Reflections of K-Punk

It’s likely no secret to many who have spoken to me recently that the work of Mark Fisher has become something of an important reference point to me; this goes beyond simply being an investment in a certain writers style, or some facile obsessive regurgitation of a someones’ ideas I might be particularly into at the time. Fisher’s writing has, the more of it I’ve read, managed to shift my perception of the world around me, and really, though this may at first pass sound a little melodramatic, given me what feels like a renewed vigour and purpose in life after a prolonged period of stagnation, repetition, depression and boredom, namely precisely the symptoms and conditions Fisher examines and takes a scalpel to over the trajectory of his books Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life, The Weird and the Eerie, and the main subject here the recently published collected works, the mammoth tome I recently read from cover to cover.

There is a distinct melancholia in reading this collection, containing as it does enough of Fisher’s most important writing to put together the coherent strands that defined his project[s], and putting into perspective its tragically unfinished status. It cannot be said enough that Fisher was one of the most lucid, cutting and important cultural critics of his time, and his writing breathes new life into a leftist politics previously assumed to be long calcified into redundancy. The introduction to what would have been his next book Acid Communism, included at the end of K-Punk really hits home how really, he was just getting started; his appeals to the hauntology of lost futures manifesting itself in his own foreshortened political project. In the context of all else here, Acid Communism feels like the beginning of a culmination to where his ideas were going, the proposal to match the critique seen in Capitalist Realism and an intersection of the many influences and strands one finds him returning to throughout.

Something it would be hugely amiss to ignore; both Melancholy and Depression feature heavily, although he is careful to distinguish between the two, as he is between the nostalgia mode, as defined by Jameson, and Hauntology. Something that rears its head throughout his work is his own grappling with mental ilness, one that becomes almost difficult to read about in hindsight, but I think still essential at a point where many speak of the mental health crisis and I’m not sure I know many people, if anyone my own age, who does not labour under some form of anxiety or depression. While as one may read in Capitalist Realism he makes sure not to simply state that all mental illness is caused directly by political issues, he nonetheless makes the point repeatedly that Mental Health is a Political Issue. Indeed is it so difficult to imagine that the notable proliferation of mental health issues among younger generations is connected to changes in the way we organise our society? In the years since the rise of Neoliberalism we have increasingly had to live in a world of a million pressures, precarity; a damocles sword threatening us with the constant threat of collapse, we may lose our job, suffer a pay cut, be called in at a moments notice, we may be evicted from our home… we’re expected to be flexible, but this is code for what Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes in Precarious Rhapsody, a post-fordist capitalism where the line between work and life is blurred to an indistinction , where time is at a premium. Fisher references the film In Time as possibly the first science fiction film about precarity, where time itself becomes a currency. In this climate, it is hardly any wonder people everywhere, especially young people who are thrust out into this world after having been promised success for hard work, are buckling under the weight, especially when one factors in the transformation of the welfare state into a perverse system of punishment for the unemployed … increasingly we are told “it’s YOUR fault”, a mantra that worms its way into our brains, forming a thread of anxiety and despair.

Let it not be said that this is some dry, sad, lifeless tome of Marxist analysis; quite the opposite… Regularly Fisher reiterates a distinct venom for the kinds of theory and cultural attitudes that might deign to reduce political engagement down to some academic parlour game, the ways in which the the lifeless corpse of real political action is dressed in the dull rags of realism and put to work by the useful idiots of capital. The writing here is notable for its fire and drive, for the sense that it is by no means intended as empty pontificating. The focus is on doing something, an interjection into the social realities of the reader rather than a series of lumpen musings with designs only on a select few pompous clowns.

Something that shines through much of the writing here, besides the urgency that practically bleeds through each line, is a conviction in the importance of culture; through Fisher, one gains practically a new cultural canon, where the importance is always placed on historicizing and contextualizing every film and piece of music within the arena that produced it. To this end there is often a certain excitement in Fishers distinctly punk proclamations, both in the ones that played directly into some of my younger predilections [Siouxsie and the Banshees are more important than the Smiths!] and ones that drew me towards strange things I had never encountered [Artemis 81!] or finally lead to an immersion in something I’d never previously managed to crack [The Fall!]. Always running behind the words is what he terms as “a fidelity to the post-punk event”. That is to say, a yearning for a modernism, and an ongoing critique of what Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism” or postmodernism as a cultural condition and malaise. The material here which coalesced into Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life and Weird and the Eerie can be traced as three connecting tissues throughout, certain points acting as nodes in a larger political project that can be mapped across the book, and organically [perhaps synthetically] emerges in the connections drawn between sections; on books, film & television, music, politics.. the confidence throughout that the world can be transformed for the better, and the fear that we may have lost the ability to imagine this, defines the great extent of it, appearing in pieces on cultural objects as varied as Cronenburg’s Existenz and a Damien Hirst retrospective. While in many cases he directs ire at culture that he sees as reinforcing capitalist realism, hence the dominion of capital, some of the most stirring moments are often the surprising places he sees a way past this impasse, notably for instance in The Hunger Games, pulling no punches in declaring it anti-capitalist realist as opposed to for instance culture that previously engaged in a successful illustration of our cultural condition, prominently The Thick of it and The Wire. Fisher is equally as good at pulling unexpected joy from a maligned piece of art as he is ravaging your chosen idols in the strongest terms [see his choice words on Alan Moore at one or two points].

