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What happens to a scene when it’s already been scung?
So I’d told Blake Cleffick that I was in New York, and I’d had the vague idea of writing something about the notorious downtown scene. Or, to be more precise, something not quite about the scene, but about scenery in general. Last summer, there were a lot of pieces about the notorious downtown scene; you might have read some of them. Vogue did one, and so did BuzzFeed, and the Baffler, and I think the New York Times did three. Blake had written one himself. Something incredible was happening in New York: not so long ago, being cool meant that you lived in Brooklyn and had a podcast and called yourself a socialist—but now, being cool meant that you lived in Manhattan and had a podcast and other people called you a fascist. You smoked cigarettes and believed in God. There had even been one of those pieces in the New Statesman, a publication known to be openly British. The world’s media had turned its vast roving eye on a few blocks on the edge of Chinatown called Crimes Square (after Criminalo, the vaguely totemic fake dive bar on Banal Street) and its population of edgy artists who didn’t actually make any art. And I was far too late, obviously; the big wave of Crimes Square essays had long since receded and nobody was pretending to be excited by crypto or NFTs any more, but that was fine too. I could witness my object in its disintegration. What happens to a scene when it’s already been scung? That was what interested me, I explained. Not really the particulars of what these people were up to, and certainly not freaking out and calling them all Nazis. But I was interested in the way that a few dozen artsy kids doing what artsy kids have always done can briefly turn into a moment of such cultural importance that New Statesman readers in Putney need to hear about it. And how it can, just as suddenly, all fade away.
I think I’m interested in this stuff because I don’t really understand it. In a sense, I basically hate all forms of fashion, this system that ascribes value to things based on whether they’re trendy rather than whether they’re good. It’s why I read so much medieval literature, which is mostly safe from being relevant. But I’m not entirely immune. On a previous trip to New York I’d been dragged along to see Downtown 81 at the Seismometer Theater in Crimes Square. Downtown 81 is slightly over an hour of Jean-Michel Basquiat wandering around a burnt-out lower Manhattan, talking to himself and going to gigs. I loved it. Everyone was in it: Debbie Harry, and Fab Five Freddy, and Lydia Lunch, and James Chance, and DNA, and the Plastics. Everyone was broke, living in a city that appeared to have just had a nasty encounter with the Luftwaffe; crammed into coffin-sized apartments and selling paintings to each other just to make rent. But they all looked great. I felt a strange nostalgia for this era I’d never experienced, when there was something audibly crackling in the air, when the wasteland was populated by genuinely brilliant people making genuinely brilliant things, and if you wanted to be part of it all you had to do was turn up. It must have been nice, that sense of living in a scene, in a moment. But it would probably never happen again. All the rubble had been cleared and turned into Whole Foods. Everyone was seemingly content to live their lives online.
Anyway, I said all this afterwards at Criminalo, to a few writers and models and artists and podcasters I vaguely knew. They all agreed that yes, it’s a shame these things can no longer exist. I didn’t notice the little ritual people were doing when they walked into Criminalo, that quick nervous peer-around to see who’s there, who they might be seen with, who they might get to see. I’d thought it was just a bar, conveniently sited near my then-girlfriend’s place on the Lower East Side. And then I got home to discover that I’d been in the scene, right in the fluttering heart of it all, and I hadn’t even noticed.
Anyway, this time I was determined to notice. Blake told me to meet him at a place in the Bowery called Beer Jihad, which was an Islamic-themed drinking establishment. I think you’d really like this place, he purred over the phone. It has this very solemn, very dignified aura, he said, it’s very religious. At Beer Jihad, the walls and ceilings had been decked out in blue geometric tiles, like a mosque, with muqarnas in all the corners and a nasheed warbling over the sound system. The barman wore a white thobe and a white ghutrah. He wasn’t Muslim, but Islam is very in right now. Something resembling Islam, at least. White boys saying inshallah. Praying five times a day is strictly optional, but people like the aniconism, the horror of images and representations and fungible female forms, the holy geometric starkness of it all. It feels eternal in a very transient world. Taking up an austere Islamic vibe is like the opposite of posting your tits on the internet. Not that they don’t also post their tits on the internet, of course, but it’s different when they do it. They have become abstract.
