I lose count of the times I’ve heard someone claim they don’t like a piece of music or a film because it’s “too depressing”. What this means I have yet to find out, but I’ve become aware over the years that it seems to apply overwhelmingly to a lot of my own cultural library, and so tend to be somewhat irritated upon hearing it, even if directed at something that I myself am not terribly keen on. The implication here is clear, all that is not positive begone, we have no need for your emiserating antics.
This attitude is something that has taken its place at the opposite end from the apparent doom-mongers and naysayers, the party-poopers and orgy-ruiners of the world who just want to ruin everyone elses good time. You must be fun at parties goes the line as if being fun at parties was some kind of marker of good humour, as if so many of us were plunging ourselves into a hedonic haze and careening through muddy fields on amphetamines because we’re just so fun to be around. Put away that book it might make you depressed… copious levels of alcohol on the other hand…
To be clear I’m not anti-pleasure and I don’t want to come across as some puritan finger-wagging priest delivering a moral sermon, in fact quite the opposite.. what I want to point out is that it is this positivity injunction which itself functions in this way, denouncing any of us who dare criticize what we are supposed to enjoy. Picture a scene where a group are discussing a fast food outlet. Going around the room they can’t get over how amazing these burgers are, and the superlatives are flowing. Then it gets to you. You… don’t really think much of the place and you have a few words to say on it, so you say so. Silence. Everyone kind of looks at you strangely before someone says “yeahhh but it’s really good isn’t it” the conversation continues as if you had not spoken. Say on top of this your reason had to do primarily with the way the fast food outlet functioned, marketed its food, or produced it. Here, the injunction to be positive becomes an injunction to stay silent and conform. All the keep-calm-carry-on mugs and tea-towels in the world seem to be saying “Pipe down and let us have our fun”.
This all seems to point towards a refusal to think beyond the pleasure principle. Mark Fisher describes something in Capitalist Realism he terms as “Depressive Hedonia”; where depression is generally held as the inability to find pleasure in anything, what we find in Depressive Hedonia is the inability to do anything besides the pursuit of pleasure. Specifically given the breakdown of certain structures within education, the lack of resources or content, students will often find themselves sitting in their rooms getting high consuming entertainment because there’s nothing of interest to do… anything that is not connected to pleasure strikes us as worthless, something we’d have to really force ourselves into. This is connected in my mind to the positivity injunction, something that can be found just as much in the anxious and depressed communities of students as it can people “climbing the job ladder” and in the world of business. Among people my own age and younger however, there seems increasingly to be this attitude that if you are critical of something that provides us FUN then you are de facto ANTI-FUN. You’re slapped with a sticker that announces to everyone that you’re some miserable stick-in-the-mud, you have no time for the good life.
In my own experience this has emerged through my disdain for festivals. I was somewhat excited by the idea of the festival when I was younger for the novelty aspect, but gradually it becomes increasingly evident that festivals are where punk comes to die, events of staggering cultural emptiness predicated on the idea that nobody who goes to them actually cares, or will be too off their face to care, about what’s actually going on there. Even essential or exciting acts are drained of potency in the open fields, the whole sorry affair being a muddy slice of flabby carnivalesque bourgeois boredom alleviation designed not as a cultural event but a way to forget. Just camp out in a muddy field, take some drugs, forget about everything and enjoy Foster the People won’t you? The headline acts are often non-acts, non-culture, Marc Auge’s non-places in the form of bands, an airport waiting area on a musical stage, going through the motions of performance but having given up any attempt to carve out anything beyond a flat, meaningless success in a continuum of similitude. At it’s worst the festival is in fact a cavalcade of awkward nostalgia, the geriatric rolling stones still desperately pulling the same old shit despite the valorisation of youth suiting them now like… well like leather trousers on an elderly Mick Jagger. When did anything of any import really happen at a festival?
Well, suffice to say I don’t really think much of the festival environment, predicated as it us on the reduction of culture to museum, even worse, to a kind of repeating wallpaper design in front of which we drool over the settee in a ketamine haze. I’ve found this however a notably unpopular thing to say, the enjoyment of festivals being taken as something of a necessary, why WOULDN’T you enjoy this, you puritan.. the expectation here is that we just draw our mouths into a grotesque smile and just get down with everyone else. Hedonism here can be taken as some kind of Bataillean limit experience, the thing that provides the rest of our mundane lives with some exit, an outside where we don’t have to worry about paying the rent. As soon as we take those amphetamines or drink those beers, we enter a headspace away from all that miserable shit, all that politics, the boring stuff. It is like some kind of transcendental move, a heavenly experience … is it any surprise that festivals have become intertwined often with a kind of typical new age mysticism, the kind of religion where we can engage in its practices while simultaneously feeling above them.
And so the positivity injunction is a call to accept this state, to simple go ahead and dope yourself up, become numb to the world for a few days, accept mediocrity, accept the state of affairs as long as you can purge it temporarily, accept the endless waiting room, the repetition, the cultural logic of late capitalism, it’s all worth it for this moment of transcendent bliss, knocking down a few pints in a miserable field of desperate people on a cocktail of drugs and believing wholeheartedly that this is the best life will offer us. In this way the festival, and the positivity injunction itself, becomes a stagnant river, heaving with waste. It is the place where culture comes to a standstill, repeats itself due to the lack of will to accept anything could be better. Judgement, negativity is the ultimate sin, surely you can accept that all eras have their bad parts, nothing is inherently worse about now … except it is, there is an air of deprivation, and as much as we may hope against all hopes that really this is just how things are and it’s just different, no worse or better, there are concrete political reasons for this negativity.
The consistent dismantling of social security, the demonization of the unemployed & the working classes, the lack of cultural urgency [brought on non insignificantly by our subsistence on a diet of cyberculture and connectivity, the strange temporal effects of having access to a seemingly endless and overwhelming stream of data, described by Franco “Bifo” Berardi as Overload]. We have more than sufficient reason to be pissed off, and it’s about time to draw a line under this kind of forced positive attitude. Culture is more than entertainment, and as long as we insist that the only recourse we have is to a hedonistic escape from this earthly domain, we continue to reinforce the hegemony of Capitalist Realism and neoliberal theology. What we need is not some kind of neo-spiritual affirmative love-solves-all positive oppressive injunction, but a renewed sense that this is not all we can muster. We have a lot to care about, and if we didn’t care we wouldn’t spend all this time trying to suppress it; dare to think beyond the pleasure principle, and maybe we can build new forms of collectivity.
It’s likely no secret to many who have spoken to me recently that the work of Mark Fisher has become something of an important reference point to me; this goes beyond simply being an investment in a certain writers style, or some facile obsessive regurgitation of a someones’ ideas I might be particularly into at the time. Fisher’s writing has, the more of it I’ve read, managed to shift my perception of the world around me, and really, though this may at first pass sound a little melodramatic, given me what feels like a renewed vigour and purpose in life after a prolonged period of stagnation, repetition, depression and boredom, namely precisely the symptoms and conditions Fisher examines and takes a scalpel to over the trajectory of his books Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life, The Weird and the Eerie, and the main subject here the recently published collected works, the mammoth tome I recently read from cover to cover.
