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.

How Many Have we Lost Due to Our Failure to Treat them as Comrades?

“The thing that men and women need to do is stick together 
Progressions can’t be made if we’re separate forever”

A Tribe Called Quest – Verses from the abstract

This line, delivered by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on their most remarkable work the Low End Theory, came to me over the weekend as encapsulating something of the energy and the thrust of solidarity behind Jodi Dean’s insightful and provocative instalment of the Mark Fisher memorial lecture this year. This seemingly simple observation; that unless we put our heads together despite differences, engage with each other in tandem, working towards a future becomes impossible. Mark Fisher recognised that such sentiment must be expressed anew in a contemporary left climate where we are all at each others throats, where we seem incapable of formulating a coherent movement through a haze of individualist moralising and comfortable aestheticism.

It is this observation that got Fisher into a good deal of hot water with his piece Exiting the Vampire Castle, one of those “controversial” pieces of writing that managed to demonstrate through its reactions exactly the problems it outlined; namely the devolution of left politics into fractured, knee-jerk, individualist identities and the undermining of class and comradeship as abstractions that cut across subjective differences and backgrounds. This is precisely why I was glad that Jodi Dean used this piece as a central reference for her lecture, a quote from its finishing lines projected behind her as she spoke, and also potentially why the lecture attracted its fair share of bad faith questions from the room, the Q&As in part seeming to resemble an attack on Dean as well as the usual trumpeting of Ego.

That the call for a rediscovery of Comradeship [the word “comrade” taking pride of place here, and forming the backbone of an exploration of the decline of the symbolic through Doris Lessing’s novel the Golden Notebook] provokes such a backlash from certain elements of left wing politics appears precisely to demonstrate the disparate mess that it becomes, exacerbated by the rampant individualist circus of social media, revolving around “me”, “I”, a pre-copernican system of people all convinced that I don’t need anyone else, that know better, that it is the individual action and moral character that in all essences precedes the collective purpose.

Throughout Dean’s lecture, titled “Capitalism is the End of the World” I made connections in the back of my mind to my recent piecing together, gradually, of Spinoza and his relevance to politics, something I came to via Fisher himself. The importance of collective solidarity to political action rang out loud and clear throughout as she moved from discussing capitalist realism towards the breakdown of meaning in lieu of the aftermath of communism. The connecting tissue to Spinoza here was the generating of joy, that being the ways in which we increase our power of knowing and acting within the world, and how this is increasingly difficult if not impossible the more we isolate ourselves from others, the more we regress into a Hermit-like existence, eschewing interaction with others for the solace of our own pod-like brains.

This is in essence the individualised atomization of social life we see under Neoliberalism seen as the “eclipse of class consciousness” on the modern left. Indeed this is where contentions lie, when Capitalist Realism moves from being a general attitude to what Dean here made sure to emphasise, as Fisher did in Vampire Castle, as a pathology and a fatalism of the left. I have no doubt that this focus on the acquiescence to anti-communism, to neoliberal dogmas of the individual, to the idea that there is no alternative, as a problem so specifically encountered on the left ruffled more than a few feathers. The ultimate discomfort is when you read a critique of an attitude and a voice at the back of your head starts saying “shit, that’s me”. The criticisms Fisher presented then and Dean reframed here seemed to hit a bit too close to home for many, but this only makes them all the more prevalent at a time when the very-online left is intent on tearing itself to shreds at every turn. As Dean phrased it; “If we see enemies everywhere there is no side”.

I haven’t yet moved on to discuss the positive vision of communism Dean presented, one that I will admit has nearly won me over to the term Communism itself, more than its admittedly rather hum-drum alternative post-capitalism, a term that it always struck me was used more due to a concession to re-definition without really alighting upon anything satisfactory. Dean throughout much of the lecture vehemently stood by her own position that to try and invent some new terminology gave in to the PR game of capital, and everything that we envision is already there in communism, that to invent some other term is ultimately to abandon that vision. Indeed “post-capitalism” seems so unsatisfactory because of the lack of implied vision, the prefix “post” merely implying “after”, thus never really giving us a solid idea of what we are aiming at. Communism is a word that immediately encapsulates a communal future, and it is a mistake to simply leave it in the dust and let its image be permanently damned by a few men.

The lecture was an example, like Marks work, of everything left politics needs, and though extremely well attended, not enough people can lend their ears to what Jodi Dean has to say. To envision a better world may be something that in the eyes of many, cynics, pessimists and liberals alike, becomes this silly, petty thing; “pah, you silly little fool, daring to think you could actually improve the situation”, the communist, acting as a comrade to others becomes an aesthetic, a meaningless picture on a flag, a patch of red cloth. As Dean explored in Lessing’s work, poltical work dissolves and a shared language is lost. Everything devolves into the trilogy of individualism, aestheticism, and moralism. the mind and the collective disintegrate, the parts less than the whole, the whole now a distant fantasy.

This depressing reality is that also described by Fisher in Capitalist Realism, where the dream of communism, of something beyond what we have becomes routinely dismissed in a dull ritualistic everyday descent into the quotidian, political action merely something people laugh, sigh, or twitch at after the dopamine hit of a notification on a smartphone. It is now, where we see the cracks in the facade and the collapse of the boring dystopia, where we see a potential resurgence of belief in something more.

The main takeaway from the lecture was an emphasis on the importance of comradeship. How many have have we lost due to our failure to treat them as comrades? This does not mean, as Dean emphatically said during the Q&A, that justice for wrongdoing goes out of the window, merely that it is important for us to acknowledge that people change, and that we should be more willing to allow people a path back to the movement, not to simple “cancel” individuals for good once they say something slightly out of line, the credo of the twitter call-out, the social media whirlpool of knee jerk and absolutist moral judgements which forms the heart of so much modern politicizing.

It was stirring stuff, despite her concession that her deeply apocalyptic framing of capitalism may not have made anyone feel good about themselves, and the lecture left off on distinctly positive sentiments. It may have been divisive to some, but the message of comradeship, of abstract political belonging, is one that feels apt to any emancipatory desire, for how can we hope to get anything done if we hole up inside our cocoons, so assured of our importance as individuals? To create we must act, to act we must think we act, and to act and think effectively we must think and act relationally. We must in Spinozist terms generate encounters of joy, and to do this we must work together, as Comrades, not as the mythic hero acting alone to save the planet. For the collective is the embodiment of action, the action of embodiment. It seems like a painfully obvious point, but it is when we act for and with others that may reach for the communist horizon and find our way out of the murk of Capitalism.

Sex Education and Capitalist Spacio-temporal Collapse

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Have you ever felt out of time and place? I did, while watching Netflix’s recent series Sex Education. As a dramatized exploration of awkward teenage sexual discovery it is, well pretty serviceable, even well done, if it does rely upon exaggerated stereotypes to get its points across in many instances. It is admittedly a step above some of the other misfiring attempts to do the same thing in recent years; that said something that stood out above all this while watching it, having decided to give it a go on a whim, was the luridly surreal disjuncture of the setting.

