Physique du role


I think we all need a break from the over-saturated self-referential thing we’re rocking. To this end I want to build out of this music video. (The tradeoff is that you won’t get where we’re going without watching it first.)


The music of Crystal Castles appears to convey at once two polarizing scenarios. In one, we are continually thrown into a near-future that is continually just short of unintelligible; in the other, we’re stuck, filled with a suffocated bubbly energy, out of focus and out of hope. In one possible synthesis, it could be that we fall into a future-medium that is increasingly viscous. We gaze into an transparent world of possibilities while exerting more and more effort to move forward. A music critic might relate this synthesis to the story according to which front-shrieker Alice Glass fell victim to predatory keyboardperson Claudio-Ethan as a teenager still: at the point where the duo finds fame, the future has seemingly arrived but the inertia of past abuse persists through/out the intense present-continuous of stardom. If such allegations are at all true, Crystal Castles is the product of a masochistic denial, a buildup of unsignificated power, never to be released.

This scenario of falling into a future that meets us with higher and higher resistance is conveyed similarly by two diegetic tricks. To be clear: they’re “tricks” because they’re kind of simplistic and derivative, not because they are storytelling tools — these are the story. First, the glitchy synthesizers relate to nintendocore chip-sounds more or less like the “brass” patch in 1980s Casio keyboards relates to R&B saxophones — that is, not as a retro gesture but as an emulation of actual-ongoing conditions. Second, by Alice Glass’s ostensible (i.e. performative) withdrawal from the ongoing situation, particularly onstage — which may as well have been the visible layer of the abusive conditions that (allegedly) powered the entire enterprise. (But then, the video you saw does not feature Alice Glass — that’s her IBM-compatible generic, Edith Frances. People shouldn’t read too much into allegations.)

The five-minutes-into-the-future world being conveyed is thus utterly banal and falling apart at the seams. It reflects an understanding of an indefinitely near-term future seeping into the acrylic-concrete present; a postsingularitarian future of omnipresent intelligence that already exists in the already-banal network of sensors and vector embeddings scattered across folded-over and multiplexed EM energy carriers and leaks less and less surplus-jouissance as it develops. Whereas previous generations announced the end of the past as an end of history that pointed to a hopeful avenir, the indefinite concreteness of the future in Crystal Castles tells us we’ve reached peak history — almost all of it is concentrated in the next ten seconds, more people and more EM energy in more intricate a-centered structures of meaning and value, more than in the sum total of the previous 10,000 years.

Indeed a case can be made that everything changed in the years between 2000 and 2009, and nothing in the decade that followed. Wi-fi, Facebook, dystechnic China, the Euro, smoking bans… This case would imply that like Alice with her bubbly dissociative energy, we have been enjoying our symptom — the symbolic deadlock that tells us she will never leave the abusive relationship, fraying European nations never give up on the single currency, Catalonia’s protests of independence will never be signified as cries of liberation used to be, Brexit will never happen and we will never give power to meaningfully right-wing political parties (for example in the upcoming European elections). These are, of course, all inevitability discourses — the thing of the world does carry on; Alice broke up with the band, after all.


The role played in that video by Edith Frances (the Borromean knot to Alice Glass’s signifying chain, to indulge playful metaphor) has striking similarities to the role of theory. Her own bubbly energy is too out-of-band for the diegesis; she’s continually any-time-now-already getting to the microphone — but there’s nothing to pretend to sing, the song has been constructed out of scrambled audio samples; and still it’s up to her to give it pop musical content. There’s a specific difference between what she’s doing and what a background dancer is in the diegesis (in the story told by the audio composite); Edith is extradiegetic, she’s part of the narrative trickery that makes the product cohere as a pop song. We’re not supposed to notice that that’s not Alice Glass; we’re supposed to notice an effect of something both instrumental and highly specific, with deliberate quality of professional-grade instrumentation, camera lenses, audio cables, everything that says “production values” and enacts an axiology of disappearance. (Plus it has to be a woman, not a man, a girl of a given size and aura… it’s not like Montserrat Caballé could walk into this scenario.)

It is somewhat paradoxical that someone can be a fully generic replacement while having a special quality that is impossible to mistake for a crude imitation. The name of this paradox is physique du role. We need Prince Hamlet to be young and handsome; no matter how legendary the thespian, he cannot play as an old man. The imagery of theater helps us see that this is also not merely “sex appeal” (which would imply an axiology of what’s sexier than what; we’d have to reconcile that with the axiology of disappearance — it’s not easy): “looking the part” is an unstable mixture of believable representation and stagecraft magic (voice projection, comic timing and so on). The ultimate root of the paradox is that actors are storytelling devices. The only novelty in our video is that physique du role is translated to the domain of singing. Gossip was that Edith Frances is a much better singer than Alice; the video is a strong argument in that direction.

