Tuesday, 31 May 2011


The latest edition of The Oxonian Review is a minor coup for the left-blogosphere, with reviews of 3 Zero books (one by Laurie Penny of Penny Red, one by Ivor Southwood of Screened Out, and one by Evan Calder Williams of Socialism and/or Barbarism), a review of Simon's Retromania by Adam Harper of Rouge's Foam, and a longish interview with Simon by me. Phew, talk about pulling people together towards a hub. That is some crazy linkage! Have I missed anything out? Oh, the Southwood review is by the splendid Tom May of Where Shingle Meets Raincoat and A Window on the World fame (his piece perhaps the most interesting of the lot).

Anyway, please check out some or all of the above if you can.

Obviously this is a review publication, so while I would have liked everyone to be wildly enthusiastic in the service of a good cause, the requirements of critical objectivity (combined, perhaps, with the sort of ego-value in criticising other people that Simon talks about in the interview) meant that some of the reviewers came down quite heavily on their subjects.

I thought Adam's critique of Retromania was half-fair. There is definitely an air of nostalgia and world-weariness about the whole thing, and Simon's commodity fetishism is sometimes difficult to explain away (I had to do a double-take when he said "I'm not a dissatisfied consumer" in the interview).

However, I'm not sure the accusation about "reactionary overreaction" quite sticks. The argument that goes something like "older people will inevitably be more pessimistic about things, and therefore their views should be discredited" can easily be turned on its head to discredit the optimism of younger people on similar grounds. Sure, there's a vague feeling of fogeyism about Simon's fear of technologically-induced "franticity", but his critique also comes with a wisdom and a wide-angle perspective that gives it perspicuity.

Moreover, I'm only 27 and I pretty much agree with the diagnosis of Retromania. It goes without saying that bemoaning the way things are isn't necessarily reactionary. In fact, of course, negative thinking is an essential constituent part of any radical political programme. Conversely, the default assumption that "progress is always taking place somewhere" is one of the defining tenets of market liberalism, the "whiggish view of history", if you like. Optimism is all very well, but isn't it the case that, without substantive political and economic reform, an increasingly atomised society will continue to prevent people from making any genuine collective steps forward, while the culture industry continues to repackage the fragments of a just-obsolescent past as the "latest thing", thus depriving people of a wider historical sense and a shared identity?

I guess I'm just saying, very simply, that these things are structural and political, and trying to posit some heroic micro instance of continuing innovation is beside the point. The point Retromania makes quite powerfully, I think, is that our ability to evolve collectively through an avant-garde music culture is severely hampered right now. Simon's book isn't a conservative jeremiad; it's a call to arms.

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