There is a distinct melancholia in reading this collection, containing as it does enough of Fisher’s most important writing to put together the coherent strands that defined his project[s], and putting into perspective its tragically unfinished status. It cannot be said enough that Fisher was one of the most lucid, cutting and important cultural critics of his time, and his writing breathes new life into a leftist politics previously assumed to be long calcified into redundancy. The introduction to what would have been his next book Acid Communism, included at the end of K-Punk really hits home how really, he was just getting started; his appeals to the hauntology of lost futures manifesting itself in his own foreshortened political project. In the context of all else here, Acid Communism feels like the beginning of a culmination to where his ideas were going, the proposal to match the critique seen in Capitalist Realism and an intersection of the many influences and strands one finds him returning to throughout.
Something it would be hugely amiss to ignore; both Melancholy and Depression feature heavily, although he is careful to distinguish between the two, as he is between the nostalgia mode, as defined by Jameson, and Hauntology. Something that rears its head throughout his work is his own grappling with mental ilness, one that becomes almost difficult to read about in hindsight, but I think still essential at a point where many speak of the mental health crisis and I’m not sure I know many people, if anyone my own age, who does not labour under some form of anxiety or depression. While as one may read in Capitalist Realism he makes sure not to simply state that all mental illness is caused directly by political issues, he nonetheless makes the point repeatedly that Mental Health is a Political Issue. Indeed is it so difficult to imagine that the notable proliferation of mental health issues among younger generations is connected to changes in the way we organise our society? In the years since the rise of Neoliberalism we have increasingly had to live in a world of a million pressures, precarity; a damocles sword threatening us with the constant threat of collapse, we may lose our job, suffer a pay cut, be called in at a moments notice, we may be evicted from our home… we’re expected to be flexible, but this is code for what Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes in Precarious Rhapsody, a post-fordist capitalism where the line between work and life is blurred to an indistinction , where time is at a premium. Fisher references the film In Time as possibly the first science fiction film about precarity, where time itself becomes a currency. In this climate, it is hardly any wonder people everywhere, especially young people who are thrust out into this world after having been promised success for hard work, are buckling under the weight, especially when one factors in the transformation of the welfare state into a perverse system of punishment for the unemployed … increasingly we are told “it’s YOUR fault”, a mantra that worms its way into our brains, forming a thread of anxiety and despair.
Let it not be said that this is some dry, sad, lifeless tome of Marxist analysis; quite the opposite… Regularly Fisher reiterates a distinct venom for the kinds of theory and cultural attitudes that might deign to reduce political engagement down to some academic parlour game, the ways in which the the lifeless corpse of real political action is dressed in the dull rags of realism and put to work by the useful idiots of capital. The writing here is notable for its fire and drive, for the sense that it is by no means intended as empty pontificating. The focus is on doing something, an interjection into the social realities of the reader rather than a series of lumpen musings with designs only on a select few pompous clowns.
Something that shines through much of the writing here, besides the urgency that practically bleeds through each line, is a conviction in the importance of culture; through Fisher, one gains practically a new cultural canon, where the importance is always placed on historicizing and contextualizing every film and piece of music within the arena that produced it. To this end there is often a certain excitement in Fishers distinctly punk proclamations, both in the ones that played directly into some of my younger predilections [Siouxsie and the Banshees are more important than the Smiths!] and ones that drew me towards strange things I had never encountered [Artemis 81!] or finally lead to an immersion in something I’d never previously managed to crack [The Fall!]. Always running behind the words is what he terms as “a fidelity to the post-punk event”. That is to say, a yearning for a modernism, and an ongoing critique of what Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism” or postmodernism as a cultural condition and malaise. The material here which coalesced into Capitalist Realism, Ghosts of My Life and Weird and the Eerie can be traced as three connecting tissues throughout, certain points acting as nodes in a larger political project that can be mapped across the book, and organically [perhaps synthetically] emerges in the connections drawn between sections; on books, film & television, music, politics.. the confidence throughout that the world can be transformed for the better, and the fear that we may have lost the ability to imagine this, defines the great extent of it, appearing in pieces on cultural objects as varied as Cronenburg’s Existenz and a Damien Hirst retrospective. While in many cases he directs ire at culture that he sees as reinforcing capitalist realism, hence the dominion of capital, some of the most stirring moments are often the surprising places he sees a way past this impasse, notably for instance in The Hunger Games, pulling no punches in declaring it anti-capitalist realist as opposed to for instance culture that previously engaged in a successful illustration of our cultural condition, prominently The Thick of it and The Wire. Fisher is equally as good at pulling unexpected joy from a maligned piece of art as he is ravaging your chosen idols in the strongest terms [see his choice words on Alan Moore at one or two points].
Increasingly, throughout all this, you sense a strong yearning, and eventually an open call for what he terms “Pulp Modernism”, probably described in the most detailed terms in his magnificent three-part analysis of the Fall, Memorex for the Kraken. This was for him the hope that the dull flame of modernism might re-emerge in popular culture, subsumed as it is beneath a haze of reflexive pomo irony and self-satisfied snark, in which fidelity to fantasy is the ultimate heresy and everyone strives towards a kind of underlying sincerity, the stripping away of the surface to reveal the underlying real; this can be seen at its most screamingly egregious within the image fostered by Britpop, the blokish “realness”, all denim jackets and no-frills performance, a pompous cavalcade of anti-sensuality that reflected itself in much of the culture to follow, when it was not presenting itself behind unfathomable layers of ironic detachment.
Something that struck me reading this stuff in fact, as well as the fact that I myself only discovered Fisher years after his death, was that I could probably count myself as one of those generations who had entirely escaped the history we are experiencing repeated all around us. The excitement of discovering a new band predicated on not being aware of everything they’ve unimaginatively drawn from, who discovered the past largely through a long laundry list of influences relayed to us by our favourite artists, or as a cloyingly nostalgic narrative of rock-stardom and male ego crudely compacted and re-organised through duller-than-dishwater talking head documentaries where a rotating line-up of people would repeat like clockwork the tired old myths of the rock & pop establishment. I was to some degree a little lucky in that I chanced upon Siouxsie and the Banshees and Public Image Limited when I was quite young, the post-punk scene that Fisher loved so much having appeared to me like this compelling ghost of an era alien to me, when this kind of culture could still happen; of course, I didn’t phrase it as such at the time, but the appeal of the music to me was precisely that it sounded like nothing else, drawing from an unfamiliar pool of influences, something that only became diluted and lessened by the bands that so impotently tried to copy-paste their sounds. The existence of a culture this exciting, that could evolve like this, was something that looking back was in all honesty pretty notable in its absence from my growing up, it was more of a case of tracing musical influence, going back across the timelines and family trees, scenes and acts waiting to be plucked like fruit. In terms of contemporary cultural production, although I think we’re beginning to see stirring in that department at the very least, at the time it was dominated by things that sounded not only like each other, but like their influences stripped of urgency.
The reclaiming of the idea of the new, of the future, of urgency, of collective agency on the left and within our cultural moment is what can be found throughout the book, ringing through each piece of analysis and each swelling of anger. A pall of fatalism hangs over the present, the left operating as if against an inevitable failure, the right towards a luridly imagined “collapse of the west”. Everywhere we turn, we find people throwing their hands up in resignation and despair. If this sounds like an inescapable impasse, it’s worth noting that the pall may be gradually lifting, that we are starting to see the kind of speculation and confidence in the idea of another world as Badiou might put it, that was so utterly foreclosed for so many years. I speak in smaller terms of the resurgence of genuinely leftist approaches in parliamentary politics and the collapse of the toothless neoliberal populism that dominated as the naturally assumed status quo for decades, the retreat of the right from modernization, towards a position of imagined return to an idealised past. But also, we have I think seen a resurgence of cultural urgency, of experiments and sounds aiming to disconnect themselves from those of the past. Even if these approaches seem still like a flicker, it feels to me as if they are rapidly expanding to a flame. This is the one-two punch of the arc in Fisher’s writing, that of melancholy, of mourning lost futures, and that of a re-invigorating push forward, not unlike the way reading Fisher for me has re-invigorated theory and politics.
