A song that has stuck with me in particular lately, not merely due to a catchy hook but for its distinctive pathos, is Imagine, from Ariana Grande’s magnificent new album Thank U, Next. With the song Grande paints an idealised picture of a relationship with the romantic subject undercut constantly with the refrain, a plea to “imagine a world like that”. The lyrics maintain a certain ambiguity, presenting multiple possibilities; That the world she describes is possible yet the subject cannot imagine it, that the world is not possible and the subject cannot imagine it, that this world comes into being through imagining it or that it cannot, but must be imagined regardless. Within these possible readings lies a pathos of unrequited fantasy, a symbolic ideal that remains out of reach.
This might the point where I come out with some pseudo-nihilist statement, coolly staring into the middle distance as I proclaim that love is just a chemical reaction maaan, it doesn’t exist. This, however, is only half the point. To be in love is to imagine, to dream. The mistake is to proceed from this to claim that love doesn’t matter. The fact remains that at some point we experience the strange and discomforting feeling that none of this is real, and in a sense we are correct. Nothing about this is as it seems, something we can ascertain as soon as we move past transcendential explanations for affects; the reality we all experience is founded upon a collectively consensual dream, the raw, unvarnished reality merely revealing itself as a further servant of the symbolic under scrutiny.
So love, in a Spinozist sense, is a series of affects given symbolic form.. this is only a step away from the “love as chemical reaction” statement, indeed shares with it a kind of cold analysis of human emotion, and yet does not in the manner of this former trite framing render it somehow less important as a result. To live is to dream, as it is to love and to feel. As such, Ariana Grande’s call to imagine becomes both a call to imagine something inevitably unfulfilled, and to express love in its true form, for the romantic subject to submit to the fantasy world of the relationship. This element of gossamer thin tension lies between the twin subject of a relationship and its outside, the point at which both enter the immersion tank and a new symbolic reality forms from the affects generated by their interaction.
So romance, love, becomes the formation of a symbolic reality. It is to “imagine a world” in a true sense, as any collaboration with another human being is to generate affects with symbolic resonance, creating each time a new microcosm of further effects. Love is necessarily a kind of imaginary world, the horizon of which defines its possibilities. To love someone or something is to create between two things a desiring multitude of effects, and in this sense one can easily refer to the DeleuzoGuattarian multiplicity, that within such a relationship is not merely two actors but a many more in the branching effects produced.
To imagine a world then, is to love. To engage in a romantic coupling is an unconsciously desiring production of reality, and this in turn maintains itself through the contradictions of the imaginary and the symbolic, the symbolic representations of affects becoming the imaginary worlds of containment. Love is a swarm. It is a re-alignment of perception, a psychedelic invocation. This renders what begins as a realisation that love is predicated on fantasy and catapults it towards a singular power more potent than any transcendental conception of love as a spiritual force. The transcendent is removed, inarticulate; it contradicts its own attempts to lend power to worldly affects through its own rendering of them as ethereal nonentities. In truth, as anyone who has experienced any kind of emotion might have realised, it is in affects we find that which profoundly alters our experience. To imagine is to love, which is to re-align the vectors of perception itself.
A talk by Rupert Read I recently intended at UEA proved very much “something interesting to think about” in the words of Twin Peaks’ Gordon Cole, largely in the sense that it illustrated some of the antagonisms within ecological discourse. It also, need it be said, made some very important points regarding the reality of the catastrophe we find ourselves within and the value of ecological thought, and I want to make it clear that I saw much value there, even if what I say here is largely points of disagreement that it raised with me.
Something that became apparent to me during the lecture was the absence of a specific term. For whatever reason, despite openly talking about it at various points, referring to a “system”, and even towards the end mentioning the “means of production” the word Capitalism failed to appear. Despite everything being talked about within the lecture being some facet of the complex system of effects we may designate as the capitalist order, it was never directly references, becoming something of an elephant in the room even as Read referred to the scale of necessary change necessary to fight ecological collapse.
On key points I agree absolutely, the sheer scale of climate catastrophe, the need for large scale change, but in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but constantly question the notion of an environmentalism removed from anti-capitalism as something that is as deeply flawed as anti-capitalism devoid of environmentalism. Read made some interesting observations on how we may or may not be governed by nature in the sense that nature is or isn’t something we are part of, trying to negotiate a position between those two points and arriving at a point where nature both is something that opposes us and that includes us. For me this lined up with my inclination towards the fundamentally incomplete and ruptured order of reality, and gave me some extra impetus on route towards an idea of re-weirding the structures of reality that inform us.