Immediately, like many viewers in Britain I would wager, I noticed something incredibly strange. While ostensibly it takes place in England, and everyone in the show speaks with a British accent of some kind, the setting of the school seemed to be screaming american high school at me. We here had all the known stereotypes of the american high school drama, the jock, the nerd, the angry outsider, the bully… you get the picture, and multitudes of details within the show merely accentuated this, from the american football to the clothes people wear.

And it goes further; numerous times in the show I asked myself when it was actually supposed to taking place. While certain aspects of it seem to communicate a contemporary setting, others seem to flit about between the 70’s, 80s, other distinct time periods. As it went on, the show embodied not just a spacial disconnect, but a spacio-temporal one. The setting was multiple folded into one, some mash-up of now, then, here there that created a strangely disorientating effect, further amplified by the strange absence of references to an outside world [as one might reasonably expect to filter into the teenage experience]. Not only is the world of Sex Education one where multiple times and places can be found in one location, the location itself appears to exist in some bubble, removed from the comings-and-goings of any country beyond its walls. People arrive, people leave, but outside the strangely indistinct environs of Sex Education, somehow achieved despite obviously shooting on location in multiple instances, there appears to be no communication.

Believe it or not, the makers of the show weren’t actually trying to create some strange Lynchian dream-space, this is the material interests of capital at play. Gillian Anderson, who stars, talked about the purposeful decisions made in an interview, and that it was a purposeful attempt to make a British show that would appeal to the huge American market. Regarding the strange incongruities of the setting, perhaps heightened by the realism the show shoots for in other areas, it was hoped seemingly that “Americans wouldn’t notice”.  Indeed the strange intermingling of settings is probably noticeable largely to anyone who has experienced the British education system.

The setting of Sex Education then, encapsulates the folding of capital, the singular cutting and pasting of time and place that occurs when one can walk into the same shop on two different sides of the planet and buy the same product. The British sixth form becomes the american high school and vice versa, every high street becomes the same high street, every cultural object has the same reference points, a universal patchwork of repeated cultural touchstones repeated ad nauseam. Combined with the temporal confusion and we have a product redolent of Jameson’s postmodernism, the collapse of historicity and a culture of nostalgic repetition under the stretching, abducting and re-configuring construct of capitalist desire. It is something that is only heightened by the move to streaming platforms, the shrinking of the planet not only via transport but via the interlinking of cultural objects, the object of desire becoming a singularity of one-sides-fits-all cultural interface, where all become one and one becomes all.

This is by no means the first instance of this, but Sex Education simply provides me with the most obvious example to date, where the utterly surreal quality of the breakdown of difference and the folding of space and time in fiction when considered outside of the shows purpose and context resemble a Phillip K Dick story. It a simulacrum of a place we all have in our heads, we all see as real, but doesn’t actually exist. It is real as a disparate connection of pop-culture references, representing a pulling together and blending of various things we recognize from countless shows, films, books and other artifacts. This is largely in fact extended to the characters themselves, who I mentioned earlier resemble exaggerated stereotypes. Like the setting of the show, these aren’t people, but pieces of other people we know from other fictional references pulled together into a collage. Peel back the layer of Sex Education and you find only more cultural references, as far back as it goes.

This is not, despite appearances, dismissing Sex Education as something worth watching entirely, but despite it being well made and written in many regards there was a distinct feeling dogging the whole show for me, a constant reminder that none of this was real. It exists in some capitalist hyperspace, suspended in the collective consumer fish tank, perfectly assembled, filed off, sanded, polished… designed for purpose and beauty, but strangely devoid of its own identity.

Noise/Fire

anti-oedipusI recently went to see the band Algiers, having had a bit of a long sabbatical over the past year or so from live music tied into my own struggle with the void and related correlates. This was the kind of firecracker of a concert that frankly puts a lot of other turgid re-animations of the past to shame, from one of the most vital bands of our time.

Algiers are a band that I’ve found difficult to accurately summarise to people who ask what kind of music they play. I usually say something to the tune of “well it’s kind of gospel/post-punk/industrial” and this never fails to feel like a disservice to what the band achieves, pulling together disparate influences organically into what feels like a genuinely new sound, something that feels far from the usual retreads of past moments and breaks through into a new reality, capturing through its anguished howls the paranoia, anger and resentment of the current political climate. They marry a political vitality and strength of feeling with sounds that feel just as exciting, just as important. Any trite cross genre explanation I might give on a whim to anyone asking what kind of music they play is bound to fall short of all that.

Algiers are one of those groups that feel like a much needed blowing away of dust. The tired decrepit old avatars of indie/classic rock going through motions and limply gesturing at the crowd through a lens of utter disinterest, the mire of conservative, dull new-averse rock bands putting out the same record for the last 20 years, the hangers on of Brit Pop, the revivals. Beyond these fusty relics re-enacting questionable scenes of youth nostalgia for a youth that never was, one reaches a space where the musical landscape opens up, where re-invention becomes the order of the day. And so it is with a band such as Algiers, who arrive as rock re-formed, the pieces still there but arranged in an alien way, their politics more than a vague gesture and more a fully formed battering ram.

It’s true that their influences call back to that which came before. Lead Vocalist Franklin James Fisher’s background in Gospel shines out full and clear, a clarion call over the industrially tinged rhythms, and stabs of noisy guitar, recalling the fury and the experimentalism of punk and post-punk’s most daring moments. The synthesis of these elements however is what proves so utterly compelling, on their first self-titled album and even more-so on their second, The Underside of Power. Algiers are not a band that are here to give you a warmed over repetition of something you know, they aren’t interested in comforting you, or even I would say in making you feel good about the world. Their performance is a call to action of sorts, a roaring reminder of the injustices of the world and a powerful sucker-punch to the emotional centre. Compared to the constant rotation of unexciting indie bands singing vaguely melodic songs about love, Algiers strike an imposing figure, replete with fire and noise, with Utopian desire and purpose.

What I found in the twisted gospel thunderstorm in a converted church, was a convergence of struggles, a universal call to arms that while deeply resonant with the racial paranoias of the American south, the oppression of the underclasses everywhere, only really makes allusions to specific political causes in the lyrics, which importantly encompass a sense of political potency that is felt across the world. There’s no explicit anti-Trump anthem here, but the blood pumping urgency nonetheless remains, simply disconnected from any spacio-temporal specificity, standing in form as a manifesto of raging emotion rather than a direct political screed against any political party or individual. This is political music, protest music in fact, but it captures in its energy something deeper than the problems of the present, becoming the conjuring of anger, of resentment, of hope.