Now, physique du role poses particular ethical demands. It’s all too easy to jump to sex appeal and write stories around it — Hollywood did it to Marilyn Monroe and multiple others. The effect of this is to force cynical disavowal: the point of every popular feature film starring Marilyn was the raw object of her body (note well, it was always an object, we don’t get to objectify it), but actress, producers and audience had to pretend this raw object was at most the cherry in the cake, that there was a comedy around it. Now, there’s a standard (vulgar) critique of theories that try to distance themselves from events that says that the ultimate point is always the underlying ideological assumptions; this is a critique of physique du role, it says that the honest alternative to Marilyn is overt erotica where the raw object of the body is de-sublimated into the diegesis.

The more subtle critique of physique du role can be found in Slavoj Zizek, for whom (translating to our terms) the raw object of the body can never be the story because the object of desire can never be identified with a specific raw object. Zizek correctly points to the collapse of seduction once we allow it to bleed into the diegesis; he also successfully correlates it with a deadlock in attempts to understand situations permeated by ideology that are not founded in a critique of ideology. Our starting point was to try and resolve this deadlock, to try and I give an honest account of Jair without thrusting the background ideological confusion into the diegesis. So how is Edith Frances doing it? What’s the technology required to give coherence and wholeness to an accumulation of fragments while withdrawing continually from the spotlight?

Our first answer was — general axiology. But does general axiology have the requisite physique du role?


The following  song is much, much better-known; you may be excused from watching this one. This was Crystal Castles’s highest point in the pop music nexus. I saw them earlier with Alice Glass still in the jet black hair; but despite thinking that the physique du role of the song is much better matched by that look, I could find no video from that era that closely matched the chaotic impotent aliveness of the concert I went to. This even has the nihilistic whiskey-swilling routine; the dyed hair is a lesser concern.

This is useful contrast with Edith Frances’s version of the future that resists us. The brokenness in Alice Glass emphasizes the kind of suffocating anxiety about the future that suggests a future is happening after all — that peak history is over there, it hasn’t been reached yet.


This essay starts by making some huge leaps between the concreteness of a pop music video and claims about the pace of history. Genre-savvy readers will have understood them to be claims about the video, not about history — pop music criticism and all that. But that hardly eliminates the fundamental doubt that lingers over any “flight of hermeneutics” — surely the lyrics of the first video say nothing about dystopia and peak history, where does that flow from? The bureaucratic answer is that it flows from me, but the twist that’s both obvious and more subtle is that this whole interpretation (this is a technical term, we’ve used it dozens of times already) arises from this intermediary space we call interfacticity.

[You’ve spent all day experiencing interfacticity, although seeing this requires a detour into the Heidegger story that will make us lose the plot today; one of its modes was intersubjectivity — that space between people in a conversation or even silent proximity that contains most of the information in any given situation. But a music video has no subjectivity, nor does a website. It’s still something rather than nothing; for lack of a technical introduction, you can approximate it by some kind of folk panpsychism.]

The issue with interpretation (and interfacticity) is that it doesn’t lend itself to any kind of quick (epistemological) “razor” test. For this reason, these past few decades have led to some people attaching great value scientific claims that replace hermeneutics. But this poses two very specific and cutting problems. The first is that probability theory is a bitch and scientists very very rarely understand it; they trust their instruments, which sometimes tell them that dead salmon know when humans are sad or angry (a breakout successs for “machine learning”). The second is that scientific discourse of hermeneutical affairs can’t help but build on top of hermeneutics. We’re told that happy music is happy because it activates happy neuronal systems; but this claim requires starting from a concept of happiness to begin with, and given that, what has been added? We’re similarly told that love is a buildup of the chemical “oxytocin”, which is exciting until you realize we’ve merely acquired an interestingly-sounding synonym for “love”.

Which is not to say that interfacticity with the instrumentation of science can’t be interesting and even relevant — the key finding is that the scientific claim is in the interfacticity, in the machinery of interactions between “Dasein borelians“, regions of the Situation, groups and parts, including groups and parts of people. This is more obviously true of hermeneutics.

Now, what we had been trying to achieve with quability theory all this time is to extend the formal logical sense of “interpretation” to cover the wide metaphysics-impregnated constraints on the Situation we call the ambient conditions of truth. We’ve said this of delicious pears already: talk of dystopia that flows from Crystal Castles is dystopia-qua-Crystal Castles, it happens between a continuum of theories about dystopias and acc/decelerating time and a continuum of theories of/by the band. It’s not that Alice Glass’s physique du role is essentially jet black hair or impotent chaos explosion — these things satisfy her (the quability conditions of Alice Glass); some hair works, some hair doesn’t.

What is clear to me is that the motion of withdrawal performed by the first video at the top of this blog is under/statisfies/”is quable”/exposes itself to some of the core quability conditions that govern the possibility of theory. This is how I can only forecast the outcome of European parliament election “qua Edith Frances” — the truth itself is unspeakable.

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