Re-weirding in this context sounds very much like a slight diversion from the term re-wilding which was discussed much here, the idea of returning the land back to a percieved natural state, and something that actually I find quite interesting and promising as a practice, having grown up within the countryside myself and witnessed the sheer ravaging of the land that is wrought by industrial agriculture and other practices. As I see it, Re-weirding the landscape is a natural bedfellow to this, something the aim of which is to excavate the antagonisms within nature, hint at the underlying and terrifyingly alien forms lying beneath the idyllic surface of a country meadow. During the Q&As Read endorsed a kind of romanticism, hinting at ideas of the sublime, of a kind of spiritual veneration of nature found in some indigenous cultures. This struck me as something that could quite easily be extrapolated into a process of re-weirding, but actually strangely at odds with the statement heard elsewhere in the talk about de-alienating ourselves and, as it were, getting back in touch with nature. In truth what this process seems to suggest is a different state of alienation, or a re-alignment of perception, rather than a simple re-assertion of affinity.
Highly interesting to me was mention of James Cameron’s Avatar, mentioned with regard to it being one of the highest grossing films of all time and containing a clear ecological message. My immediate thought was back to Mark Fisher’s Terminator vs Avatar, an essay in which Fisher presents Avatar as a wholly more contradictory film, one that is far from presenting a simple ecological program, or even an effective critique of techno-capital. From the piece;
“James Cameron’s Avatar is significant because it highlights the disavowal that is constitutive of late capitalist subjectivity, even as it shows how this disavowal is undercut. We can only play at being inner primitives by virtue of the very cinematic proto-VR technology whose very existence presupposes the destruction of the organic idyll of Pandora.
And if there is no desire to go back except as a cheap Hollywood holiday in other People’s misery – if, as Lyotard argues, there are no primitive societies, (yes, the Terminator was there from the start, distributing microchips to accelerate its advent); isn’t, then, the only direction forward? Through the shit of capital, metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pâtés, its cyberspace matrix?”
This highlights my main criticism of the talk, something I might call “eco-primitivism”, the desire to return back to a state close to nature, live in communion with it, something that contains within it some deep contradictions I think Fisher effectively excavates. If we are to return to this state of nature, to re-wild ourselves so to speak, the only way we seem to be able to do so is via the very tools which are currently facilitating ecological disaster, the technologies of late capitalist subjectivity, the libidinal drives of advertising, the digital spaces of the internet, the “shit of capital”. This is an issue that I think is going to come more and more into focus as we proceed into collapse, that we are already past the event horizon as it were of capitalism, and that the only way to truly overcome the hugely damaging modes of production, the systems of ecological destruction, is via the very means in which we are already engaged. This is not to say that we cannot to some extent pay more heed to the world around us, but it does suggest a deep contradiction that we must work past rather than against.
“Hands up who wants to give up their anonymous suburbs and pubs and return to the organic mud of the peasantry. Hands up, that is to say, all those who really want to return to pre-capitalist territorialities, families and villages. Hands up, furthermore, those who really believe that these desires for a restored organic wholeness are extrinsic to late capitalist culture, rather than in fully incorporated components of the capitalist libidinal infrastructure.”
To upend the social order is to defy the given precepts of its nature. To defy the precepts of the nature of order is a daunting proposition, and one that while we may envision occurring overnight may only set in entirely over several generations. This is something Mark Fisher noted as the fatal flaw of the ’68 radical moment, the lack of patience, the assumption that all would change within a single generation. It is key to any consideration of the future that we situate the molecular within the cellular, the cellular within the larger life-form, the life-form within the ecosystem. This stretching of time and space is something that precedes the realisation that what seems to be a solid rock-face is indeed transitory, that we live atop shifting sands, dividing and exacerbating into different intensities and formations. Nothing is permanent.
i. THE NATURAL ORDER
We are a social and historical animal. What I and others mean by this is not to strip away individual experience, but to place it within its surrounding matrices, to acknowledge that individual experience is a series of affects, connected indelibly to other individual experiences and surrounding stimuli. This is something pointed out in recent affect theory, Deleuze & Guattari, Massumi… and yet it can be found if we simply return to Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza preceded many of the concerns of modern science in his philosophy of affects and passions, his breaking down of the mind/body duality that had defined Cartesian metaphysics before him. Spinoza informs us that our mind and body are not separate, but engaged constantly, one informing the actions of the other. Ones state of mind is undeniably connected to physical health in a multitude of ways and vice versa, the matter of both engaged in a dialogue of affects and effects, generating lived experience as a determined and constantly shifting whole.
In this way, we can understand ourselves as subjects not as the much vaunted individual agent, but as a conscious link in an ever-expanding spacio-temporal map of causes. It both disrupts and desublimates the ego as an arena of production, placing “me” next to a million other mes all acting upon one another, and sketching the clear outline of humanity the social creature. The factor of determinism in this picture makes us uncomfortable, as we like to think ourselves as defining our own destiny, but is it deniable that we lack a large degree of control over what drives us? Is it deniable that we are, if not entirely, not insignificantly enslaved by our sociopolitical reality? The one question that must be asked from this point is how agency can be meaningfully achieved in this picture, which is something I will return to.
