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Capitalism Theory/Praxis

Industrial Pastoral

There is a staple of BBC daytime television I remember filtering into my brain as a child called “Escape to the Country”, an example of the property/lifestyle programme in which prospective buyers are shown round a series of houses in a particular rural location. The very premise of the series, contained in the title, lies in the idea that the countryside is where one escapes. Usually in this context this means well-off city couples looking for somewhere they might be able to “get away from it all”, live out their days in idyllic peace and quiet, they’ve has too much of the hustle and bustle of city streets and want to find a nice cottage in a picturesque heartland, the good life.

Of course having grown up in a country village, this didn’t quite square with me, this clear-cut duality.. why would I want to escape to the country when I was already there? On top of this, it was far from the pastoral idyll these city-dwellers seemed to envision; sure, you might relish the idea of having a view over the fields, but just wait until that breaks down into a sea of industrial agriculture. Sartre pointed out the ways in which city people often see in the countryside an untrammelled natural world that belies the carefully managed ways in which the landscape is effected by human activity, how a hedgerow or a field, entirely man made, are interpellated as the sublime beauty of mother nature, undisturbed. What happens when someone else’s outside is your inside? What for many represents this mysterious other becomes for another a deeply familiar, even banal reality. The “escape from modernity” implied in its twisting branches fades into a pile of discarded kebabs and coke bottles, the terrifying sublime into a half completed building project.

This is of course the issue of familiarity that inevitably follows such distinctions. Home, where we come from or where we live, inevitably carries with it a certain familiar tinge that disavows us from the illusions and mythologies others stretch on top of it. For me, the Norfolk landscape I grew up with is as much a site of blasted industry as folk tales and crooked trees, as much the place that framed my awkward adolescence as a place of nostalgia and yearning. Of course such phenomenological inconsistency is ironed out completely in escape to the country, devoted as it is to selling a dreamlike vision, it is practically a textbook example of a capital-driven fetishization of an other, the ideal other free of blemishes and faults. Of course while this example is a clear, explicit move to sell, hawk wares in the most base sense, another way we encounter the same issue is in the attempt to escape such banalities. The problem here becomes an overall equation of “outside” with a particular subject, a particular place.

To us, of course, the inside/outside division will always re-orient itself along the lines of familiarity. Home=familiar, inside, Away=unfamiliar, outside. Someone who grew up in the city might indeed view the countryside with a kind of rapt fascination, or idealism, but then of course from the other side of the mirror the city begins to look just as exciting, a hive of modernity and hedonism, of the new, the future.. both an interlinked burrow of contradiction and negation. Familiarity on both counts becomes a moderating influence, what in psycho-analytic terms we could call a reality principle. From the unbroken mask, we begin to see the cracks, the guano on the pavements, and are disavowed of our previous excitement. The search for the outside as Lacanian objet petit a, always frustrated whenever we think we have reached it.

Mark Fisher, in Weird and the Eerie, as well as elsewhere referred to the “inside as a folding of the outside”. This is indeed an apt observation, but by itself incomplete. What this seems to point towards at various points in his writing is if anything the collapsing of an inside/outside distinction as ontological truth, akin with both a Spinozist collapsing of Cartesian dualism and the post-structuralist death of the subject. And so just as much as the inside may be a folding in of outside influences, it is equally true that the outside is a projection of the inside. The point, as ever, is not the search for the green grass on the other side, but the collapsing of the boundary itself. Here we find the alien contained within the human and the human in the alien, nature in civilisation and civilisation in nature, the country in the city and the city in the country, each clear distinction muddied, questioned and broken down. It is here that the subject becomes an extension in contravention of experience which might hold each of us to be a walled off entity in our own right.

From this then, it becomes a matter of de-familiarisation. If it is the familiar that generates reality, to generate another reality, what Alenka Zupančič would attribute to a process of sublimation, requires a de-mystification of the banal, the reality principle itself. It is of course this process, this “revealing” of the ideological mediation that is experience, that opens the door to new worlds within the familiar; it is not the projection of some ego ideal but the very unfolding of what we perceive as natural and real. The conception of nature is a prime example of such a reality, a nice comfortably sectioned-away, bottled and labelled thing that must stand in opposition to the human subject, in a kind of pre-copernican anthropocentric universe. To de-familiarise, to unfold our surroundings is then to place the outside within the inside, the inhuman within the human as it were. But just so I don’t fall into a particular trap here, this unfolding is not any kind of revealing, not the mechanism hidden behind the magicians illusion; indeed don’t we have to assume that within this action of unfolding is contained the inherent precedent to a “re”folding, wherein the act of sublimation not only unveils the contingency of reality but transforms it, creating new possibilities.

