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Archaeology of Cultural Space hauntology Theory/Praxis

Valences of Hauntology

Hauntology is everywhere these days, or should I say, everyone’s talking about it, or maybe it’s more that everyone’s complaining that everyone’s talking about it? It all becomes a bit tiring when you’ve spent some time sequestered online, once you’ve been through the umpteenth iteration in some kind of endlessly repeated discussion that would like to think it’s a weighty debate at the acropolis but is closer in resemblance to “my dad could beat your dad in a fight”; who has the best take, the spiciest or the hottest? Tune in after the break to find out…

Regardless, read what you want into the time of year I’m writing this, but I found myself lately in something of a Hauntology hole, probably after watching Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance and returning to Derrida, the thinker that strangely enough for me I can’t seem to escape, who seems to wait for me somewhere however far I travel, whichever paths I go down. For all that he can be frustrating, and I very much understand the criticisms of Deconstruction as often being a kind of desiccated critique, there’s something more, and something vital within his critique of metaphysics that I can’t escape; indeed there’s something of the denaturalising impulse that we must search for in an emancipatory sense that seems to permeate much of Derrida’s work. When it comes to Hauntology, I think it is immensely valuable at this stage to strip away some of the dissatisfaction, repeated points, misrepresentations and identify a certain strand, something that very much still resides in Specters of Marx.

By this point a lot of what is pointed towards or identifies as such seems to be distinctly un-hauntological, a kind of flattening of the term to mean simply “haunting”, and a disconnection almost entirely from its implications of disjuncture, the intention of Derrida to invoke the “conjuring” of ontology, centred around the unspoken, the said and the yet-to-be-said, the “presence” of the text itself becoming a spectre. What is lost often is what is contained within the Hamlet quote “time is out of joint”, which Derrida evokes repeatedly throughout SoM. Hauntology is never about a simple haunting, the past coming into the present, a straight lineage of time, it revolves around the very unsettling of temporal lines, the paradox of presence and non-presence, the disjointedness of time and memory, it has everything to do with our state of being in time. Hence the wordplay, a portmanteau of haunt and ontology, it is, if we are to simplify it at all Ontology as Haunting, Being as Spectre. It is by its very nature an unsettling, just as when Hamlet speaks the above line, it is to evoke the idea precisely that something seems wrong, that the world is not as it should be…

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

You know that point of coincidence, when at some undefined point you encounter something familiar somewhere it shouldn’t be? It might be a flicker of a television advert, or something re-occurring years or decades later in some unexpected corner, a piece of writing, a snippet of lyric, a phrase that lay dormant and forgotten, but suddenly flickers into view for a second or more. It’s in this way that our lives are populated by ghosts, that time does not operate as we think it should. It’s not just that we remember something long buried, but the sense that the past remembers us.

But this seems like it should be impossible, it makes no sense. How could something that no longer exists still exert a pull on us? It is precisely this that Hauntology draws on, the strange slippages and dispersed fragments of time that exist at the intersection of being, the words before they are spoken. Indeed Derrida draws heavily on the sense when we speak that our words come from someone else, that we speak and write as ghosts. In Ghost Dance, we find him ruminating on being asked whether he believes in ghosts, “here, the ghost is me..”. The Hauntological displaces any sense of metaphysical grounding and places the present as a space of spectral projection, always out of view, always peripheral. In short, it undermines the Metaphysics of Presence. Hauntology teases out the threads of this unspoken periphery from the fabric, the implicit connections lying behind a form. There is no “haunting” something; if we intend to do something “Hauntologically” we have failed before we’ve begun, for the spectres we find, the hidden glimpses, must be prior to the expression itself, immanent to the text. The point of SoM was always to pick out what lay behind the text, the terms and associations that haunted the text, ones that inevitably Marx himself was not aware of.

