Every project needs a philosopher. Ours is the philosopher, cultural theorist and music writer, Mark Fisher (1968-2017).
What connection can there be between this influential 21st century cult figure and the 19th century ballet, Giselle?
Interestingly, his work connects in numerous ways. Théophile Gautier and his fellow intellectuals at the Hôtel Lauzun would certainly have recognised him as a member of their tribe.
The social origins of mental illness
Our first connection relates to theories of mental illness. Mark Fisher suffered from depression, he also taught young adults and saw first-hand the difficulties they had with their mental health. He writes movingly about the crippling effects of mental illness and the way that the situation is privatised, depoliticised and turned into a source of profit for capitalism.
“The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its depoliticization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital's drive towards an atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs)."
What an interesting light this throws on Giselle’s madness.
With Fisher’s insight we can see Giselle, in the company of the Wilis, as a social phenomenon. Giselle's individual madness has company - all those Wilis. So is it really madness or is it rather the predictable effect on young women of intolerable social conditions? If we follow Mark Fisher and take that line, then the ballet Giselle can be seen as a prescient commentary on the social nature of 'mental illness'. Far ahead of its time.
Our next connection concerns ghosts. Fisher writes at length about haunting, ghosts and how we can be haunted not just by the dead but also by lost and impossible futures, things that once seemed possible but never materialised.
Here he is writing about haunting:
"Haunting, then, can be construed as a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or — and this can sometimes amount to the same thing — the refusal of the ghost to give up on us.”
What a perfect description of Giselle’s haunting of Albrecht.
He further develops this idea into an aesthetic which we have applied to our work on Giselle.
He speaks about the material traces of the past in music that draws attention to the vulnerability of the media on which they are recorded, primarily through artists who work with the crackle of vinyl.
Fisher was a particular fan of our composer, Philip Jeck. You can hear Jeck’s use of this ghostly aesthetic in the soundtrack music he created for our various films.
This idea of materiality and technologies 'breaking down' also resonates with our current experience of Giselle on YouTube where multiple Giselles are condemned to dance eternally, flickering, caught in past technologies in fragments of performances posted in illicit recordings. Here the performances of great ballerinas are rendered even more beautiful, even more ghostly.
The degradation in the recording of Gelsey Kirkland in Act One lends an extra poignancy to her performance. The glitched recording seeming to anticipate her fate as her body literally seems to be losing presence towards an equally uncertain and fragile dimension in a VHS of a Cathode Ray television from Act Two. As the technologies to play these pirated recordings disappear gradually we are left with traces and ghosts then, not just of performances but of machines.
Finally, Fisher presents and explores an idea that he calls ‘popular modernism’ i.e. ‘the modernist challenge of innovating cultural forms adequate to contemporary experience.’ from Lost Futures in Ghosts of My Life (2014).
Here he explains in more detail:
"In popular modernism, the elitist project of modernism [as exemplified by e.g. the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and progressive pop music] was retrospectively vindicated. At the same time, popular culture definitively established that it did not have to be populist. Particular modernists techniques were not only disseminated but collectively reworked and extended, just as the modernist task of producing forms which were adequate to the present moment was taken up and renewed."
Fisher’s sadness is that popular modernism has, in his view, become impossible. He talks about ‘the disappearance of the conditions which allowed it to exist’. Like Fisher, we are also fans of 20th century popular modernism. But we are not so sure that it has become impossible.
As Gramsci says: ‘I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.’
We gladly accept the popular modernist challenge. This project is our first attempt at a popular modernist work for the 21st century.