I have mentioned Capitalist Realism as a book I would practically recommend to anyone, acting as it does as a pointed and effective analysis that definitely in my case contributed to a genuine re-alignment of perspective and flaring of consciousness from a point of relative fuzzy ennui. K-Punk may be a good bit less accessible, it being a few pages shy of 800, but it is no less valuable, a collection of writing that acts not only as an indispensable companion to the dystopian landscape of neoliberal capitalism, but a clarion call to imagine something else, to rediscover the potential of those lost futures and cease to accept reality as it is. My reading of the pieces here was, I should note, supported by reading a good bit of K Punk material not actually included in the book for whatever reason, and it’s worth noting that there’s still some excellent material out there that may not have fitted comfortably there but are still very worth a read for any interested party. Something else I read that really tied beautifully into Fisher’s concerns, especially towards the back end of the book, was Ray Brassier’s essay Prometheanism and its Critics. This is by no means essential reading, but I found for me there was a clear undercurrent of Brassier’s point in Fisher’s call to recognise the ephemeral nature of social reality. For Brassier, the idea that there is some underlying natural order is imminently theological, something that runs against any emancipatory politics. The key quote from Capitalist Realism, one that can now be found as a mural at Goldsmiths, reflects this;
“emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable”
This is something Fisher recognised as a through-line between all radical thought of different stripes. The implication being here, one that Fisher re-iterates at various points notably in his discussions of James Cameron’s Avatar, that any left that appeals to a return to the basic order of things, a return to natural simplicity, becomes a reactionary project, for to do so we must arbitrarily assert an order of things that cannot but reveal itself to be a phantom under closer viewing. Indeed, and one can see this in Fisher’s explorations of Glam and Goth, we see here a call for a closer affinity with fiction/fantasy, in a sense moving away from appeals to any kind of pure interiority towards the idea that in fact, the exterior, the mask, that is the locus of change itself. Image becomes a machine, a generator of affect.
At this point I want to set forth my intention with this blog leading into the near future. Not to restrict myself to a narrow and total project, or to simply try and ape the lifeless desiccation of the academy, but reading K Punk has really fired me up and clarified to me the ways in which I want to engage in the blogging platform, and how I want to proceed from here. I find it generally unhelpful to leave the field completely open, an anything-goes-buffet of themes that may organically coalesce [indeed I feel they have to some degree] but, much like political action itself, amount to nothing if this coalescing is not grasped and fashioned into something.
I mentioned that during my reading of K Punk I read some other complimentary material, and this lead to the themes of essentialism and fatalism irrevocably connecting. From reading The Communist Horizon Jodi Dean’s fantastic articulation of what may be meant by a collective political subject on the left, to Brassier’s essay, to the Xenofeminist manifesto, to Donna Haraway, to Deleuze & Guattari … all in some way shape or form must unseat natural order as a fundamentally theological and reactionary concept, to be discarded if we are to build another world. I will provide a reading list below for anyone who is interested, covering some things I have referenced here and others I have read partially or fully along the way. From here, however, I intend to set myself a project; by which I don’t mean a strictly regimented 10 part [a] to [b] narrative, god no. What I mean is that I intend to proceed from this point into an in depth critique of fatalism and eschatology.
For while in many respects capitalist realism may be showing cracks, it is still far from over as Paul Mason prematurely declared it some years ago, and this can be ascertained simply through the everyday, quotidian reality where capitalist realism takes root. While on some levels and in certain quarters we now see murmurs of communism/the end of capitalism that would have been unthinkable half a decade ago, if we look away from these and towards gossip, small-talk, general conversation, we still find those attitudes heavily embedded in the way we see the world. Something I’ve noticed enter the frame however, something that ties undeniably into capitalist realism, is a general depressive fatalism, often tied to an unconscious eschatology. Time and again I encounter the idea that we are headed unerringly and unchangeably towards some kind of hobbesian warlike future, a desperate struggle for resources in a world blasted by climate change. The collapse of society, we hear, will lead of course to an eruption of international conflict and a descent into a situation where only the strongest survive. It’s effectively like the most lurid fantasies of the right, and the fantasy driving those people dubbed “doomsday preppers”. But it goes further than this, it’s something I have encountered on both the right and the left, and it’s something I want to tackle properly.
Is my problem here that I’m some kind of humanist who hates the idea that there might be a world without humanity, or am I driven by a fear of collapse? Well no and maybe, but this is not where my primary issues lie. Rather, I find this dour breed of fatalism is itself, like any kind of overtly pessimistic approach, a hyperstitial spiral when translated into action, that is when it is enacted on the level of ritual, an internalised truth. We believe it to be inevitable so it is inevitable, it is inevitable so we believe it to be so. It, like realism, presents itself as a grand unveiling of the underlying truth, stripped bare of ornament, at the same moment becoming its own realisation, failing to take stock of itself as fantasy. If we empirically examine the world around us, and take this examination to its limits, we increasingly find that the very things that we live our lives by, the construction of a subject, the very idea of humanity, break apart, and this is to say nothing of meaning. What does meaning have to do with the world as it is?
And this is the problem, that in positioning oneself on an unerring line towards the post-apocalypse scenario, or towards the final retreat of humanity to their base, violent state, a whole host of theological assumptions are being made, not least that of some underlying natural order; the “way things are” that we suppress or build on top of. In applying to the future an arc against which it is futile to struggle we contribute to making it a reality. If enough of us believe that humans are ultimately competitive and violent that is precisely how we will act. It posits that a certain situation will come about but fails to consider the circuit breaker, the “unless we do something else”. This all largely connects to the unfathomable nature of climate catastrophe, something that a number of writers have tackled, some which I will mention below, but as Fisher observed takes up within capital the status of Lacanian real, something which is so traumatic to the state of things that it cannot be seen straight on except as some formless blur, only approached indirectly, Lacan used here the example of the skull in Holbein’s ambassadors, simply appearing as some spectral shape at the corner of our perception until we approach the painting from the side.
This incomprehensible trauma combined with the close proximity of said trauma, relatively, breeds it as an increasingly strong symbolic assertion within capital, which tells us time and again that we are all individually responsible. The lack of a systemic analysis here can lead us to no other conclusion that the worst is inevitable. IF we continue, everything in our nightmares will come true. IF. The eschatological approach will deny that this IF means anything, claiming that really there’s no chance, that people are just too enmeshed in capitalism to do anything about it. Isn’t the problem here yet again that by believing this we make it a reality? We cannot keep returning to these theological fatalisms if we are to undergo a promethean transformation, and in some sense what I want to do is make the case for staying the course, for continuing to believe in a future beyond the hobbesian scenario, for in the absence of the certainties provided by capital, we need a confidence in uncertainty, or, to put it another way, one which many have already put forward, we must act as if collapse has already occurred, because in many ways it has. The time is not for hunkering down and preparing for the absolute worst, it is for new systems of organisation, new forms of libidinal engineering. Fisher quotes Micheal Hardt in Acid Communism;
“The positive content of communism, which responds to the abolition of private property, is the autonomous production of humanity – a new seeing, a new hearing, a new thinking, a new loving“
Pause.. I don’t want to give the impression here that I’m engaging in some kind of positive thinking exercise, as nothing brings forth the sickly taste of bile in my mouth than the positivity injunction, the coping mechanisms we employ in order to avoid confronting the negative fabric of our lives, that which manifests itself in younger generations in our constant search for pleasure, whether that be through drugs, alchohol or any other kind of dulling, escapist drive to enjoy. In fact, something else that I find ties a lot of Mark Fisher’s work together is his insistence that we must think beyond the pleasure principle. Culture must be more than mere enjoyment, consumer choice, politics, theory cannot be some purely affirmationist, even vitalist initiative. To move into the future is to grasp the negative. To quote Fisher from Terminator V Avatar, on Francois Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy;
“Not far beneath Lyotard’s “desire-drunk yes,” lies the No of hatred, anger and frustration: no satisfaction, no fun, no future. These are the resources of negativity that I believe the left must make contact with again.”