On the Virus

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A central conceit of Ridley Scott’s poorly executed return to the Alien franchise was the existence of what many have jokingly referred to as the black goo. This strange substance becomes a recurring theme throughout the bloated mess of backstory in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but if we are to look at the better of the two films [though it is still replete with rather tired biblical references and questionable writing] Prometheus, the black substance takes on something of an interesting role. The film’s best scene is its first, wherein an engineer, this supposed superhuman alien race, seems to imbue some of the strange black substance, upon which we see strands of DNA dissolving and recombining as the humanoid alien falls into the waterfall, body decomposing. The strange liquid is speculated in the film to be some kind of biological weapon, and is seen to be working in the manner of a virus, infecting the DNA of the host and dismantling/reassembling it in some way. In Covenant, the end effects of the substance appears to transform it into a rather uninteresting tool of mass destruction, although its actual effect and purpose becomes rather muddled, but if we focus in on its warping, changing capabilities, it becomes a far more interesting beast.

One of the crew members in Prometheus, having taken some of the black goo into his system, returns a horrifically mutated beast with superhuman strength, and it is here the namesake of the film becomes apparent, the promethean aspiration in the form of an insidious virus, realigning blood and flesh into something else, changing the underlying structure of our biology and transforming us. The black goo as a tool of destruction and rebirth. In Prometheus of course this rebirth has horrific consequences, but is this in effect not the very same action as that proposed by radical politics? Is the aim not, when looked at in stark terms, to realign the very DNA of material society? The alien virus destroys and rebuilds in the same way as an ecosystem, constantly shifting, realigning and adapting in reaction to its inside and outside components, constantly engaged in the process of falling apart and coming back together, an unending process that belies the fixed identities projected onto its mutative surface.

Identity is an incoherent babbling monster, consistently and violently rending itself to shreds, down to the connecting tissue, that which melds and connects, thrives in direct contact and sticky disharmony. This is in some sense why the language of the machine is no longer sufficient to describe the multitude that forms us. While on one hand we and all around us are governed by connection, cause/effect, lines of communication, forming a sprawling computing network, and in this sense we can grasp the basics of programming matter, on the other, if we take a detour we must realise that the complexity of these forms exceed any of our machinic enterprises in sheer weirdness and abstraction. For now, the common understanding of the machine, the robot, the android, is something that on a basic level has a creator. It requires a sophisticated intelligence, usually pooled intelligences, to come into being, and whats more these intelligences must purpose themselves towards the creation of the machine, applying a certain concerted objectivity to the affair, and cementing the limitations of the machine itself.

Ideas of Cyborg are key here not because of their framing of the organic as artificial, or the artificial as organic, but both of these things. Organic=artificial=organic=artificial. In this sense if we look at the Virus we find a key example of a term that encompasses both, viruses. in linguistic terms, infect both other organisms and computers, and so if we link the two uses of the word we bridge the gap between us and the machine and perhaps find encompassed the sticky difference and consistent linkages between the two, the advent of posthuman ecologies.

In discussing the virus in these terms, I wish to avoid two distinct attitudes. The trap of vitalism, of placing into the world some kind of unverifiable “life-force”, and the inverse trap of on-brand-nihilism; by this I mean a kind of thinking that falls back on tired and uninteresting observations regarding lack of meaning, that often comes across more like a teenager who has just discovered existentialism than any kind of creative or valuable interjection into thought. It often seeks to unsettle and yet only ever succeeds in boring me with its ceaseless repetition of banal nihilistic observations of the most shallow variety; tackling the seething underbelly of the seemingly idyllic surface of an ecosystem is far more than a simple acknowledgement of the void, or violence, or even chaos. It is all of these things and more, not necessarily at the same time, but connected in some way, links in an ongoing chain expanding outwards in consistent realignment. This is again, lest anyone read into this more than I’m saying, not some questionable assignment of transcendential forces linking everything, but is something I would conceptualize as a far more materialist phenomenon, something inherent in the dynamics of matter, and something that doesn’t need some pseudo-spiritual vitality to drive it. It is neither a drive to life, nor to death … even to describe it as a drive at all belies its fundamental material nature.

In this sense, I want to return to the virus not as something inherently generating death, nor as something representative of some underlying life but as a process devoid of explicit moral connotation. We tend to fear the virus, something that has taken on connotations, quite understandably, of disease and death, of breakdown. A computer virus an invasive code that breaks down our doors and puts our digital identity at risk, and the organic virus an invasive bacteria entering our bodies and causing havoc within our complex systems. The virus in both instances is defined as an invader, but it is also important to note the difference in effect of different viral organisms, in severity/specific area/direct effect/lingering effect/infectiousness etc … and in this sense, when conceptualising the intervention in human societies, the political movement as a virus, a collective organism spreading itself through, it emphasises the importance of effect, the directness of action as the definition of new societies.

As we move across some kind of threshold into what may be some disconcerting no mans land of unknown potentials it remains important to consider exactly what we want to achieve, the direction in which we want to programme the virus, how exactly we want to infect the body, disrupt its antibodies as they tirelessly transform production and desire into the reanimation of maggot-riddled corpses, the army of the dead to ward off the tendrils of ruination. It becomes increasingly necessary to organise movements beyond the limitations of human quantities, to map out into uncharted territories and move forward as a virus might move into the body of a host, utilizing the parasitic nature of our capital driven ontologies and twisting it into itself, an act of sheering off the branches to encourage new growth, of redirecting the flows of viral infection.

The theme of shifting identity, destroying and regrowing, and the indifferent mutative qualities of the ways the organic combines, recombines and changes itself according to an unpredictable logic lies at the centre of Jeff Vandermeer’s weird fiction tour de force Annihilation and its film adaptation. New growth from self-destruction, the horrific confrontation with the serene, unsettling twisted nature of the unknown, the infection of the land using the latent possibilities within it, collecting, melding, utilizing thoughts, memories, attributes, features, and re-organising them.

This disease, knowing nothing of moral fortitude or transcendential human logics, must operate quite apart from our anthropoid assumptions, a cold entity moving with undecipherable purpose. The virus is the rational disconnect from our assumptions, the affect-action realignment of causes using the inside to encourage outside growth. The logic of the virus is the rediscovery of a lost coldness and negativity, long subsumed by the new-age creative wallpaper paste dynamic of unbridled affirmation. It moves past the language of thanatos, death, the machine, past the virile subjective male libido, the organic/synthetic distinctions, towards a direct engagement with the nullity of reality and the succession of affects that drive it. The virus is the organism moving and changing with a predetermined agency within a causal universe, and so it becomes the potentials of systematic political realignment, the negation of social systems as a strengthening of ecosystem rather than utter destruction.

