Manic Street Preachers
Photo: Alex Lake / Courtesy of the artist

Orwellian Times: On Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’

Manic Street Preachers’ The Ultra Vivid Lament is driven by George Orwell’s aim to make political writing into art.

The Ultra Vivid Lament
Manic Street Preachers
3 September 2021

‘A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’

One of the most striking characterizations of the ‘perpetual present’ shaped by algorithm-steered forms of fragmentation is formed by the title of the song ‘A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun’ (on Postcards from a Young Man). This phrase reminds one of J.R. Eyereman’s photograph used for the 1983 edition of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, depicting an audience wearing 3D glasses and staring in the same direction. The phrase itself is taken from J.G. Ballard’s 1996 Cocaine Nights, which takes place in leisure resorts on the Spanish Costa, characterized in this novel as a place where ‘nothing would ever happen again'(Ballard 1997: 75). The resorts are inhabited by people described as ‘refugees from time’ (Ballard 1997: 216) and ‘ghosts of themselves’ (Ballard 1997: 75). The dialogue in which the phrase is mentioned goes as follows:

Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People will still work – or, rather, some people will work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.

A billion balconies facing the sun. Still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies.

But how do you energize people, give them some sort of sense of community? A world lying on its back is vulnerable to any cunning predator. Politics are a pastime for a professional caste and fail to excite the rest of us.

(Ballard 1997:180)

As this passage indicates, the era and area depicted in Cocaine Nights are presented in the novel as the future of modern civilization: one in which ‘the past isn’t allowed to exist’ (Ballard 1997: 207), located in the ‘timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present’ (Ballard 1997: 35). In several places, furthermore, the area is characterized with reference to the paintings of Edward Hopper, often depicting individuals living an atomized existence in modern, rather desolate landscapes. The Ultra Vivid Lament paints similar pictures, pointing, however, at forms of polarization and atomization that take place under the surface of the seemingly peaceful, post-politica and digitized ‘perpetual present’ that followed Francis Fukuyama’s supposed – and recently postponed – ‘end of history’.

The novel’s atmosphere, as well as the references to Hopper, resonate with the cover of The Ultra Vivid Lament, as well as its design dominated by yellow and light blue: a figure standing in the ocean, the water’s surface reflecting the sun’s light so vividly that the scene almost becomes a mirage or a dream, reminding of the endless sunny days shaped in the post-historical and post-political landscapes of Ballard’s Cocaine Nights or in Hopper’s paintings. It is impossible, furthermore, not to link this atmosphere to the observation that the album mostly came about in the Covid-era, characterized by lockdown, standstill, isolation, and an eerie sense of timelessness. Indeed, Bradfield associated the cover with ‘the Truman Show nature of lockdown’, again referring to the idea of ‘reality’ turning into a post-historical ‘unreality’.

Language the Virus

Cocaine Nights describes how the seemingly sunny and careless surface of its futuristic leisure society results in forms of boredom and alienation that make the residents of its Spanish resorts embrace transgressive and criminal behavior as the only possibility of escape. In a similar way, The Ultra Vivid Lament aims to pierce through the seemingly careless surface of the perpetual present that it depicts. This is not only done by showing how this situation results in polarization and conflict, but also by expressing what it does to the self: the album includes several references to confusion, doubt, boredom, and alienation, in this way again entwining the political and the personal.

The more difficult it becomes to have meaningful political debates and discussions by relying on notions of truth and truthfulness, authenticity, or on the ability to communicate ideas, these references suggest, the more the ‘I’ that, to refer to Didion’s quote again, writes to understand what it is seeing and what this means, starts to unravel. The song ‘Quest for Ancient Colour’, for example, opens with the observations that ‘I had a very bad dream / The main actor in it was me / My scream had lost its source / Like a reservoir in a summer drought’.

There is no basis anymore, the song suggests in this way, no foundation or center in which the ‘I’ can find itself rooted. This basis has dried up in the endless sun of Cocaine Nights, replacing reality with an endless shiny surface under which polarization and political hatred boil and fester. This transforms the world, the lyrics suggest, into an illusory dream, making the ‘I’ exclaim that it ‘used to make sense’ but now is ‘confused’. Again, furthermore, this condition is linked to digitalization processes: ‘Modern life was killed and crushed / By a derelict digitised love’. A similar observation pops up in ‘Blank Diary Entry’, which describes the attempt to seek ‘consolation in machines’.