Increasingly, throughout all this, you sense a strong yearning, and eventually an open call for what he terms “Pulp Modernism”, probably described in the most detailed terms in his magnificent three-part analysis of the Fall, Memorex for the Kraken. This was for him the hope that the dull flame of modernism might re-emerge in popular culture, subsumed as it is beneath a haze of reflexive pomo irony and self-satisfied snark, in which fidelity to fantasy is the ultimate heresy and everyone strives towards a kind of underlying sincerity, the stripping away of the surface to reveal the underlying real; this can be seen at its most screamingly egregious within the image fostered by Britpop, the blokish “realness”, all denim jackets and no-frills performance, a pompous cavalcade of anti-sensuality that reflected itself in much of the culture to follow, when it was not presenting itself behind unfathomable layers of ironic detachment.

Something that struck me reading this stuff in fact, as well as the fact that I myself only discovered Fisher years after his death, was that I could probably count myself as one of those generations who had entirely escaped the history we are experiencing repeated all around us. The excitement of discovering a new band predicated on not being aware of everything they’ve unimaginatively drawn from, who discovered the past largely through a long laundry list of influences relayed to us by our favourite artists, or as a cloyingly nostalgic narrative of rock-stardom and male ego crudely compacted and re-organised through duller-than-dishwater talking head documentaries where a rotating line-up of people would repeat like clockwork the tired old myths of the rock & pop establishment. I was to some degree a little lucky in that I chanced upon Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Limited when I was quite young, the post-punk scene that Fisher loved so much having appeared to me like this compelling ghost of an era alien to me, when this kind of culture could still happen; of course, I didn’t phrase it as such at the time, but the appeal of the music to me was precisely that it sounded like nothing else, drawing from an unfamiliar pool of influences, something that only became diluted and lessened by the bands that so impotently tried to copy-paste their sounds. The existence of a culture this exciting, that could evolve like this, was something that looking back was in all honesty pretty notable in its absence from my growing up, it was more of a case of tracing musical influence, going back across the timelines and family trees, scenes and acts waiting to be plucked like fruit. In terms of contemporary cultural production, although I think we’re beginning to see stirring in that department at the very least, at the time it was dominated by things that sounded not only like each other, but like their influences stripped of urgency.

The reclaiming of the idea of the new, of the future, of urgency, of collective agency on the left and within our cultural moment is what can be found throughout the book, ringing through each piece of analysis and each swelling of anger. A pall of fatalism hangs over the present, the left operating as if against an inevitable failure, the right towards a luridly imagined “collapse of the west”. Everywhere we turn, we find people throwing their hands up in resignation and despair. If this sounds like an inescapable impasse, it’s worth noting that the pall may be gradually lifting, that we are starting to see the kind of speculation and confidence in the idea of another world as Badiou might put it, that was so utterly foreclosed for so many years. I speak in smaller terms of the resurgence of genuinely leftist approaches in parliamentary politics and the collapse of the toothless neoliberal populism that dominated as the naturally assumed status quo for decades, the retreat of the right from modernization, towards a position of imagined return to an idealised past. But also, we have I think seen a resurgence of cultural urgency, of experiments and sounds aiming to disconnect themselves from those of the past. Even if these approaches seem still like a flicker, it feels to me as if they are rapidly expanding to a flame. This is the one-two punch of the arc in Fisher’s writing, that of melancholy, of mourning lost futures, and that of a re-invigorating push forward, not unlike the way reading Fisher for me has re-invigorated theory and politics.

I have mentioned Capitalist Realism as a book I would practically recommend to anyone, acting as it does as a pointed and effective analysis that definitely in my case contributed to a genuine re-alignment of perspective and flaring of consciousness from a point of relative fuzzy ennui. K-Punk may be a good bit less accessible, it being a few pages shy of 800, but it is no less valuable, a collection of writing that acts not only as an indispensable companion to the dystopian landscape of neoliberal capitalism, but a clarion call to imagine something else, to rediscover the potential of those lost futures and cease to accept reality as it is. My reading of the pieces here was, I should note, supported by reading a good bit of K Punk material not actually included in the book for whatever reason, and it’s worth noting that there’s still some excellent material out there that may not have fitted comfortably there but are still very worth a read for any interested party. Something else I read that really tied beautifully into Fisher’s concerns, especially towards the back end of the book, was Ray Brassier’s essay Prometheanism and its Critics. This is by no means essential reading, but I found for me there was a clear undercurrent of Brassier’s point in Fisher’s call to recognise the ephemeral nature of social reality. For Brassier, the idea that there is some underlying natural order is imminently theological, something that runs against any emancipatory politics. The key quote from Capitalist Realism, one that can now be found as a mural at Goldsmiths, reflects this;

“emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable”

This is something Fisher recognised as a through-line between all radical thought of different stripes. The implication being here, one that Fisher re-iterates at various points notably in his discussions of James Cameron’s Avatar, that any left that appeals to a return to the basic order of things, a return to natural simplicity, becomes a reactionary project, for to do so we must arbitrarily assert an order of things that cannot but reveal itself to be a phantom under closer viewing. Indeed, and one can see this in Fisher’s explorations of Glam and Goth, we see here a call for a closer affinity with fiction/fantasy, in a sense moving away from appeals to any kind of pure interiority towards the idea that in fact, the exterior, the mask, that is the locus of change itself. Image becomes a machine, a generator of affect.

