Shaking the Habitualby Brandon Edmonds / 21.05.2013
The Bowie-singing astronaut guy was one of the worthiest viral videos in a while. No cats in sight. It (sort of) put back all the humanity left out of Kubrick’s chilly space epic 2001. Stanley wasn’t big on people. But in the end, astronaut guy returns to earth. Gravity applies. Enchantment ends. To really shake the habitual, we need to keep going back to work out what we’ve just seen, where we stand in relation to it. That is a cultural experience worth having, the ones you can’t easily move on from. Strong culture arrests you.
Shaking the habitual?
Yes, it’s the name of a very good, very challenging new record by Swedish EDM duo, the Knife. Their first major release in 7 years, since 2006’s strange, haunting Silent Shout. I once listened to that record in winter in Korea, walking through the high rises, thinking about eating a dog for the first time, a long way from home. That’s where the Knife want to take you. To uncanny places where your regular wiring jams and you are open to new ideas around class, sexuality and gender. As the Knife puts it in the surreal manifesto that doubled as an album press release: “No habits! There are other ways to do things.” They mean it, too. They play homemade instruments on the record, sample found sounds like the groan of boilers, stretch songs out (a stupendous 22 minute drone), and entertain challenging subjects (immigration, exploitation, post-human ethics and bio-engineering) – all with a sense of danceable wonder, energized by a belief in freedom waiting to be won in the super modern world.
“How do you build an album about not knowing,” they ask. Why try this, why unmake their own certainty, refusing the habits, as people and a band, that have made them relatively rich and successful? Because, as the manifesto has it, “Everybody is always desiring already imagined things.” That’s the sharpest critique of consumption from a band since oh the Clash or Gang of Four. Already imagined things like bags, movies, networks, and kitchen islands. All the shit they peddle and the imagery they throw at us. A world of already imagined things is deadening, encouraging mindlessness, passivity and conformity. “When you’re full of fire,” they sing on ‘Full of Fire’, “what’s the object of your desire?” When you’re at your best, emboldened, truly alive, the last thing you want to do is walk into an Apple store. They hope.
Where the record really comes into its own is in challenging habits of gender and sexual power relations. “The cock had it coming,” they laugh. This is especially relevant in South Africa, the pulsing trauma node of global sexual violence. Listening to the record becomes vitalising here, knowing the stats. Do you want your nose rubbed in them again like a puppy that shit on the carpet? Will it help? We fucking deserve it. 65 000 sexual offences last year. But only 1 in 36 rapes reported. Do the maths. 28% of South African men are rapists according to the Medical Research Council and the International Centre for Research on Women. Over 150 rapes a day. A DAY.
Thousands of women, overwhelmingly poor and black, have been sexually violated since Anene Booysens, and counting. The President, an alleged rapist himself, of course, refused to shake the habitual, responding to the media disgust with gender violence, already slipping in the news cycle, that flared up with the crazed commonplace assault on Anene recently. Zuma suggested we “build a culture of responsibility, accountability, respect for authority and respect for one another.” How empty and authoritarian that sounds, how Stalinist, as if culture is “built” out of speeches. The Knife manifesto: “What about hyper-capitalism, this homicidal class system, the school system that’s kaput?” How rote Zuma sounds and fearful of the creative potential of people: respect for authority rather than question any “authority” keeping women subject to violence, in poverty, while driving men to perform aggressively in all things.
“There are so many old ideas that are not realised yet,” the Knife told Pitchfork. “Classless society, real democracy, all people’s right to move and be in the world with the same circumstances.” That kind of enlightenment is lost on an ANC atrophying in power, once such a force for women’s liberation, it is sick with aging social conservatives who cling to outmoded gender roles. The “liberation movement” is no longer a force for social good. It needs to check itself.
The Knife have been reading into post-colonial theory and the performative deconstruction of gender roles by academics like Judith Butler. “We’ve been talking about the importance of making your privileges transparent in order to be able to say something political.” When’s the last time a local band risked anything like that? “People would be happier sharing things and being much more of a collective rather than working from these neoliberal ideas of just looking after yourself. I think people need each other.”
The best thing about the Knife is they translate difficult ideas into art. The new record is a thrill ride and this video for “Tooth for an Eye” brilliantly depicts what shaking habitual gender performances and power relations looks and feels like. The result is transcendent. The video is potent for what doesn’t happen. A young woman is not sexualised, demeaned or dismissed. She is in command and men happily follow her lead. They perform the shapes she makes for once. They dance together like passionate amateurs learning new things. It is moving and beautiful. They are united on her terms. This is just dance music like Matisse’s La Dance is just a painting. Nothing about it returns us to earth because the song imagines a liberated future still waiting to be made.