Industrial Culture Handbook

The book that changed my life

The 1980s were a time of smug triumphalism, when Tina Turner shrieked that she was simply the best and Simple Minds pursued the New Gold Dream and Duran Duran ponced about in Rio. I wanted no part of it. And, to my relief, there was a subculture of musicians, artists and thinkers who wanted no part of it, either.

The Industrial Culture Handbook, published in 1983, let a dozen of these party poopers talk at great length about the subjects that fascinated them: death, deformity, pornography, mind control, deprogramming, voodoo, Auschwitz, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, terrorism, insanity, Outsider Art, and the aesthetics of brutal electronic noise. From the day I shoplifted it (“Nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted,” the preface said) and throughout my twenties, this book was always by my side.

The interviewees included the fantastically pretentious French philosopher Jean-Pierre Turmel, the experimental sound artist and professional “de-indoctrinator” Boyd Rice, and two groups who have since gained the status of prophets, Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. But I was equally intrigued by Mark Pauline, an American inventor who reanimated dead animals with robotics (how beautiful and sad was the “rabot”, a dead hare that hung against a wall, mechanically walking backwards). Also on offer were public displays of self-mutilation, vomit-eating, rancid meat and gashed-open dildos by the avant-garde performer Johanna Went and the ex-porn star guitarist Cosey Fanni Tutti. Graeme Revell of SPK (named after a bomb-making cabal of German mental patients) spoke for all the contributors when he described his role as hitting at the soft underbelly of society. A lot of what we’re doing is dirt, is filth, and we live in a society that pretends to be exceptionally clean. It cleans up everything, it paints façades and makes things shiny and bright . . . We are very conscious that whenever there’s a winner in a clean society, there’s a filthy loser as well, shoved away either in a back ward or a jail or a backstreet . . .

As an invisible, low-status fringe-dweller myself, I could relate. And as an intellectual, I was convinced that the glitzy positivity of the 1980s would one day be seen – even by those who once celebrated it – as hollow, crass and unsustainable. Today, we are in a state of moral and cultural crisis as capitalism unravels, western imperialism backfires and millions of outwardly secular people grow increasingly desperate for faith. Sophisticated technology, which was once worshipped as proof of higher human progress, merely facilitates greater excesses of stupidity, violence, oppression and exploitation. The interviewees for the Industrial Culture Handbook regarded themselves as living in such a world already.

Rereading the book today, I am aware of the distance between the youth I was then and the middle-aged man I am now. Lately, I value kindness more than cynicism. I depend on the grace of good people to give me the will to go on, so the sneering amorality of some of the Industrial pioneers strikes me as nasty and immature. The radical theorising of young firebrands can be inspirational, but it is also incompatible with sustainable life. The Industrial Culture Handbook radiates toxic contempt for the feelings and frailties of ordinary people, and many passages in it cause me deep unease now.

And yet, it still challenges me and reminds me of truths I mustn’t forget. Its basic message is: Do not accept the “reality” you are fed; construct your own. Question everything. Don’t watch TV. Stop being a market demographic. Take no interest in the inane crap everyone else is talking about. Dare to be out of step with the media narrative.

Dare to be uncool. At the very least, the book still functions as an epitome of what the terms “counterculture” and “alternative” really ought to mean. In a culture full of phony rebellion and prefab nonconformism, the Industrial Culture Handbook remains an essential guide to not playing the game.

“Industrial Culture Handbook”, edited by Vivian Vale and Andrea Juno, is published by RE/Search Publications. For order details visit: www.researchpubs.com

Michel Faber’s “The Fire Gospel” is published in paperback by Canongate (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape