“I want To Be A Machine”: Cyberpunk and the Political Esthetics of the Man-Machine
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Seb: Hello and welcome!
Lars: Hey Seb, I liked that music found a way into this conference – the early industrial stuff is interesting, especially the machinization of music … I had not realized about Ultravox, Midge is rather softish in the new wave phase. Would you see a continuation to Nine Inch Nails or Fear Factory in there?
Seb: Well, as you know, filiations are always hard to define – except when musicians themselves reveal their influences. But in the political aspects, yes, that would work.
Esko: Thanks for a great talk, Seb! Would you comment a bit on the discrepancy between cyberpunk fiction having very US-centric origins whereas experimental bands like Ultravox and Kraftwerk hail predominantly from the old country? Is it only a question of distance or why do you think connections seem tenuous at best at the turn of the 70-80s?
Seb: Excellent question. I didn’t think about that actually while doing my talk, because the Residents and Negativland and Pere Ubu could have been mentioned too. And it would be interesteing to see the convergences and differences between the continents. And J.G. Ballard and Moorcock (Jerry Cornelius) could definitely been seen as cyberpunk esthetics precursors.
mlex: re: Ballard: I can just picture Ultravox as the soundtrack of Crash, and Kraftwerk for Concrete Island.
Seb: Yes – the early formation. totally!
Lars: I think there is an American side to this, but it stems more from the “punk” side, less the electronic music side … and it gets combined with acts like Skinny Puppy or Frontline Assembly by the early 80s…
Esko: Definitely, the Gibson/Debbie Harry connection is one I know of.
mlex: and the Plasmatics?
Seb: Definitely. But in 10 min I had to make a choice… But I think the “punk” part of the Cyberpunk aspect is essential. The antagonistic or ironic position.
Lars: what I found interesting is that in terms of music Germany is very “cyberpunk” and in terms of novels and films not so much … @Evan Torner (he/him) has a chapter on this in the RCCC and he talks about Kraftwerk a bit…
Seb: very interesting indeed. In France we have a few, but generally very fascistoid – interestingly enough.
Eero: Great talk! I’m hardly a music history expert, but it reminded me of how Jason Heller talks about scifi music aesthetics (including Kraftwerk) in his book Strange Stars, which I quite liked, although he approaches the topic with a certain kind of journalistic looseness. And I had just recently noticed that Neuromancer‘s acknowledgements actually mention Helden, which I presume to be the band that included Ultravox drummer Warren Cann? All these connections…
Esko: There goes my point about lack of connections then
Eero: Sorry not sorry… (But I swear I wasn’t subtweeting!)
Steven: Great talk. I emailed Seb earlier, but will repeat it here: I remember an amazing performance by the punk duo Suicide (singer + guy with synthesizer) that I saw sometime around 1980 (yes, I am old) – in which both musicians walked off stage at the end while the music was still playing (since it was a synthesizer, preprogrammed) – it was amazing to see this back then, I had never encountered anything like it
Damian: thanks for the talk! i cannot help but think about Detroit techno (groups like Underground Resistance) – they generally make lyric-free music, which means placing it in a political history requires a different kind of analysis to what you’re doing here. but it seems very clear to me that there’s a connection to be made there! is this something you’re familiar with or interested in working on?
Seb: I am very interested as I write dystopian fiction myself and am an old punk. these reflections come from my background and the political positions that were around in the 1980s-1990s
Lars: but Detroit techno is very political in the sense that it hands back the performance to the DJ, by combining several tracks, by editing in lyrics if wanted or needed. To out myself as well, as Steven just did. I was at several Detroit underground raves in the early 1990s and there was def. a punk moment there. Warehouse raves, illegal, people fleeing the police. …
Seb: And the eesthetics were very ambivalent, politically. the machine could be seen as threatening, liberating, erotic, etc. … @Lars: I am very interested in this topic and thinking about working on it, yes.
Lars: there is an interesting take on this in the RCCC – Christine Capetola talks about the synths (as technology) being used by African American artists to take back technology from the white perception and make it theirs in an afropunk fashion
Seb: Yes- absolutely. The topic is huge.
Damian: i’m just listening to UR003 “The Final Frontier” on youtube, stamped on the record is “produced by Mad Mike – launched from Detroit” – scifi is always closely aligned with techno, but i think also there’s different strands, and being aware of how race plays into things helps. you can draw lines from Detroit techno to Sun Ra as much as to Kraftwerk
Seb: Detroit is a fabulous music city.
Jiré: I would even say that todays techno culture in clubs as Berghain might be in some kind of way what punk used to be – breaking the rules of society, spending all your energy without being productive, taking drugs and so on. Even men becoming machines is something that becomes quite visible there once you see people dancing for hours and hours to sounds that were created in a computer. Let alone the dress code… @Seb is that something you are looking into as well?
Seb: Yes. because esthetics (all of them) are a political statement.
Steven: As a Detroiter, I will just mention that a lot of Detroit techno people spend much/most of their time in Berlin, though they always come back home as well.. the Detroit/Berlin music connection is very real
Seb: Need to go there – after the Covid.
Jiré: this is probably the most cyberpunk thingy at the moment anyway: all the clubs being closed down because of a global pandemic. that, and crazy politics which seem to shape a very dark future…
Seb: Totally …
Damian: i remember reading somewhere that one way to understand Detroit techno is, it’s middle class nerdy Black kids making music after hearing Kraftwerk on the radio. i’m not necessarily sure i’d necessarily place it in the same political history as punk – certainly you can find strands of commonality, but it seems to be, materially and culturally, its own thing…
mlex: while we often discuss cyberpunk as literature, when you think of the experience of something like an underground rave, that is probably the closest we ever get to that Blade Runner / Neuromancer feeling, don’t you think?
Seb: Yes, absolutely. In the worst dystopian sense unfortunately.
Lars: nowadays I would guess that being in Hong Kong and protesting a military oppression with laser pointers and make-up to disguise from face recognition is pretty cyberpunk …
mlex: so true. my first visit to hong kong was 1990. it is a city that has gone off the deep end of the future…
mlex: just incidentally, this Guardian article about the Sonic Youth concert at Desolation Center is in the Guardian this week….
Seb: Saw Sonic Youth with Mudhoney at the Ritz in 1988. Not cyberpunk but wow anyway. And yes, we are definitely living in strange times. Like I wrote in an interview the other day, the good thing about writing dstopian fiction is that you don’t suffer from cognitive dissonance…
mlex: seriously this topic is massive, maybe Sebastien should organize a conference / book on it… it has no limits
Seb: Yeah, good idea. But it would be a 5 day event – lol!
mlex: “Lipstick Traces” has lasted
Damian: yep it’s huge haha. thanks from me too for bringing music into the conversation!
Seb: Thank you all for participating. You can reach out on Facebook if you want to keep in touch or Tweeter (@sebdoubinsky).