Categories
Music Politics

Utopia at the Weekend

“Can music change the world?” is the question that dogs me more than any other at the moment, and suffice to say, as Simon Reynolds acknowledged during this years Mark Fisher memorial lecture, it has no simple answer. There is always the risk of a kind of theory-based wish fulfilment fantasy when addressing this, as evidenced by countless incidents wherein we will place whatever we are concerned with at the heart of some world-shifting rupture, as not only a method, but a central mechanism of change. Because my investment in music comes from a well of emotion it would be all too easy to progress from a confident affirmation of emancipatory power, to insist from the off that music is a revolutionary force as if this is a given. When I place importance on the question of music and political change, it is to avoid this assumption, but to commit to a certain confidence, perhaps misplaced but difficult to dislodge, that music is of importance, that it deserves more than we give it, and that in fact, the very act of writing about music still has a point.

This last point is something that I unambiguously take a side on, for good or ill, if only through my subjective experiences of music writing as an expansive tool, whether as a reader or writer. Without the idea, found largely in writing, of new worlds and experiences heralded through music, I probably wouldn’t have started this blog or rediscovered the value of theory in the first place. Whether it is in the form of a linking of ideas to cultural production or the heightening of emotional potential in the very sound of the music itself, the prism of the music-writer has continued to prove invaluable to me. This is something that has emerged for me particularly upon reading through Agnes Gayraud’s Dialectic of Pop, David Wilkinson’s Post-Punk, Politics and Pleasure in Britain, and attending the Simon Reynolds lecture, three “events” which have intertwined and coalesced into a series of concerns and questions.

Reynold’s lecture in particular channelled a lot of my reading through what was a stimulating if meandering excavation of Mark Fisher’s engagement with music and what it entails, as well as more specifically surprising engagement with bands like the Jam and the counterculture of the 60s, which earlier on had come under some notable ire in a few K-Punk posts. The evocation of the power of music here, and its utopian tendencies [even as often this utopia is deferred, the weekend is constantly on the horizon, the revolution is always tomorrow] emotionally channelled a lot of what I’d read not too long prior from Gayraud. Dialectic of Pop, notably, is far from an unambiguous culturalist defence of pop as utopian force, or even a defence of pop as artform as such, something that I would argue barely needs saying today, rather it is an invigorating philosophical engagement with pop-as-artform via a critique of its most famous detractor Adorno. The implications of the work I think demand further engagement, and I’m curious as to how this emerges in time, but for me it begged further questions regarding the implications of production.

By addressing technology, mediation and production as the central components of pop as a musical form, Gayraud immediately hits at something I think is key to addressing it, whether we do so as a critic or an academic or both. Derrida didn’t make an appearance in the book explicitly, but in addressing the inherent deferral of authenticity in recorded music and expression, I couldn’t help but think of him. What Gayraud implicitly deals with through her addressing of a paradoxical “grounded authenticity”, as well as her account of both pop and music concrete being arts of “fixed sounds”, defined not, as in prior forms in which the “object” was prefigured, symbolised by a score, by the particularities of the performance itself as inscribed on the recording. In this way, the idea of the authentic expression, the grounded, the lone bluesman pouring out their soul on the porch, is mediated as soon as it is played, even as its image is reproduced in the recording, the presence only occurs in its absence.

This seems to prefigure what Reynolds draws from in Fisher and others, the reference he made during the lecture of music forming identity, heralding new worlds, all in a way opposing the old conception of music expressing an authentic “soul” or emotional bedrock, rather pointing to it as a locus of production, of the new. It’s not often here that I’ve referred back to the CCRU, partly as its already such an overbearing reference point in online theory circles, but the most interesting thing about that moment today I think is how it was tied together with a cultural one. Reynolds, when talking about it, will never fail to mention how the CCRU was practically inseparable from its musical influences in Jungle, seeing in the heightened, machine-gun proliferation of drum-hits made possible via new technological openings a kind of cultural blueprint for the ideas that would eventually become attached to the name accelerationism. Whatever value we attach to that label now, and whatever’s in a name [I myself became so frustrated with the online discourse around it a while ago that I instigated a clean break on this blog, not something I’d do again but not something I regret either], the presence of jungle in the 90s as a kind of supposed sign of things to come is a marker of the ambiguous power of music. It can be argued I think that even as the excitement of new electronic forms of music, of audio-technological possibilities opened up, that power of the new failed utterly to connect with the socio-political moment, in which Blair, Britpop and a reconstituted mashup of 60s references was the order of the day.