This is all to counter the easy assumptions that Hauntology is merely a kind of calling-back, a kind of appeal to the past, which I’ve hinted at before but wanted to go into in more depth. If we are looking at a simple vision of the past we’ve gone badly wrong somewhere. Hauntology is by necessity a complication of the past, a tangling of it with its own future in which, and I can’t emphasise this enough, the unspoken becomes key. We enter a world of the not-quite, the never-here, the out-of-sight.. the echo precedes the shout.. a distinct uncertainty, where did that sound come from? Hauntology precisely dismantles our comfortable temporalities and disrupts chronology to the point where we can no longer say A then B then C with confidence in our memory of this progression, it becomes jumbled, disordered, out of joint.

Partial Recall

Hamlet already began with the expected return of the dead King. After the end of history, the spirit comes by coming back [revenant], it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again.

The motif of recall, of memory dominates the Hauntological, becoming a central theme of SoM. A memory is something which lingers from that which no longer exists. It returns as spectre, which is precisely not to be, it is not a presence. In this sense, if we are to return to Derrida, “it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept”. To Derrida, Ontology is the exorcism of this haunting… “Everything begins before it begins”… the spectral precedes the real and the real is haunted by the spectral. This is to say that each concept, each form, is by necessity an exorcism of its own haunting, wherein it is conjured into being. This exorcism or ritual is a grounding in presence, where the hauntological concerns what precedes it, the impossibility of presence.

The Hauntological then, concerns everything that is not present, the gaps, frissons and openings; it is moreover an Ontological disturbance, foregrounding our distance from something, its disintegration and transience. This goes on to suggest, however, that a haunting, as Mark Fisher makes explicit, is as much a disturbance of space as it is time. Where the immediate association of haunting may seem a temporal one, the revenant, the return of the past, repetition and rhythms of ritual mourning and melancholy, it is worth pointing towards the prevalence of the haunted house, the connection to location in so many ghost stories. Fisher provides us with a key example in the overlook hotel of the Shining, the way in which family history, trauma, the crimes of the past, become residues in a place, the family drama of psychoanalysis crossing over with something larger and further reaching. So to move on from its one association as a temporal condition to this Ontological uprooting is to find that Hauntology is inevitably spatial. If, as Derrida said, Psychoanalysis is the study of ghosts, those phenomena of the psyche with no real presence that continue to exert influence upon us, then so must our connection to space, and our existence within it, be a spectral one. Here, the primacy of the virtual becomes apparent.

Mourning, The Return of the Dead

There is a specific engagement in Specters of Marx with the time in which it was written, namely the “end of history”, that final triumph of liberal Capitalism evoked most famously by Fukuyama, something that Derrida connected to Freud’s account of the triumphalist phase of the mourning process in relation to the demise of the soviet union and with it the very idea of Communism, of Marx. This approach, famously identified by Fisher as Capitalist Realism, consists of the recall, repetition, incantation, evoked through the spectres of Hamlet. “To the rhythm of a cadenced march, it proclaims: Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, and along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices. It says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism!“, Mourning here takes upon itself the task of the aforementioned exorcism of alternatives, the codification of a universal reality and the final expunging of any memory that might still act upon the present.

So what from this is the significance of Hauntology in the cultural sense, the identification of a tendency, indeed a confluence in music and culture? It seems to emerge from what I’ve just described in the condition of melancholia, this refusal to let go. Where Derrida identifies in the end of history a process of mourning, of detachment and triumphalism, the death of Marx and the exorcism of his ghost, he simultaneously speaks of our inability to banish the dead. The Haunting present in culture speaks to something that is no longer with us, but that has been unsuccessfully banished, the work of mourning arrested. It is, more to the point, a refusal to “give up the ghost” that is, to yield with regard to the insidious pull of our own desire, as Lacan put it. The accusations of nostalgia here are misplaced I think quite simply when we realise that what’s being held onto here is not an idealised version of the past, but a potentiality, an alternative that never made good on its aims. While a traditional nostalgia harkens back to a supposedly ideal time, Hauntology points towards what is unfinished, and again, unspoken. It is for this reason that Fisher refers to “lost futures”, it is not what was, but what might have been. Here there is no object to mourn, and so it lingers on in expressions and cultural resonances. The death here does not pertain to some completed construction or project, but an approach, a world-view. For Capital, the dead always return to haunt it.