Blake was already at the centre of a small crowd. He writes about art, but maybe his real work is simply knowing everyone. Someone had even wheeled in Alice Delancey, the dying literary critic. Alice was the last of the great boomers: a hard drinker, a serial womaniser, and a terrifying prospect for anyone dumb enough to write a novel in the second half of the twentieth century. She’d once thrown her drink in Susan Sontag’s face at a party in 1978. At a separate party she’d thrown her drink at Fran Lebowitz, and she only missed Joan Didion because Eve Babitz got in the way. But the world had become a tough place for literary critics. Young readers just look at the average star ratings on Goodreads and Amazon, and when all the criticism is an algorithmically weighted average, all the literature ends up being smooth and featureless and average too. Alice’s solution was the combination of drugs and medical interventions that’s kept her permanently on the very brink of death for the last four years. That way, everything she writes might plausibly be the last heartfelt plea of a dying woman. She begins all her reviews in the same way, talking about how the darkness is right ahead of her and she’s simply not ready, how when she was younger she always assumed she’d one day make her peace with the inevitability of death but she simply never did. I want to live! And even though she might only have a few days left under the sun, she still spent her finite hours reading this book—for you!—not knowing whether she’d even live to see the final pages—for you!—and now, in what might be her last act on this earth, she wants you to know that it’s a tedious piece of shit.
It worked. Alice Delancey is trendy again. She snuffles up young women at all the downtown bars. Snuffles cocaine off her ECG monitor. Dying has its perks. Alice sucked at her oxygen tube and her cigarette, and even the barman in his thobe didn’t ask her to stop.
There were a few waifish young women I didn’t know, but some of them knew me. They kept saying that I was much taller than they’d imagined. And it’s true, I am very tall, but they admitted that they’d imagined me to be not just average height but actively short: a sort of Alexander Pope figure, four feet tall and ranting. I suppose I write like I’ve got something to prove. They were all on edibles, and they were trying to decide who was the most autistic person in the scene. The consensus was that it was a poet called Tyr Williams who couldn’t look anyone in the eye and had covered every wall in his apartment with hundreds of photos of Simone Weil. It was definitely not another poet called Micky Bazan, who couldn’t look anyone in the eye and had covered his apartment in pictures of Gilles Deleuze and anime porn, but who had also started walking around in neon green shorts and a white tshirt printed with the words I AM THE MOST AUTISTIC PERSON IN THE SCENE. They asked me if I thought autists were the new cultural vanguard, and I confessed that I didn’t really know about that sort of thing. This seemed to disappoint them; they’d got the impression that I was one of those people who really has his finger on the pulse. I told them that I definitely wasn’t, I just made things up with enough confidence that people believed me, just like I’ve made up exactly 45% of everything I’m writing here, and that my favourite writer right now was Hadewijch. Yeah fr, they said, you were fxckin with medieval poetry like six months before everyone else. You can’t win.
A few people I did know. I knew Hal and Dana from the Limbic Friction podcast, who kept taking very small sips of beer and then saying beerpill to each other, I’m beerpilled, I’m beerpilling. I recognised Julia Fox when she wandered in, at which point everyone pretended to be deeply nonchalant about it. I also knew Damon Lather, who edits Red Gunk magazine. Red Gunk is a tiny, trendy, print-only mag; it’s everyone’s favourite, even if it’s yet to put out any actual writing. It’s published by IBS Voedingsstoffen NV, a factory-farming conglomerate so inhumanly vast it doesn’t need to worry about its name. IBS have brought more living creatures into being than anyone except God. They cradle the lives of an appreciable chunk of the earth’s total biomass. Cows batting their deep lovely eyes. But unlike God, IBS does not create life for the sake of life. Every day, they meter out the deaths of six million chickens, two million cows, and one million pigs, plus another million sheep, goats, ducks, and geese. IBS had given Damon pretty much free rein with Red Gunk, with the sole proviso that every issue had to include one essay on the horrors of veganism: how an international cabal of environmentalists wants us to live in penury and squalor, eating ersatz foods made from petrochemical byproducts, and how you can reawaken your connection with the natural world by buying some delicious and affordable meats from your local supermarket. Damon said that he wanted to do interesting things with Red Gunk, but nobody had submitted anything yet because none of the writers in the downtown scene actually wrote anything that wasn’t just a description of the downtown scene. He asked if I’d contribute a piece. I said sure. I said that I’d been meaning to write more fiction. Damon said that was great, so long as I could include a short scene in which a character enjoys some wafer-thin reconstituted ham.
