This Is All Bullshit, Really

Eldritch Priest, Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure

Continuum, 336pp, £17.99, ISBN 9781441122131

reviewed by Andrew Key

On page 221 of Eldritch Priest’s Boring Formless Nonsense, a study of post-avant-garde aesthetics in the context of experimental composition, there is a quotation attributed to the multi-use artistic pseudonym (those familiar with the radical Italian author-collectives Luther Blissett/Wu Ming will recognise this concept) Karen Eliot:

I write fictions, what others might call little ‘reality machines,’ about music that I have not in fact written or listened to.

Following the conventions of good academic practice, this is backed by a footnote giving the source of this quotation: it reads, ‘Priest, Boring Formless Nonsense, 221’, instigating a minor feedback loop of referentiality. For a brief moment, citation’s function — that of supporting the epistemological credibility of a text — is slightly disrupted: does this mean, at least in this instance, that ‘Karen Eliot’ just means ‘Eldritch Priest’? The disruption only lasts a second, and doesn’t raise any more questions: yes, that’s probably what it means; presumably it’s a joke, OK.

These minor disruptions, achieved through self-referentiality and a mischievous attitude, recur throughout the book, and this example represents just one thread of the work’s penultimate chapter, a knot of pseudonyms, fictions, and descriptions of performances and compositions that might not have ever happened or even exist outside of Priest’s text. Though entitled ‘Nonsense I’, this chapter is primarily concerned with the concept of ‘hyperstition’. Very briefly, a hyperstition is ‘a fiction that makes itself real by affective insinuation.‘ While a superstition is simply a false belief, a hyperstition is a false belief that brings about its own reality: it relies on faith rather than empiricism, and works, in Priest’s characterisation of it, as a kind of Occult practice — Voodoo or Chaos Magick — that conjures its own falsities into being.

This might sound murky and a little tenuous, or even nonsensical, but something similar to the principles of hyperstition is described in an article by journalist Ron Suskind in The New York Times from 2004 (‘Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush,’ 17 October 2004), an essay which explains how George W. Bush’s presidency was coloured by a rejection of what one of Bush’s senior aides termed ‘the reality-based community’. While the liberal media was happy to colour Bush as simply stupid, the concept of hyperstition at least partially explains how Bush’s faith-based approach to government allowed his administration to (again, the aide’s words) ‘create our own reality’. By adopting the name of Karen Eliot in order to make critical statements that are possibly about his own compositional work, Priest is being hyperstitious, and seeking to will into existence a more polyphonous discourse than that which may already exist within the inevitably small boundaries of the post-avant-garde music scene, which — as Priest is quick to point out in his introduction — is largely made up of white, heterosexual, university-educated men.

Depending on the reader’s own temperament, the concept of hyperstition could be read as either sinister or as merely obnoxious, but it is hard to know how seriously it all should be taken. Priest gleefully admits that to be hyperstitious is to bluff, to bullshit. It’s not exactly lying, since ‘liars retain a certain respect for truth in their aim to deceive’, but to be hyperstitious is rather to ‘distribute splinters of nonsense’. As a result, Priest writes, ‘the very words that I have written and which you are now reading circulate a misrepresentation so that more than explaining their bullshit, it stirs it’. The book revels in its self-affirmed cretinous playfulness; there’s a kind of knowing glance to a reader presumed to be wary or (weary) of these theoretical stances: this is all bullshit, really. But this is perhaps the only way to deal with a notion as self-defeating and circular as ‘the aesthetics of failure’ - that is, an aesthetic project which is doomed to result in the bad infinity of a failure to fail.

In some ways, the Karen Eliot quotation above could serve as an epigram for Boring Formless Nonsense. Priest writes at his best not when he’s playing with pseudonyms, nor when he’s summarising, developing and combining other dense theoretical positions (though these are usually well handled), but rather when he’s engaged in a kind of sonic ekphrasis, describing in detail the movements and ideas behind the experimental performances that make up the bulk of this study. These compositions, often highly conceptual, are described in terms that are understandable for non-musicians, and this is particularly useful when we realise that the majority of these compositions will only ever have been performed once, with no publicly available recordings.

This raises a problem for the self-proclaimed or so-called (post-)avant-garde practitioners, one that has been described by the Stanford-based theorist Sianne Ngai in her book Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard University Press, 2012): conceptual art (or music, or poetry) begins to rely increasingly on critical attention and response to ground its own ontology, or to prove its existence. When the work exists only as a one-off performance, then what becomes important is that we, as critics, are even talking about it at all, not what we’re saying. This is recognised by Priest too, when he writes of the pseudonymous Irish experimental compositional group, Grúpat, ‘that I’m writing about [them] seems to be what matters, or at least writing about this figment and whether it matters whether the sound of the music matters seems to matter just as much as the putative music does’.

A major problem in this book, one that runs through its entirety but manages to remain just underneath its surface, is what the point of these radical artistic experiments in boredom or failure or distraction might be, when we already live in a world where boredom, failure, and distraction surround us. If we can achieve similar states of tedium and boredom by watching television for hours or scrolling through Twitter feeds, what is interesting about these experimental compositions that set out to achieve the same thing? Priest fails to answer this question, of course, but in this failure his book works as an important contribution to the theory of what future directions avant-garde or radical aesthetics may take.