Lost Futures

Many discussions and expositions on Hauntology over the past few years have started with Mark Fisher, but I purposefully did not, firstly because I’m aware that this Blog might quickly become a K-Punk fansite, and also because I think the origins of the term in Derrida is something worth dredging back into view, if only to emphasise the de-ontological qualities of the word. Nevertheless, if I’m going to talk about Hauntology, it has to be said that Fisher is largely responsible, with a few others [Simon Reynolds also had a part to play] for bringing the term into wider usage within cultural theory and criticism, and so addressing what he did with it, and where he applied it, becomes something of a necessity.

It’s often implied that there is an immense difference between Derrida’s Hauntology and Fisher’s, but right away I think that this is overstated. It’s true that Fisher harboured a frustration with Derrida as a thinker, criticising Deconstruction, as it manifested in the academy, as “a kind of pathology of scepticism, which induced hedging, infirmity of purpose, and compulsory doubt in its followers”. This frustration is something I alluded to above, and is not unfounded, and yet is something I can easily look past in his work, partly due I think to the fact that it was Derrida who lay somewhat centrally to my re-introduction to philosophy and theory after a long wasteland of disenchantment some time ago. In some sense it was precisely this pathology of scepticism which provided an opening for me into the paths I ended up exploring, and has pushed me always not into an infirmity of purpose or inability to hold a position, but instead into a constant wariness of simplicity and reduction behind a position. It is of course largely a matter of what you do with a thinker, and Fisher indeed refers to the ways in which Derrida among others drove a creativity and excitement in the music writers so influential to him.

Sonic Hauntology

I mentioned above the identification from Fisher and others of a certain cultural confluence with Hauntology, and to go further down that lane will require us to pull together some of the threads I’ve been exploring so far into what Fisher termed Sonic Hauntology, specifically at points linking it to the Hauntological tendencies of Afrofuturism with its displacement and jumbling of time and space. In his essay The Metaphysics of CrackleAfrofuturism and Hauntology, an astonishing text that I must admit I only chanced upon recently, Fisher outlines this tendency, focusing on the presence of crackle or sonic disintegration in so much of the music to be identified with Hauntology. The railing against the metaphysics of presence is here beautifully opposed to the attachment to the presence or authenticity of the singer-songwriter in the work of Greil Marcus and found within the fiery opening salvo of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, where Eshun opposes in the strongest terms the “troglodytic homilies” of the “intertia engine”, the tendency of music writers to appeal at all times to a “terminally stupid sublime” –

The fuel this inertia engine runs on is fossil fuel : the live show, the proper album, the Real Song, the Real Voice, the mature, the musical , the pure, the true, the proper, the intelligent, breaking America: all notions that stink of the past, that maintain a hierarchy of the senses, that petrify music into a solid state in which everyone knows where they stand, and what real music really is.”

What Eshun is doing here is not too far removed from Derrida’s project in Specters of Marx, that is he is opposing the centrality of presence, of immediacy, of the present. In Metaphysics of Crackle, Fisher draws our attention to Dub, the “Afrofuturist sonic science” , and what’s notable is how it is treated by two different music writers, Marcus and Ian Penman. What’s notable about Marcus is not that he doesn’t address or talk about Dub, but that he talks about in the sense that a literary critic might talk about a text. What’s important is its presence, its importance, its meaning, never the materiality of the sound, what it does. What Marcus is ultimately beholden to is a kind of Rock Metaphysics, seen in the proclamation of raw, pure expression, common attitudes towards the blues. And yet, as Fisher points out, something that a writer like Marcus barely ever touches upon is the role of production, of music technology, of everything that mediates between us and the musician. For in truth, while we tend to look towards bluesmen like Robert Johnson as the ultimate purity of expression in music, we listen to them practically through the material haze of time, through the broken up, crackling deterioration of sound. Fisher quotes Owen Hatherley, “there’s surely no music more utterly dominated by its recording technology than 1930s blues. Listening to Robert Johnson you have, rather than the expected in yr [sic] face earthiness and presence, layers upon layers of fizz, crackle, hiss, white noise..”

