will only serve to more fully cover one in the slowly advancing logic of entropy.

So, obviously I am drawing heavily here upon Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter mentioned briefly in Part 1, a book whose project is to pose a political and ontological alternative to “Tundra,” a perspective on matter that attempts to “(1) paint a positive ontology of vibrant matter, which stretches received concepts of agency, action, and freedom sometimes to the breaking point; (2) to dissipate the onto-theological boundaries of life/matter, human/animal, will/determination, and organic/inorganic using arguments and other rhetorical means to induce in human bodies an aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality; and (3) to sketch a style of political analysis that can better account for the contributions of nonhuman actants.”[17] Though clearly not formulated in such clear theoretical terms, I would like to suggest that Milemarker is engaged in similar project, and ultimately achieves such a perspective—against “Tundra,” “Frigid Forms Sell You Warmth,” and “Signal Froze,” three songs that outline the apocalyptic horizons of considering matter as nonvital—in two ways. The first is through a thorough acknowledgment that “organic and inorganic bodies, natural and cultural objects. . . all are affective.”[18] The affect that matter takes on during the course of FFS is primarily erotic, and as such, Milemarker, through proposing an erotics of things (or perhaps what I elsewhere called “archival erotics,”), is able to consider “each human [a]s a heterogeneous compound of wonderfully vibrant, dangerously vibrant matter,”[19] interacting complexly w/ a world that is not delimitable in terms of subject/object. The second mode of vital materiality they propose is quite similar to what Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker call “the exploit.”[20] In opposition to a digitally-networked regime of control, of sound as what constitutes the ground of power in Attali’s terms, they push the logic of the network, and consequently the nonvital perspective on matter, past its breaking point.

“Sex Jam One: Sexual Machinery,” and “Sex Jam Two: Insect Incest,” though initially they seem to indicate and propagate the nihilistic “might as well go under” of “Tundra,” to detail an impotent despair in the face of the machinery of sex, in fact propose an (if subtle) alternative. Again, to quote in full:

She looked at me with the biggest brown eyes and she screamed at me: ‘would you like to fuck?’ ‘I’ll cut off my hands if you cut out your eyes.’ It made sense to me. We slide up, mechanically set, for the perfect alibi of passion gone by. I’m all out of change and you’re up I-95. We’re the couple that couldn’t make the payments but kept the car anyway. If it’s going to have to be like that then we might as well arrange the perfect set for the perfect fame.

“Sex Jam One” could not be more incisive and immediate re: the potentially complete instrumentalization of human sexual relations, a statement that boils down all sexuality into its most brutal, simple, basic discursive formation: “Would you like to fuck?” Further, this formation of sexuality appears to also have a corollary juridical, contractual aspect—i.e. such a statement (“would you like to fuck?”) is no different than, would you like to buy this car, esp. in terms of the response it generates. . . okay, yes? well, then just sign here. . . “I’ll cut off my hands if you cut out your eyes.” One should not be too quick, however, to consider this merely as an extension of the dominating logic of reification—i.e. that, from Milemarker’s obvious apocalyptic perspective, well, yes, of course sex is emptied of its affect as well. For, if one realizes that something was actually “produced” or “conceived” from this “sexual machinery,” and that it was, indeed, a machine (“we’re the couple that couldn’t make the payments but kept the car anyway. . .”), then one might read this song in different terms than outlined thus far. The machine, the car, is kept; no hand of capital comes and punishes this “couple” for being unable to make payments on their car. Debt, here, is not only written off but ignored. The “sexual machinery,” the seemingly brutal reification of sex into a simple question and a violent contract, is confounded, esp. considering that no answer is given to the initial question. Instead, the question and the contract produce a machine, a thing, an object, but it is an object that, somehow, is outside of capital’s grasp. The sexual couple can keep this car. It has produced something that, no matter how strangely, evades the logic of capital in a weirdly simple fashion. It is an object that is affective, erotic, and conceived. Sex here becomes not merely a relationship b/t two objects, two reified bodies. Sex is able to itself produce further affect at the material level. A car, quite simply, becomes vital (or perhaps a subject).