This has illustrated the ways in which we are driven by forces outside our control, and can also be extended to history. The act of historicizing something, placing it within a time-line of causes, immediately rips it out of its comfortable status within the present and places it within a specific social context as the result of innumerable events and attitudes. What, for instance, may today seem like a purely natural state of affairs, common sense, may quickly unravel upon being placed within historical context, becoming something wholly temporary or arbitrary. Historicizing something effectively denaturalizes it. It’s why Fredric Jameson places such great emphasis on historicizing in his analysis of media and popular culture. If we place something within the universe of affects, events, intensities… it becomes out of time and place, and it becomes contextualised within sociopolitical tendencies, modes of production.
ii. WAYS OF DISMANTLING
“Freedom is not a given – and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’”
– Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto
The process of denaturalization is the dismantling of theology. Appeals to nature, some kind of inherent “essence” belie the fact that whatever this essence is, we remain in a state of constant alienation from it; they also deify, whether willingly or not, the processes around us, and point towards the kind of backwards motion that leaves the left stranded in the current trying to fight back the tide. To step away from appeals to an inherent nature and deal with the forces of production as they exist in relation to each other is the necessary step to realising the first hint of a left project, for to decouple our ways of thinking from such ideas, while difficult for myriad reasons is a process of a emancipation itself.
Not for nothing do conservatives and right wing figures often turn to ideas of essential nature to justify themselves. For if you can root tradition and subservience to authority in the natural order in a way where it appears to be an eternal, solid entity rather than an imposition or fantasy it becomes something unavoidable, something which it is futile and foolhardy to imagine an alternative to. It is, after all the way things are.
The greatest contribution made by Deleuze & Guattari to how we consider the social order is their focus on its abstract potentials, the constant becoming and shifting intensities that lie beneath the surface of what we consider reality. Indeed, has this not been the impact of the most successful avante garde movements and impositions? What we get, for instance, within Jazz improvisation is a testing of the limits of an instrument, to tear the musician out of the comfortable boundaries of the social order and make what seemed previously ordered chaotic, unpredictable, unnatural. It reveals the presumed natural state of musical expression to be but one fiction, one imposition onto the real. In the space of the improviser, we see the forming of a new order from the jumbled ruins of the prior one, one that falls apart as soon as it is created, consistently existing on the boundaries of formation, the gap between realities, never fully existing and embodying the state of constant becoming.
If Avant Jazz can be the musical expression of denaturalization, weird fiction can act as the symbolic exploration of it. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy if it is about anything is about nature, but it is about weirding nature, fundamentally denaturalizing nature itself. We enter a space in which nature has confounded our attempts to categorise it, moved beyond our epistemological limits and reorganised itself into a shifting, mutating viral entity. It occupies the intersection that weird fiction specialises in, again a space between realities, the imposition of one on another where the other is displaced, changed. Nature becomes unnatural, in other words resisting the comfortable rules we assign to it, generating a certain fear and anxiety somewhere in this antagonism. This is the power of the weird, something that Mark Fisher talks about in The Weird and the Eerie, that unlike fantasy, which constructs an entirely new order/reality, the weird displaces the current order, bringing it into contact with an Outside.
iii. WEIRD POLITICS
This displacement echoes and precedes any concern for an emancipatory politics. For if our aim is towards an order, which we may name Communism, which seeks to replace the natural order of Capital … it is first a necessity to plunge these territories into disorder, frame them as fictional impositions on disorder. It is not as much in this case a shifting of reality but of our perspective on reality, to the point where we must acknowledge the cracks, fissures and general incompleteness of its visage.
Something that is talked about a great deal in leftist circles is the harmful influences of stereotypes of social impositions such as gendered toys, what many might call “indoctrination”. The tricky aspect of this is that we eventually run into the realisation that however we proceed some form of this “indoctrination” is inevitable, unless we choose somehow to subsist in some entirely neutral grey zone which no sane person would likely wish upon themselves or their children. That said, this is not to say there isn’t a point here, there very much is, and this is regarding the naturalisation at play when we repeat the ritual of gendered inoculation time and time again. It effectively generates through repetition a natural order wherein anything outside it is automatically considered unnatural, the effects can be seen historically if we look at treatment of many groups considered outside the natural order of the time, and such issues persist.
This has often been the value of subversive cultural turns. I wrote about this a while back, framing it as disruption, but I would take this further and say that it represents, down to an ontological level, a denaturalization, in the sense that unleashing the explosion into a bloated, long-running established culture shifts it along its foundations, introducing an element so disruptive that it must realign to cope. The punk ethos becomes a tool of cultural leverage, an expression of negative discontent that tears away the appearance of natural reality, presenting itself, like a Lovecraftian otherness, as something that simply shouldn’t be there, and more than that, something that knows it shouldn’t be there and doesn’t care. Therein lies the value of cultural transgression to a political framework, the idea that we are to confront those agents of the natural order an incongruity so immense that they climb over themselves to try and condemn it. This is, I have come to believe, also the value of Communism as an idea, precisely the provocation that lies within it and the incongruity that it presents to anyone enamoured with the way things are, or who demonstrate an unthinking reverence towards it.