At this point I want to set forth my intention with this blog leading into the near future. Not to restrict myself to a narrow and total project, or to simply try and ape the lifeless desiccation of the academy, but reading K Punk has really fired me up and clarified to me the ways in which I want to engage in the blogging platform, and how I want to proceed from here. I find it generally unhelpful to leave the field completely open, an anything-goes-buffet of themes that may organically coalesce [indeed I feel they have to some degree] but, much like political action itself, amount to nothing if this coalescing is not grasped and fashioned into something.

I mentioned that during my reading of K Punk I read some other complimentary material, and this lead to the themes of essentialism and fatalism irrevocably connecting. From reading The Communist Horizon Jodi Dean’s fantastic articulation of what may be meant by a collective political subject on the left, to Brassier’s essay, to the Xenofeminist manifesto, to Donna Haraway, to Deleuze & Guattari … all in some way shape or form must unseat natural order as a fundamentally theological and reactionary concept, to be discarded if we are to build another world. I will provide a reading list below for anyone who is interested, covering some things I have referenced here and others I have read partially or fully along the way. From here, however, I intend to set myself a project; by which I don’t mean a strictly regimented 10 part [a] to [b] narrative, god no. What I mean is that I intend to proceed from this point into an in depth critique of fatalism and eschatology.

For while in many respects capitalist realism may be showing cracks, it is still far from over as Paul Mason prematurely declared it some years ago, and this can be ascertained simply through the everyday, quotidian reality where capitalist realism takes root. While on some levels and in certain quarters we now see murmurs of communism/the end of capitalism that would have been unthinkable half a decade ago, if we look away from these and towards gossip, small-talk, general conversation, we still find those attitudes heavily embedded in the way we see the world. Something I’ve noticed enter the frame however, something that ties undeniably into capitalist realism, is a general depressive fatalism, often tied to an unconscious eschatology. Time and again I encounter the idea that we are headed unerringly and unchangeably towards some kind of hobbesian warlike future, a desperate struggle for resources in a world blasted by climate change. The collapse of society, we hear, will lead of course to an eruption of international conflict and a descent into a situation where only the strongest survive. It’s effectively like the most lurid fantasies of the right, and the fantasy driving those people dubbed “doomsday preppers”. But it goes further than this, it’s something I have encountered on both the right and the left, and it’s something I want to tackle properly.

Is my problem here that I’m some kind of humanist who hates the idea that there might be a world without humanity, or am I driven by a fear of collapse? Well no and maybe, but this is not where my primary issues lie. Rather, I find this dour breed of fatalism is itself, like any kind of overtly pessimistic approach, a hyperstitial spiral when translated into action, that is when it is enacted on the level of ritual, an internalised truth. We believe it to be inevitable so it is inevitable, it is inevitable so we believe it to be so. It, like realism, presents itself as a grand unveiling of the underlying truth, stripped bare of ornament, at the same moment becoming its own realisation, failing to take stock of itself as fantasy. If we empirically examine the world around us, and take this examination to its limits, we increasingly find that the very things that we live our lives by, the construction of a subject, the very idea of humanity, break apart, and this is to say nothing of meaning. What does meaning have to do with the world as it is?

And this is the problem, that in positioning oneself on an unerring line towards the post-apocalypse scenario, or towards the final retreat of humanity to their base, violent state, a whole host of theological assumptions are being made, not least that of some underlying natural order; the “way things are” that we suppress or build on top of. In applying to the future an arc against which it is futile to struggle we contribute to making it a reality. If enough of us believe that humans are ultimately competitive and violent that is precisely how we will act. It posits that a certain situation will come about but fails to consider the circuit breaker, the “unless we do something else”. This all largely connects to the unfathomable nature of climate catastrophe, something that a number of writers have tackled, some which I will mention below, but as Fisher observed takes up within capital the status of Lacanian real, something which is so traumatic to the state of things that it cannot be seen straight on except as some formless blur, only approached indirectly, Lacan used here the example of the skull in Holbein’s ambassadors, simply appearing as some spectral shape at the corner of our perception until we approach the painting from the side.