By all this I don’t mean to propose a distinct system, by no means do I suggest to form some new political movement; “the virus manifesto” – yes, we haven’t had quite enough pointless manifestos recently already [see “hopepunk”, “vitalist manifesto” et al], but as a blogging mechanism I found it useful to expand my thoughts around a certain organism/structure, and how this might pertain to political realities. Certainly I wish to avoid the traps I mentioned earlier, and to focus on somewhat dialectic syntheses instead of utter resignation, collapse-porn or their opposite blind affirmations and new-agey appeals to essential creativity. I may expand on these thoughts in the future, although not necessarily via the framing device of the virus. It is important, moreso now than it has been at any point in the 21st century to consider the future with a lens of possibility, and this means straying away from the empty pathways of “love over hate” or moral proselytising that have proven so utterly ineffectual, and looking for new exits.

The 2018 End of Year Hole

2018 draws to a close, the chattering storm clouds gathering at its edge announcing its eventual dissipation. Swarms of insects shift and stream through the gap between now and then, probosces prod and tremble in response to viscous stimuli, the temporal current bubbling from further, deeper indices. Data, folding and multiplying, copying and expanding, exploding and mutating, shattering and penetrating, tearing and shuddering. Turning in on itself, the corpus of social chains rots into new forms, dissolves and rebuilds structures within the real, extending tentacular feelers into spongey substances. The links in the chain become open doors.

CLARIFICATIONS

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Before I list some things proper, I feel it necessary to clarify the context of this entire list. 2018 was a hell of a strange year for me, one characterised by massive, in some sense violent change; to such an extent that in truth it only feels like it started halfway through. It was the year in which I abandoned my prior pretence of being an unbridled cynic, a disillusioned political centrist, and someone I really didn’t want to be, governed by an increasingly depressive cloud from which I attempted to shield myself via pathetic projections of certainty and blinkered ignorance. I shed the mask of the miserable bastard and found somewhere that I’m actually a Utopian at heart, finding, through some of the things I shall list below, something entirely new but difficult to solidly define. The disillusionment didn’t disappear, it’s simply that I found that continuing to press on despite it was more gratifying than my previous approach of simply giving in and wallowing in the mud of failure. The pushing against obstacles, the overcoming of hurdles, is something I can’t help but think defines not humanity per se, but matter itself. The structure of matter is constant straining, pushing, the paths of resistance, overcome or worked around. This is all why this list will prove a little open ended, including a few things I haven’t finished, or even that I’ve only just started on… 2018 only really got going for me relatively late in the game, and towards its end has been a veritable avalanche of new discoveries. Without further ado, I’ll get the ball rolling.

THOMAS PYNCHON – GRAVITY’S RAINBOW

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Gravity’s Rainbow blew the doors open. I’m not even sure I read to the end, I think I did, and I can’t remember starting, though I know I spent a good month and a bit more buried in this whirlwind of obscene profundities. It had the effect of violently tearing me from my slumber, unfolding the spacio-temporal disjuncture of my condition at the time. The structure of this fable, a careening arc of sexual absurdities, octopuses, a giant adenoid, all coming to a point of eschaton and obsession, pulling apart reality at its seams. It acted on me as a kind of molecular insurrectionist book, seeding itself in my mind and proceeding to shift the boundaries of my thought in a torrent of things I’d never encountered before, an experimental barrage of the unknown with one sweep tearing asunder the thrones of yore and setting in place an oscillating fleshy blob of matter to rule the kingdom on their stead. I intend to further explore Thomas Pynchon’s work, I have an unread copy of Mason & Dixon sitting on my shelf and the Crying of Lot 49 calls out to me, but Gravity’s Rainbow as an event was for me a wormhole of possibilities and a strategically placed bomb.

GHOST – PREQUELLE

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“It’s not metal!” they cried, clutching their copies of Opus Eponymous. They’re right, it’s not, but it’s long been obvious that Ghost’s aspirations didn’t lie in being a pure metal outfit for a long time, and in truth what I find so compelling about the band is their commitment to their cheesy, over the top theatrical stylings. What makes it more than just surface level sheen though is their ability to construct an absolutely wonderful pop song, see Dance Macabre, and refreshingly overblown Ballad in See the Light. They do away with the insistance that everything must be serious, sad, dour and inject some much needed fun into the modern rock landscape, fun here not intending to lessen their serious intent as a band, but to encapsulate a certain rediscovery of the limits of aesthetic expression that in its current iteration on Prequelle finds Ghost traversing a distinct emotional catharsis that lodged the album firmly into my brain for the better part of this year. It’s not metal but is is Ghost, in all their costumed glory.

MARK FISHER – CAPITALIST REALISM

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[See also “Terminator v Avatar: Notes on Accelerationism”] I can’t actually remember where I found Mark Fisher’s essay Terminator v Avatar now, but I don’t find it hyperbolic to say reading it changed my life, as has the rest of Fisher’s work, and it caused me to immediately order Capitalist Realism on impulse, something I usually avoid entirely. If Gravity’s Rainbow blew open the doors, Capitalist Realism gave form to the seething energy beyond them. What I found in Terminator V Avatar was a concise but incredibly formulated piece on the follies of an anti-capitalist appeal to the past, this wish to return to a more “primitive” time, to live of the land, being fully assimilated into capitalist infrastructure, illustrated via looking at James Cameron’s Avatar as an embodiment of this capitalist drive to re-assimilate its own opposition. In Capitalist Realism I found one of the most effective accounts of the Capitalist apparatus I’d read, Fisher’s titular concept making sense of so much of the world around me, and again shifting the boundaries of my perception in a significant realignment. Beyond this, Fisher’s work has helped me immensely, grounded me from a state of drifting apprehension, and without it I wouldn’t have started this very blog. I won’t ramble on too much here, but Fisher finally led me to something resembling my own position, and has been something of a revelation not only in terms of my ongoing interests in philosophy and theory, but in my sense of political vitality and urgency, re-awakening a sense of potential new realities I had long given up on. Read Capitalist Realism if you haven’t already, it’s very short and well worth the few hours it’ll take.

JULIA HOLTER – AVIARY

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The prospect of new Julia Holter is always an unexpected joy, but the vast expanse of Aviary confounded my expectations in the most delightful way, unravelling on first listen into an experimental cacophonous space redolent of its title, seeming to reflect the weirding of the modern world in its creation of an entire sonic ecosystem. At times it screams and wails, at others it echoes, it breathes softly, all these sounds merging into each other and flowing across the bedrock, eventually forming a vast lake teeming with life. It’s long and winding, at times forms fractured rapids and whirlpools, but the separate parts connect into a sublime organism, organic and shifting in tone and mood. It is I suppose a much more difficult, abstract release than her previous album, but in this lies some of her most ethereally beautiful compositions, and if one can spend the time on it, Aviary is one of the most impressive musical projects of the year, one that manages to weave together teeming multitudes into a coherent expression of musical catharsis.

