Positive Reflections on
Positive Reinforcements For Negative People
jakec / 19042019
Nick Clarke has always been a prodigious interrogator. Most often, it’s been interrogating the music industry, and with his unquenchable curiosity he’s spent the last 10 years getting people to say more than they might’ve wanted better than just about anybody. In recent years, the interviews stopped. Clarke began producing stranger work, the antithesis to his corporate day job. But each of these projects shared a spiritual link with the previous: where earlier he attempted to diagnose a sick industry, since he’s attempted to diagnose a sick world. Positive Reinforcements For Negative People is something of a manual.
The first story exhibits a polyamorous love for adjectives. If it ever met a descriptor it hadn’t fallen in love with, even for a second, that word would be very lonely indeed. But these words clobber and strobe with all the neon brightness and unrelenting density of the setting itself, coating a visceral atmosphere of claustrophobia over Clarke’s cyberpunk vision of Japan. And although the trappings of that genre are nearly absent (notable exception being a metallic crow that spits out onigiri when yen is deposited into a baton projecting a holographic display) and it taking place in a nearly familiar present, his architecting of mood-via-place shares a legacy with Gibson, Kon, Oshii, Urobuchi.
Which has mainly to do with constructing a futuristic setting indebted to signifiers of our present (or vice versa), where the fulfilment of globo-ultraconsumerist prophecies cheshire grimace over a sediment of vintage technology and customs. Clarke’s unnamed protag talks Kamasi Washington and Thundercat over plum wines and slides the DJ a list of Australian records written on a napkin. This could be now or then or not-yet but it edifies the certainty of the inevitable as well as a particular resoluteness: however unlivable the future seems from the vantage of the present, human lives continue, even to the point of satisfaction and wonder, in ways not too dissimilar to the ways we know.
Anyone who understands Clarke through the lens of ABABCd or his other ventures in the distinctly un-wonderful and dissatisfying world of music journalism might find this a weird turn. But anyone plugged into the diversity of his work over the past decade can witness more of his far-reaching capacity for examination here. The second last section of the book bears some of Clarke’s journalistic work and there’s one part in his interview with John Waters from 2013 that I think speaks just as much to the interviewer, and seems like a likely reason Clarke included the interview in the first place: “History will be the judge of if you’re really an artist…. Human interest stories are very important. I’m inspired by people that have survived things. Also subjects that I don’t really understand.”
The hallmark of all of Clarke’s work has been telling human stories about subjects he doesn’t really understand, about things that are impossible and about things that happened despite their apparent impossibility. And sometimes, when he comes to understand something, he finds himself disgusted by it. There’s nothing he understands better than the artistic sensibility, and so here he is skewering self-described creatives. But then here he is also skewering himself and his own failed ambitions. He describes the Kafkaesque situation after he was bashed by four men when he was 22 and distantly remembers a guy trying to pull him out of his car outside a P!nk show. When Clarke sees those human lives too closely, sometimes he is repulsed.
In the misanthropy, Clarke allows himself to be repulsive too. The politics of certain moments and stories stick out perpendicular to what seems like common sense. That they’re often couched in places of insight suggests that Clarke understands his culpability in a landscape of ugliness. In one story, he articulates the frenetic anxiety of app dating, climaxing in the dreaded moment of swiping across an ex’s profile. “For the first time, in this moment, glaring at her smiling face, you see her as everyone else on here must see her too. As a seven.” Out of context it’s condemnable and in context it’s not much less discomforting, but it also captures the mixture of resentment and acceptance that short circuits conscious thought, that is born from pure instinct. In "Kayley’s Korner", Clarke uses fictional video transcripts to document the spaghettification of a relationship between a YouTuber and her boyfriend. Clarke evokes the dialect of self-made stars precisely, leaving enough gaps for the subtext of the relationship’s disintegration to occupy, such that it feels ominous, omnipresent, and familiar. Where other pieces savage the inadequacies of people head on, Kayley’s Korner makes one feel it.
In these moments where one might expect moral superiority, instead there’s usually Clarke struggling with his own impact in the world. In "Directing Corporate Voice Overs", the target is a fat-mouthed corporate goon, but Clarke writes himself as an impotent, silent bystander. Writing about being bullied over his dad’s death, he “hopes the neighbours don’t see or hear” him and his mum cathartically smashing plates in the backyard. In "Germaphobe At Work" and "Asthma Treatments From Actual Doctors", he exposes his medical conditions. Where his more high profile essays on triple j and the aforementioned beating are well aimed, it’s these personal bits of repugnance, whether written seriously or comedically, that resonate the most.
This is the double entendre of the book’s title. Not just “negative people” in the sense of pessimism and cynicism, but as in negative space, the feeling of existing as or in the vacuum around and between objects. Every self-aware person finds themselves in such a position at some point, birthing the universal struggle of self-definition. Meaning one has to decide how to assert oneself into the universe every day, one second at a time. If Positive Reinforcements For Negative People has a thesis, it’s that when that deliberation stops, when people relinquish the choice to make a decision about themselves and fall into acting by their conditioning, the result is a pandemic of violence. Clarke may not consider his outlook optimistic, but it’s a hopeful lesson nonetheless.