This incomprehensible trauma combined with the close proximity of said trauma, relatively, breeds it as an increasingly strong symbolic assertion within capital, which tells us time and again that we are all individually responsible. The lack of a systemic analysis here can lead us to no other conclusion that the worst is inevitable. IF we continue, everything in our nightmares will come true. IF. The eschatological approach will deny that this IF means anything, claiming that really there’s no chance, that people are just too enmeshed in capitalism to do anything about it. Isn’t the problem here yet again that by believing this we make it a reality? We cannot keep returning to these theological fatalisms if we are to undergo a promethean transformation, and in some sense what I want to do is make the case for staying the course, for continuing to believe in a future beyond the hobbesian scenario, for in the absence of the certainties provided by capital, we need a confidence in uncertainty, or, to put it another way, one which many have already put forward, we must act as if collapse has already occurred, because in many ways it has. The time is not for hunkering down and preparing for the absolute worst, it is for new systems of organisation, new forms of libidinal engineering. Fisher quotes Micheal Hardt in Acid Communism;

“The positive content of communism, which responds to the abolition of private property, is the autonomous production of humanity – a new seeing, a new hearing, a new thinking, a new loving

Pause.. I don’t want to give the impression here that I’m engaging in some kind of positive thinking exercise, as nothing brings forth the sickly taste of bile in my mouth than the positivity injunction, the coping mechanisms we employ in order to avoid confronting the negative fabric of our lives, that which manifests itself in younger generations in our constant search for pleasure, whether that be through drugs, alchohol or any other kind of dulling, escapist drive to enjoy. In fact, something else that I find ties a lot of Mark Fisher’s work together is his insistence that we must think beyond the pleasure principle. Culture must be more than mere enjoyment, consumer choice, politics, theory cannot be some purely affirmationist, even vitalist initiative. To move into the future is to grasp the negative. To quote Fisher from Terminator V Avatar, on Francois Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy;

 “Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again.”

That is to say that what I really want to do is to take Lacan’s observation that when we think beyond good and evil we only tend to think beyond good, and try to think good and evil simultaneously. The aim is to arrive not at the blasted hellscape of fatalist eschatology, nor the cult of affirmationist creativity and the multitude, but in a new form of organising, to recognise that both forms are theological in nature and both resolutely fail to encapsulate the way in which the future is dependant on our compliance, not some kind of unerring motor propelling us into certain oblivion. I want to make clear not only the parasitic, draining effect of fatalism but the ways in which an ostensibly opposing pure affirmation is similarly damaging on our ability to conceptualise the future.

I wish I could explore everything Fisher wrote, and that I plan to write, but then this already rambling post would potentially continue forever, and leave no space for future ones. Suffice to say I want to be ambitious, and to this end I want to make much more concerted use of this blog, potentially formulating a more extended critique or proposal that could be sculpted into a long essay or book format.

K-Punk is finished, but not done.

Reading list, compiled from things that I have read lately, not including Mark Fisher –

Ray Brassier – Prometheanism and it’s critics [Can be found alongside a lot of other helpful material, provocations and weird musings on the outside in the Accelerationist reader, from Urbanomics]

Laboria Cuboniks – The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Jodi Dean – The Communist Horizon

Spinoza – The Ethics [of course, as one might expect I would not claim to have a full understanding but having it to hand has been highly valuable]

Donna Haraway – The Cyborg Manifesto

David Toop – Oceans of Sound

“See You Don’t Bump His Head”: Scott Walker’s Anti-Mythology

While plucking feathers from a swan song, shit might pretzel Christ’s intestines” intones Scott Walker with operatic fervour on the opening track of his final 2012 album Bish Bosch. It surprises even myself that this sprawling and utterly strange avant tract of absurdity grotesquery, ugliness, beauty, horror was my introduction to Scott Walker, but in truth a section of it may have been the first material I ever heard of his. It is only after stumbling like a blinking stranger into the terrifying chasms of this album that I really took sight of his astonishing career trajectory, the uncompromising leap into the weird he undertook at the tail-end of the 70s and maintained for the rest of his life. By that point, the damage was done, Scott Walker had rewired my perception of what music could be.

So it was with some sadness I read this morning that he had passed away, considering really in light of that how important his music really was to me, the sheer cliffs of sound and violent lyrical contortions of Bish Bosch, as well as the majestic terror of Drift, staying with me like little else I’d heard and really percolating through all the music I loved thereafter. In a more general sense Walker is important because he stands in contrast that could barely be starker against the trajectory of most stars of his generation, collapsing into a tragic capitulation to mediocrity in the latter years of their lives, simply falling into reiteration and pastiche of their former selves.

Instead, the music Walker produced was in any sense of the imagination a hundred times more adventurous and alien than anything being produced by people less than half his age. Listening back to his material, out of chronological order, it strikes me also how his uncompromising tendencies, to produce what he wanted the wishes of the record companies be damned, can be seen as far back as records like Scott 3, and especially in Scott 4, not only in his choices of song topics but in the overt influence he takes from Morricone on the latter album, breaking with the explicit crooner stable and moving firmly into his own lane, an album of masterfully executed string arrangements and atmospheric and affecting song progressions where he sings about, among other things, Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Stalin.