Isn’t there a problem then, with our assumption of the “otherness” of the country? Should we be staring at the mirror hoping to reach the reflection on the other side? It is true, and I value these experiences very much, that we can stand in the middle of the woods and experience a remarkable and refreshing emptiness, feel somehow that we have “escaped”, but today what’s the likelihood we can do this without both coming across some clear evidence of manmade intervention or being interrupted by a holidaying family? More to the point, doesn’t this simply leave one familiar for another? The urban industrial for the pastoral industrial, we move from one to the other side of the river in the hope that the other we so desperately seek is contained there, and neglect the vital work of re-orienting the perception of the ground beneath our feet.

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Traversing the Fog of Perception

Oh my, where to start. I guess somewhere within the last few years, during my years at art school, that place where I simultaneously found myself learning the most important practical lessons of my life and miring myself somewhere out in the swamps of absolutism via the misguided will’o’the wisps of contrarian bullshit. I became the enemy of my youth, those stuffy, moralising suited old men telling you what to do with your life. Those “careers advisors” I had met in college who laughed at my desire to go to university and study art, purveyors of stifling oppressive corporate normalisation into a system of ideological presumptions I wanted nothing to do with. 

To be honest, I think I was depressed. I never became suicidal per se, and I was always [read: mostly] able to smile and chat and pretend I was enjoying things even if under the surface it was a fucking quagmire of anxieties and uncertainties. I retreated from reality because I didn’t want to engage with it. I found it overwhelming and the only way I could get past it was to find some strange solace in getting angry, not even at anything sometimes, I just wanted to work myself up, tell myself things were certain, worked out, feel something other than the constant disconnection that was building up increasingly towards the end of my Masters course. Disconnection to myself, to my work, to the world, to those around me.

That’s what bothers me most looking back on that time, the effect it had on those I care about and am close to. I’m aware I’m not disposable, and indeed have tried to focus far more on maintaining my health after coming out of this state of abjection, but thinking about how the state I got into ultimately pushed people away, hurt them and affected them bothers me far more than the emotional anguish it caused me. I came out of being lost and alienated and became more and more insular, irate, closed-minded and generally unpleasant to be around. I genuinely hate what became of me during that time. Here’s where we get to the exorcism.

At some point, like Agent Cooper trapped in the black lodge, I embarked on an odyssey back to Twin Peaks. Something snapped in my brain, the curtain parted and I found my way back from this waiting room, this stuffy old mask of penitence I’d been forcing myself to wear. And like Agent Cooper, the way I got there was far from conventional. Something that defined what I did to myself over this time was a suppressing of my taste, some attempt to prove something to others. Put simply, I like weird shit. I always have honestly, something to do with me being an outsider, a bit of a weirdo through my school, college and majority of university years. I wasn’t really “in” with the cool kids, or anyone else, for that matter.

I like Stockhausen, godammit. Not exclusively, that’d be a bit much, but the point is I grew to like a huge variety of strange, avant-garde, off-the-beaten-track music and films, and this connection to the weird, to the outside, the other became important to me. I’m not trying to brag here about how “cultured” I might or might not be, even if it sounds like that, but the fact is I always had a special place in my heart for the kind of stuff that lay outside the mainstream, that defied conventions and “pulverised forms” to paraphrase Alan Moore. My biggest source of emptiness during my year of bulshittery was my forsaking of this element. Save David Lynch’s work [a constant companion without which frankly I might have entirely driven myself up the walls], which managed to stay with me to a certain extent, and some things that seeped through the cracks, or that I enjoyed in secret, the weirdness I unapologetically revelled in was sidelined and absent.