That is to say that what I really want to do is to take Lacan’s observation that when we think beyond good and evil we only tend to think beyond good, and try to think good and evil simultaneously. The aim is to arrive not at the blasted hellscape of fatalist eschatology, nor the cult of affirmationist creativity and the multitude, but in a new form of organising, to recognise that both forms are theological in nature and both resolutely fail to encapsulate the way in which the future is dependant on our compliance, not some kind of unerring motor propelling us into certain oblivion. I want to make clear not only the parasitic, draining effect of fatalism but the ways in which an ostensibly opposing pure affirmation is similarly damaging on our ability to conceptualise the future.
I wish I could explore everything Fisher wrote, and that I plan to write, but then this already rambling post would potentially continue forever, and leave no space for future ones. Suffice to say I want to be ambitious, and to this end I want to make much more concerted use of this blog, potentially formulating a more extended critique or proposal that could be sculpted into a long essay or book format.
K-Punk is finished, but not done.
Reading list, compiled from things that I have read lately, not including Mark Fisher –
Ray Brassier – Prometheanism and it’s critics[Can be found alongside a lot of other helpful material, provocations and weird musings on the outside in the Accelerationist reader, from Urbanomics]
Laboria Cuboniks – The Xenofeminist Manifesto
Jodi Dean – The Communist Horizon
Spinoza – The Ethics [of course, as one might expect I would not claim to have a full understanding but having it to hand has been highly valuable]
Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot floating around the internetosphere about altruism. More to the point, I noticed recently that Bill Gates, everyone’s favourite ruthless businessman turned cuddly nerd, had been delivering a variation on his favourite theme, found expounded by the likes of Steven Pinker, supplanted by his insistence that nothing need majorly change, all we need to do is be a bit more altruistic. He even, with staggering gall, wheeled out the claim that, on the whole, poverty is decreasing, the world is improving, etc. His accompanying words “This is one of my favourite infographics” ringing out like the desperate pleas of the aristocracy as the world below them plunges into chaos.
” What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.”
It doesn’t take a level of genius to work out why it might be in the interest of someone like Bill Gates to gloss over the exploitation inherent to capitalist production, but that doesn’t prevent the smiling and assured performance he gives feeling particularly stomach churning, the purported values of altruism and the meat grinder of Gates’ own business concerns making a horrific screeching sound upon contact. “There’s nothing wrong with the way things are done, you all need to be nicer” is the line, seeping from the mouths of the Davos set like poisoned honey. What’s more, it’s not hard to see how this is a tempting vision for anyone feeling the weight of world events on their shoulders, collapse and decay they seem to be entirely helpless to prevent. All that we require is that you do your bit. If we buy the correct, sufficiently ethical products, our daily act of charity, and sink enough money into the worlds problems, nothing more will be required of us.
Of course I’m not arguing that altruism itself is a problem, or purely self-motivated, but it is important to bear in mind the impossibility of any kind of “Pure” altruism. The mechanisms of desire are driven by interest in a spinozist sense, the gaining of satisfaction. As Frederic Lordon outlines in Willing Slaves of Capital;
“Here we could paraphrase Spinoza: interesse sive appetitus. Some do not like this identity, however. Or rather, they do not like its consequences. For if human essence is desiring, it follows from this identity that all actions must be considered interested”
In this way, we can understand the impossibility of any action without an element of self-satisfaction. As Lordon goes on to demonstrate, this is not some nihilist statement against human action, as in this sense interest is far more than the negative associations we might associate with accusing someone of being self-interested, but the object of desire itself. Any action we take must necessarily be interested as it is invested in the satisfaction of some desire. Taking this into account, folded into the libidinal excesses of capitalism’s upper echelons, it is the least outrageous statement possible to claim that gestures of charity are not devoid of self-interest. While this does not inherently wipe it of any value, when this self interest is that of capital altruism becomes an empty hand
Charity in this context is giving with one hand while taking with the other, where the taking outstrips the giving by at least several magnitudes. It is the pretence of progressive ambition while tightening a grip on personal fortune as nobody is looking. The philanthropy of the billionaire is a PR move, integral to the running order of capital and so predicated on its inefficacy. It effectively generates the idea that charity will save us, which contains within it the assumption that the system as it exists is not fundamentally flawed. All you need to do is do your daily penance, your daily act of kindness, and we can right the wrongs we have perpetrated. It makes little sense to expect the very same systems of proletarianisation and exploitation to solve the very same problems that are their lifeblood, yet many of us nonetheless hold to this, seeing within this impossible solution a source of comfort, a fuzzy, warm land of safe solutions away from the rather tricky business of enacting social change.
Bill Gates is wrong not just because he is bad at reading data, he is wrong because he and many like him are where they are as a result of the very processes which lead to poverty elsewhere in the world, that they continue to perpetuate and show no signs of alleviating. He is wrong because wilfully or not his sermons of philanthropy and progress contain within them the necessary kernel of neoliberal capitalism, the idea that change is enacted from the pockets of the individual, that the problems of the world are simply caused by our own bad decisions. To present the altruism he preaches as some kind of selfless gesture of common good belies the clear interests that lie behind it, going beyond the usual alleviating of guilt that follows acts of charity. If it becomes apparent that rich people can’t save the world with money, then where do we stand? We appear to arrive at a point where change requires something much more radical.
“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 I 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.
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.
[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.
I found myself of late digging through old K-Punk posts, Mark Fisher undeniably being a significant reason I started this blog in the first place, and stumbled upon a post in 2 parts titled Left Hyperstition. I thought this particular entry was worth highlighting and talking about, as it contains some interesting angles on ideas of populism as defined by Zizek. Conversely to Fisher’s most known work Capitalist Realism, a book I would without reservation recommend to everyone. It goes beyond an analysis of the methods though which capitalism exploits and maintains its hold, speculating on how it may be overcome. This is largely through the use of the term Hyperstition, one of the most widely used neologisms coined by the Cybernetic Cultural Research Unit, or CCRU [a group of breakaway academics around Warwick university in the nineties, involving a large variety of figures who have produced notable work since, wide-ranging as Fisher, Sadie Plant, Reza Negaristani, Ray Brassier and Kodwo Eshun, as well as “the father of accelerationism” Nick Land, now involved primarily with neoreactionary thinking]. A melding of Hyper and Superstition, it is loosely defined in the CCRU glossary as;
“Element of effective culture that makes itself real, through fictional qualities functioning as time travelling potentials. Hyperstition acts as a coincidence intensifier, effecting a call to the old ones”
Put another way, they are in some sense fictions that effect a sublimation of reality, a substantiation of numbers, diagrams, sigils, abstract mathematical potentials, hooked up to the cerebral cortex, catalysing the manifestation of change through fiction. For more on Hyperstition one’s first port of call might be the CCRU collective writings. If you of course you already had an idea, I’ve just admittedly wasted your time, but I felt the need to provide some kind of rough definition here in the knowledge that many might find themselves reading this asking “what the hell is a hyperstition anyway?”.