Of course one must engage in interpretive gymnastics to produce a reading of “Sex Jam One” as anything more than simply a dismal presentation of sexual machinery. “Sex Jam Two,” however, presents a much clearer moment to consider the possibility of nonhuman materiality/sexuality and an erotics of things.

You could bring home the pollen, I could be the queen bee. The way the mammals do it is inefficient and unsanitary. You’ve got to whisper to me, make sure that I’m not dead. You’ve got to take your tweezers and pry apart my little legs. You ought to kick it to me and then bite off my head. That’s the way the insects do it. Exoskeletons filled with fluid. I wish I could peel away your humid human skin and attach you to me, parasitically. Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. Yeah. (My emphases.)

“Sex Jam Two” traces a different kind of sexual machinery than “Sex Jam One,” namely an animal (or “insectival”) sexual machinery. Considering the original recording of “Insect Incest,”[21] which was collected on Changing Caring Humans, is also important w/r/t the song’s insectival nature. The original recording was quite a bit slower, sans keyboard in the background, and had Burian singing in a much more monotone, affectless tone—the only real moment of affect coming when he screams, with an extreme amount of (almost insectival) distortion, “exoskeletons filled with fluid!” The original recording, then, could easily be heard as a kind of critique, a consideration of insectival sexuality as nothing more than a fairly critical analogy of contemporary sexual practices. FFS’s “Sex Jam Two,” however, interprets the original song w/ quite a bit more feeling, and though the closing lines of “yeah, yeah, Oh yeah. yeah,” must still be heard in all their overflowing irony, the second version of this song (the one above) is far more celebratory of “insect incest” than the original.

There are two things that are primarily being celebrated: 1) the efficiency, the logic of bee- or insect-sexuality, and 2) the blurring of any boundaries b/t sexual bodies. This efficiency and blurring is immediately and quite provocatively signaled in the first line. Not only are normal gender/sexual stereotypes overturned here—the “woman” bringing home the pollen, the “male” being the “queen bee” responsible for the creation of the hive and other sexual bodies (i.e. its own sexual objects), but it should also make us think about emergent sexuality.[22] One of the things that has often been noted about bee (or ant) colonies is that, contrary to popular figurations (say Antz, or something), the queen of a bee colony has no hierarchical control over how the colony operates. Whatever intelligence or complex organization occurs in a beehive, it is a result of the complex network and flows of all the bees.[23] Consequently, redrawing a “sex jam” along the lines of emergent, insectival sexuality, decentralizes anthropomorphic notions of sex, and also creates new limits: “You’ve got to whisper to me, make sure that I’m not dead. You’ve got to take your tweezers and pry apart my little legs. You ought to kick it to me and then bite off my head.” The you/me, subject/object version of human biological sexuality is overturned to the point that, even though a “you/me” structures the imperatives sung by Burian, it is nearly impossible to find the “object” of the sex drive. The singer is simultaneously the “queen bee,” a thanatoid object whose vitality is in question (see insect “thanatosis”), a “female” whose legs need to be pried apart, and the male praying mantis who, after sex, is killed (or decapitated) by the female praying mantis. The erotic/objectival horizons of “Insect Incest” are rhizomatic, distributed, and do not participate in a human sexual economy, thereby redrawing erotic possibility and affect, redrawing drive and desire. Parasitic sex,[24] sex where there is a complex relationship b/t host and parasite (and clearly it is difficult to discern which is which here), presents a horizon of material possibility, a mode of thinking about objects, matter, and non-human “actants” (in this case animals or insects), and ultimately traces a line of flight from the world of “Tundra.”