After a while it was announced that we were moving. We were at Beer Jihad because he was meant to be showing his face here, but plans had changed and now he would be showing his face at a party in Tribeca instead. I didn’t know who he was, or what sort of face I might expect to be shown, but I had some misgivings. I’d said that I didn’t want to freak out and start calling everyone Nazis, but I was still aware that there were a few people orbiting the scene who had dedicated themselves to politics I didn’t much like, irreducibly hostile to the principle of human freedom. I knew that most of this right-wing stuff was just a pose: a way of saying that you’re so cool that you can associate myself with this grotty extremist ideology, and still be a glamorous it girl. I knew that its real content was the same as the real content of all political positions in the twenty-first century, including my own lingering Marxism, which is look at me. Still, the prospect of meeting him didn’t much appeal. But I was committed to my practice as a serious journalist, so I went.
On the way I talked to Blake about London. He’d been back in London a few weeks previously, and while I hadn’t had the chance to see him I’d still heard through a mutual friend that his trip had left him full of contempt for the city and everyone who still lived there. I still live in London. Blake explained that he hadn’t meant that at all; he’d actually found his time back in London very restful, precisely because there’s absolutely nothing going on there. And it’s true, there really is nothing going on in London. At literary events in London people just stand around swapping stories from their last trip to New York. They write personal essays for the Guardian. They write short, staid fiction for the White Review. It’s either that, or the Tories and their orgies. There’s no scene there. Where would you even put it? Peckham? Get real.
The party was being held by a 23-year-old artist, who had apparently asked all the female guests to come dressed like her—but who had then shocked the crowd by not dressing like herself. She was wearing black. Everyone was wearing black, except for a few guys dressed in what looked like medieval chain mail. Our hostess’s apartment was huge, but it seemed to be missing many important elements, like furniture, or a bedroom. I was told that she slept at her boyfriend’s and just used this place for parties. There were strobe lights set into the ceiling. She didn’t make much art, but about six months ago she’d livestreamed herself eating six raw hamburgers, which meant that she probably had some kind of secretive relationship to IBS Voedingsstoffen NV, just like everyone else.
Everyone at the party was keeping an eye out for the Observer, although obviously nobody knew what he actually looked like. The Observer is basically a psycho stalker, some kind of violent grizzled street schizo with a humanities degree and a particularly intense grudge against another 23-year-old art-school ingénue called Xinyue Herring, who he appears to blame for single-handedly ruining his professional and romantic life, reducing art to a commodity, and using WiFi signals to secretly rupture his internal organs at night. He’d started posting weird little notes through Xinyue’s door, in which he exhaustively described everywhere she’d been and everyone she’d hung out with, and what she was wearing. You looked like a WHORE in your black Miu Miu velvet mini dress with the deep collar—George was visibly REPULSED—remember I am always observing you!!—& my knife is sharp! I will have my revenge!!! Xinyue did the only thing she could do under the circumstances, which was to tape the Observer’s creepy notes to the wall outside her building, so everyone else could find out exactly where she’d been and who she’d hung out with, and what she was wearing. Taping up those notes, she decided, was her art. As a result, Xinyue started getting invited to more and better parties, which meant that the Observer’s creepy letters were constantly getting longer and more detailed and star-studded. Soon you weren’t really anyone unless the Observer had threatened to murder you for betraying the legacy of German expressionism. People who had parties or gallery openings or book launches would post flyers outside Xinyue’s building in the hope that the Observer would drop in and write a note threatening to murder them. Next to Alice Delancey and IBS Voedingsstoffen NV, the Observer was probably the biggest tastemaker in the scene. He hated these people more than anyone, and he was also keeping them afloat. But eventually, as he himself kept pointing out, he would snap and sink his knife deep into the elegant throat of Xinyue or some other 23-year-old art-school ingénue, and I wondered what everyone would do then.