This kind of confident breaking with form is something we need more of now than ever, and I cannot think of a better example than Scott Walker of someone who resolutely refused to submit to the injunction to be harmless, safe, homely, especially towards those who we enter into a dusty old hall of statues where they are to be endlessly ogled as elder statespeople of rock and pop and never disturbed. Scott Walker, from a background of 60s pop crooning, moved ever away from this mythologizing influence, the staid, calcified remnants of something exciting, culture become museum artifact. Scott Walker’s mysterious alien presence, where fame is concerned, was a kind of anti-mythology; musically he occupied a place of constant, wrenching uncertainty, where, ultimately the profoundly beautiful meets the nonsensical and the visceral where an utterly absurd line could lurch out of an atmospheric majesty. It is somewhere in this place where we all reside, and in that Walker really hit close to the bone of experience through the medium of phantasmatic weirdness.Indeed for a man who appeared often like a phantasm, appearing every now and then followed by a blast of bafflement and exhileration in equal measure, his presence will be deeply missed.

The Brexit Balderdash Meat Carnival

You take a half-hearted bite of the dried meat, a vaguely rancid flavour hitting the back of your mouth as it goes down, with a good few particles of dust. It barely registers. A jolt of electricity might perhaps, straight to the nervous system. It feels like ten wretched, misbegotten years of dragging your feet down this dust trail without any sense of movement or change. In truth it’s been far less than that, but you severely doubt anyone would be around to question you regardless.

Almost as if in answer to that thought a fuzzy humanoid form seems to materialise ahead of you, though you know better than to trust your eyes at this point, reaching for your water bottle and taking a conservative swig. The form gradually becomes more defined, until, like a pallid nightmare, a dying man looks back at you through hooded eyes, all cracked parchment skin, a husk, ready to crumble at the slightest invocation. He lies, propped against a rusty pipe, perhaps a vision of flickering hope, more likely just another failed attempt at reconciliation, the residue of an experiment in living.

As you approach him, he attempts to raise his arm but cannot, and it flops down in resignation. You have a hand on your water bottle, both in anticipation that he may be deceiving you and that he may ask for help. You draw close and it becomes clear that he is not in a good way, oscillating between the living and the dead at this point he is in a delirium, even if he is still cogent enough to recognise you as another human face. He looks you straight in the eyes, and in his you find the milky whites faded, strata of rock leading to a central point, covered in fleshy membrane. As he looks at you his lips part, with great effort, and great pain. A wheezing croaking sound at first, but eventually words, he slowly asks you a question.

“what … is … your … opinion …”

He pauses, continuing is a difficulty. In this moment you are baffled, but wait to hear the end, part of you hopes he’ll pass out before that happens.

“… on … Brexit?”

As soon as this word passes his lips you stand back and look at him with horror and pity. What on earth could possibly lead a man to the point where such concerns override his own survival? What unearthly possession must take hold, what hellish program? You suspect he is one of the acolytes, abandoned by their own gods, stripped of rank and denied meaning during the aftermath in which you are now a traveller. His face suddenly takes the form of an emaciated dog, caught between a bark and a growl, drooling over the shuddering artillery blasted concrete beneath, eyes rotating in their sockets as he starts to choke on something. He falls to the side coughing manically, clawing pathetically at the ground, staring wide-eyed ahead in panic.

Something emerges from his gullet, hitting the ground with a muted thud, covered in drool and slime. He drops, lifeless, and disintegrates, drifting apart in the wind. Stepping closer you begin to ascertain something, a smell, the awful, acrid smell of rancid meat overtakes the senses. It’s a slab of rotten flesh lying there covered in grey dust. a small note is stapled to it, barely readable and soaked in slime. IN HERE it reads, and with certain degree of sheer disgust you realise it’s telling you something is IN the meat. You close your eyes and pick up the degraded brown-green slab, holding it at arms length and thrusting your other hand into it until you find something there.. something hard, a stone? You extract it, little pieces of rotten meat falling off its smooth surface.

There are words on the stone, scratched into it roughly and very small. You squint but can barely make it out. Taking out a handkerchief you wipe first your hands and then the stone, an actually rather boring granite pebble. Holding it up the light you make out the words, written in a hurried and simple script. With dawning confusion and exasperation, you intone the words as they stand; “Brexit means Brexit”. What on earth? You ask yourself under your breath, trying to recall what this is supposed to mean, what it refers to. This word, Brexit. Ugly, sticks in the mouth like the an acrid aftertaste. You dimly remember reference to it, but these memories slide away from you as soon as they appear contorting out of vision constantly. All that returns to you is the slab of rotten meat, now lying distended on the ground before you as you investigate the stone.

Wait, the meat is reconstructing itself. Slimy, discoloured tendrils slither together, weaving into a solid sickening wall of fibrous mulch. It keeps going, extending and duplicating, a crude meat figure emerges, a poorly formed humanoid meat man standing in front of you, gulping up gobbets of gristle and unidentified matter. The rotten meat golem attempts to speak but cannot, only succeeding in rasping strange noises. You back away slowly in fear, the meat man advances; for what purpose? It is a ramshackle being, falling apart as it walks, but the sheer sight of it flares up as panic, compelling you to run, despite your utter despondency, your lack of a reason to care, you sprint away from the creature as it walks towards you, juices leaking onto the ground, creating channels in the layers of dust…

As you run, you spot a building to your right, a particularly run down construction, barely a shed, and slip through the door, immediately on the look-out, still hearing the slurping sound behind you somewhere as the golem drags himself with increasing speed towards you. Did he spot you? To your dismay a poorly formed hand immediately reaches around the door, flailing for a grip, and you back towards the corner of the structure, thinking of ways to avoid the meat man without directly engaging it, the door opens and two newly formed eyes gleam from crude sockets, barely holding their position and likely struggling to get even a solid visual. It walks, assuredly this time, towards you and grabs you by the arm, dragging you painfully out of the building. You look around and let out a muted cry.