What first struck me about this particular post of Fisher’s was how prescient it was regarding its discussions of populism, something that gained a lot of currency in recent years for obvious reasons, but the definition of which for most of us lies somewhere at the intersection of hazy and simplistic. Here he draws on both Lacan and Zizek [is there really a distiction? I kid], later Badiou, to outline an idea of the ways in which fiction works to feed into the esoteric system-matrices of capital, and the ways in which fiction could substantiate a path outside capitalism.
One of the aspects of the term post-truth that bothers me the most is its idealistic reification of past truths. It may not be inherent in any definition, but grafting the prefix post onto a word immediately insinuates that it refers to an aftermath, an aftermath suggesting a past, in this case a past defined by “truth”. It suggests that in some way, there was a point in time, perhaps not too long prior, where truth was more … truthy, when in reality I would suggest we are seeing a veil lifted on what we previously simply accepted as truth. We have reached a point in the history of capitalist social relation where the majority of us are intimately aware that politics is not the domain of truth, but of precariously constructed fictions. What we see are capitalist fictions manufacturing capitalist realities, and true to the mechanisms of capitalist realism and reflexive impotence we proceed to ignore this and accept it as the only state, beyond which there is nothing.
So when Fisher discusses the role of fiction in politics, we look beyond any rather surface level admonishing of “post-truth” posturing towards the more general issues with populism and its discontents. The issue is not so much the construction of fictions itself, but the fictions constructed, the inevitable material results of those fictions and the pull they exert on us. Turning to Zizek’s definition of populism;
“Zizek said, populism is inherently reformist, if not to say reactionary. Its fundamental fantasy is of an Intruder, or more usually a group of intruders, who have corrupted the system. Hence the problem is never the system, capitalism, but the oligarchy, this particular, lazy, exploitative bunch who happen to have control now. Once They are removed, everything will be alright… Hence populism always frame its project in terms of a series of demands addressed to the ruling elite.”
Here Fisher through Zizek hits upon a key point regarding the populist project, whatever form it may take, the fiction that takes the form of a singular ruling class, a monistic cause for whatever issues we want to address the overthrow of which is all that is required. Ignoring the systemic nature of capitalism, not to mention its consistently adaptive, mutative nature as outlined in Deleuze & Guattari, a populist anti-capitalism posits that we simply need to “eat the rich”, oppose the current oligarchs as if we are not all undergoing the very same re-institution of capitalist symbiosis that we see in them.
This then, may be why the left often seems to remain at a standstill despite furious pedalling, constantly in a state of renewed opposition, this reduction of inherently widespread systemic webs into a singular, tiny aspect; the resignation of a small group of politicians, the replacement of one government with another. The populist “common people vs elites” framework atomizes he universal while negating its own identity by forming the core of its being around the nebulous proletarian ideal. The opinion of the “ordinary person”, the consensus fiction, is anything but a defined position, a mimetically shifting blank landscape upon which the populist imposes a canvas of their design, claiming a unique communion with the ordinary person and a unique opposition to Them. In this way, there can in theory always be a Them to oppose, even when the current group is replaced, populist demands are in essence never met.
Another key part of the piece arrives a little later during the first part;
“we can recognize the current political landscape as inherently populist. It is not only, as Zizek said, that populism (whether it be the ‘progressive’ populism of the anti-capitalist or anti-globalization movements or the reactionary populism of the fuel protesters or the Countryside Alliance) is the complement to administrative post-politics. It is that administrative post-politics is already itself populist.”
We now, in the wake of Trump, Brexit et al, seem to most strongly equate these outpourings of reactionary sentiment with populism, but something that hasn’t been talked about enough is that we cannot realistically restrict populism to these extreme currents, and it seems in the cold light of day that this form of populist current only replaced other populisms, the populism of the centre. For who was more populist than Tony Blair? The entire logic of the neoliberal shift of all parties, the advance of “administrative post-politics” is a populist attempt to demonstrate an affinity with the ordinary person, the bland template of a citizen they have envisioned as the core voting demographic. This is something close to the natural law of capitalism, the monochrome suited blank-faced image of the future, able to project any image it needs to in order to appeal to the majority, a formless fluid monster finding its way into channels and crevasses, squeezing through exits, manufacturing faces at an alarming rate. We are within its grasp through willful compliance, the rituals of libidinal image-production and commodity fetishism maintained through self-propagating fictions.
So the question that needs to be asked is if there is any sense in which these fictions can be sloughed off, and the answer may at its root seem fairly obvious in a sense, that the way to will new fictions into existence would be to practice them. That to abandon old practices we must start acting out new ones. The key here is sublimation, as Fisher points out towards the end of the piece;
“Fiction ensures that things are not only themselves. Capital is the most effective sorcery operative on the planet at the moment because it is adept at transforming banal objects into a sublimely mysterious commodities. Trans-substantiation. The allure of the commodity arises from the non-coincidence of the object with itself. (cf Zizek’s famous analysis of the ‘nothingness’ of Coke.) Anti-capitalism needs to take the form not only of a demystifying, depressive desublimation but of the production of alternativemodes of sublimation.”
The heart of Fisher’s point here is that through our fictionalised, one might say virtual projection onto the world around us, we affect the underlying planes of reality by elevating them over the sum of their parts or substance. The issue at hand for any cause that defines itself against capital is not to reduce matter down to its purity, to see the world in starkly realist terms, but to alter the fictions we use to process materiality, a somewhat psychedelic conjuring of new forms, separate from the tired old rituals of a+b=c.
This is the role of fiction in politics, when we strip back the meaningless appeals to authenticity, the blanket populism of the maddeningly boring centrist automata, the us vs them reactionary dynamic, all are fictions, systems of data and abstract images we become so familiar with we trick ourselves into the thought they’re more than they are, they are sublimated into almost divine modes, into entire realms indistinguishable from our own. We may be tempted to see capital itself, in all its fluidity and adaptability, as some untouchable shoggoth, even a god, but this is all to make the mistake of attributing to capital its own sublimation, to mythologise mere social relation and give in to one fiction over another. The deification of capital is a key part of the fictions that underpin it, the elevation of an abstract nothingness into an all-powerful entity through the performance of ritual. The observation that a deity’s existence is simply predicated on how many believe in it proves especially relevant here.
As we might observe, Capitalism doesn’t simply exist as an imposed set of directives from up high, there is no shadowy group of capitalists planning its expansion and evolution. It exists largely predicated on the rituals we perform, the abstract sense that capital is not only a series of apparatus governing the underlying real, but the underlying real itself. Deleuze and Guattari describe in Anti-Oedipus how “Machines and agents cling so closely to capital that their very function appears to be miraculated by it”, and it is this fiction, this tethering of the underlying forces to the abstraction of capital, that now more than ever we must try to abandon, not through sheer opposition, or negation, but through acting out a new, different fiction. To cease focusing on the maps we have, the already chartered topologies of society, we must focus our efforts on new abstractions and potentialities lurking behind the tentacular writhing of capital, seen beyond the tears in its membrane. If, at this current moment, we find ourselves passing through a wormhole, over the threshold as it were, the heightening of abstraction, the testing of limits, the creation of new futures, is vital to the current moment. We must act out new fictions, abandon the old ones, and find a new potential.