So even as we maintain that music has power, that it can indeed herald other worlds, new possibilities, utopias, we have to question the implications of this power, and hence the implication that music is somehow inherently revolutionary or a force for change. The power it holds is one that is tied up in the changes of the day both material and abstract. As Fisher often pointed out and Reynolds reiterated, there is an uncertainty and a seeming contradiction in the kind of “realism” we sometimes find in Hip-Hop, where at the same time as being at the forefront of a contemporary modernist impulse sonically, tends towards reinforcing capitalist realist tendencies in its lyrics and relations. This, when we look at jungle, seems to manifest in the simultaneous acceleration and deceleration that occurred at that time, and what we could perhaps now see as the disappointment of that moment, that the much-vaunted heightened abstraction of capital, the kind of accelerated ruptures to the outside heralded by the intersection of cyberpunk, jungle, Lovecraft and the other host of reference points the CCRU drew from, never materialised, the 2000s instead becoming dominated by the kind of flaccid indie-pop-rock continuum that couldn’t stand in greater contrast with the rhythmic psychedelia, as Kodwo Eshun dubbed it, of Jungle, and the possibilities it suggested.

That was 20ish years ago, and now we exist in the world which seems to be the fruit of that moment, not as a kind of vivid auto-destruction of capital, but a stasis of effect. Rather than a lurid eroticism of machines, a technological rupture, the future is that of google and facebook, the reterritorialised thrill of machinic abandon made manifest instead in the billionaire figure, the tech guru, the data manager around which we gather in worship. The underground promise of technological mutation promised through genres like jungle, and the much-mythologised moment of the CCRU, remained just that, a myth, a teleology some still cling to even while we live in its manifestation. This all paints a somewhat hopeless picture, and in fact I would hold that we shouldn’t shy away from, to some degree, acknowledging a certain degree of pessimism, an emotional air of failure, in the present, not only from the left, but from the counterculture, wherever that can be found.

The flipside to this is the questioning of purpose. Something I’ve come to realise is a certain turmoil of believing in, and committing to, an emancipatory politics and some kind of future. Especially in the current climate, outside influences make themselves known, voices consistently asking you “what’s the point?”, on some level you wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if you gave up hope, simply threw in the towel and accepted perhaps that culture doesn’t mean anything, that there really isn’t any escaping. It is here that, speaking personally, but also as something of a justification for my interest in theories and politics of aesthetics and culture, culture, and in this instance especially music, holds open the door. The “heralding of worlds” enabled through pop music must be more than a simple ability to ignore the world as it is.

This is something that, especially given the somewhat archival nature of Reynold’s lecture, and my current reading on post-punk, appears not simply in some ineffable thought-realm, but on a spatio-temporal level. When I was discovering swathes of new sounds each presented to me a world with which I wasn’t familiar, a kind of fantastical apparition of the period from which it came. I referred previously on this blog to the Pop Group as appearing like a kind of transmission from elsewhere, and indeed a lot of the music I discovered felt the same way. Gayraud puts a large amount of emphasis on the development of recorded music, describing how recordings were in those early days sometimes treated with suspicion, how upon being played a recording of a song, the voice might be regarded as a spectre, something unnatural being brought back from the grave. This sense never truly goes away from recorded music, the particulars of each recording being inscribed technologically rather than dissipating with the singer/musician. On some level, the pop song, the recorded piece of music does give us a transmission from somewhere that no longer exists, or doesn’t exist here.

This is both the hope and the melancholy of pop, the moment that it promises something else while deferring it. Something Reynold’s referred to, specifically in conjunction with a song by “the Australian Beatles” the Easybeats, was this idea of “Utopia at the weekend” contained in their lyrics, the infinitely deferred promise of good times, without worry, always appearing as soon as they disappear. This is a conflict I’ve found within the form of songs repeatedly, whose sounds and forms encourage langour, enjoyment, dance, a kind of moment in which you are encouraged to remain… yet the song finishes, it can’t not, to lead onto the next. The euphoria always prefigures the downturn, the revolution is always tomorrow. Nonetheless the promise remains.

And what does the music writer have to do with all this? Is writing about music like dancing about architecture? No more than making music itself is like talking about paintings. That ridiculous canard should have been done away with a long time ago, not simply because its a case of “apples and oranges” but because it belies a constraint, a straight-jacket on music as well as writing, which assumes that one sphere simply lies apart from the other, that any imposition of writing or thought must necessarily lessen the impact, cheapen the music itself. I have to contest this on a personal level; I would never have, for instance, listened to the cracked ceramic majesty of the Associates Sulk had the presence of their music not been drawn up in such a compelling form in Reynold’s Rip it Up and Start Again, and in this instance it ceases to matter whether the writing itself resembles the form of the music, it was never about that, but the conjuring of its spirit, its emotional resonance in the listener.

This is, to tell the truth, what I objected to for so long in the music reviews I found in the guardian, which I encountered more regularly than any other paper, in which professional critics would time and again proceed to review from a supposed position of cynical distance, where they couldn’t be seen to be too invested, where even praise came with the insistent and mind-numbing implication of white-middle-class-cool heaped on top of it, as if I was being lectured by the frontman of the latest mediocre indie-rock outfit week after week. It is the bind of the man who simply grunts in response so as not to break his uncaring facade, the same that grips the hipster, the cool-police who stalk newspaper columns everywhere and deliver packaged and manufactured snide remarks on the latest pop single not because it has any bearing on anything, but because they need to make snide irreverent comments on something lest they lose their edge.