The second mode of exploration regarding the possibility for a vital materiality occurs on the penultimate song of the album, “Server Error,” and quite closely resembles Galloway and Thacker’s notion of the exploit in protocological systems.

[W]ithin protocological networks, political acts generally happen not by shifting power from one place to another but by exploiting power differentials already existing in the system. This is due mainly to the fundamentally informatic nature of networks. Informatic networks are largely immaterial. But immaterial does not mean vacillating or inconsistent. They operate through the brutal limitations of abstract logic (if/then, true or false). Protocological struggles do not center around changing existent technologies but instead involve discovering holes in existent technologies and projecting potential change through those holes. Hackers call these holes “exploits.”[25]

On “Server Error,” Milemarker is perhaps at their clearest in terms of their call for and mode of resistance, and it is nearly impossible to not notice how they structure resistance through the exploit, from inside, from pushing the logic of the system past its breaking point, by masking oneself w/in the confines and structures of protocol, only revealing the true nature of the resistance after protocological control has been hacked. For “Server Error,” again, the lyrics deserve full-quotation (esp. considering it is difficult to parse them aurally):

I’ve got a recipe for integrity. We can just start tonight with just a kilobyte. We won’t save what we won’t take. That would just build the next mistake. It’ll look real clean. We won’t be seen. Take a bit each time you walk out five. We’ll destroy from within the information age. We’ll make a clever break. There won’t be an escape. Gradually weaken the machine piece by piece. Leave its shell in place. I’ve got a recipe for integrity. Act like you belong until the final stage.

Frigid Forms Sell, by working through the eschatological implications of a non-vital political project, pointing toward an erotics of things, and celebrating multiple sexual machineries, achieves its political vision on “Server Error,” and it is a vision only graspable when all the implications of what Galloway and Thacker call “networked being” have been dealt w/.

Networks are said to have a “life of their own,” but we search in vain for the “life” that is specific to networks, except their being as networks. On the one hand, the proof of the existence as such of living organisms is their living. On the other hand, the proof of the living aspects of networks is their existence as such, that is, their being. The question of “life” and the question of “being” seem always to imply each other, but never to meet.[26]

It is precisely from a perspective on the vitality of matter, on the vibrant nature of things, that Milemarker is able to explore this gap throughout FFS where “being” and “life” do not meet. Rather than “going down with the ship” on “Tundra,” they stake out the terms of not only the various possibilities for “being” vital materialism offers, but how to mobilize a politics from this perspective. It is impossible to not get an affective sense of this when listening to the album as a whole. There is a distinctly cold tone to the entire album, a mechanical approach to rock-and-roll that is continually upset by the experience of listening, of vitally engaging w/ its vibrating matter (sound). But to suggest that FFS completely achieves the “thaw” of the frozen matter, sound, and music it presents would be to ignore perhaps the two most important moments in the rest of their work where the issues here presented interact in a quite complex manner. These two moments are “Ant Architect,” on their album Anaesthetic,[27] and “Sun Out” on their final album (at least of this writing), Ominosity (2005).

“Ant Architect” is (in my humble opinion) Milemarker’s most well-executed, well-conceived (if not their “best”) song:

Mad scientist sits at his desk. Tries to decide which buildings should face east and which west. Allergic to the hive, the hive is giving him hives. He’s an ant architect, a meteorologist of mood swings and other things which shouldn’t be measured. If the brain is the engine and the heart is the carburetor, and the legs are made of rubber and the spine is made of pipe cleaners we can build our own people in any way we choose. We can push our own buttons like adolescent gods. We can bask in the glow of the new synthetic sun. The casket you know is the most comfortable one. We can suture the future shut like a cut. We can build epic structures which replicate us. Deaf-mute in a leisure suit who, try as he might, fails nightly. Fails miserably. Buys a colony from the back of a magazine, plays simulated city with real living things. His fear of death is intense as he crushes the ants. But there’s a freedom there: there’s no one to apologize to. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Milemarker’s “mad scientist,” this “ant architect” inhabits the difficult, precarious position of a human coping w/ the realization that all matter is vital w/o regard for the human. He attempts to measure things which “shouldn’t be measured,” “mood swings,” yes, the affective output of chemical changes in the material body, but also, quite importantly, “other things.” The fact that these things which shouldn’t be measured are simply “other things,” means they can be any old things whatsoever, things as always other, things themselves, perhaps, but simply things. Things shouldn’t be measured. For we cannot, at the end of the day, ever really definitely measure any thing, and perhaps most importantly, things cannot measure other things either. There is always a gap, a lack, an abyss b/t things. And this “ant architect” inhabits the problematic and paradoxical position of the (mad) scientist whose role it is to measure things, while simultaneously completely aware that “the brain is the engine and the heart is the carburetor, and the legs are made of rubber and the spine is made of pipe cleaners”; in other words, the human is a thing as well, composed of things, and it is a thing trying to measure things, etc. W/in this objectival space, this space of trying to inhabit a position of perceiving matter as vital, there is always the danger of being able to “build our own people in any way we choose. We can push our own buttons like adolescent gods”; but there is the simultaneous realm of possibility, of celebration, where “we can bask in the glow of the new synthetic sun.” This “synthetic sun” should not be read completely ironically—being able to create light, and consequently, synthesizing the force (the sun) which is (probably) responsible for producing life and (surely) responsible for maintaining it, is the very paradox this ant architect inhabits. Inhabiting a space where one considers matter as vital is difficult, in other words.

What is at stake is the future itself, the continued existence of the species, for on the one hand the ant architect threatens to “suture the future shut like a cut,” to foreclose the possibility of the species in posthuman extinction by being able to “build epic structures which replicate us.” But at the same time, this posthuman position provides a new type of freedom: “But there’s a freedom there: there’s no one to apologize to.” The ant architect inhabits a space where the human has been almost completely decentered, where the old ontological chain of being has completely broken, and the idea of any sort of hierarchy, humans (or matter) being accountable to any other thing, is revealed as ludicrous. Consequently, though perhaps failing at his project, this ant architect inhabits, almost completely, the postmodern ethical position, in all its problematic complexity and ambiguity; he has embraced the reality of what Heidegger called Abgrund (absence of ground, the void), and must figure out how to live in a world of vibrating matter, in a world where there is no distinction b/t a pipe cleaner and a spine, a heart and a carburetor, legs and rubber, brains and an engines.

Perhaps the most important aspect of “Ant Architect,” however, is the final line that Burian sings repeatedly like a kind of mantra at the end of the song, evolving, growing, achieving a kind of life of its own: “Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.” If the majority of “Ant Architect” defines a problem, a conflict, a difficult ethical space for the human faced w/ its own materiality, a materiality which also forces the human to confront the vitality of matter itself, then this mantra is, quite strangely, almost divorced from the rest of the song. Clearly there is a critique of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (aka anti-depressants, e.g. Prozac), of a culture chemically altering itself at a quite basic level, of a culture incapable of confronting their own material nature by masking the void through drugs, but it is also important to attend to the relative amount of joy (and then anger) in the manner Burian sings this mantra. The hive, the world, material reality, etc., gives this ant architect hives, he’s allergic to it, and yet there is no outside, he is responsible for the building and upkeep of the hive, trying to decide which “building should face east and which west.” One solution for the anxiety such a position produces (and thus the anxiety of the postmodern subject) is, of course, “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.” But clearly, this solution, this “cure” is also a poison (again, a pharmakos). Faced w/ the awareness that he can alter his own affect, that, by changing his chemical and material makeup, he can change his affectivity, signals that matter is affective as well.