After a week of yet further political disarray in this somewhat cursed little island, I attempt to arrange my own thoughts into some uncharacteristically ordered fashion against my better judgement. The nature of these snippets and connections doesn’t really lend itself to clarity of purpose, my instinct is to just sprawl them over a page and mask them in metaphor or some other obfuscation.
The ludicrous display of Brexit continues, each time it threatens to flatten into a normal state of affairs poking its putrid, rotten head above the parapet and giving us a wave, one of its fingers falling off in the process straight into a previously tempting bowl of porridge. There’s something interesting that’s been manifesting itself for me about our political predicament, and it might just be a symptom of my current concerns, but there’s a heavy dose of weirdness that defines it all. We are now seeing something intruding on a long period of widely perceived safety, where everything seemed to be running on autopilot.
Underneath this of course the forces underpinning the suffering, paranoia and anxiety of the late twentieth century simmered ominously and increased in pressure, and the obvious shortcomings of capitalism continued to broaden themselves as we conned ourselves into apathy. Even the left as a political force had effectively de-fanged and disarmed itself, forgetting its past days of spirited political ideals and eventually settling into an incredibly unexciting and ineffective role of somewhat beige opposition to a blindingly beige Conservative government. This point, arguably, may have been our most Jameson-esque moment, where his vision of a capitalism sliding into a rhythm of banal repetition really hit its peak, as everything mushed itself together into some vague blob of sociopolitical nothingness.
To use a worn out proverb, however, pride comes before a fall, and so it has proved, with the rather rapid collapse of the dangerously perched liberal edifice we happily resided within for a decade or more, faces locked in grins redolent of the assumption that we were headed towards enlightenment. Enlightenment eh? Fat lot of good that turned out to be when the chips were down, indeed the enlightenment itself providing a great deal of succour for those misguided souls who ramble on and on about “free speech” and “classical liberalism”, warping “enlightenment” itself something of a questionable concept, into some strange process of self-deluded ultra-rationality, manifesting itself as a group of people who unlike the rest of us had never passed their new atheist phase, simply transferring the rather shallow contrarianism of that “movement” into the political sphere.
Point is, the crumbling walls of the neoliberal fortress provide glimpses to the outside, and it’s scary out there. It comes leaking in through the cracks and we get a sense of the fragility of everything we have existed within for so long. Soon we get a sense that we will be falling straight into that shifting and uncertain current, and it’s a prospect so different from what we know that many of us are frantically trying to plug the gaps, keep this whole thing afloat despite the best efforts of gravity to pull us under. Let me be clear, the failure of neoliberalism isn’t a cause to crack out the champagne and celebrate, it isn’t some glorious victory and indeed allows just as much horror to creep in as joy, as we witness in the increasing boldness of the far right in recent years. It opens the playing field so wide that anyone can suddenly have a pop, something that america’s current president very much embodies, this sense that now anything can happen, so opportunists will jump at the chance to grab hold of the puppet strings.
This all contributes to the weirdening of society, of politics, of modernity. There is a very distinct quality to both Trump and Brexit, that a great deal of us assumed they couldn’t happen. They were crossed from our minds as viable events, and so when they happened they were more than just a political or social shift, they represented this distinctly weird challenging of reality. Fixed axioms were blasted out, rules were shattered and a mist of uncertainty descended. A way to describe this would be as a kind of society-wide existential confrontation. We had to suddenly come to terms with the demon we thought a work of fiction standing in the fireplace grinning at us.
And while over time it is true that we almost started to settle, to become desensitised, it is notable that weeks like the last one, where the fragility of our government becomes so glaringly obvious, can even happen. It is terrifying in many ways, simply as we have to come to terms with the fact that our point in history is no more or less secure, important, fixed, comfortable, than any other. We stare into the infinitely complex possibilities beyond our carefully constructed horizons and, like a character in one of Lovecraft’s tales, we can’t comprehend what lies therein.
It hangs over us, the unrequited spectre of our own cataclysmic undoing. We envision before us a wasteland. Pockmarked and barren, abandoned ruins chequered across its surface with the few haggard survivors eking out a living somewhere on the boundaries of existence. We envision this perhaps because it entails a certain romantic pull, a more attractive alternative to utter annihilation and definitely more imaginable. On some level we already live in that world we created, within this mirage of the handsome, scarred post-apocalyptic survivor, the hunter-gatherer, the return to our roots, to our inner self. We exist within that un-made future when we toil under its assumptions, trapped in an ennui of human experience that we desperately want to escape.
In that regard, does the apocalypse not become a dream of hope? A dream of transcending the boundaries of this experience? The visions of social collapse, of planetary breakdown and confusion provide some escape, some idea of an exit. We become enslaved to our own destruction, a thrall to our certain fate, and we live its truth, move towards its ends, wilfully ignoring its warning signs. Environmental collapse becomes our collective death drive, a push towards complete erasure, and as we become more and more aware this temporal disintegration, this collapse of known measurements looms before us, it becomes ever more evident that we don’t know how to describe it.
We have no way to talk effectively about what is beyond the veil of death, just as we have no way to envision what lies beyond our own destructive path. We see it advancing on the horizon, but we can barely make out a blur, a formless haze; we have no idea what we’re dealing with. We talk about it, we forewarn it, but we have no true conception of what it entails, merely a simulacrum of collapse, a mirage of annihilation. The consequences we surely know from countless warnings and broadcasts, but as much as we hear them, it never becomes real, until it does.
Environmental disaster has become a terrifying unknown, an “other”, that informs and hangs over our actions like a malign spectral sheet. Yet we seem to do nothing; simply freeze to the spot, maybe buy a reusable coffee cup here, refuse a plastic bag there, even recycle every day, but it continues advancing, keeps getting worse, and as Thanatos comes knocking at our door those operating the machinery responsible while sitting on the backs of unbound exploitation and destruction proceed to lecture us on how we’re all to blame, how their technology will save us, provide an exit from the vengeful deity we’ve conjured.
You probably know of Elon Musk’s follies, so I won’t bore you with them here save to widely point out that he feeds wholly into the woefully mistaken idea that individuals with gargantuan amounts of money can save the world. If it isn’t evident, this angle, as I will further elucidate with Bill Gates, seems to be nothing more than some way to shift guilt away from these super-rich behemoths of industry and finance, the modern equivalent of the Bourgeoisie Marx compared to Vampires, onto each individual, the idea that we all caused this, and Elon Musk is coming to save us from ourselves, pull us out of the burning house we created. We become a scapegoat, and hence a sacrifice in this regard, and in the case of some eagerly await our allotted fate.
Bill Gates is, in some ways, more interesting. It needs not be said that he’s rich, astoundingly so. Like others in his exclusive club, he has more funds than most of us will see in our lifetimes. The obscenity of this degree of wealth need not be expanded upon here, but suffice to say that it can only truly be achieved, wilfully or not, off the backs of others, at the expense of hundreds, thousands far worse off, dying somewhere in third world countries in crowded factories. The web of exploitation surrounding wealth is an expansive horror show that once we begin exploring we may not see an end to, but suffice to say individuals such as Gates, and the apparatus’s they run, have far more blood on their hands, even, feeding into their machines, than they will ever be happy to let on. They are in some respects literally bleeding the world dry.