So sonic Hauntology is precisely the foregrounding of that technology, the cracks, deterioration and surface noise, rather than the rockist privileging of the man & guitar, the voice. It is in this sense that Penman identifies it and Afrofuturism as “two sides of the same double-faced phenomenon”. The same material foregrounding of the lack of presence found in Hauntology is central to the diasporic, fractured, cut-and-paste jumbling of space-time of Afrofuturism, where the alienation within black culture, the transience and lack of place, are exactly what becomes emphasised and re-configured. “Afrofuturism unravels any linear model of the future, disrupting the idea that the future will be a simple supersession of the past. Time in Afrofuturism is plastic, stretchable and prophetic—it is, in other words, a technologised time, in which past and future are subject to ceaseless de- and recompostion” So, through the dominance of technologies to how we experience sounds, music or otherwise, sonic Hauntology intensifies this pattern, emphasises it.

Virtual Disjunctures

But to what end? What purpose does Hauntology really serve, we might ask, where does this distancing of presence lead us? The answer lies I think somewhere in the postmodern world of simulacrum, virtuality and abstraction that has become so familiar to us today, the communicative wonderland and digital landscape. Sonic Hauntology’s heightening of crackle and distortion, the surface noise of old media technologies is something that immediately distinguishes it from the formal nostalgia pointed to by Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, something which also is immanently connected to the prominence of technology. This formal nostalgia not only separates itself from emotional or psychological nostalgia, it is in some sense predicated on its absence. It is only when detached from its past, when the direct memory is severed, that an attachment to the forms of the past comes into focus. The “Slow Cancellation of the Future” Fisher refers to [from Franco Berardi], is a nostalgia, but one very different from the paradoxical one found in sonic Hauntology for example.

Ghosts of My Life is the project of Fisher’s I’ve found is most sidelined. This is not to say that it is unknown or anything of the sort, but that the main focus tends to be on either of his other books. It has, however, resolved into my favourite of the three he published, and something of this lies in its diaristic, fragmented quality. The book, while it centres on themes, is not a simple treatise on them, but an exercise in the very excavations of lost futures implied through Hauntology as some kind of practice. This is why, far from its distended nature reducing its effectiveness as Hauntological text, it is precisely this that, in the lineage of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and indeed Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah zine to which Fisher contributed a preface, places it within the Hauntological beyond simply containing a definition of it as a tendency. While we might search for a clear, elegant, singular text, it is the cut-and-paste quality of a project like this, the immediate appearance of cracks and lines in its construction, that presents it as a kind of spectral archaeology par excellence.

So what to take from the yearning for Lost Futures. Is it, as some have tried to insinuate, some kind of re-constituted nostalgia? Are we, through this, doing precisely what donkey-jacketed old socialists are most often accused of and wishing for a return to the 70s? I mention Ghosts of My Life as here we can find an engagement with this –

What is being longed for in hauntology is not a particular period, but the resumption of the processes of democratisation and pluralism for which [Paul] Gilroy calls. Perhaps it’s useful to remind ourselves here that social democracy has only become a resolved totality in retrospect; at the time, it was a compromise formation, which those on the left saw as a temporary bridgehead from which further gains could be won. What should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres – the spectres of lost futures – reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.