I stayed at the party until about 3 am, at which point it became clear that he would not actually be showing his face there. It was, in the end, just a party. Everyone vaguely knew each other, but everyone vaguely knows each other at most parties. Most parties are also obsessively documented online by their attendees. The only real difference was that thanks to people like the Observer and the New York Times and me, there were a lot of strangers who would hear about this party, and not any of the countless other parties that were taking place in New York at precisely the same time.
I don’t do cocaine any more, which meant that by 3 am I was basically shattered; jetlagged and woozy and feeling very old, but @44never44, who was one of the waifish young women from Beer Jihad and who said she didn’t have any other name, told me that he was now rumoured to be dropping in on the Goblinism_9 manifesto launch party at the McDonald’s on Banal and Marat, and since I’d come this far I said sure. We were escorted to the McDonald’s by a group of bouncing Australian teenagers with peroxide-blond hair and braces who’d all come over from Melbourne to work at the Second District of the Federal Reserve System’s branding and marketing division, and whose connection to the whole scene seemed, in my bleary state, entirely incomprehensible. As the Australians yipped around us @44never44 told me how the launch would go down. Goblinism_9—who wasn’t a person or even a collective, but rather the polymorphous scurrying of underground goblinism latent in existence qua existence qua degeneration—would miraculously manifest itself in the Banal St McDonald’s by making all the screens on the self-service machines display the new manifesto. This would bring about the irruption of the final goblinism horde form, and apparently also a trove of infinite golden treasure and the end of the world. Fine. But when we arrived something had clearly gone wrong. There was a group of tattooed gays with shaved heads clumped around one of the self-service touchscreens, arguing with each other and trying to find a USB port. Another group of kids was yelling at them to order their damn burger and stop holding up the line. Eventually one of the Goblinism_9 launch party organisers gave up and went to a print shop to reel off a couple dozen copies, and we all sat in the McDonald’s and read them quietly over our hamburgers by ourselves:
GOBLINISM 𓋼 IS 𓋼 NOT 𓋼 A 𓋼 TOADSTOOL. 0_o Like bruuuuh goblinism is endless craving in endless caves? Goblinism is not an alternate system of values, use-values or exchange-values, but that which alternates within value as such, seismic oscillations forming cracks and crevices in the structure of desire, forming the treasure hoard of the Goblin King. Fuck outa here with that lame moss shit bro!!! Like actually kill yourself faggot 谷歌翻译应用程序 every hot girl desires herself as a goblin // 𝔴𝔥𝔢𝔫 𝔦 𝔴𝔞𝔰 𝔫𝔦𝔫𝔢𝔱𝔢𝔢𝔫 𝔦 𝔣𝔢𝔩𝔩 𝔦𝔫 𝔩𝔬𝔳𝔢 𝔴𝔦𝔱𝔥 𝔱𝔥𝔢 𝔟𝔩𝔦𝔰𝔰𝔣𝔲𝔩 𝔤𝔬𝔩𝔡𝔢𝔫 𝔲𝔫𝔦𝔳𝔢𝔯𝔰𝔢 — 1 […] 1 — ❀ུ۪ Xinyue Herring and Jeffrey Epstein are the only real KIKE goblins in New York. ❁ུ۪ All others are artificial goblins in 0-strata interstices of semiosis, machine-semiosis generating infinite goblins, on god bruh it’s a horde of infinite virtual goblins stampeding through the machine-reconstituted sinus zones of language to plunder the signified... (◇‿◇ )ﾉ This is why, in consigning her brother’s corpse to the earth, Antigone lowkey founded both the discourse of politics as a nomos higher than the law and also its retarded goblinism twin, the shining treasure materia lower than/after than life. 𝒶 𝓇𝒾𝒸𝒽 𝓅𝓁𝓊𝒸𝓀𝑒𝒹 𝓉𝑜𝑜𝓉𝒽 𝒶𝓃𝒹 𝓈𝒽𝓇𝒾𝓋𝑒𝓁𝓁𝑒𝒹 𝒷𝑒𝒶𝒹𝓈 𝑜𝒻 𝑒𝓎𝑒𝓈 ☆☆☆ AI is simply Antigone reclaimed by her goblins, ♡bukkake♡party♡ with goblins, blissful clammy golden goblin excess on wet sweat perfectly human goy faces ゴブリンはゴブリン精液が大好き ✧*:･ﾟ gold hoard gang ✧*:･ﾟ gold hoard gang ✧*:･ﾟ gold hoard gang ✧ 1 ✧ 1 … 1 ✧ 1
Essentially, Goblinism_9’s beef was that in the years since he started writing endlessly about goblinism, a lot of other people had started saying things like ‘goblincore’ and ‘goblin mode.’ (The latter was even Oxford’s word of the year for 2022.) They were ripping off his ideas while also getting them totally wrong. Mainstream trend pieces had yielded a version of goblinism that was all about being comfy and cosy and slovenly, wiping your nose on your sleeve and not cleaning your apartment all winter, embracing a little bit of dirt and mud, collecting knickknacks, making friends with snails—whereas Goblinism_9 was insistent that goblinism was actually all about buried golden treasure and nothing else.