Mixing the personal with the political, the song ‘Complicated Illusions’ embeds this condition, in turn, in references to philosophical and intellectual movements. More specifically, the lyrics concern the transition from De Saussure’s structuralism to Jacques Derrida’s post-structuralism. Again describing a post-historical situation in which ‘Time turns itself to stone’ and in which there is ‘Nothing left to lose and nothing left to win’, the lyrics reflect Derrida’s idea that there is no ‘outside’ to the discourses that shape us and to the languages that we speak; that there is no truth beyond language, at least not a truth that would refer to a ‘reality’ that transcends the words that we speak.

The only thing we can therefore do, Derrida suggests, is deconstruct the texts in which we are always already embedded, looking for holes and traces that might enable us to introduce a form of difference without buying into the illusion that we can in any way escape from the same textual structures that shape meaning. As Derrida observes in a 1968 interview with Julia Kristeva:

In the extent to which what is called “meaning” (to be “expressed”) is already, and thoroughly, constituted by a tissue of differences, in the extent to which there is already a text, a network of textual referrals to other texts, a textual transformation in which each allegedly “simple term” is marked by the trace of another term, the presumed interiority of meaning is already worked upon by its own exteriority. It is always already carried outside itself.

(Derrida 2003: 33)

Based on this idea, Derrida argues that even though we cannot escape from the texts that shape meaning, we can still rejoice in the endless references and openings created by deconstructing and decentering the meanings that we take for granted. This idea is based, he emphasizes in another interview, on ‘the structural impossibility of limiting this network, of putting an edge on its weave, of tracing a margin that would not be a new mark’ (Derrida 2003: 40). Claims like these return in several lines in ‘Complicated Illusions’, which refer to ‘Desires to break and deconstruct’ and claim: ‘And in the margins of the page / Truth hides but leaves a trace’.

Whereas Derrida’s approach, however, praises the power of interpretation for being able to break texts open and constitute endless labyrinths of meaning, in ‘Complicated Illusions’, his anti-foundationalist departure from essentialist understandings of ‘truth’ is coupled to more personal feelings of self-doubt caused by the corrosion of one’s beliefs and ideologies. ‘Every battle I’ve ever fought’, the lyrics claim, ‘Has either been lost or bought’. The moment one starts deconstructing one’s own desires, the song suggests in this way, one’s ideologies and political beliefs already begin to crumble and are replaced with doubt, confusion, and alienation.

The next song on the album, ‘Into the waves of love’, radicalizes this idea: ‘Don’t try to sell me a universal truth / I’m all given up on listening to you’. Again, the lyrics couple this observation to language, which is presented as weaving a dream-like reality that hides truth instead of uncovering it. Again, furthermore, these lyrics can be linked to the ideas of Derrida, who in 1994 observed about his approach to language and meaning: ‘All I have done […] is dominated by the thought of a virus, what could be called a parasitology, a virology, the virus being many things. […] The virus is in part a parasite that destroys, that introduces disorder into communication’ (Derrida 1994: 12).

In a rather obscure manner, Derrida here again suggests that the only thing that we can really do, once we have accepted the idea that language constitutes meaning and that there is, therefore, no ‘outside’ to this meaning, is to deconstruct the words that we use, the ways in which these words shape meaning, and to show that these theories are never ‘pure’ or ‘clean’, never ‘truthful’ but always infected by and reliant on other parasitological meanings and ideas. This process, he observes in this passage, also results in obscuring and disrupting forms of communication itself: the philosopher, in this way, becomes a viruså. 

Derrida’s ‘parasitology’ returns in the song ‘Into the waves of love’, which tells the listener: ‘So silence is a liberation / As the layers of light have now disappeared / Language a virus without reason / Just skeletons hiding from the rain’. This reference to language as a virus and to a longing for silence also embed this passage in another textual context: the 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded, in which William S. Burrough develops the idea that language is a virus that makes it impossible for human beings to experience silence anymore: 

From symbiosis to parasitism is a short step. The word is now a virus. The flu virus may once have been a healthy lung cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the lungs. The word may once have been a healthy neural cell. It is now a parasitic organism that invades and damages the central nervous system. Modern man has lost the option of silence. Try halting your sub-vocal speech. Try to achieve even ten second of inner silence. You will encounter a resisting organism that forces you to talk.

(Burroughs 1967: 49)

As with many other novels by Burroughs, furthermore, The Ticket That Exploded revolves around different forms of mind-control and paranoia, and it is no surprise that, together with the above-mentioned Ballard, he had an important influence on the claustrophobic universe shaped in Joy Division’s lyrics. In The Ticket That Exploded this paranoia returns in references to intergalactic criminals who aim to control people by creating ‘as many insoluble conflicts as possible’ and by aggravating ‘existing conflicts’ through the parasitological and virus-like character of language (Burroughs 1967: 55). A link with the manipulating people machines of ‘Orwellian’ is not difficult to constitute.