30th January 1962.
The giggling of three pupils at a boarding school for girls in the East African state of Tanganyika bubbles to the surface. It’s unclear what (if anything) set it off—an inside joke, a bodily noise, someone else’s misreading of a text? Yet as the giggling turns to laughter, it begins to spread through the peer group. For a further forty-eight days, over half of the students were engulfed in laughing fits, causing the school to close for a period of time in order to allow the giggles to die down. Yet as they returned to their homes and came into contact with others outside of the closed school community, the laughter began to spread. Reports indicate that cases of these fits emerged in the nearby villages of Nshamba and Kanyangereka, and a number of other schools in the area, which again led to further closures at two boys’ schools. Other accounts of the outbreak suggest that the laughter crossed the border into Uganda and affected a swathe of the population for over two years.
The laughter that spread from Tanganyika was not one of happiness or joy. Later observations of the event have suggested that it was a symptom of mass-psychological illness (MPI), a stress-induced state that can present itself in the form of uncontrollable laughter.
More. More. More. More.
Broken electronics and throbbing loops build; distorted guitars drawl like a warped introduction of a dated American cop show; a synth patch mimics a siren. It all elicits a nervous laugh.
2016 was a turbulent year within the political nexus Australia situates itself. The dual shocks of Brexit and Trump’s election signalled an overt turn toward isolationist policies in the US and UK. The Australian Liberal government scrambled to maintain some vestige of past trade and defence agreements; an action that merely came across as a last-ditch attempt to associate themselves with the dwindling imperial powers of the 20th Century. Concurrently, the government took a similarly backwards approach to local affairs. In April, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled that the Australian government’s detention camps on Manus Island breached the right to personal liberty that was outlined in their constitution–further highlighting Australia’s disgraceful record in providing humanitarian support for refugees and asylum seekers. Later that year, a series of storms and tornadoes battered South Australia’s power infrastructure, plunging much of the state into blackout. The government blamed the state’s reliance on renewable energy resources, in turn advocating for the re-introduction of fossil fuels.
Those in power have created a system which contain a number of leaks. While they struggle to plug them up, and some leakages seem to just mend themselves, others lay dormant, threatening to fissure and sink the vessel.
As the threads come loose
The ha’s are delivered not as an actual laugh, but in a manner that is half-arsed, mocking, a response to a bad joke. As the song continues, the ha’s reappear but become gradually more clipped, delivered from the diaphragm as sharp, succinct syllables—still mocking but now with greater energy.
(Laughing at the) Typical System
Despite its contemporary infamy, the rearing of ugly heads that was 2016 was not particularly unique. Rather, it was a moment where the covert forces of individualism, neo-liberal policy making, and the closeted (and not-so-closeted) colonialism of the last half century rose to the surface. Total Control’s first two full-length records—Henge Beat (2011) and Typical System (2014)—address this state of affairs.
Our fragile subject confuses festivity for a grave militaristic orgy, and pens a carol to document collapse.
The aforementioned documentation rolls in, a reflection of the present:
- Environmental decay (So the rot set in. Green turned grey and dead. And now you know you’re to live)
- Police state violence (Stripped down, and curled in shame. You’re the one to blame…No sleep since they turned you on. And curled in shame.)
- Labour exploitation (The gold watch is ticking down the days. Keep them at work.)
- Repressive control systems (There is someone standing over you)
- Pharmaceutical control (To take pills to remember to take to pills to forget…Visions of the visions of the visions…)
However, this litany is notably countered on the later record, where the system is confronted in small (yet significant) examples of resistance:
- Endurance through love and companionship (Carve your way across the plains. Carve a space inside your brain. Earn enough of that cruel gaze and bear it til your back would break. Now I see that this has led me back into your arms again.)
- Self-reliance (This has always been a safety net. You don’t need a safety net.)
- Catharsis through collectivity (On bloody stumps. On glass. We dance.)