But surely, we might protest at this point Gates is a humanitarian, he gives to charity and has connected himself to a number of distinctly humanist and well meaning organisations. I might respond by asking how this in any way lessens the issues he is part and parcel of. I present this extract from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism;
“It’s striking how the practice of many of the immobilizers is a kind of inversion of that of another group who also count themselves heirs of 68: the so called ‘liberal communists’ such as George Soros and Bill Gates who combine rapacious pursuit of profit with the rhetoric of ecological concern and social responsibility.”
The idea that the very engines that breed and exist on the back of exploitation and unfettered profiteering, namely the issues at the heart of catastrophe, can solve those very problems, is, to put it bluntly, laughable.
Yet there is more to Gates, and that makes him worth talking about, and this is the phenomenon of contrarian optimism that has sprung up in certain circles, the downplaying of contemporary issues to turn around and proclaim that “actually if you look at the averages things are better than they’ve ever been”, something that is of little solace, even downright insulting, to the factory worker in China choking on toxic fumes to produce the parts used in our smartphones. Pop-science/psychology writers like Steven Pinker, of which Bill Gates happens to be a huge fan, predicate their entire idealism on ignoring issues and inflating positives, on using averages to point out the norm, a skewed methodology that ignores the fact that given gigantic disparities an average will be anything but an accurate representation of reality.
This form of distorted, bloated optimism is one facet of shifting the blame, a particularly underhanded way of saying we’ve got it all wrong, that we’ve been labouring under the misapprehension that things are as bad as they seem to be, that they have the answer. Look at our stupidity! Seeing the world collapsing around us and coming to believe that it may actually be collapsing. This excuse though, pales in comparison to another, long-evoked idea that I recently found Gates fully advocating in an interview with journalist Ezra Klein for Vox. That of overpopulation.
Apparently, for Gates, the issue is that Africa’s population is growing too fast. You might have thought it would be rampant profit-seeking at the expense of the environment, unprecedented wealth inequality, and indeed a study recently found that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, but no. Apparently;
“decades of stunning progress in the fight against poverty and disease may be on the verge of stalling. This is because the poorest parts of the world are growing faster than everywhere else; more babies are being born in the places where it’s hardest to lead a healthy and productive life”
-as put forward in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual “Goalkeepers Report”. Here we see something of the ugliness underlying the optimism Gates claims to love so much. This is nothing less than a direct apportioning of blame to the very individuals the systems he stands in direct benefit from exploiting to the maximum degree. Besides the overpopulation card’s long history as a little more than a respectable way to talk about Eugenics, this is a staggering excuse, the vampire blaming his victims for being full of blood. One might ask what he might do based on this information, and just as the vampire might pick off his prey to solve the issue of too many fleshy humans running around his castle, the logic of the Gates’s proclamation would suggest either a programme of sterilisation, or just killing. Needless to say, the issue is not and has never been, overpopulation, and this line of reasoning is at best a way to distract from the bloodsucking monster’s propensity to suck blood, and at worst a step on the path to genocide.
Whether you actually believe Thanatos has arrived, that we are now facing the end, the jaws of destruction, we can do better than believe the excuses of the vampire who seeks to drain us. In many ways, we could say Gates is only a flea, a speck in service to the “abstract parasite” of capital, and this to a certain extent holds very true, but in that case, we cannot buy into the idea that people like this will somehow buy their way, or allow us to buy our way, out of the apocalypse. Whether it is possible or not, we won’t exit this inferno by consuming the right things, through a comfortable act of reusing a coffee cup or a plastic bag, by giving to charity or through the products of a billionaire. To really seek an exit, we must start by unmasking the parasites themselves.
“Social media is bad and it’s ruining your attention spans” right? Done, nothing more to be written, the topic has been roundly tied off and thrown into a ditch. We may laugh or sigh at such proclamations by this point, so often are they wheeled out, often with the air of “when I was younger we used to go outside, things were so much better then” God, we know already, get off our backs. Because warnings about the addictiveness of social media tend to come with a side-order of finger wagging and moralising, indifference seems to be the widespread response, like kids ignoring the advice of a teacher because, well, it just isn’t cool to care.
Indeed, we can’t exactly just roll back the project, undo what has become such an integral part of people’s lives by this point. In many ways social media is now baked into the way many of us experience not just the internet, but life. We are told if we want to increase our publicity, we need a social media outlet, social media manager is not an uncommon position, and most events and get-togethers are now organised through the social media channels specifically designed for that purpose. While we could just sign off entirely and consign ourselves to more old-fashioned ways of organisation and information dissemination, there’s a distinct sense, and it’s not entirely unjustified, that by doing so we are losing out on a useful tool. Indeed, the only reason I still have a facebook account, when it comes down to it, is it’s usefulness in a communication and information capacity.
And if this is where it finished, as a tool, social media wouldn’t really be an issue. Indeed, was this not the primary purpose of social media, as something useful, a way to keep in touch with people, a tool to augment life… the issue is where we cross the boundary from an augmented reality towards a virtual one; we find ourselves in a rhythmic limbo of notifications, auto-playing videos, vaguely “relatable” status updates, quibbling, nitpicking, self-aggrandisement..
I myself was lead to write this after spending about half an hour browsing Facebook before realising I hadn’t really seen anything interesting in all that time. It was the anticipation of seeing something interesting that drove me, the expectation that something might happen, against the odds. I had just been sitting there scrolling through nothing, and it struck me how this is precisely where Facebook, Twitter et al want you, sitting there motionless scrolling through a small rectangle, willingly or unwillingly falling into an experience of pure banality. Completely immobilised. We begin craving the small dopamine rush of receiving a notification and so we continuously check, a fear that something might have happened while we were looking in the other direction. It is, as cliched as this might seem, a form of addiction, one that can be extremely difficult to kick, removal from the matrix leading to a constant twinge to pick up the phone, log in, check once more, one more click.
There was a Facebook advertising campaign, I’m not sure if its still running, called “Let’s Get to Work”, featuring a montage of people going about a variety of jobs; butcher, barber, candestickmaker, you get the jist, and I remember first seeing the ad in a cinema and openly laughing when the Facebook logo appeared at the end. It was a similar [if not quite as strong] surreal disconnect I noticed in that infamous Sainsbury’s Christmas advert clumsily welding their logo into the end of a tearjerking and well made short about the first world war. We have footage which over-bearingly signals that this is genuine, real, and that you, your small business, your life, is at the heart of it, and then a logo is imposed onto this footage of a company we know has no such concerns. Not only this, but the genuine-ness signalled in the advert is starkly at odds with the unprecedented levels of facade we encounter on the platform itself.
Facebook had pulled that old advertising trick of trying to convince you that they are the exact opposite of what they represent, something they are pulling again in the wake of data scandals and evidence of their untrustworthiness by trying to convince us that we’re in safe hands, that there’s nothing to worry about. What this particular campaign, maybe unintentionally, put across to me however was a conflation between the reality being shown and the reality we encounter on Facebook, as if one was the equivalent or the same as the other. In showing nobody within the advert actually using the platform, no hints of information technology at all in fact before unveiling the logo at the conclusion, the advert seems to engage in a kind of bait and switch, leading us down one path and at the last second pushing us back in the opposite direction.