So I found my way back to myself, through suitably strange channels, through meta-referential temporal distortions and allegorical arcs of scattered historical landmarks. I won’t tip-toe around any longer, I read Gravity’s Rainbow and it changed my life. I entered the deeply obscene, beautiful, profound, hilarious, disturbing, confusing and multi-sensory overload of Thomas Pynchon and it practically realigned my brain, poking around in there and unearthing stuff I hadn’t noticed. It acted as a intellectual literary pressure-washer to the cerebral cortex pushing me into a journey through the outer limits of perception I’m still very much enjoying today. 

More recently I’ve found my way back to writing in a big way, largely through finally delving into the work of Mark Fisher and finding a vast web of varied explorations throughout the radical fringes of philosophy and cultural theory. There’s a whole world of material out there I’ve only just started thinking about in the scheme of things, but it feels like a jolt of electricity to my increasingly zombified interest in philosophy, travelling into a strangely compelling yet terrifying dimension of abstract manipulations of cause/effect phenomena, a Lynchian ontological collapsing of space, a blurring of reality-perception. Question my sanity perhaps, but I find the whole thing immensely enjoyable. Simultaneously, through the nexus of Fisher, I have rekindled my love of music and its power to transgress the normal in so many ways. 

So I started this blog, right here, a kind of blank slate from which I intended to chronicle a new process of thinking. I accept that some of my preliminary writings here might be sketchy [preliminary, in other words], I might misinterpret some things, whatever, but what was important to me was this form, this ability to think and write on the fly, something I have started to find increasingly exciting and hopefully can improve my own use of in time as I read myself further into these arcane avenues. 

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Machine Horror

The door slides open with a hiss and an uncertain scraping sound, and you step into a cavernous tunnel, extending into a gradual arcing trajectory as it bends in on itself. Pipes extend from pulsating nodules and cables hang from metal vertebrae, the entire construction somewhat resembling the carcass of a dead whale, a machinic leviathan abandoned and rotting, dead code, useless beings suspended.

I wrote many drafts of something approaching what you’re about to read, and each time it broke down from neatly organised blog entry to something else, something less defined and scarier, something more akin to unrefined chunks of my consciousness scattered over a page.

Inside the machine, becoming the machine, using the machine, controlling the machine, submitting to the machine. The machine is a beast, a leviathan, a cold inhuman monolith of production with pinpointed and telegraphed desire in every piston, every line of code, every polished chrome plated part or harsh glowing rectangle. The desire we implant within its algorithmic inner workings, the libidinal push towards learning, ascended consciousness, transcendence, an uncertain but defined future. The future is contained within this construct of rhythmic apprehension, the envisioned future can be seen reflected in its design, a future of satisfied desire never attained. For the machine is not a mechanism of desire, but a generator of it, an endless stream of things, connected things, an internet of things. 

The internet of things, the connected home. The future is here, now! An unprecedented connection to billions of streams of information, code, images, text, pouring out of devices into one another. Desire, generated at a volume unheard of, and satisfied time and time again, and yet we are not satisfied. Wanting more, we approach the machine, we find ourselves within its clutches, turning to it for advice. Dried of possibilities in the face of endless choice, we have nothing to say. The machine could tell us, but it is only a machine, and has its own business to take care of. Our business is none of the machines concern, built as it was to supplant the desires we now find empty.

For this leviathan is empty, dormant, the echoes of machinery heard from within its bowels suggesting and obscuring movement. We find not the future, but a facsimile, a banal flat metal surface meeting our gaze, mechanised corporate nihilism. 

We live inside such a machine, one that generates flat images of desire, in built with the promise of 3 dimensional engagement, providing only the horizontal plane of business, of capital. The machine is abstract, uniformly plastic, shifting to form itself around our libido, the shape-shifting T1000 Terminator in hot pursuit, a constant state of unrest, of unease. The machine moves around us so as to be inescapable, and a sense of hopelessness envelops us as we see no exit, of horror as we contemplate our fate within the metal corpse, link sheared with our communities, alone. Machine horror, the feeling that, fundamentally, there is nothing else, only the machine, the inhuman, the flat walls of metal. 