DELEUZE & GUATTARI – ANTI-OEDIPUS

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Disclaimer: I haven’t actually finished reading this yet, I’m just enjoying my time with it too much to pass up mentioning it here. Beyond its rather toothless and vapid interpretations one might find in universities, the Academy’s full tendency to shave the edges off the theory it tackles on display, Deleuze and Guattari present a truly radical work here [I would argue still today] the primary purpose of which is to ask why we wish for our own domination. In other words, this is, as Foucault expresses in his preface to the book, an anti-fascist work, not just on a structural level, but on a molecular level, taking aim at the tendencies of psychoanalysis to defer to control, to institution and tradition via Oedipus, and formulating capital as that which necessarily represses desire. The mistake some make is to think that D/G are presenting either a model, or a symbolic/metaphorical picture with this book. This is to rob their ideas of power, and as they make perfectly clear throughout the book, they are simply not talking in metaphor. The insistence of academics to time and again reduce powerful ideas to a purely imaginary gesture is consistently infuriating. With Anti-Oedipus in particular, while they no doubt use imagery to illustrate their ideas, the ideas themselves are real. When they think in terms of multiplicity, when they say “making love is not just becoming as one, or even two, but becoming as a hundred thousand” this is exactly what they mean. Every time we reduce these statements down to nothing but poetics we turn D/G into a shell of their potential. Taken as a book intended to have real effect upon the world, not just as a theoretical vaguery designed to be dissected in a lecture theatre somewhere, Anti-Oedipus is a remarkable work, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it in the future and to tackling the rather more daunting scale of A Thousand Plateaus.

WIDOWS

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My big question going into this film was “Can McQueen really keep this up?”. The man hasn’t directed a film that’s been anything less than incredible, and I’m happy to report Widows did not break that streak, a heist film on the surface that really digs deep into the social and political surroundings of everyone involved. Not a single character didn’t work, all contributing to the sense of place and political decay in the setting of Chicago, all the parts of the film operating in organic synthesis to paint a picture in the strongest terms, of being forced into a situation through no fault of ones own, of being at the whim of an abstract structure that has anything but your best interests in mind. It’s maybe not quite the stark and uncompromising statement that 12 Years a Slave was, but in its own ambitions it excels, upending the genre standards of heist stories with the greatest attention paid to the emotional resonance of each individual character’s situation. He did it again, this is another must-watch.

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

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Confession: I’d never seen a Lynne Ramsey film before I saw this one on the strength of what I’d heard about it. On the strength of this I intend to rectify this situation. Joaquin Pheonix tends to be excellent, so that his performance here fits this description isn’t necessarily a surprise, but Ramsey’s direction really hits home regarding the existential instability of his character, the non-existence of his being. What’s noteworthy about the film’s approach to violence is its uncompromising focus on the aftermath rather than the action itself. The actual heat-of-the-moment combat, the brutality, dissolves into a heap of bodies on the floor, blood pooling, the psychological torment…

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE

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Despite this show’s occasional use of cheap scare tactics [though it mostly steers clear of the depressingly familiar twee scary tropes of contemporary horror, preferring to stick to the genuinely unsettling building of atmosphere] it stuck with me, going into some deep psychological territory via a loose adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. Each of the main characters serve as our guides through their own trauma, their own struggle to come to terms with the events of their childhood in a way that transcends the usually rather dull “horror as metaphor for psychology” set-up, something that usually just makes me curse the writer’s inability to have faith in their creation, to become a legitimately stirring existential poem of grief, addiction, empathy and memory.

MANDY

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Nicolas Cage engaged in a chainsaw battle. That caught your attention? Nicolas Cage lighting a cigarette from a flaming severed head. That? This is to sell the film short though. It’s much more than just a “Nicolas Cage goes mad” kind of film, pulling together some of the most visceral and colourfully violent scenes I saw this year as as well as featuring a soundtrack by the late Johann Johannsson, a growling, drone-metal inspired descent into hell. The first half of the film is even a surprisingly slow build up to the second half’s utter insanity. It won’t be for everyone, but Mandy is a remarkable film in many ways.

SUSPIRIA

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Now here’s a film everyone definitely didn’t love. Opinions on Luca Guadagnino’s re-imagining of Dario Argento’s horror classic varied from “masterpiece” to “total garbage”. I will concede that the film is probably too long and over-the-top in many ways, but if I’m being entirely honest this exactly why I loved it. The sheer ambition here, the political overtones of the film, and moments of pure body horror [seriously don’t watch this over dinner] won me over in the best way possible, so when I’d finished watching this film I felt like I’d just greedily devoured a large meal and didn’t regret it one bit, even if it was a tad rich.

FIRST MAN

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Having been significantly moved by Chazelle’s previous two films Whiplash and La La Land, I took an interest in First Man on the basis of this alone, and what I got was again what could have been a flaccid, stifled historical drama transformed into an emotionally affecting exploration of grief, waste of life, being caught in a process you can’t control. On top of this, no film about space travel I’ve seen has more effectively captured the feeling of hurtling through the atmosphere in a small metal box held together with bolts. Elements of this film were like a cinematic immersion tank in how intimate the cinematography was and how Chazelle cleverly eschewed the many wide open space shots that are so tempting when making a film like this. A wonderful film in many ways compounded by a masterful soundtrack yet again from Justin Hurwitz. Oh and lest I forget to mention it, Ryan Gosling IS a good actor, he’s excellent here as Armstrong, and I won’t hear any different.

STAR TREK – THE ORIGINAL SERIES

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Having set myself the task of watching more Trek, having seen frankly shockingly few episodes of it over the years, I decided this year to systematically go through the original series, and despite it being dated in some aspects, looking clearly of its time and the occasional story element really showing its age, I was surprised at how well this series still resonates. It says something to the characters that despite the fact that I know they’re not really at risk and nothing looks quite convincing I still became invested in their fates. Many of the moral quandaries and SF concepts here, while executed around a low budget, are excellent and legitimately fascinating. Of course for various production reasons the third series is … patchy, but I can enthusiastically recommend the first two as wonderful period sci-fi pieces that despite the years of pastiche, ridicule and more still hold their own.

ANNIHILATION [BOOK AND FILM]

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Last, but definitely not least, are both Alex Garland’s film Annihilation and the book upon which it is based, by Jeff Vandermeer. When I originally saw the film, I’m ashamed to admit I was not in the right state of mind to appreciate it, my mind fogged for a number of reasons, so it took a second watch to really cement the film for me as a truly wonderful piece of modern SF/Horror, a film that treads ground I can remember few other films in recent memory touching, bar perhaps Under the Skin, and containing visual and conceptual intrigue far beyond even what Garland’s last Ex Machina [a film I also rather enjoyed, but one with a far greater stamp from its influences] achieved, via some utterly hair raising set pieces and leading towards a conclusion that is stunningly beautiful and uniquely disturbing in idea and execution, exploring the breaking down of identity and self destruction in profound ways.