The point here is precisely not a yearning for times past but of tendencies curtailed. The “Lost Futures” are not a kind of Schlaraffenland we might readily associate with a kind of reactionary nostalgia for the past, nor are they the melancholia of Gilroy or Wendy Brown, “Post-colonial” and “Left” respectively, in which we become attached to either an idealised moment or the repetition of failure. As usual within the purview of Hauntology, the Lost Future concerns the unspoken, the yet-to-exist or the no-longer-existing. This might seem like an obvious point, one I re-iterate here, but it contains within it something immensely important to realise culturally and politically, and that is that tendencies we might look towards in the past, be they Socialism or Popular Modernism, are not restricted to the time within which they existed, and are not finished, packaged wholes. The common line directed at the left that “you just want to return us to the 70s” commits two major errors; it firstly presents us with a retroactively constructed narrative of the 70s, an image of neoliberalism arriving to modernise the clear failure of social democracy [Thatcher’s “Labour isn’t Working” posters come to mind], putting to the side a lot of the inconvenient attempts to forcibly impose neoliberalism and ruthlessly crush opposition, secondly, it assumes that the left, socialism, whatever we want to label the tendencies dominant at the time, are locked within that decade, that any attempt to continue them today is by its very nature some kind of nostalgic pathology.

Archaeologies

So, in trying to perceive the flickering, disintegrated echoes of a past era, there is a melancholia, but which takes the form, rather than a time-locked nostalgia, of a refusal, a refusal to mourn, to banish the dead. There is a defiance in yearning for something violently strangled before its time, to hold on to the reverberations it leaves behind. This distinct refusal to mourn, to give up on potential, is central to the political and cultural prevalence of Hauntology and the Spectral. It is the vector towards renewal perceived through a technological haze, just as the lone bluesman is heard through the indefinite layers of crackle and noise. It is the distance afforded us by the technological here that preserves and propagates the ghosts of our lives. The distended, fragmentary cut-and-paste alienation of time from itself that we experience in a landscape where all emerges at once, regardless of time and space, that distinct flattening of spatio-temporal distinctions of our era, is something that Hauntology, both in cultural, political, sonic, psychological, geological terms, intensifies.

It is this process, the intensification of disjuncture, that may become a vector towards a new modernist impulse. For how long now can we continue to hold to the limitations of presence, and for how long can we prioritise the kind of grounding Rockist authenticity demands? The disturbance of causality itself, and the undermining of metaphysical presence itself, becomes today the task of any future, for it is surely the “realistic” appeals to purity, to identity, that form the ritual exorcism of spectres. It is in assuming that what we see it what we get, that it is a solid, unmoving excrescence, that in a real sense we do away with any potential, any echo. There is only the music, and great music speaks for itself, right? Hauntology is to percieve in this gigantic echo chamber a world, a fragmented map of associations far larger than any building or song, to draw out the fabric into an immense spool outwards… unravelling, and through this sensing the tremors, the barely perceptible patterns still present through the gaps, reveal themselves…. like apparitions through the fog…

Reading List [Not all of these are explicitly mentioned here but all are relevant and informed/inspired it, however tangentially]-

  • Jacques Derrida – Specters of Marx
  • Ken McMullen – Ghost Dance [Linked above]
  • Mark Fisher – Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures
  • Fredric Jameson – Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
  • Mark Fisher – The Metaphysics of Crackle: Afrofuturism and Hauntology
  • Kodwo Eshun – More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction
  • Walter Benjamin – The Arcades Project
  • Laura Grace Ford – Savage Messiah
  • Simon Reynolds – Retromania [see also Rip it Up and Start Again]
  • Greil Marcus – Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
  • Ian Penman – It Gets Me Home This Winding Track
  • Wendy Brown – Resisting Left Melancholy
  • Paul Gilroy – Postcolonial Melancholia
  • Sigmund Freud – The Uncanny
  • Mark Fisher – The Weird and the Eerie
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
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.