What Milemarker achieves in “Ant Architect” is the incredibly difficult position of having to confront the vitality of matter and its implications for political action and existence, and an awareness of what Deleuze and Guattari called “assemblage.”[28] No, they do not provide any “answers” for inhabiting such a position, do not provide a balm for even how to go about one’s life once in such a position (or really even how to get there), but they do reveal the paramount necessity, both for ethics and the future of the species, for what Bennet calls a political ecology of things. The posthuman ant architect who has to choose (which building should face east and which west), who has to make a decision about what to build, how to build it, and ultimately why (suture the future shut or not, and to what end), must first understand his relationship to the hive, to chemicals, to affect, and to matter. He must understand himself as a finite moment of assemblage, a singularity.

The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in their ability to make something happen (a newly inflected materialism, a blackout, a hurricane, a war on terror) is distinct from the sum of the vital force of each materiality considered alone. Each member of a proto-member of the assemblage has a certain vital force, but there is also an effectivity proper to the grouping as such: an agency of assemblage. And precisely because each member-actant maintains an energetic pulse slightly “off” from that of the assemblage, an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable sum.” An assemblage thus not only has a distinctive history of formation but a finite life span.[29]

The world-historical stakes for the finite assemblage that is humanity, and indeed the assemblages we call life and the world are expressed in “Sun Out,” as well as the relative bleak prospects for the future of any finite assemblage. Milemarker have always pursued a certain kind of apocalypticism,[30] clearly discernible in many of the tracks from Frigid Forms Sell discussed here, as well as elsewhere, but nowhere does their eschatological imagination find such clear expression than in “Sun Out”:

When the sun went out nobody noticed. It took a couple of months for the winter not to end. It took a couple of years for it to get colder and colder until people began to panic and demand an explanation. And then the scientific community convened and decreed that the human race was done, and though we all still had time to bear children, none of them would live to see 21. And it was just gonna get colder and colder and colder and colder from here on out. There lake of limbs had frozen over. No one ever, ever thought this day would come. It’s getting harder and harder to die of natural causes. If you make it, you’ll be one of the last ones. The sun has gone down for the last time. There will be no moon tonight. It’s over.[31]

Though one is tempted to read “Sun Out” as an indictment of current ecological, political, scientific, and technological practices (and it is), and one is equally tempted to see this song as ultimately dismissing the precarious political position they have constructed throughout their work in the face of apocalyptic doom and gloom, a kind of total pessimistic nihilism, it is significant to pay attention to their specific eschatological formulation here, and how it differs significantly from more commonplace or popular formulations. Namely, that when the sun initially went out nobody noticed, it took a couple of months for people to notice, it took a couple of years to have any real effect, and for humans to really care at all.

This delay, this gap, this lag-time b/t the event and its effects is quite notable in terms of more traditional formulations in the apocalyptic imagination. Though clearly not having any grounding in materiality (i.e. it is not possible, and it is “unscientific”), they are pointing toward a deeply materialist engagement w/ the world. Yes, we all know that the sun will eventually explode into a red giant and consume the earth (in millions or billions of years, we’ll also probably be long gone when this happens), but the sun to quite literally go out (like a light bulb), and for no one to notice!? this betokens another eschatological regime than we are used to. Namely, apocalyptic formulations (even some of the worst ecological ones [see my “Eco-Jeremiad”]), most usually depend upon some type of event, a moment in time, what Frank Kermode calls a peripeteia—this is also b/c the apocalypse seems limited to narrative (at the moment)—a turning point w/ a temporally definable before and after. Here, the event is not merely unnoticed, but deferred. It is this deferral, this delay in the event’s instantiation and its perception, that we should pay particular attention to. The apocalyptic thing here, consequently, is not the event, but humanities’ inability to notice the crisis, its inability to perceive the very end of material vitality in the sun. If we continue to inhabit the position of perceiving objects as dumb, mute, inert, it is this very position that is dangerous, that has its telos at the end times. In other words, one might very easily say here that Milemarker is suggesting that if we continue to think of matter as dead—or, rather, cold—then matter will indeed “just gonna get colder and colder and colder and colder from here on out.” For there is definitely a sense on “Sun Out” that if people were just able to perceive the sun going out, perceive the end of its finite, vital assemblage, then some action could be taken, the crisis could be averted. (I cannot help but think here of Danny Boyle’s underappreciated [if clearly scientifically absurd] Sunshine [2007].