Social media relies on this confusion, a contradiction between the fake and the genuine, the direct and the distant, until we dull our ability to distinguish, between fake-genuine and genuine-fake. When one refers to Baudrillard’s popular term Hyperreality in regard to social media, many might assume what’s being talked about is social media as a wholly alternative reality, something you plug into the back of your head and phase into. If it were that simple. What we have is the ultimate development in postmodern condition, the next step in the great immobilisation. Think of politics, and the endless spats, call-outs, and arguments that constitute its presence on social media. To put it bluntly, if people are busy quibbling endlessly online, they aren’t organising, and if you’re spending hours scrolling through vapid newsfeed posts, you’re not doing something constructive, but we see these things somehow as constructive themselves, we begin to find the distinction dissolving between uses of time, between interactions, the very fabric of reality becomes a digital smokescreen. We look at the world and only see something to post online, something to further our digital augmentation. Social media hasn’t simply become a reality in-itself as much as reality itself.
The door slides open with a hiss and an uncertain scraping sound, and you step into a cavernous tunnel, extending into a gradual arcing trajectory as it bends in on itself. Pipes extend from pulsating nodules and cables hang from metal vertebrae, the entire construction somewhat resembling the carcass of a dead whale, a machinic leviathan abandoned and rotting, dead code, useless beings suspended.
I wrote many drafts of something approaching what you’re about to read, and each time it broke down from neatly organised blog entry to something else, something less defined and scarier, something more akin to unrefined chunks of my consciousness scattered over a page.
Inside the machine, becoming the machine, using the machine, controlling the machine, submitting to the machine. The machine is a beast, a leviathan, a cold inhuman monolith of production with pinpointed and telegraphed desire in every piston, every line of code, every polished chrome plated part or harsh glowing rectangle. The desire we implant within its algorithmic inner workings, the libidinal push towards learning, ascended consciousness, transcendence, an uncertain but defined future. The future is contained within this construct of rhythmic apprehension, the envisioned future can be seen reflected in its design, a future of satisfied desire never attained. For the machine is not a mechanism of desire, but a generator of it, an endless stream of things, connected things, an internet of things.
The internet of things, the connected home. The future is here, now! An unprecedented connection to billions of streams of information, code, images, text, pouring out of devices into one another. Desire, generated at a volume unheard of, and satisfied time and time again, and yet we are not satisfied. Wanting more, we approach the machine, we find ourselves within its clutches, turning to it for advice. Dried of possibilities in the face of endless choice, we have nothing to say. The machine could tell us, but it is only a machine, and has its own business to take care of. Our business is none of the machines concern, built as it was to supplant the desires we now find empty.
For this leviathan is empty, dormant, the echoes of machinery heard from within its bowels suggesting and obscuring movement. We find not the future, but a facsimile, a banal flat metal surface meeting our gaze, mechanised corporate nihilism.
We live inside such a machine, one that generates flat images of desire, in built with the promise of 3 dimensional engagement, providing only the horizontal plane of business, of capital. The machine is abstract, uniformly plastic, shifting to form itself around our libido, the shape-shifting T1000 Terminator in hot pursuit, a constant state of unrest, of unease. The machine moves around us so as to be inescapable, and a sense of hopelessness envelops us as we see no exit, of horror as we contemplate our fate within the metal corpse, link sheared with our communities, alone. Machine horror, the feeling that, fundamentally, there is nothing else, only the machine, the inhuman, the flat walls of metal.
All that remain are perceptions of the past future, the future is lost to the regurgitated pellets the machine presents to us. The end of history as Fukuyama once put it, a stalling of progress, the death of the future. Anything outside the machine slowly becomes the unknowable horror to the comfort of its insides as we become accustomed to the acrid smell of metal as the smell of home, of comfort. Finding an exit becomes the unthinkable , a manifestation of the Lovecraftian eldritch terrors beyond our imagination. So pre-occupied we become with the horrors of the beyond we begin to internalise the horror of our very environment.
The more adaptable among us distance ourselves, make excuses, even start attempting communion with the beast, speaking the language of codes sputtered out by the information tunnels criss-crossing its sharpened vertebrae. Eventually, we start to become the machine, we hybridize, link our neurons to its circuits and speaking the machine language more fluently than our own. We speak in code, receding further and further from the outside possibility until it is a myth. Some mutter of its possibilities but are dismissed as lunatics, utopians, fools. The hypersimulation takes hold and confusion takes root. The fundament looks different now, we see in it the glittering potential of the machine, and we no longer know whether our libidinous energy stems from its apparatus or ours.
What if we could reach beyond the machine? Could there be a beyond, and could it be found within the machine’s code itself? If we reach beyond our traditional concept of reversal and negation, approach a concept of the machines recycling and re-using of our own resistance, and use the libidinal desires encouraged by the machine’s adherents to hijack its apparatus, could we reach past the suppression of progress, the halting of the future, escape the end of history? This is something that, frankly, I’ve only just begun thinking abut to any meaningful degree, but over however long it takes me, I intend to scour the information networks for concepts, plans of action, and hints of post-capitalist potential that signal some form or move away from the stifling currents of capitalist realism outlined so expertly by Mark Fisher in his book of the same name. For as far as I see it, only a move beyond the repetitions of the past towards and imagination of the future can we sufficiently fight this machine horror.
Imagining a beyond, the preserve of science fiction writers, theologians, occultists, philosophers, political activists, artists and scatterings of hopeful amateur thinkers for so long, must now become the barrage of the moment, the push into some un-fathomed land, the “thar be dragons” hinterlands on the map. The tradition of science fiction, of speculative critique transplanted into an imagination of other realities must, in some way be interpreted by the anti-capitalist sentiment if it wants to reach any kind of beyond, any kind of communion with the other. The unfortunate relegation of the left’s thought processes to the recycling of past visions is unhelpful, a relic destined ultimately to the continuation of past failures. The alternative is uncertain, but it must on some level involve a reclamation of the new, of the “innovative” from the mouths of the machine cultists. A second necessity is the use of the technologies that have become so central to our everyday existence. We must surely utilize the tools of desire themselves to advance? A reorganisation of structure without technology is no reorganisation at all if we are to recognise that the very organisation of contemporary bureaucracy itself exerts itself throught the screens of our smartphones as much as any government institute.
Finally, I will note the importance of entertainment. Far from the stifling and frankly, boring requests of many old-school Marxists to renounce all items of capitalism as being somehow “counter-revolutionary” I reject this idea wholesale as a contradiction and a hypocrisy. I feel it necessary to end on this note if the above strikes you somehow as a call to suppress anything created by capitalism (for the purposes of entertainment) for two main reasons:
That is impossible, as capitalism permeates our lives and thoughts, we can’t simply opt out without feeding back into the infinitely plastic and abstract form of capital.
I would never dream of suppressing the very things that keep us sane in this corporatised dystopia. Music, films, art and culture are important to our mental being in the same way the systems that often birth them are bad for it. Calling for people not to “buy into the entertainment industry” is, furthermore (yes I know this is a third reason but forgive me) a conceptual submission to the ideological tethering of art to capital, as if creativity cannot exist independently of the “creative industries”, and art cannot exist if it is not being made for the purposes of generating capital. This is capitalist realism of the first order and although those telling you it might think otherwise will simply break you more. Enjoy art, because its a respite, don’t suppress it out of some misguided revolutionary zeal.
Now that’s out of the way, I will conclude by saying I have a whole lot more research to do on these topics, and in many ways have only just begun. I will keep a running chronicle of my findings on here, inter-cut on a regular basis with music recommendations and whatever else takes my fancy, often tying back into philosophy or cultural criticism. If you happen to be one of the few disparate people who might have found their way here, I hope you found something of value, and I shall leave you with a playlist of music that in some way ties into the content you have found here.