This form of criticism is an anathema to the power of music, it aims to lessen it, to dismiss it. Even what’s good is only so because you enjoy it, or because it fits a certain standard of irreverent cool to be a credibility-booster for the critic in question. The idea that music could in fact do something, that talking about it might be something more than recommending the best product for an audience, is laughed at, hit with the same insufferable hipster cool as everything else. In contrast to this, the best music writing, encapsulated for me in the past year in Ian Penman’s It Takes Me Home, This Winding Track, holds on, not to some artificial sincerity, but the weight of culture, the commitment to its power. To oppose the empty nostalgic commodification of Mod today is not simply an exasperated old man-ism, as if they “aren’t doing mod right” or something, but an acknowledgement of the wider implications, the nostalgia-porn for instance hanging around punk and, most bafflingly today, Britpop, isn’t simply something not to be liked, something distasteful, but a sign of something broader, something powerful.

The power of music remains an ambiguous one, to be handled with care and critically, but its existence is precisely why this critique is necessary, why despite the ineffability of sound, music and music culture deserve to be taken seriously. To not do so is to let this power bend to others, to give up the ghost, to leave music at the whims of the hipster critic is to leave it to the whims of political change. If we are to accept, as we should have realised long ago on the left, that politics operates through emotional means far before it does analytic ones, then the emotional pull of culture, the establishing of its power, has its part to play. By saying this, I don’t want to insinuate a call for some kind of “left culture offensive” in the manner of Red Wedge or Grime 4 Corbyn, both of which not only failed but subscribe to the logic that only explicit political messaging and content matters. Rather, it is for a re-alignment of how we criticise, talk about, address music. We need to assume that it matters regardless of content, that the future of music has something to offer, and that the dream of a re-invented structure of feeling presented by the history of its form still lives on, in whatever form this may take.

Categories
post-capitalism

Corrosive Dreams: Aspects of Acid Communism

Acid Communism. Probably one of Mark Fishers most evocative coinages, and yet the one that we have the least material on. Immediately it begs questions regarding what exactly the term Acid implies, the use of Communism as opposed to post-capitalism or other alternatives often strangely falling behind due to the manifold interpretations of the modifier. Ostensibly we only have a single unfinished introduction to a planned book and a few mentions here and there, and yet… while this doesn’t seem a whole lot to go on, from the material that’s there, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to trace the lines of Acid Communism through the rest of his work. Of course as a project in and of itself, it remained unfinished on Fishers death, but like every other project Fisher undertook, it can’t really be considered a walled off singular set of ideas, and it isn’t hard to sense the spectre of acid communism hanging over the rest of Fishers oeuvre. Here I want to attempt to sketch out this spectre, and to attempt, in the words of Jameson, and in the spirit of Fisher, to “read the imperceptible tremors of an unimaginable future”.

Anti-Anti-Capitalism

The first, and core point, that I want to arrive at, is at the very beginning of the introduction, that being the reversal of political perspective;

“We on the left have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops , its teargas, and all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block the emergence of this red plenty.”

The red plenty he refers to here being “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”. This reversal I think is hugely important to excavating what Fisher meant by Acid Communism, and his indentifying within the opening lines of a historical space and time, “the spectre of a world which could be free” from Marcuse pinpoints the use of “Acid” immediately in relation to a history, more specifically to the 60s counterculture.

Does this mean, as I’ve heard floating around in some quarters, that Acid Communism means a return to the 60s? I’m going to get this out of the way up front, no. Fishers approach to the 60s is no more an exercise in empty nostalgia than the 70s; something he wasn’t arguing for, in other words, was a wholesale turning back of the clock to some utopian past. Instead, we can turn to his observation that the past has not yet occurred, meaning that it hinges on re-telling and framing, to understand better what he meant through his evocations of the past. The reference point here would be Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: a secret history of the twentieth century, a book that excavates the cultural history of the twentieth century to draw the link between Dada Situationism and Punk, demonstrating how echoes of the past can re-emerge in new forms years or decades later, the proposals of the situationists somehow bursting through the walls and into the heart of Popular culture in the form of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. The point here is that the past is not a dead entity, but something that re-emerges; the point of Fisher taking Derrida’s coinage “Hauntology” was to effectively illustrate how the past hangs over and suffuses the present. the 60s and the 70s now re-emerge in the 21st century as spectral potentialities, the futures that they promised having receded under the pall of capitalist realism.

Now I’ve addressed that, I will turn to the other common fixation with regard to Acid Communism, and that is on LSD. Now don’t get me wrong, psychedelic culture and experiences are not absent from what Fisher wrote, but it would be remiss to channel that into an Acid Communism that centres on such practices, simply because Fisher appeared to have no interest in psychedelics as such and this is to miss the points he makes regarding such experiences. It is not that Acid is as such some emancipatory, freeing substance, a magical consciousness-machine, even if that was a latent promise in hippy culture, but that Acid is representative of the de-naturalizing Fisher pinpointed as a necessary precedent to emancipatory politics, something that one can find at the heart of the Xenofeminist manifesto for instance;

“Freedom is not a given–and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.”