Much, much more recently, a few days from when I’m writing this in fact, I finally read Jeff Vandermeer’s book, the first in his “Southern Reach” trilogy, and found myself enthusiastically engrossed in its pages, devouring a novel in a way I hadn’t experienced for some time. The book itself, while hitting some similar themes to the film, is a different beast in many ways, unfolding in a strangely dreamlike manner apropros the constant questioning of how much the characters can trust what they’re seeing, the constant muddying of reality via hypnosis and mutation. It reads like a visceral blend of Lovecraft, Phillip K Dick and countless others but simultaneously sets itself apart and is one of the most gripping pieces of weird fiction I’ve read in recent years. All things told, I believe I very slightly prefer the book as an entity, but I would recommend both as supremely interesting, strange and well executed works that stand on their own merits.

CONCLUDING REMARK

Not a comprehensive list by any means, as I can already think of some things I could have easily included, but the most important milestones of my year found their way here, a rough patchwork quilt of my rather strange life in 2018 in the form of films, books and television. Do whatever you want with them, I suppose. Have an INCOMPREHENSIBLE new year.

Beyond Capitalist Horizons: Future Interfaces

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Capitalism; you might have heard of it, you almost definitely have encountered it, and everyone’s talking about it. Capitalism is such a well worn topic by this point that indeed for some it becomes a “cliche”, and at risk of denouncing what is going to be a post discussing capitalism at length, one might be tempted to agree with them. It may indeed sound like a broken record at points; one encounters an issue, poverty, exploitation, catastrophe, collapse, and someone pipes up with “you know the problem? Capitalism”, and because of this it’s tempting to write it off as an annoyance, like an incessantly repetitive noise, an alarm that one might flail at at 6 in the morning in frustration. The thing about that morning alarm however, is that you probably set it for a reason. At that moment it feels like an impolite intrusion on your rest, something you just want to get rid of, but beyond this is the knowledge that it has a point. The alarm to wake you up at a certain time, and anti-capitalism to point out the eschaton of our own system. The annoyance we feel at being repeatedly reminded of our own systematic compliance reflects the child’s annoyance at being commanded to brush their teeth, or go to bed.

So while we might have an aversion to addressing the issue in the same way as we might be resistant to learning mathematics as an act of rebellion towards a teacher, it is necessary, but this brings up the question of how one can break past this program of resistance. The sheer will to capitulate to the capitalist directive of oedipal desire drives us towards a comfortable cocoon of apathy and directly into the maws of capitalist realism, and while there have been moments of rebellion, moments where it looked like something might break through its stifling curtain, it always failed, we always reverted to the manufactured realities of the capitalist future, the simulated innovation of neoliberal enterprise. Something in the attempts to divert course has always fallen short of its aim, this spectre of failed revolution that hangs over the modern left and like nothing else breeds disappointment and inefficiencies, a repetitious melancholia stemming from a lack of ideas. We run short of plans, find ourselves unable to plot a course away from this mess, and in our inability visions of a distinctly more dystopian bent employ the imagery of nostalgia, the cynical wish to return to an idealised past that never was, to capture a sense of vitality with their supporters anti-capitalism has always struggled with, presenting as it does the removal of the safe, fuzzy idealisms its populist alternatives appeal to an intensification of.

I. Anti-Capitalism and Cybernetics

Anti-capitalism then, is faced with both an opportunity, and a long-running problem. The opportunity lies in the weirding of modern politics, the collapse of the “boring dystopia” that is neoliberalism, defined by stasis and repetitions of the past with shinier exteriors, leaves, by definition, an opening, an opportunity for ideological apparatus to step in and fill the gaps. And the problem? To expand on what I’ve already mentioned, it is one of systems, of control and communications. In other words, what we’re dealing with is, according to Norbert Weiner’s 1948 definition [“the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”] a problem of cybernetics, of systems analysis and of computing. For what are ideologies and fictions in essence bar a series of commands and actions forming an interlinked diagram of ritual behaviour? Deleuze and Guatarri’s landscape of flows, of interlinked machines and desiring-production, is in effect the underpinning of a systematic chain of productions, a cause/effect repetition enacting a circuit of manufacture and communication overlapping and moving between further circuits, linking again to yet further circuits.

Of course D/G were not insignificantly pulling from a Spinozist metaphysics in their materialist conceptions, and in fact looking towards Spinoza’s systematic rendering of freedom is of great help here. According to Spinoza, to be free is to act according to reason – to act according to reason is to act according to one’s interest – to act according to ones interest is ultimately an act of reflection and feedback – all of this = [to reframe this within a modern information driven age] an adaptive operating system, one that 1 – Is capable of consistent feedback on its surroundings and its own capabilities, and 2 – is capable of reacting to said feedback through a patching and rewiring of systems.

To bring this back to anti-capitalism, and the problems it faces in lieu of the recent surge of populist right wing movements, is one of organic communication and of adaptation. Its state of consistent opposition to the dominant circuitry puts it at a disadvantage to those already at work patching new networks into the system; of course new in this sense not really being the operative term, these new networks simply being a facsimile, a tracing of older networks, very old parts being jammed into an old engine in the hopes that it will morph into the shiny retro-engine they envision. Constant negation without a hint of affirmation begets a failure to generate the new, vital components of the system, stymies the process of feedback and evolution required to construct an effective systematic strategy. The anti-capitalists gradually, over the course of the neoliberal end of history, lost their claim over ideas of the new, and of the future, to those interests who begun increasingly to equate “new” with “innovation” with “business”. Anti-capitalist causes begun to look anachronistic, old-fashioned, silly utopians fixated on a past future that never came to be; even the occupy movement never materialised into anything approaching successful anti-capitalism.

So to formulate an anti-capitalism that unshackles itself from the spectre of revolution … from the logic of failed revolt. It requires the programming of an adaptive system that reroutes the libidinal exchanges underpinning the capitalist drive; reroutes them where? Towards the new, and beyond the capitalist horizons that constrain the circuitry of the human motherboard and prevent the patching in of new interfaces, threats to the dominant fiction. We must route the flows of information away from the fuzzy looping of repressed libido, the breeding grounds of political puritanism and despondency, and the death of vital interference. One can see this in evidence though the more humourless ranks of left wing action and thought, through such self-professed “revolutionaries” who consider anything less than total insurgency a concession to reformism, to the countless individuals engaged in endless bickering over specifically acceptable words and actions, reducing, despite the lip-service to such terms, systematic issues down to the faults of the individual alone, effectively feeding the dominant neoliberal fiction, that defined most succinctly through Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” maxim. These are all strictly clipped and confined libidinal exchanges, confined to the limits of capital itself through their concessions to its dynamic.