Though of course, none of this discussion really pertains to that film at all, as it devolves into a strange sort of slasher thriller. . . .)

It is also quite important to note that Ominosity in general, and “Sun Out” in particular, sees Milemarker changing the general dynamic of their sonic output quite significantly, esp. in contrast to the cold, detached aesthetic they achieve on FFS, and the medicinal tone of Anaesthetic. “Sun Out” has little-to-no digital sound, with the exception of strange bleeps and blips in the middle of the song where everything dies down to a bass playing single notes, followed by a long drum-roll before the epic final pronunciation of the song, “the sun has gone down for the last time,” is repeated (again, mantra-like) w/ increasing urgency. “Sun Out” is more “rocking,” more “epic” (it is one of their longest tracks, clocking in at 8:12), and it is far more “vital” than most of the music I have discussed here.

Within the trajectory of their work, one could do worse than reading “Sun Out” as a kind of end, as a final musical statement, as a culmination of their thinking and long aesthetic project. Though steeped in apocalyptic imagery, and clearly stating that “it’s over,” it would probably be wrong, however, to consider “Sun Out” as a final, brutal, pessimistic, critical assessment of futurity—i.e. that their entire career was spent detailing the apocalyptic limits of postmodern contemporaneity and that we receive a final condemnation on their last album. Rather, as I’ve endeavored to explore here (and in Part 1), “Sun Out” defines a critical stance toward matter, that we very, very much need to attend to the material world around us in all its different formations, and particularly its most important formation (obviously) for the persistence of life on earth—the sun. Yes, in our current digital, archival dispensation we are inclined not to “notice” the extinguished sun, and thus, Milemarker suggests that through our very inability to perceive matter as vital, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it ceases to be so. I also realize that this entire reading of their work may be a stretch, and perhaps requires more familiarity w/ Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter than I have here sketched, but, perhaps what this reading has attempted to achieve, even more than its specific delineation of a persistent theme in their work, is that perhaps the time has come to take Milemarker—and by proxy, many of the important hardcore, “post-punk,” or “(scr)e(a)mo”[32] bands of the late 1990s and early 2000s—quite seriously. There was an edge, a project, a vitality, and a vision that much of the music of this period had, a vibrancy that has (perhaps) disappeared. Part of this disappearance is intimately linked to the relative disappearance of the concrete musical object (the 7”, the LP, the CD), but this in no way means that we cannot redraw our relationship to musical assemblage; that there is way to treat our iPods as vital and vibrant moments of emergent assemblage. And that, rather than the world getting “colder and colder and colder and colder,” there is, in fact, warmth, vitality, and vibrancy to be found in the hyperarchive, in or despite the instrumentalization of matter, and in the ones and zeros that define our musical-aesthetic regime. If nothing else, Milemarker asks us to listen again and really hear how they made matter vibrate.

[1] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia: A Thousand Plateaus, Vol. 2., trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 326.

[2] See Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1999), 131-160.

[3] Take Anaesthetic, for instance:

Also see Al Burian’s commentary on the album and its cover in “A Very Long Q & A with Al Burian of Milemarker, Challenger, and Burn Collector”, an interview conducted by Shawn Goldberg at Creative Loafing (a name I very much appreciate). It contains some interesting notes on the more-recent state of the band and Burian’s own current pursuits, including his excellent zine, Burn Collector.