Obelisks of meat tower over the landscape, barely holding together, slowly pulsating and expanding, tentacular limbs grasp onto each other forming lattices up which more meat climbs, forming heads, hands, shoulders, hearts, disembodied pieces of people and animals growing from the meat walls. Vaguely, a low chanting is heard, an unintelligible language amidst which the word rings out loud and clear, that awful word; Brexit. You see a circle, people dressed in meat, drinking from cups made of meat, enjoying themselves, a hideous carnival of meat. They speak some kind of strange patchwork of language, words known and unknown hastily glued in place and splurged out into space. Meat juice pools on the ground, and where it runs up sprout new forms, new walls and structures, but of meat. They instantly collapse into vast piles of rancid, awful meaty nothingness.

Better Dreams; Memories of Cyberpunk

“Don’t think of it that way” McClane said severely. “You’re not accepting second-best. The actual memory, with all it’s vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions – that’s second-best”

Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember it For You Wholesale

I recently, for whatever reason, decided on a whim to watch the 2012 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Schwarzenegger starring action blockbuster Total Recall, itself an adaptation of the Phillip K Dick short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale. While in some respects it is slightly less distracting than the Verhoeven film, Colin Farrell being slightly more believable as an everyman than the over-the-top action juggernaut of Schwarzenegger, in many other respects it is a pale and flaccid regurgitation, lacking both sci-fi heft and action effervescence.

In many of its tics this Total Recall feels like it belongs in the early 2000s in a kind of post-Blade Runner, post-Matrix continuum, seeming to ape both films in the appropriating of a cyberpunk dystopia now as well worn as the action-structure of its plot, and the paper-thin philosophical dallying worked into its themes. In this, however, it could exist no other time but now, a blockbuster trapped in its own PoMo referential purgatory, finding itself unable to muster any kind of modernist impulse besides a copy-pasted hall-of-fame, even giving into the screamingly obvious impulse of referencing the original Total Recall.

It becomes difficult to buy the typical PR spiel at release that it is more of a re-interpretation of the source material than a remake of the adaptation, especially when if anything the film generates yet more stages of removal from the story itself with its piecemeal appropriation of sci-fi cinema visuals, and even takes the disentangling of ambiguities of the political themes in the Verhoeven film further, really driving home our main character Quaid [notice that again the name Quail, much less forgiving on the male ego of our protagonist, is yet again hardened into the much more action-hero-suitable denomination applied to Schwarzenegger] as a heroic [flawed of course; “he can be a real ass”] political freedom-fighter, starkly set against Bryan Cranston’s Chancellor Cohaagen, who in his enthusiasm for international conflict and torture seems to be a rough caricature of bush administration neocon politics, missing the essential component of smiling “likeability” that accompanied it. Something that Hollywood films often seem to miss when presenting their neoconservative archetypes is the banality of their warmongering, that sense of thumbs up and a smile as the meat-grinder kills a few hundred people somewhere else in the world bonhomie. This duplicity would never have conceivably worked given the explicitly authoritarian visage of Cohaagen in the film.

The kind of warmed over political simplifications we receive here only become more notable when set against the Phillip K Dick story, which in contrast keeps the actual political motivations for any of its developments almost entirely ambiguous. Indeed the main question we are intended to take away from both Total Recalls [and I say intended as I’m not sure either really succeed in the reality-questioning they supposedly reach for.. it all comes across as far to telegraphed and obvious], whether the whole thing is simply an implanted memory itself, really doesn’t factor into the story at all in such a fashion, somewhat ironic as these are the main pretences both films make towards sci-fi credentials. Instead the focus is on the nature of memory and fantasy itself, the “Vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions” inherent to remembering something, and, by implication, inherent in how we experience the world.

This ambiguity, the partial nature of memory and experience, is something lacking in both films not in theme but in form. Just as one could say that Inception is a film that’s good at talking about dreams but not at representing them, Total Recall is good at mentioning the fallibility of memory without actually showing it meaningfully. The rote action film structure, built on the bare bones of a very short story indeed, forecloses any meaningful sense that what we are witnessing may not be real, the confusion simply acting as an explicit hint rather than an implication of the film itself. Dick’s story explores in many respects the unsettling idea that our memories are simply a simulacra, that is to say, that they an unreliable patchwork constructed of approximations, and that an actually imposed, artificial memory may be better than the real thing as it were. This is at least hinted at in the newer film, but this hint is immediately frustrated by the film’s need to throw us headlong into rather unexciting action set pieces for the rest of its duration.