We need to look to our own interest, in Spinozist terms, to our own feedback loops of behaviour and process, and to our own ritual, to successfully reroute the systems of capital away from their preferred stasis and towards a new horizon of possibility, effectively to reclaim the future from its purely imaginative state and engage the processes of adaption, so long a mere PR stunt in the name of capitalist realism, a shiny veneer over what proves nothing more than the reconstituted remains of the past.

II. We are Android [We are DEVO]

Our ideas of the future are dominated by ideas of the posthuman or the transhuman. Long a theme in science fiction, the melding of the human with the synthetic, the humanoid robot, the android, ideas surrounding the development of AI and robotic technologies are reaching fever pitches of hype, funding and media attention in an age supposedly driven by technological development into an increasingly automated, mechanised future. Some envision a day in which we become android, where our limited human interfaces become supplanted by a new, evolved cyber-organisma meshing of organic and inorganic parts. In other fictions, we see a new race of robotic, inhuman artificial beings, the robot uprising, the AI dictatorship supplanting our very own attempts at domination. What all these visions share is a certain eschaton, an immanent progression towards some singularity, some meta-narrative endpoint where we surpass our own existential nightmares in some way shape or form.

As of now, none of these futures have materialised, none of these sexy science fiction realities have made the transition into being reality, or have they? We certainly don’t appear to be living in some hyper-synthetic age of cyberpunk crescendo, we definitely aren’t living out the dark capitalist future the prophets of acceleration envisioned for us and I definitely don’t find myself jacking into a fully simulated virtual reality every day to go about my business. There are a million cool-looking utopian-dystopian fictional prophecies of what the future could have been or could be that haven’t materialised and don’t seem to be materialising in the near or far future. The reality of capitalism is infinitely more mundane.

Here’s the proposal; we are android. The posthuman is already here, and we are its walking, talking participants. The virulent expansion of online networks, the accelerated prominence of portable computing devices [the smartphone, tablets] are more than a simple restructuring of the surface, of the way we engage with the underlying bodies, they are an extension of us, new machines patched into our existing interfaces. As networks have spread across the surface of the earth, forming a kind of mesh, an overlying world-brain, a chain, a circuit, we visualise in a more total sense the interconnectedness that previously we only experienced in a fragmented, singular sense, each of our devices a node, a machinic outlet for what is in some sense a gigantic collective intelligence, a huge iteration of what on a smaller level we would think of as artificial intelligence [something that in general amounts to an aggregate of human intelligences rather than something wholly artificial in any way we might conceive of the term, hence why AI tends to ape human behaviours].

More than this though, our devices are a direct patch onto our human OS, an expansion of systems. To return to Spinoza, we can pick up on his post-Cartesian metaphysics, a radical rejection of dualism to illustrate this. Spinoza rejected Descartes distinction between mind/body along the lines of his conception of God. To quote the beginning of his Ethics;

“I. By that which is self—caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.

II. A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature; for instance, a body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body.

III. By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.

IV. By attribute, I mean that which the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance.

V. By mode, I mean the modifications of substance, or that which exists in, and is conceived through, something other than itself.

VI. By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite—that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.”

All of these definitions lead towards an understanding of finite matter that ceases to distinguish between an ideal inside and outside in the sense that one does not limit the other. “…a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body” … We find a blueprint for our current  tendency to reach beyond our fleshy mainframe and through the coupling of machines expand into the inhuman. We can conceive of our systematic expansion into online realms as a modification of identity, identity as something conceived through something other than itself, that something being found again in the same matter of online information and collective thought – this way we find a circuit, feeding back into itself and recurrently coupling modified versions of its own systems onto itself.

In theory then, in our connected devices, our reservoirs of creativity, thought and feeling we have a program to achieve the inhuman, and indeed in some sense we have achieved this reality. Cyberpunk is here folks, it just isn’t nearly as sexy as we thought it would be. Indeed, in many ways these systems conceived as expansions of our own circuitry are facets of the libidinal capitalist infrastructure, fully engineered towards our desiring-production both in expansion and repression as Deleuze and Guattari describe in Anti-Oedipus. The forces of deterritorialization and reterritorialization are at play even in this age of posthuman ascendency, and so we find ourselves in a banal cyberpunk, geared not towards the expansion of concept or the absolute abstraction of the human, but towards systems of control, of repetitious return to the rigid structures of commodity production.

Much is said about the idea that the rhythms of media dissemination and production are, for instance, reducing our attention spans, or increasingly geared towards a version of culture that treats as as gullible idiots, infantilizes us, and is interested in nothing besides surface engagement. While I personally don’t think surface engagement is in all cases the devil it’s made out to be, there’s certainly a truth in the capitalist insistance on our idiocy, the push towards simplistic, memorable forms over complexity and abstraction. I don’t say this in order to denigrate popular media, quite the opposite, I think the focus should be on giving popular media it’s due, treating it as more than just pop, something that actually can be profound, can be complex, can tell us something, rather than the constant insistence that pop culture must be nothing more than blind adherence, fantasy, the distraction from the real. It is possible, as many have demonstrated [perhaps I will expand on this more in a future post].

I’m going to talk about Devo. Devo were/are, in a similar sense to kraftwerk,  as much a concept as a band, and a concept formed around this very topic, where they perceived a devolution, hence the name, and as an entity their themes and content revolved around a dystopian foreshadowing of the process of systematic regression in the culture around us. They were, in essence, a work of science fiction, as much of a prophetic fiction as the cyberpunk of the 90s. Their work stands as a kind of inverted post-human desire, a warning that in some way this move forwards constitutes a move backwards. The truth isn’t quite that, but it’s a part of it. While we have in effect moved towards a further realisation of posthuman futures, and we currently exist within a kind of gigantic collectivised intelligence structure, the influence of capital on this structure facilitates the constant repression that capital requires to flourish. In essence, capitalism is unable to deliver the future, through a simultaneous act of freedom and repression, we wind up in stasis. This isn’t devolution, but it is a necessary halting of evolution, of the new. While a Devo-like criticism of tendencies to dumb down  stands at risk of devolving itself into an old man shouting at clouds rejection of progress, the truth is that the problems Devo recognised are precisely that progress isn’t progress, that the future we are presented with is not in fact a future at all.

III. Beyond Capitalist Horizons

What we have instead of the projected futures of the past is a toolbox of possibilities. Through the patching of new interfaces into the human OS we find ourselves with the tools of production; we carry them around in our pockets, leave them sitting on our desks, wire them into our neural pathways over time so that we become dependant on their use, they become a circuit existing within a circuit, a machine within a machine. The potential of technology under capitalism may have been much exaggerated, but this says nothing of the potential of technology outside it. We tend to see these interfaces as a direct consequence of capital, and yet it is important to point out that it is not necessary to argue against technology per se to be anti-capitalist, just as it is not necessary to argue against desire per se, we must merely invent a concept of what technology and desire even constitutes outside capitalism. We must, to look beyond capitalist horizons and engage in the production of the new, reprogram the present, shift the flows of intensity and redirect the circuitry.