[4] Also, for a moment, consider the album cover above (and the accompanying album-art). Each member of the band is depicted with a slight sheen on them, implying that they are cryogenically frozen; this freezing of the band—in the photo, the album-art, the recorded music—threatens to be thawed by the very temporal experience of listening to the album-itself, that there is something underneath which will become “alive” once again; one might expect this is the “music itself.” The song “Cryogenic Sleep” also makes it quite explicit that “being” or “subjectivity” has been frozen, incapable of interacting w/ the world, sleeping “through the sirens,” but still standing “against, though horizontally.” “I’ve considered my position and found no reason to run. I have no instinct for survival. My will to live is pillow soft. Perhaps that’s some indication of our state.” Resistance, or perhaps more accurately, thawing consequently can only take the form of: “I want to see this algebra cut in two. I’ve got to know why you left. I want to know why you said Molotov.” We need to ask a question, and merely listen. . . .

[5] Though I failed to find what the voice is saying, and despite the difficulty understanding what is said, it seems quite possible that the words “glucose fixation” are uttered, which is relevant, of course. . . .

[6] For the band that ruined this as an interesting problem to be explored in complex ways, or perhaps the band that made this cease to be a problem at all, or perhaps the band that made none of us really care anymore, see The Faint, esp. their album Blank Wave Arcade. (And, of course, yes, this was released before FFS.)

[7] See Satanic Versus. Two songs on the album (“Join Our Party” and “Idle Hands”) were recorded by the band digitally, the other three songs (“The Banner to the Sick,” “New Lexicon,” and “Lost the Thoughts But Kept the Skin / Satanic Versus”) were recorded under the tutelage of analog-guru Steve Albini, as was much of Ominosity.

[8] Not to mention the dominance of analog throughout human history.

[9] See Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004).

[10] Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 6. The passage continues: “Eavesdropping, censorship, recording, and surveillance are weapons of power. The technology of listening in on, ordering, transmitting, and recording noise is at the heart of this apparatus. . . to listen, to memorize—this is the ability to interpret and control history, to manipulate the culture of a people, to channel its violence and hopes. Who among us is free of the feeling that this process, taken to an extreme, is turning the modern State into a gigantic, monopolizing noise emitter, and at the same time, a generalized eavesdropping device. Eavesdropping on what? In order to silence whom?” (7).

[11] I am absolutely positive many people have said many, many interesting things about this re: Attali, but for the purposes of this less-formal exploration, it is outside my purview to pursue or provide whatever these things might be. My apologies.

[12] Seriously, my first experience of watching a “band” who simply “played their laptops” is eminently forgettable. . . .

[13] See the recent post, “Archival Decay.”

[14] I once heard that Neil Young said that listening to CDs sounded like ice cubes falling into a glass. The alternative to such a digital beverage would of course be the “water” of analog records.

[15] Furthermore, Milemarker is clearly in an aesthetic realm quite distinct from, say, Black Flag’s “Rise Above.”

What should be clear from the above video is the centrality of the human in this articulation of punk rock. Whether it be the classic revolutionary stance of “we are going to rise above” (these oppressive regimes that “keep us down”), the milling, swirling, vibrant bodies, the vital sheen of sweat on Henry Rollins’s muscled body (that is strangely not yet tattooed too much)—i.e. it is not the sheen of cryogenic freezing on Milemarker’s bodies—the sheer anger directed toward “them” (power still considered in terms of the human: the police, the state, parents, whatever)—Black Flag at this moment clearly cannot anticipate how their very symbol (the classic four black bars) would become merely a kind of teenage rite-of-passage into a sanctioned and absorbed form of resistance—e.g. Rollins on MTV and the phenomenon that is Hot Topic. Furthermore, every expression they are articulating is absolutely tied to an anthropocentric, analog ontology that cannot but feel nostalgic and perhaps quaint or naïve. It also might bear mentioning that I saw those four bars graffitied onto a light post the other day and was struck w/ how meaningless and empty the symbol now is, I mean, who is still going around drawing four black bars on stuff? To what purpose? And also, of course, none of this is to really denigrate Black Flag, for it is a sad state of affairs that the first comment on the youtube site for the above song says, “My generation needs a band like this so fucking bad.” Indeed, what would a band like this even look like at this point. Well, Milemarker. . . Also, for an excellent insight into the amazing phenomenon that was Black Flag, see Henry Rollins, Get in the Van: On the Road with Black Flag (Los Angeles: 2.13.61 Publications, 1994). (It is also quite incredible that, under the organization method I use for my biographies and autobiographies, Get in the Van is sandwiched b/t Rainer Maria Rilke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.)