“We need to get you some better dreams” says Quaid’s wife, played by Kate Beckinsale, towards the beginning of the film. The ultimate irony is that the film has nothing to offer in this regard, the dreams it offers are the same old dreams we’ve become used to, clad in the same old monotonous fabrics. Of course, Phillip K Dick was in every sense more than a simple sci-fi writer, his work toeing the line between speculative futures and psychedelic subversions constantly, even if the interests of commodification drive his work, much like J.G Ballard’s, out of its un-definition to be crammed into the sardine tins of bookshelf conformity. This is precisely what we see in this ultimate repackaging of the old cyberpunk standard, a tinned, vacuum packed reiteration with as much life as a nuclear desert. Its appeals ultimately rest upon our perception of culture becoming so fuzzy that the Blade Runner-Matrix dynamic just beds in as the best we can expect. This is particularly noteworthy when if anything the actual sequel to Blade Runner explored the theme of artificial memory much more effectively and, while not entirely empty of its past more often than not broke free of the cyberpunk-noir shackles of its legacy. Striking at something quite different in terms of theme and focus, it became that wonderful thing; a sequel that manages a re-imagining, a complete shift in perception within the same space. Total Recall on the other hand only musters a gutted out, empty vision of a future we’ve already seen.

We need to get ourselves some better dreams.

Brutal Fantasy

After recent visits to the Barbican centre in London, I’ve been left wondering what it is I find so uniquely compelling about it’s stark concrete geometry in direct contrast to the sleek contradictions of minimalism and ostentatious corporate sheen in the sprawl surrounding it. What makes these concrete abstractions better than those glass abstractions? Indeed Brutalism as a style has proved controversial, representing as it does something of a departure from ideas that buildings must be positive, welcoming spaces first and foremost, choosing instead to ostensibly [more on this in a minute] value utility and function, presenting a cold facade rather than a cosy idyll.

In fact, I think that the idea Brutalism represents some kind of stripping back of aesthetic is somewhat ill-judged, as any brief encounter with a brutalist monolith might make abundantly clear. They are cutting aesthetic statements through their commitment to an anti-aesthetic, in the same manner as the spiky experiments of post-punk were exciting musically precisely because of their departure from aesthetic norms of their cultural time and place. What we have in the alien forms of concrete in these structures is a negation of the sensible, an unseating of the comfortable. They arrive in the landscape like something utterly strange, but not, as it happens as visitations. They encapsulate something a little more uncanny, the unfamiliar within the familiar, the parasitic alien residing within the host.

Perhaps this is why Brutalism is commonly associated with failed Utopian socialist experiments, more than any explicit connection [which needless to say do exist]. Not only is there an attempt to use a common, banal material to produce strange, angular distortions in a different aesthetic dimension to both cosy homeliness and baroque flourishes, but we find a rehoming of the homely. In something of an inverse of Freud’s uncanny, the strange/unhomely within the familiar becomes the familiar situated within the strange. The banal surroundings of the home are assimilated into alien surroundings. This produces an interesting effect; the buildings reflect a kind of attempt to rethink social structure in their design, the concrete walkways, balconies and escarpments all tying into a unified vision of a communal space that stands in stark contrast to the open plan slabs and corporate minimalism of much contemporary architecture.

Of course Brutalist architecture stands today as something of a lost moment, symptomatic of many of the failed utopian experiments themselves, a place like the Barbican now exists as a kind of other-worldly reminder, an element of that ghostly residue of failed revolt that hangs over the present. The hauntological element of these structures today in no small part lends them power, that sense of lost possibility within their concrete walkways. Brutalism, as utopia, was a fantasy of the new, a grounding of the possibility of achieving something beyond, of an emerging outside, an alien bursting from the chest of the urban environment. This alien space, now foreclosed as a failure, a monument to what could have been, exists like a surreal temporal shift within that landscape. Emerging from the hyper-simulated labyrinth of smooth lines, incongruous shapes, brushed aluminium, reflection and stale corporate minimalism of postmodernist capitalism around it, the Brualist enclaves act as softly disquieting ruins, in the case of the Barbican acting as a cultural hub, in others simply lying abandoned or in disrepair, eerie monuments rather than living buildings.

So what becomes compelling about the Brutalist project, and it’s leftovers today, is the spectre of modernism they embody at a time when the futurist drives of modernism seem a distant memory, dissolving into a pool of PoMo reflexivity, ironic tricks and a distinct fear of the fantastic. If there’s anything that screams out of the tower blocks and minimalist apartments of the modern city, the building blocks of the overload, cybercapital given form, is an aesthetic realism. Where the geometric abstractions of Brutalism organise into a utopian symbolism, albeit one that lies forever beyond reach (walkways above the streets, buildings organised into a kind of grand communal living space) , the emptiness and functionalism one finds in, for example, the Shard, a phallic capitalist monolith on the London skyline, embodies much more a kind of foreclosure, the clean glass surfaces enclosing apartments, offices, endless repetitions and brands… a sleek, shimmering cage.