Tesla goes Bankrupt
Palo Alto, California, April 1, 2018 —
Despite intense efforts to raise money,
including a last-ditch mass sale of
Easter Eggs, we are sad to report that
Tesla has gone completely and totally
bankrupt. So bankrupt, you can’t believe
The following day, Tesla shares drop 5% on the US Stock Exchange. It’s a laughing matter. Earlier this year, Musk founded the Boring Company, a start-up that would see the research and development of new tunnel-digging methods and technologies with an eye towards creating underground public transport systems that would enable travel between New York and Washington DC in under thirty minutes. After selling 50,000 baseball caps emblazoned with the company’s logo, he released a line of branded flamethrowers, joking that it was a “super terrible idea”, and urging people, “definitely don’t buy one… unless you like fun.” The release was accompanied by the launch of a matching fire-extinguisher–which the webstore labelled “overpriced” but features a “cool sticker”. At $500 a piece, Musk quickly sold out of the 20,000 flamethrowers he had ordered, raising some $10 million.
Jokes seem to wildly veer into the oncoming traffic of the everyday.
The taste of silicon
Fresh as cream
I’m sweating milk
The past was good to me
The cleanest meal
I am your future
As always, Silicon Valley’s ‘solution’ to the issue of climate change is to capitalise upon it. The track ‘Future Crème’ is a warped jingle that comes complete with sampled testimonials for a meal replacement drink—it’s the kind of product that claims to save the world by providing all the suited nutrients to those who cannot afford the increasing price of fresh produce, when in actual fact it is consumed by the hyper-rich; the tycoon who can afford expensive joyless sludge in order to save time.
Laughing at the (Typical) System
Humour has been a constant within the work of Total Control from album covers through to witty turns of phrases. Yet with their latest release, humour is repositioned as a foremost tactic of resistance. Laughing At The System is bookended by two renditions of the title track—one electronic, the other featuring guitars and live drums. These are the poles of the band’s release, oft-recognised by the music press. Where the sounds of twisted synth bells and buzzsaw synths open the album in a fragmented and machinic fashion, they are eventually replaced by the chug of guitars and the cathartic rush of the live band. This is not a reprisal of the opener, but rather a re-imagining–the lyrics and chord progressions remain the same, the song is only twenty seconds shorter in the second version, the drum fills of the electronic version trip and stumble in a manner more akin to the frenetic pace of live drumming than the metronomic tic of programmed drums. Ultimately, tactics of resistance such as the song and the laugh must be flexible; they adapt to their unstable conditions, leaking into, through, and out of any gaps presented by the system. While the substance may stay the same, the form it takes must change.
However, where the humour of the track lies in the fragmented and garish production and occasional bursts of laughter that open the electronic version, the lyrics alone are not particularly funny. Rather, they act as a call-to-arms through laughter; one is encouraged to laugh at the system rather than to laugh along with it. But the oppressive circumstances that the system creates are not a joke. The psychological condition displayed by the people in and around Tanganyika in 1962 was a reaction to years of colonial subjugation and social instability. Yet the act of laughter is itself a subversive tool. Those that uphold systems of power are ultimately self-conscious–they rely upon public opinion polls, ‘consensus’, and media manipulation of the masses in order to stabilise their positions. To employ a laugh–one like the “HA HA” catch-phrase of Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons—is to call into question the status of the system. It highlights the faults and cracks, prying them open, chipping away.
You grey haired and indolent
These things you can not prevent
These things you can not pervert
In the sediment
As the historian Marjolein ’t Hart recognises, humour alone will never alter the circumstances, but may open up a space to mobilise people into action–after all laughter is a “weapon of the weak”. However, the circulation of humorous material as a tactic of resistance is by no means anything new (a quick glance over one’s shoulder at the last century and you could spot John Heartfield, Anna Freud Banana, Paul Krassner, etc.). Yet at a time when the right wing continues to effectively co-opt the humour of meme culture in order to bolster and extend the powers of the conservative system, Total Control reminds us of the power of these tactics to collectivise and dismantle the structures of oppression.
Mitchell Ryan is a writer, researcher and musician based in Sydney. His work has previously appeared in TEMPERED music journal and SPLIT.
Image: Amy Hill.