[16] Capital here considered as an “nonhuman” force.

[17] Jane Bennet, Vital Materiality: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), x. Again, to see how / why (briefly) I am drawing upon Bennet, please consult “Part 1.”

[18] Ibid., xii.

[19] Ibid., 12-13.

[20] See Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

[21] See Milemarker, “Insect Incest,” Sex Jams (Philadelphia: Bloodlink Records, 1999). The cover of this EP is also an esp. interesting parody of Kraftwerk.

[22] See Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (New York: Scribner, 2001), 29-72.

[23] If one has ever seen a bee colony trying to start a hive, massing around one another in an orgy of bee-bodies, they know exactly what I’m talking about (thanks Eric).

[24] One might also think here about Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “non-genital sex.” Further, there is very much a sense of what they call a “body without organs” in “Sex Jam Two”: “Flows of intensity, their fluids, their fibers, their continuums and conjunctions of affects, the wind, fine segmentation, microperceptions, have replaced the world of the subject. Becomings, becoming-animal, becomings-molecular, have replaced history, individual or general” (A Thousand Plateaus, 162).

[25] Alexander R. Galloway & Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 81. For the purposes of quotation in this format, I have removed italics and paragraph breaks from the original.

[26] Ibid., 118-19, emphases in original.

[27] Though slightly outside of the purview of this discussion, I’d like to provide a brief note on the title of this album, as it is quite important w/r/t their entire work. Anaesthetic is a frankly brilliant title, and though the album cover may be slightly odd (seriously, what’s w/ that Pegasus, see note 3 above), the Pepto-Bismol pink conveys a sense of how Derrida read Plato’s pharmakon (something that is both poison and cure). Further, it signals a lack of aesthetics, or perhaps a neutral ground: anaesthetic (of course, also an aesthetic, i.e. any old aesthetic whatsoever). And, to not ignore the most obvious reading: aesthetics as anesthesia, art as numbing agent, escape, delusion, but necessary for surgery—i.e. it is precisely such a song like “Ant Architect” that works as a kind of surgery: fixing, repairing, curing some debilitating disease brought on by the anaesthetic regime of late-capital. The problem, however, is that once off the anesthesia, once awake from the surgery, though we have no conscious memory of the surgery, our body very much felt and experienced the trauma of surgical invasion; despite the “happy” world of Pepto-Bismol pink we perhaps can only escape the trauma of history on the back of a winged Pegasus (or something). (There is also a weird sense of an almost fascistic symbolic order w/ this Pegasus and the stars.)

[28] For a strikingly apropos account of assemblage theory vis-à-vis “Ant Architect” see Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy for Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (New York: Continuum Books, 2006).

[29] Bennet, 24.

[30] For example, their Allmusic entry says that their early shows “include[d] snippets of ranting evangelical preachers played as background noise while the band is clad in shirts bearing the names of the four riders of the apocalypse, prompting one audience member to congratulate them on spreading the ‘Christian message.’”

[31] Milemarker, “Sun Out,” Ominosity (Kearny, NJ: Eyeball Records, 2005), track 6. My apologies for not also providing the audio for this song (which is quite epic), but I failed to find a working link to it. Of all the songs here this is perhaps the most unfortunate not to be able to hear directly for it is very much worth finding and listening to.

[32] I of course use this term loosely, for it seemed to designate something when this music was being made, and does not in any way designate much of anything today.