I was planning to make this a single post but as I wrote it I believe this is best expanded upon over two or three, as subjects I was planning to write about fit neatly under the same heading, and serve as a nice way to approach the same thing from multiple angles. In a way this is my attempt to return to what I wrote about disruption at the beginning of this blog and really dive into what I briefly and to my mind unsatisfactorily outlined there on cultural subversion and transgression. There will be a post arriving in the near future on demythologizing that will examine in greater detail some of the things I only touched upon here, as well as some of the contradictions and antagonisms contained within them.
Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot floating around the internetosphere about altruism. More to the point, I noticed recently that Bill Gates, everyone’s favourite ruthless businessman turned cuddly nerd, had been delivering a variation on his favourite theme, found expounded by the likes of Steven Pinker, supplanted by his insistence that nothing need majorly change, all we need to do is be a bit more altruistic. He even, with staggering gall, wheeled out the claim that, on the whole, poverty is decreasing, the world is improving, etc. His accompanying words “This is one of my favourite infographics” ringing out like the desperate pleas of the aristocracy as the world below them plunges into chaos.
” What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.”
It doesn’t take a level of genius to work out why it might be in the interest of someone like Bill Gates to gloss over the exploitation inherent to capitalist production, but that doesn’t prevent the smiling and assured performance he gives feeling particularly stomach churning, the purported values of altruism and the meat grinder of Gates’ own business concerns making a horrific screeching sound upon contact. “There’s nothing wrong with the way things are done, you all need to be nicer” is the line, seeping from the mouths of the Davos set like poisoned honey. What’s more, it’s not hard to see how this is a tempting vision for anyone feeling the weight of world events on their shoulders, collapse and decay they seem to be entirely helpless to prevent. All that we require is that you do your bit. If we buy the correct, sufficiently ethical products, our daily act of charity, and sink enough money into the worlds problems, nothing more will be required of us.
Of course I’m not arguing that altruism itself is a problem, or purely self-motivated, but it is important to bear in mind the impossibility of any kind of “Pure” altruism. The mechanisms of desire are driven by interest in a spinozist sense, the gaining of satisfaction. As Frederic Lordon outlines in Willing Slaves of Capital;
“Here we could paraphrase Spinoza: interesse sive appetitus. Some do not like this identity, however. Or rather, they do not like its consequences. For if human essence is desiring, it follows from this identity that all actions must be considered interested”
In this way, we can understand the impossibility of any action without an element of self-satisfaction. As Lordon goes on to demonstrate, this is not some nihilist statement against human action, as in this sense interest is far more than the negative associations we might associate with accusing someone of being self-interested, but the object of desire itself. Any action we take must necessarily be interested as it is invested in the satisfaction of some desire. Taking this into account, folded into the libidinal excesses of capitalism’s upper echelons, it is the least outrageous statement possible to claim that gestures of charity are not devoid of self-interest. While this does not inherently wipe it of any value, when this self interest is that of capital altruism becomes an empty hand
Charity in this context is giving with one hand while taking with the other, where the taking outstrips the giving by at least several magnitudes. It is the pretence of progressive ambition while tightening a grip on personal fortune as nobody is looking. The philanthropy of the billionaire is a PR move, integral to the running order of capital and so predicated on its inefficacy. It effectively generates the idea that charity will save us, which contains within it the assumption that the system as it exists is not fundamentally flawed. All you need to do is do your daily penance, your daily act of kindness, and we can right the wrongs we have perpetrated. It makes little sense to expect the very same systems of proletarianisation and exploitation to solve the very same problems that are their lifeblood, yet many of us nonetheless hold to this, seeing within this impossible solution a source of comfort, a fuzzy, warm land of safe solutions away from the rather tricky business of enacting social change.
Bill Gates is wrong not just because he is bad at reading data, he is wrong because he and many like him are where they are as a result of the very processes which lead to poverty elsewhere in the world, that they continue to perpetuate and show no signs of alleviating. He is wrong because wilfully or not his sermons of philanthropy and progress contain within them the necessary kernel of neoliberal capitalism, the idea that change is enacted from the pockets of the individual, that the problems of the world are simply caused by our own bad decisions. To present the altruism he preaches as some kind of selfless gesture of common good belies the clear interests that lie behind it, going beyond the usual alleviating of guilt that follows acts of charity. If it becomes apparent that rich people can’t save the world with money, then where do we stand? We appear to arrive at a point where change requires something much more radical.