Something that is lacking in these structures, grand cathedrals to commerce, is any sense of a beyond, something to reach for beyond capital. The very top of a skyscraper is usually a huge status symbol, incredibly expensive and only procured by someone immensely successful under the rules of Capital. This is it, all there is. Don’t dare to dream beyond these metal girders, because there’s nothing up there…

What one finds by contrast within the forbidding concrete of Brutalism, as controversial and a matter of taste as they may be to many, is an attempt to imagine some kind of outside inside. It is suddenly possible within these structures to imagine something that isn’t confined by the blinding fug of Capital, something alien to the given natural order that forms of “realism” demand we lock into place as the underlying real governing our lives. Through the perhaps utopian folly of the concrete dream, we can rediscover a kind of sublimation, a rejection of the repeated refrain “be realistic”.

In the eerie, abandoned remnants of our dreams we find the echoes of the future.

Imagine a World like That…

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.

Ecological Antagonisms

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 Avataran 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.”

Emergent Cultural Realities – Part 1: Denaturalize!


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.

The Dead Hand; Altruism and Capitalism

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.

I say this because of course, he is completely wrong, as Jason Hickel points out in the Guardian;

” 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.

Scanning the Horizon

After the Mark Fisher memorial lecture from Jodi Dean, considering I’d recently picked up a copy of her book the Communist Horizon I decided to promptly give it a full read. Within it, while I found some points she had reiterated within the lecture, I found a wonderfully fleshed out analysis of the problems faced by the left, the loss of the communist horizon, as Dean puts it, to the static repetitions of drive.

In some ways it fits in quite nicely next to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism as an instalment in an ongoing push to revitalise left politics and pull it out of the stupor of the past few decades, if one with a greater focus on action and strategy. Much of the book is devoted to defining a collective subject, a focus on the we necessary to enact political change, navigating the impasses of fragmentation and individualism so characteristic to what Dean calls “Communicative capitalism” in tandem with its close ally neoliberalism. While she advocates throughout a unified collective effort, it would be amiss to define this as some call for people to simply converge into a like-minded singularity. Something she brings us back to around every corner is the constant presence of rupture and antagonism within groups, and eventually even within the individual subject themselves.

This is a point I think rings out all the more as left movements are fragmenting everywhere, unable to tackle their own differences. Antagonism, between the lack of the subject and the lack of capital, between subjects, are everywhere we look, and yet people are capable of acting with unified purpose. The key observation to maintain is this, one that Dean reiterates from Lukacs, that a collective common desire distracts from, but does not erase antagonisms, that the form remains incomplete rather than a perfect whole. There is no “united” collective in a true sense, but while this tempts us to move towards Hardt & Negri’s approach, the ever-changing multitude, Dean is correct in her criticisms that this forms a collective that is too disparate and ill-defined to really enact the change it seeks. The multitude might sound lovely and inclusive, and yet it doesn’t really have the pointed gaze towards a common horizon that is needed.

A good example in a sense, whether it exactly lines up or not, are the recent riots in France, and the “yellow vests” movements that originated from them. They are a clear case against the collective as multitude, as after a certain point nobody could work out what was being fought for and everybody appeared to be angry about their own pet issue. There was no abstract horizon to tie it all together besides an outpouring of anger. This lines up somewhat with Hardt & Negri’s conception of communism as an imminence within society, and yet it does not. All that happened was anger without a point, a goal. What’s more, the fact that this was a “movement” so open that anyone with a chip on their shoulder could claim it as their own eventually led it to dissipate and become equally appropriated by right wing and left wing groups with entirely different aims. In its founding around the precepts of individual concern the yellow vest phenomenon was a miserable failure even as it made clear the amount of resentment bubbling away beneath the surface of society.

What was painfully evident from these riots is that people were angry and wanted to change things but from this point had no clear idea of what they were angry at or how to change it. What Dean points out was present in the occupy movement, a clear antagonism based in class struggle; the 99% vs the 1%, and a tactic in order to amplify this antagonism, was nowhere to be seen on the streets of France last year. The communist horizon as something to direct our desire towards on the left is in some respects works past this by ensuring that whatever each individuals grievance, a common direction and foundation for strategy is in place.

Something that is confronted consistently, and that Dean is highly critical of, is the lapse of left wing desire into drive, a banal repetitious approach mired in aestheticism [politics as commodity, as a t shirt, an instagram bio, a fashion] and inaction. Protest becomes something people do not out of genuine wish for change, but as a limp, ineffectual gesture designed to prolong the protest itself. All the symbols of political resistance are reduced to pictures on a mood board, shorn of power and rendered mere commodity like everything else, subsumed into capital. Political action then has little to do with politics, merely becoming communication, PR, eventually lapsing into melancholy.

So to rediscover the communist horizon … it is a matter not of devising a specific state formulation as many automatically assume as soon as the term communist is invoked [During the first part of the book Dean addresses the many issues with conflating communism with the specific historical configuration of the USSR, or even Stalinism], but re-asserting a collective desire for collectivity and drawing out the means to enact that desire. In the throes of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism we are repeatedly told of our autonomy as individuals, that each of us is responsible for ourselves and that, in Thatcher’s words “There is no such thing as society” and it is difficult not to argue that we are now waist deep in the quicksand of that ideology. What is required is the organised collective, not just because everything we are told pushes against it, but because by ourselves it will be impossible to pull ourselves out again.