All that remain are perceptions of the past future, the future is lost to the regurgitated pellets the machine presents to us. The end of history as Fukuyama once put it, a stalling of progress, the death of the future. Anything outside the machine slowly becomes the unknowable horror to the comfort of its insides as we become accustomed to the acrid smell of metal as the smell of home, of comfort. Finding an exit becomes the unthinkable , a manifestation of the Lovecraftian eldritch terrors beyond our imagination. So pre-occupied we become with the horrors of the beyond we begin to internalise the horror of our very environment.

The more adaptable among us distance ourselves, make excuses, even start attempting communion with the beast, speaking the language of codes sputtered out by the information tunnels criss-crossing its sharpened vertebrae. Eventually, we start to become the machine, we hybridize, link our neurons to its circuits and speaking the machine language more fluently than our own. We speak in code, receding further and further from the outside possibility until it is a myth. Some mutter of its possibilities but are dismissed as  lunatics, utopians, fools. The hypersimulation takes hold and confusion takes root. The fundament looks different now, we see in it the glittering potential of the machine, and we no longer know whether our libidinous energy stems from its apparatus or ours.  

What if we could reach beyond the machine? Could there be a beyond, and could it be found within the machine’s code itself? If we reach beyond our traditional concept of reversal and negation, approach a concept of the machines recycling and re-using of our own resistance, and use the libidinal desires encouraged by the machine’s adherents to hijack its apparatus, could we reach past the suppression of  progress, the halting of the future, escape the end of history? This is something that, frankly, I’ve only just begun thinking abut to any meaningful degree, but over however long it takes me, I intend to scour the information networks for concepts, plans of action, and hints of post-capitalist potential that signal some form or move away from the stifling currents of capitalist realism outlined so expertly by Mark Fisher in his book of the same name. For as far as I see it, only a move beyond the repetitions of the past towards and imagination of the future can we sufficiently fight this machine horror.

Imagining a beyond, the preserve of science fiction writers, theologians, occultists, philosophers, political activists, artists and scatterings of hopeful amateur thinkers for so long, must now become the barrage of the moment, the push into some un-fathomed land, the “thar be dragons” hinterlands on the map. The tradition of science fiction, of speculative critique transplanted into an imagination of other realities must, in some way be interpreted by the anti-capitalist sentiment if it wants to reach any kind of beyond, any kind of communion with the other. The unfortunate relegation of the left’s thought processes to the recycling of past visions is unhelpful, a relic destined ultimately to the continuation of past failures. The alternative is uncertain, but it must on some level involve a reclamation of the new, of the “innovative” from the mouths of the machine cultists. A second necessity is the use of the technologies that have become so central to our everyday existence. We must surely utilize the tools of desire themselves to advance? A reorganisation of structure without technology is no reorganisation at all if we are to recognise that the very organisation of contemporary bureaucracy itself exerts itself throught the screens of our smartphones as much as any government institute. 

Finally, I will note the importance of entertainment. Far from the stifling and frankly, boring requests of many old-school Marxists to renounce all items of capitalism as being somehow “counter-revolutionary” I reject this idea wholesale as a contradiction and a hypocrisy. I feel it necessary to end on this note if the above strikes you somehow as a call to suppress anything created by capitalism (for the purposes of entertainment) for two main reasons:

  1. That is impossible, as capitalism permeates our lives and thoughts, we can’t simply opt out without feeding back into the infinitely plastic and abstract form of capital.
  2. I would never dream of suppressing the very things that keep us sane in this corporatised dystopia. Music, films, art and culture are important to our mental being in the same way the systems that often birth them are bad for it. Calling for people not to “buy into the entertainment industry” is, furthermore (yes I know this is a third reason but forgive me) a conceptual submission to the ideological tethering of art to capital, as if creativity cannot exist independently of the “creative industries”, and art cannot exist if it is not being made for the purposes of generating capital. This is capitalist realism of the first order and although those telling you it might think otherwise will simply break you more. Enjoy art, because its a respite, don’t suppress it out of some misguided revolutionary zeal. 

Now that’s out of the way, I will conclude by saying I have a whole lot more research to do on these topics, and in many ways have only just begun. I will keep a running chronicle of my findings on here, inter-cut on a regular basis with music recommendations and whatever else takes my fancy, often tying back into philosophy or cultural criticism. If you happen to be one of the few disparate people who might have found their way here, I hope you found something of value, and I shall leave you with a playlist of music that in some way ties into the content you have found here.