A left politics, if it is to be anything at all must be the politics of un-nature, of the alien, the weird. This is the context in which Fisher addresses the psychedelic experience in Acid Communism and its centrality to the 60s counter-culture.

If we’re really going to delve into what Fisher defined under the Acid Communist heading, this strikes me as an unavoidable passage;

“Acid Communism is the name I have given to this spectre. The concept of acid communism is a provocation and a promise. It is a joke of sorts, but one with very serious purpose. It points to something that, at one point, seemed inevitable, but which now appears impossible: the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life. “

So, to Fisher what AC represented was nothing less than a historical confluence, a cultural-aesthetic-political-space that once promised to emerge and yet was stifled at birth. It is the cross-contamination of movements, the intersection for instance of a counter-cultural bohemia with a socialist politics and subordinate group consciousness. In truth, this is very much in line with his trajectory until that point, but took on a new dimension with greater incorporation of the 60s as a reference point, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization becoming an important text in its affinity with the countercultural current of the time. The point I raised at the beginning comes to form more fully now in relation to the promise this period put forward, that of freedom, and not the freedom that Neoliberalism eventually claimed to deliver, but a freedom from drudgery. Something that Fisher mentioned a lot regarding this was the consistent worry of capitalism during this time “what if the working classes become hippies”. This worry, to some degree was the battleground of the 70s, during which the great questions in politics and culture revolved around the relation of each to the other, the promise made in the 60s, of the meeting point between these nodes fighting to make itself known.

Capitalist Desire?

For a long time, this promise seemed entirely impossible, the seemingly total political acquiescence of the 80s leading a widespread equation of the left/socialism with the old, with stuffy tweed wearing old men who want to return to the 70s, the socialist left itself struggling to disavow itself of a nostalgia for Fordism which still follows it to this day in some respects. This leads us to what I think is another key axis in AC, and that is Desire, what is desire under, and after, capitalism? Another later piece by Fisher, and one that I think works incredibly in tandem with AC, is his essay titled Post-Capitalist Desire. Fisher here question’s the long-standing equation of Desire with Capitalism presented most openly in Louise Mensch’s appearance on Have I Got News For You in 2011, in which she mocked anti-capitalist protesters for buying coffee at Starbucks and using iphones. The implication here is clearly that, to be a successful anti-capitalist, one has to revoke the desirable, become an ascetic, an anarcho-primitivist living off the land and refusing any and all aspects of modern life.

Later in Post-Capitalist Desire Fisher importantly, and a little provocatively calls for the left to reconcile with terms such as “Designer Socialism” and “Radical Chic”;

Instead of the anti-capitalist ‘no logo’ call for a retreat from semiotic productivity, why not an embrace of all the mechanisms of semiotic libidinal production in the name of a post-capitalist counterbranding? ‘Radical chic’ is not something that the left should flee from—very much to the contrary, it is something that it must embrace and cultivate. For didn’t the moment of the left’s failure coincide with the growing perception that ‘radical’ and ‘chic’ are incompatible? Similarly, it is time for us to reclaim and positivise sneers such as ‘designer socialism’—because it is the equation of the ‘designer’ with ‘capitalist’ that has done so much to make capital appear as if it is the only possible modernity.

This, I think, it is reasonable to link to what Fisher in AC calls the “unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life”, namely, that an element of AC is most definitely the reclamation of the “new” on the side of the left, a retreat from left wing melancholia, the attachment to and repetition of aged aesthetics and strategies and instead the plotting of vectors into the future. What does this mean with regard to culture and aesthetics?

I would hold that partially at least an answer can be found in the Freudian dreamwork, and it’s importance that Fisher recognised in analysing the operations of power. This blog post contains I think some important material on the matter;

“How could it ever be possible for us to believe successive or even co-extensive stories that so obviously contradict one another? Yet we know from Kant, Nietzsche and psychoanalysis that waking, as much as dreaming, experience, depends upon just such screening narratives. If the Real is unbearable, any reality we construct must be a tissue of inconsistencies.

What differentiates Kant, Nietzsche and Freud from the tiresome cliche that ‘life is but a dream’ is precisely the sense that the confabulations we live are consensual. The idea that the world we experience is a solipsistic delusion projected from the interior of our mind consoles rather than disturbs us, since it conforms with our infantile fantasies of omnipotence; but the thought that our so-called interiority owe its existence to a fictionalized consensus will always carry an uncanny charge.