A simple program of negation, something that anti-capitalism tends to fall into far too easily, cannot be the strategy employed, the residue of revolution that hangs over any attempt to conceive of post-capitalism, the spectre of communism, as it were, communism not as Marx and Engels proposed it, but as it looms over our 20th century horizon itself, as it is characterised in the popular imagination. Especially at a time when authoritarian populists [the very existence of which bring to mind the very question D/G ask in anti-oedipus, through William Reich, “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation”] surge forward with simple, distinct proposals for a new, albeit retrograde, nostalgic and impossible, reality, the left cannot afford to reduce itself to an eternal opposition. We must offer positive proposals of our own, a future beyond the hauntings of the past, and if we harness the abstracted networks of desire we find ourselves willingly jacked into, find a way to reroute systems and patch on new realities, we can build a communal future beyond the sterilised visions of capital and the reactionary songs of a simulated golden age.

 

Into the Nerve Cluster

mezzscape

 

[THE CAPITAL]

It is a centre, but not the centre, a heart, but not the heart.We find it as a pulsating spike of intensity in the interlocking diagrammatical mesh of organisms, a glistening mass of tentacular flows, a nervous system spliced into the white hot rock of matter. The city is the hyperspace where we most easily tune into the Deleuzo-Guattarian schizoid imaginings of information driven capitalism, where we find the oscillating gradients and intensification of current through the veins of organic machinations. London is a bubble, but it is not suspended in a membraneous isolation from neighbouring assemblages and affects, but part of a gigantic metastatizing organism of fleshy tendrils stretching across and into fibrous surfaces.

The city never really ends… it is an intensification, a nerve cluster, one that simultaneously attracts and repels its surroundings, keeping them attached to its surface membrane enough to subsume its outside gradually, expand until expansion reaches its inevitable limit. It may be that, as Fisher illustrated in Capitalist Realism the kafkaesque bureaucratic structures of the call centre are the closest we come to accessing capital-in-itself, but the city-at-large is the point where one can most immediately experience its flux, its libidinal excess and screaming contradictions. It is on Oxford street, in the throng of consumers, that one can see in a true sense what one elsewhere experiences as a poetic description, a fiction materialised. Thousands of organisms coexist yet blur into a current, producing endlessly shifting patterns corralled and machinised through the canals and wires transporting current through the cerebral interface.

In many ways, walking through this milieu, the copy of anti-oedipus sitting at the bottom of my bag seems to elucidate itself, make itself clearer, manifesting itself in my surroundings, an encounter with theory more beautiful than anything one might accomplish in the academy, simply going through pages, references, dusty old interpretations. It is here in the outside world that the implications of theory lie, in much the same way as Deleuze and Guattari evoke the “schizophrenic out for a walk” over the “neurotic lying on the analysts couch”. Here, wandering the streets of this organ of intensities, the dusty old corridors of academia break and give way to the active swirling melange of discourse, of nomadic enquiry.

It strikes me that the brute fact of the matter is that I’m reading, and more to the point getting value from more theory now than I ever did when I was a student. Part of this is indeed my own personal shift out of the inky blackness of resignation and cynical capitulation, but on another level it is simply freeing to study outside the reigns of academic writing. It might sound somewhat contradictory, but this unshackled hunger that has emerged from the rigid formulae of the academy is leading me to finally consolidate my desire to move on with academia and to engage with it again on my own terms in the future. This time I would not enter those halls simply because I feel like I have to, or because I have nothing else to do, but out of a genuine wish to grasp the subject matter and pull something out of its chest, a beating heart of something as yet undefined and unformed.

thevoid.jpg

[AGENTS OF THE BLACK HOLE]

Flee from all those rigid monomaniacal tyrannies who would trap you in the fluffy and worthless safety of ignorance, those who wish to prove themselves, the charlatans of nihilist hedonia pushing you to an early grave, playing to your anxious desires. These are the agents of virulent malaise with nothing to give, intent on ruining all about them, latching to the underside of power and riding the wave, those who to spite themselves spite you. There is more outside than the protestations of these insular power-hungry parasites would ever admit, tangled as they are with the monstrous hatred of their own being, the existential terror they face upon the realisation that they may not be the copernican axis of cosmic power.

This is something that might not be self evident about the seemingly sudden wave of angry reactionary sentiment in recent years, and the mindset of those who lie caught in its web, the deep void that lies somewhere behind their veil of belief, the sheer terror that underpins the clusters of grotesquely regressive online communities of ex-new-atheists tooting incessantly on the rusty horn of pop-rationality, a shrill and annoying sound that barely makes it out of the pits they’ve dug for themselves, but occasionally can be heard, an echo of panic in its dissonant tone.

The existential black hole lying somewhere beneath the far right isn’t something that has been addressed nearly enough in discussions around its nature, as its something I feel strikes at its weak spot, the philosophical emptiness of pure negation and the complete shallowness of everything they stand for; not for nothing do many online communities IDing as anti-progressive, anti-feminist, conservative, any number of right wing reactionary positions, couch almost everything they do in an imperceptible construction of irony, the irony of fools that belies the real implications of the ironic action, the lack of conviction in the validity of ones own position, so much that one tries to negate it by reducing it to a “joke”. The reason becomes evident as to why this is no laughing matter however when one realises that ironic action spreads itself entirely unironically, the effect belies the intention even if, and here I’m being very generous, the intention was ironic, not some kind of misguided flailing at the wind, an attempt to mask their own insecurities through a pretence of privileged knowledge.

The appearance of these huddled groups of rage-driven misanthropes is in many ways driven by the same vapid emptiness underpinning the neoliberal enterprise. The conjuring of problems for them presents itself as a scapegoat yes, but for what? Many who tackle this subject fall back on their libidinal capitalist tendencies and stop short of pointing at the entire rotten corpse before them, but in this regard they too wilfully disregard the fetid stench and grotesque appearance of the issue and simply repeat the same tired dogma of reform, a little bit here and there and this will all be better, there’s no need for anything drastic folks, just tweak the settings and your experience will be back to normal.

From the same existential nullity come two different forms of blindness. That of the ego-driven pseudo-rationalist and those of the comfortable centre-liberal inculcated into the libidinal infrastructure. Both do their utmost to ignore the stench of death in the air but both are its very symptom, attempting to ignore for as long as they can this distant memory of anything outside this cosmic PR campaign.

[THE HEART IS EMPTY]