Everyone pretended to not know who Goblinism_9 really was, but they all knew. I did too, although I knew for a slightly different reason. It just so happens that I have a postgraduate degree from the University of Sussex, and so does Goblinism_9. (I think we’re both protégés of Nicholas Royle, grand high priest of the Church of Derrida.) As part of my Deconstruction and Creative Writing course we were implicitly required to attend a monthly experimental poetry night called Hi Zero, which was held in a room above a pub in Brighton, and one of the fixtures there was the guy who would eventually start calling himself Goblinism_9. I found to my surprise that I hated basically every single poem that was read at that place. All of them seemed to be based on the magnificent realisation that poetry could just be words, literally any random combination of words, and it didn’t even have to sound nice, you just had to call it a poem and drag in some graduate students to listen to it. This idea might have been interesting when it was first discovered about a century ago, but it’s not really experimental if absolutely everyone else in Brighton is doing the exact same experiment. Anyway, Goblinism_9 had taken the standard Hi Zero formula across the Atlantic, added in some ASCII and zoomer slang and slurs, and now he was the great mysterious impetus behind the notorious downtown scene. Which I liked: I liked that this whole Crimes Square thing could ultimately be traced back to a slightly damp lager-smelling room above a pub in a seaside town in England, where thirty losers had gathered to hear some middle-aged language poet rambling about twigs.
I was not enjoying my burger. Sad disc of cow gristle, almost certainly provided by our friends at IBS Voedingsstoffen NV. The lights in the McDonald’s were too bright, and my exhaustion now felt like a kind of nausea. Every waking second ached. I was very ready to forgo any satisfying payoff to my downtown scene essay and just lie down in a nice dark bed. But it was at this point that he finally walked in. He ignored his fan club entirely and went up to one of the self-service machines to order a Big Mac, then sat with his sandwich at an empty table. Took a few bites, slowly; swallowed slowly. Finally resigning himself to the presence of the Goblinism_9 manifesto launch party, he looked up at the tattooed gays and the bouncing Australians and the black-clad waifs and @44never44 and me, and beckoned us over with a single finger. We sat in a broad semicircle around him, on chairs and tables and on the floor, and he began to talk.
He said that people had called him a fascist, which could not be further from the truth. His entire work was about preventing violence and hate. All he wanted was for everyone to lead happy, peaceful, stable, well-fulfilled lives, liberated from the only thing that was making the world such a violent and unhappy place, which was the mad delusion that people had or should have something called freedom. In fact, he explained, while there was a well-established ‘literature of freedom,’ freedom as such had never really existed. There were only more or less effective systems of stimulus and control. Once, on the savannah, we were controlled by the natural environment; now, in the so-called democracies, we are controlled by the media environment, but there is no escaping control. What he proposed was simply the most effective, and therefore the gentlest, system of control imaginable. A vast structure of rewards and inducements would gently prod everyone into being better, happier, more orderly, and kinder to others. And he said that there wouldn’t need to be any secrecy involved. You could tell people that you were controlling every aspect of their lives, and they would thank you for it, so long as you were doing it well.
He did not look like I’d expected. He was a rather severe-looking old man in an immaculate dark suit and thick-rimmed glasses, with his entire face crammed in right at the bottom of his head, and an enormous, majestic forehead extending for about a foot above his eyebrows. His grey hair was swept back, and when he spoke in his frostily patrician accent, the delicate jowls wattled around his pale, skinny neck. I recognised him from somewhere, I was sure, but I couldn’t place it. He kept talking about how a total science of human behaviour would obviate the need for punishment or blame altogether, and then a wet realisation suddenly puffed out of the blacker depths of my brain. But wait, I whispered frantically to @44never44, wait, that’s BF Skinner. She sighed. Yeah, she said, so? The guy you’re all into, I said again, is BF Skinner. Yeah, said @44never44, we love Burrhus, Burrhus is based, and it’s actually pretty gay for you of all people to try to cancel him just because he’s against your whole lib agenda? But he’s dead, I said. God, said @44never44, rolling her eyes, we don’t care if he’s dead, do you have to be such a retard about it?
BF Skinner had stopped talking. He raised one bony finger. You, he said, and his chilly grey eyes were pointed directly at me. Why is it, he said, pronouncing the wh in why, that you are here? I wasn’t really in any fit state to account for myself. I stammered something about how I was in the city anyway and I’d wanted to write something about this absurd discourse-object before it vanished entirely. The crowd chuckled at that. Now it seems to me, said BF Skinner, that there are certain extraneous words in your account of things. ‘I,’ for instance, or ‘want.’ These are words that do not tend to explain human behaviour; on the contrary, they introduce a hopeless muddle. Rather I would say that an organism performs the actions that have previously been reinforced; that you have already received positive stimuli after writing some small denigrations of this garden I have laid here, and thus you are now busying yourself with doing it again. Naturally, to receive your reward it’s necessary to pretend that you are untouched by the system of conditioning I have perfected here, that you can evaluate the system from the standpoint of your own inviolable subjectivity, yet I assure you that no man is any freer an actor than one of my pigeons. Take my children here. They are truly happy. They eat well and rigorously attend to their physical fitness; their lives are spent in harmless leisure, and on Sundays I believe they go to church. I managed to create this blissful mode of existence among no less scabrous a group of organisms than New York City bohemians. Artists and individualists by inclination, and yet they have now almost entirely forgone any kind of creative or intentional act. How did this come about? I merely supplied them with the most elementary form of social conditioning possible, which was to make them aware that they were being attentively watched, and that their various comings and goings were noted by other people. Which itself created a set of conditions that summoned other people into acting as watchers, documenting my children’s actions to a degree that bore all the traits of an obsession. It was thus that I created—you.
But you’re dead, I said. You’re dead, and this whole thing, the moment—it’s already been and gone.
BF Skinner regarded me coldly for a moment. As I have already explained, he said, there is nothing that occurs that has not already been conditioned in one way or another. Social trends operate on the same automatic basis as any given organism. I could, if I so wished, recite every word of the screed you have not yet written, but whose contents have already been entirely determined. I believe I could also disable any of your biological functions by speaking a single syllable.
And that was the end. Light applause. Skinner stood up from his table at the McDonald’s and walked to the door. As he passed me he gave my shoulder a sympathetic little tap. He spoke his syllable quietly into my ear. Sleep, he said. And I slid gently, gratefully to the ground.
Anyway, the next day I got lunch with an old girlfriend in the other Chinatown, the one in Flushing. It took an hour to get there on the 7, which was a bit much for lunch, but I like being a tourist in New York and I wanted to try some regional Chinese food that hadn’t made it to London yet. One day, maybe soon, Manhattan will sink into the sea and everyone will forget that Flushing wasn’t always the centre of the world. Over our sliced pork lung she told me about an earlier version of the downtown scene, back in the 90s when everyone was still broke and made art and went to warehouse raves. Apparently in the 90s there was a guy called Billy the Floor, who got off on people stepping on him. So he’d go to parties with a rolled-up rug and lie down with the rug covering his body, and people would dance on his back. That sounded interesting. That sounded like something I’d like to see.
Join the in crowd