This, as well as the observations on the Wendy Brown lecture, furnish us with an idea of how capitalism employs the Dreamwork to conflate contradictions, to present a fiction to paper over the cracks. And this I think begins to get at why the Dreamwork has relevance to AC. The realisation that the world we perceive, the way we perceive it, is not so much a vision projected from our minds but a consensual dream, that we are, for all intents and purposes, dreaming the dreams of capital, links in with the problem of post-capitalist desire. Fisher talked in one of his seminars on the topic of how advertising operates via Dreamwork, giving the example for instance of the famous, Ridley Scott directed 1984 apple advert, wherein apple is presented as the new, forward thinking, colourful, exciting alternative to the old technologies, presented as a 1984, soviet bloc style oppressive grey world. Here we see the desirable, the new, unambiguously conflated with capital.

Here we get a sense of why Fisher called for the reconciliation of radical chic. AC sets itself around the idea that there is no real desire for capitalism, that capitalism is itself the suppression of desire for emancipation. What then, that apple advert did, was to conceal that fact through conflating capital with emancipation, a reversal of intention. Fisher, in the same blog quoted above, and speaking about the Wendy Brown lecture American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization;

“What the dreamwork does, Brown recognized, like Le Guin before her, is to produce an – always retrospective – narrative consistency which covers over anomalies and contradictions . Brown’s analysis had the literally stunning effect of rousing us from the trance in which we blithely accept that neoliberalism and neoconservatism are in some way logically consistent”

Something that has long cemented the dominance of capitalism is the genuinely impressive extent to which these principles have been used to erode collective consciousness. Desire has, despite the contradiction in terms, been repeatedly conflated with capitalism, anti-capitalism, as for Mensch, with regression, primitivism, stuffy old miserable societies in which nobody wants to live. What Acid Commmunism promises on some level is the re-alignment of the left with desire, a Left that can again lay claim to the new, to innovation, to creativity and freedom, such terms as have been adopted almost wholesale under the umbrella of neoliberal dogma.

The Past is So Much Safer”

” “The past is so much safer”, observes one of the narrators of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian satire, The Heart Goes Last , “because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed: so, in a way there’s nothing to dread”. 8 Despite what Atwood’s narrator thinks, the past hasn’t “already happened”. The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments.”

Here we come in more detail to the historical element of AC, that is, the focus of Fisher on historical narrative. This always seems to arise in his work in the form of opposition to canonization. That is, within culture there tends to be story, a series of works, groups or individuals considered to be part of a classical “canon”. This usually also pertains to how they are perceived, there are accepted interpretations, they are taught in a certain way. Something Fisher often did was upend these canons, taking aim at the comfortable talk-show reels and mythology of genius that is abound in most contemporary cultural broadcasting. A similar attack on the stagnant, platitudinous, calcified remains of the dance music press can be found at the beginning of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than the Sun, leading onto what Eshun calls the “Futurhythmachine” effectively an afrofuturist synthetic collage in which the past marks out the vector towards the future. The historicism of AC then, can I think be understood as drawing upon similar ideas running through Fishers own work, the past not only as future, but a future in progress. Hereby I wouldn’t suggest as much that its a return to a singular historical moment but the cutting and pasting of an unfinished project, an synthetically re-written history to set out future co-ordinates. To re-iterate, the past has not yet happened. It must always be re-told.

So what does this mean for desire? The most obvious consequence is that post-capitalist desire already resides within capitalism. For Fisher, what becomes apparent is not that we must generate a new form of desire from scratch, but that, in the manner of such provocations that might be included under the heading of accelerationism, or Jameson’s Utopia as Replication, wherein the forms, spaces, desires of a post-capitalist future, of communism, are found within the very structures of capitalism. This is why Fisher begins by reversing the age old anti-capitalist formulation; he evokes the question, is there any desire for capitalism? And the answer is a resounding no. To say otherwise immediately equates, with problematic consequences, the desire of modernity with that of capital. Of course, the modernity we currently exist within, subsist from, has been largely generated via capitalism, but that doesn’t mean the desire for it is the same as the desire for the system that drives it. In fact, I may point towards Fisher’s piece on the 2012 London Olympic games here;

It’s clear that what people are already enjoying in the Games is everything for which Capital is not responsible: the efforts of the athletes, the experience of a shared publicness. Insofar as the torch relay was a success, this, too, was not due to the parade itself – a dreary countrywide corporate carnival, consisting of Samsung, Coca Cola and Lloyds TSB floats – but because it allowed people to experience their own sociality.

It doesn’t seem far fetched to suggest that if enjoyment is even what’s at stake here, what people enjoy about modernity is often that for which capital is not responsible, inasmuch as people don’t seem to display any notable desire for soaring costs of living, ecological devastation, corporate sponsorship or business jargon.

The Counter-Exorcism

So in a way AC IS a return, but it is less returning us to the 60s/70s than it returns those decades to the present. More specifically, it is the unforgetting as Fisher put it, of a confluence of consciousness, of culture, politics, aesthetics that mapped out a future beyond the grey drudgery of capitalist work. It is not that these things have ceased to exist, it is, to refer to Jameson’s postmodernism, there has been a collective dehistoricizing of culture, a grand forgetting, wherein all that begins to exist is a present moment, shorn of narrative continuum or discontinuum. This all feeds into the consciousness deflation that allowed capitalist realism to take hold. As long as we remain captured within the dreamwork, dreaming the dreams of capital, not only this but as we retain the illusory notion that this is real [Fisher of course mentioned that “capitalist realism is not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism in itself. For what is the triumphalism of capitalism based on if not the claim that it has dissolved all illusions?”] , then the historical processes of emancipation become lost to us. Something that remains locked in a kind of museum, a hall containing a succession of past artefacts with no meaningful attachment to the present.

In looking back to the counter-cultural potentials of the past, AC evokes a cultural space of experimentation, wherein politics and aesthetics in some sense converge towards emancipatory goals; it is important to note here that this is meant not in content necessarily, but in form. The aesthetics spoken of here are not just some uninspired decent into psychedelic fractals and mind-bending imagery, it is the capacity of culture to denaturalize. In this sense, the “Acid” simply cannot be divorced from its paring “Communism”. Fishers formulation appears to refer if anything to the intersection of both, of the dream of psychedelic culture, of a life freed from work and daily concerns, with that of radical left politics.

What the spectre of Acid Communism presents us with is a call to unforget this intersection, it describes a latent space within which counter-culture and politics dialectically interact, intertwining and playing off one another as they are thought as one. Acid Communism is image, it is Glam, it is the Dreamwork set to new tasks, it is the autonomy of collective consciousness within cultural forms; within Acid Communism seems to lie everything Fisher wrote about the power of counter-cultural expression in post-punk. What changes here is the introduction of the 60s not merely as the dream that go co-opted by neoliberalism, but the desires that were suppressed, the utopian promise that was crushed. What was thought as possible then decades later would be dismissed as a child’s fantasy. Acid Communism is that dream, that spectre, and the counter-exorcism thereof.

Categories
Current Affairs

Comments on Brexit and Class

Following thoughts from what I posted last, what’s evident to me is the sheer difficulty of mapping class politics accurately onto Brexit. While there is quite an easy picture that’s been drawn, one that presents us with a working class “Brexit Heartland” in the north, it’s worth bearing in mind the multiple reasons we have to be deeply suspicious of this, not least the common appeals to what’s become called the “traditional” working class demographic. Of course, as figures like Ash Sarkar have accurately pointed out, despite the “metropolitan elite” that some have pointed to being at the heart of the remain vote, there are many living in metropolitan areas who are anything but elite, many from immigrant backgrounds who reside in council estates and high-rises. On top of this we must add the precarity of city existence that really intrudes now on any sense that anyone living in London is within some kind of luxury bubble. I don’t mean this to suggest that, as some people have suggested “class doesn’t exist” [to suggest that is simply absurd on quite a basic level, who would believe that we have somehow already transitioned into some classless society?] but that when it comes to what motivates remain/leave in the trashfire of Brexit really doesn’t project neatly on top of it in the way that would be required to see it as a direct parallel of class conflict.

To be more accurate, I would add that the concept of “class” must be expanded. It can no longer be held to mean merely a white male worker, some gruff northern chap who works in a factory, an outdated archetype that no longer has much bearing on post-fordist labour, and actively excludes consideration of black or immigrant working class communities. In many ways we can speak not just of class consciousness, but as Fisher suggested of subordinate group consciousness, in this way approaching a more intersectional analysis of how capital captures groups into a system of oppression and moving away from the risk of adopting a kind of reactionary, nationalist reading of class which fundamentally goes against the aims of emancipatory politics on an international scale.

It all comes to this; Brexit cannot simply be seen as a vehicle for class. It is an ideological tool, one that was employed for reactionary ends but could [and perhaps must at this stage] be taken as a hint towards collective desire for change. What Farage and his lackeys have successfully intimated in their audience is this desire for change, and in their vision this becomes a reactionary change, a move away from the future, towards a fascist-golden age scenario… your situation is bad, things used to be better, here we can return to that! From this it can most successfully be taken as a call to galvanize left politics, to offer something Brexit can’t; the future.

Categories
Books post-capitalism

Reflections of K-Punk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K-Punk is finished, but not done.

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

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

Laboria Cuboniks – The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Jodi Dean – The Communist Horizon

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

Donna Haraway – The Cyborg Manifesto

David Toop – Oceans of Sound

Categories
hauntology post-capitalism

Brutal Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Uncategorized

On the Virus

Virus_Blaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beyond Capitalist Horizons: Future Interfaces

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

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

I. Anti-Capitalism and Cybernetics

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

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

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

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

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

II. We are Android [We are DEVO]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Beyond Capitalist Horizons

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

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

 

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Notes on Left Hyperstition

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.

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The Weirdening

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.

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Post-ironic Metamorphosis; Detachment, Horror, Collapse

“Prophesying catastrophe is incredibly banal. The more original move is to assume that it has already happened.” -Jean Baudrillard

If there’s one thing that we have to come to terms with, in this cornucopia of conflicting multiplicitous simulations, it’s undoubtedly that reality is an infinite pit of horrors. The reality, that which underlies our normalised interactions, the everyday, banal, surface-level minute to minute second to second, episodic temporal order, threatens to collapse our understanding into itself. It lies underneath everything, this seething weirdness, it bubbles to the surface occasionally, an unseemly reminder of all that is uncertain and fragile about our precarious social existence. We surround ourselves with normality, inculcate ourselves into a numbing process of repetition and ritual, a shroud of removal.

Because ultimately, what is horror but a pseudo-Heidegerrian encounter with being? We often encounter it as an invasion of the other, some insidious terrifying threat from the outsider, but does this not belie a realisation that we are entangled in an eternal dance with this other? That these demons and apparitions may have existed as part of this reality all along, we just refused to acknowledge them seems to underlie a lot of our search for abjection in entertainment, a place of safety in which we can run a simulation of truth, test our reaction to the all consuming threat of the real. Like Lovecraft’s story Pickman’s Model or the Man Behind Winkie’s in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive the terror arises not from invasion, not from some outside force, but from the breaking down of logics and realities. We realise that what we previously considered fiction is reality, that what we spent so much time explaining away, hand waving as some immaterial nonsense, is confronting us directly as a manifestation of being. This denial, this othering of aspects we don’t wish to confront, defines to an extent the violence and fear that have dominated our limited lifespan as a species. We do not wish to encounter the reality of our own situation, so we go to untold lengths to prevent that happening, from simply lying to outright bursts of violence. We pathologically avoid being.

And this is the background against which we find the proliferation of ironic detachment. We situate ourselves within something of a “postmodern” [though that term is nigh useless so I will try not to use it too much] capitalist landscape of economic hand-wringing and corporate platitudinous simulation undeniably laid upon a backdrop of unmitigated exploitation, violence, and, most prominently, ecological collapse. We live within a paper thin surface-ideology that works tirelessly to hide the blood and viscera underneath, and what’s more, it’s unsuccessful.

Yes, you heard me, it doesn’t work. The fact is, we all know about what lies underneath the shroud of capitalist idealism that governs the banality of our lives, we are, for the most part, aware that we are being lied to, not shown the whole picture, that the door is being held shut lest the horrors of the other pour through, and yet we find ourselves doing nothing. Some of us respond by simply diving headfirst into the neoliberal promises made to us, just strapping on the blinkers and getting on with the task of reinforcing the wobbly appendages of capital’s outer reaches, but many more of us begin to approach life with a ever-amplified sense of irony. When I say irony, I don’t simply mean irony in the sense that it might be employed in a  comedy routine or a novel as a contextual device, but an entire attitude, a worldview necessitated by the denial of the real that becomes a cultural touchstone. In everyday conversation, we run away from it not by avoiding the topic completely, but by talking about it with a wry smile and a wink. This thing isn’t real, it is merely a simulation of the future, one of many, one of the many topics available to us, like the weather, football et al. 

Confronting Collapse

Ironic detachment is also entirely understandable. It seems the only meaningful way to get though the day without utter despair, and we fear the alternatives. Indeed, we often see obsession with the horror of the world lead decent people down a dark path of total and complete devastation of their own well-being in the face of an all-consuming hopelessness. Left Wing Melancholy is a term used to describe this distinct sense that there’s nowhere to go, not chance of success, change, simply no hope, no way out. The current ruling framework does indeed often seem inescapable, its horizons constricting and limiting, the cogs seemingly endless and constant, and yet one approaching entity, a “Hyperobject” as Tim Morton would describe it, seems to break through all of it, and that is the similarly implacable, acentered, Rhizomatic effects of human-induced ecological catastrophe, something that over-everything takes on the mantle of the real. All other priorities pale in comparison to the possibilities of the ravaging of global warming and mass extinction, and in some sense it can be seen as a direct mirror of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Our ruling ideology examines itself in the mirror to find a malignant, twisted, fucked-up reiteration of its own idealistic vision staring back at itself. It is a self induced nuclear blast, the oncoming disintegration of every carefully constructed theological and philosophical construct that tried to reach beyond its unfathomable depths.

So surely, when we look towards this unthinkable horror, we laugh or turn away, we consider it with a nervous laugh, make fun of it, we detach ourselves from its reality… Is this our only recourse? While I’ve presented this as a distinctly macro issue, one of social devastation and world collapse, it is simply, to some degree, a scaling up of our own existential drowning in the waters of irony, a continuous attempt to avoid reality and subsist on simulation, in a world in which simulation has become an order far beyond what Baudrillard could have predicted. From something so vast and impossible to conceive, we can look under the hood of our own sensibilities and consider the micro effects tied into the macro umbrella. We can consider this not only as an adaptation to catastrophe on the widest possible terms, but something into which we are inevitably tied.

This is not the same as considering collapse and systematic issues as a problem connected to individual action, something that has become all too prevalent and tied up in the mechanisms of late capitalist irony that give us our existential coping mechanisms. In truth, part of our individual confrontation must be to recognise that ultimately no matter how many straws we don’t use, how much plastic we recycle, how much we buy the right products, undergo all the government-ordained and corporately managed ecological procedure, ecological collapse will still bear down upon us in the same way it has been for decades now, being not a consequence of individual decision-making, but the very structures into which the idea of individual culpability is baked. We have seen the very source of the horror we are now ensconced within and try desperately to avoid or mitigate try to sidestep its own central part in this cosmic comedy of errors in a gigantic exercise of what we might term in some sense as victim-blaming. 

I say here, and without any sense of metaphor or mediation, that what is necessary is a direct, horrifying, unfiltered confrontation with being. We can simply no longer afford to wallow in ironic detachment, and must find an alternative. The closer we come to realising the sheer tenuous nature of our situation, and the more we realise that we in fact exist in some sense as part of a post-apocalyptic landscape, instead of continuously awaiting said apocalypse in anticipation of fighting it, the more we need another recourse. Irony becomes a poor bedfellow when we come face to face with the unstoppable disintegration of extinction. We must find some spark, some catalyst for metamorphosis, beyond simply opining for revolution in some retrospective greatest hits compilation of radical politics, we find in this necessary confrontation with an ultimate abjection a need for some kind of new process and new mediator, whether this be found simply in the folds of unbound pessimism or something more, something more… other. 

This is, when we come to look at it in the cold light of day, the moment for the new and, if any point in history calls for a reconfiguration of every priority and axiom of culture, this is it. Any kind of futurism ultimately must, and this is a must I cannot place enough emphasis on, do two things; 1 – Abandon the ironic detachment from the horror of out current situation, and 2 – Adapt its precepts to the immediacy of catastrophe. If there’s one constant annoyance I find with predictions of the future, often ones with a technological bent, it’s that they consistently present a vision of humanity or posthumanity divorced from the collapse of values and progress currently on the definite horizon. If, for instance, we are to see a world overtaken by the engines of technology, machine incarnate, we would have to entirely ignore the disintegration of technological progress and capital itself that can be witnessed alongside that of the surrounding ecological systems that govern it. There simply isn’t a possibility of eternal progress to fuel the visions we so often pine for, it will, and I believe we can say this with a good degree of certainty, have to encounter the material effects of its own deficiencies. How ironic.

Irony does not cancel reality

For irony, ultimately, is as much a source of misery, perhaps more so, than its counterparts. Irony pervades so much of our consciousness that we find ourselves unable to enjoy, in any sense that isn’t mediated or removed from ourselves. Oh this song? I don’t actually like it, I just like it ironically. This hat? Of course I’m wearing it ironically, I wouldn’t wear something like this sincerely. This racism? Can’t you tell it’s just ironic?

Ok, so that last one might strike a chord with anyone who’s ever come across the cesspit of online racism cloaking itself under the pretence of fooling around, of edgy humour. The alt-right and associated branches often hide behind a heavy shield of irony when questioned on the deeply unsavoury nature of their words and actions, and while this may seem different to the simple act of claiming to like a song ironically, it works in pretty much the same way. This is the key thing to bear in mind when encountering the irony practiced by “provocateurs” to justify promoting or amplifying racist or otherwise morally defunct worldviews; Irony does not cancel reality. We find it, in this context, to be an entirely ludicrous excuse, as if a murderer had just told us he butchered someone as a joke in an attempt to escape the law. No matter whether we did something “ironically” or not, the fact of the matter is the result is the same, the irony here is imply a flimsy shield against accountability, and easy to recognise as such.

Ironic detachment as a way of approaching the world seems to change reality while leaving it pretty much untouched, it facilitates simulation in a way that is entirely non-conducive to our own happiness and simply leads into an ever increasing and expanding pool of cynicism; detachment coupled with deep disdain and elimination of connection, with the end result of a deep distrust of our own being. Ultimately the result is not exactly replicated between us, but it becomes apparent that this problem, that we seem unable to function without a layer of irony protecting ourselves from reality, permeates our social and political undertakings.

What?

What of it then? Can we even look beyond irony in this case? If anything, it might already be occurring to ourselves that in the face of collapse ironic detachment proves an entirely ineffectual salve, nothing but a pathetic sticking plaster to protect the small and vulnerable being of our own egos. The issue is one of translation from micro to macro, from the existential to the political, where we realise that not only do we have to shift our own priorities, search for new horizons and new possibilities allowing us to adapt to whatever this all-consuming collapse has in store for us. We may have to try, to whatever extent it is possible, to confront before we can move on, whether this takes the form of a theological, a philosophical, a political paradigm shift, or all of the above, as tied together as they invariably are. We must, on some level, try to push our fingers through the veil into the uncertain otherness we fear so much and in some way to tear it, to visualise the beyond and to venture forward into it, not only because its advisable, not only because of our drive to uncover it, but because it is upon us, because, on some fundamental level, we know this confrontation is now unavoidable. We already live in a post-ironic future, it’s simply a matter of navigating it without disintegrating.