2. In Astronomy, the rarefied gaseous envelope of the sun and other stars. The sun’s corona is normally visible only during a total solar eclipse, when it is seen as an irregularly shaped pearly glow surrounding the darkened disc of the moon.
There’s a particular pained expression Boris Johnson makes that has fascinated me in recent months. It’s a face he makes when he’s determined to look serious, when circumstances seem to demand reverence and consideration rather than boisterous joshing, and it looks a little like a poorly proved loaf of bread, a packet of biscuits that’s been sitting in the cupboard too long, or, more obviously, a sad clown. This national health crisis has been both the culmination of his entire acting career as a particular kind of self-aware aristocrat, the well-to-do clumsy eccentric who knows how to have a bit of a laugh and loves a good civic project or two, and a strange kind of unravelling. It’s nothing quite as simple as a near death experience changing a man, or the Churchillian myth he has fashioned for himself coming together in a grand victory of anachronistic national belonging; the right man for the right time so to speak. What begins to become apparent rather, if we look carefully, is that behind the immaculately kept furniture and grand ostentation of the number 10 interior, underneath the lacquer of that table on which the Prime Minister is carefully propping himself, is another world. A world in which politics simply doesn’t take place. A world which, it might not be an exaggeration to say, doesn’t contain much of anything, and yet for some is the grand total of everything.
British politics has long been the practice of an anti-political world view. It’s a cliche much used by the right that London is some kind of metropolitan bubble disconnected from the rest of the country, and a fiction, but the truth is potentially far worse, and involves the kind of insular bureaucratic inner-group consciousness we might usually think the preserve of the other, those corrupt nations somewhere in the eastern fog that serve as the projection of every secret injustice we perpetuate. The enduring historical image in my mind during this crisis has not been of the second world war, or even the black death, but that of Chernobyl; an expansive disaster of almost unthinkable proportions exacerbated and allowed through the pavlovian response of a group of totemically arrogant paper-pushers. To make such a direct historical link might seem fatuous or simplistic, and it’s true that we cannot simply reduce the contingencies of the present to the certainties of the past, but I use this image to illustrate the sheer enormity of government failure, and more precisely a kind of depoliticising and systematic incompetence that’s widely agreed to underpin those events.
Because the scale of institutional failure here is difficult to overstate; it is difficult to think of another crisis or point in recent history in which every axis of the neoliberal economy has been so steeped in the waters of decay. The culmination of the Thatcherite project in which successive governments take another crack at hollowing out public services, each lining up to bash the pinata some more until presumably some sweets fall out somewhere down the line, has come to a head in a whirlwind of frantic PR babbling, in which successive Tory apparatchiks of varying disrepute try to convince us that we have won the battle, driven off the enemy even as the problems mount up around them. Each press conference simply seems more desperate, more empty of content, more out of step with the lived reality of people whose lives have now become overshadowed by the ballooning and sickening pall of premature mortality. It is as death more prominently than ever in recent days hangs over the land, that British politics turns steadfastly away and starts bleating about “British common sense” and “indomitable spirit”…
The spectacle has run away with itself, turned back on itself, torn itself to shreds and put itself back together again in the midst of the charade. Outsourcing, the economically baffling process New Labour became convinced was a “powerful public good” in the words of interminable Blair cultist John McTernan, has built on its legacy of corruption, failure and inefficiency with every step taken. The only explanation left as to why important state tasks are contracted out to disreputable companies is good old routine, we simply don’t know how else to do things anymore. The great promise of Johnson and Cummings was that they would shake up politics, they would do things differently; apparently, we weren’t getting the same old politicians that spent all their time huffing and puffing around the commons chamber asking for endless Brexit extensions. An empty promise as it turned out. Neoliberalism is still the name of the game, and a dash of Keynesian “generosity” doesn’t change matters, as it becomes apparent that public infrastructure is now nothing more than a carcass, partitioning everything to corporations seeded in anonymous office blocks with no real expertise in anything besides corporate politics and fraud seems to be the only thing left, and we will do it until we keel over of exhaustion.
The old canard of broken promises might be wheeled out now, but it seems to have no purchase here, not only have there been so many promises that they barely held any weight, but fulfilling promises ceased to be a concern. When we say “post-truth” we speak as if this is not only some kind of new development, but almost invariably without any kind of truth to speak of; what truth are we referring to, is it simply that of consistency? Is it the religious truth of conviction? Both are dismissed as mindless populism whenever they arise, or worse the telling symptoms of raving fanaticism. No, we mean a wholly inconsequential truth, a truth confined by the co-ordinates of politics-as-is. The theatre of the commons has recently delivered some telling displays of contained opposition, where, successful as they were, the Labour Party’s calls for consistency and truth have consistently stopped short of questioning the premise. Political opposition this is not. What is expected appears to be more of a perpetual list of corrections, a legal register of complaint. Excuse me, this doesn’t add up. Could you clarify this point please. The people want to know. Behind all of this, Capital remains the only game in town.
It remains to be seen whether there will be some kind of mass revolt or turning of opinion against the conservative government in the manner opinion shifted on Churchill after the war, indeed predictions of this kind remain a fools game in the flurry of nothingness and non-information being spewed forth from the groaning depths of our political machine. Rather than a “parliament of the people” what is on display here is the clumsy illusions of a government who never wanted to protect anyone, wasn’t particularly invested in the popular will beyond it’s own comfortable majority, and is at every step more interested in washing its hands, the empty sheen of endless ritual. Wash your hands, clap for carers, stay at home, stay alert, all just slogans to people who know that they won’t be made homeless, who can exist in the fantasy they construct.
It’s here in this fantasy that they reside, and its a fantasy empty of concern, where Brexit, or the lack of it, just meant a convenient vehicle for success, and poverty is just a concept. Despite the displays of chummy, backslapping jingoistic confidence, there is no solidarity here, there is only a yawning black maw into which all our hopes and dreams are gradually emptied as Tory MPs laugh at your concerns, open their mouths in mock horror, and stand to attention in an endlessly repeated minutes, ten minutes, ten hours silence to honour what, the cadaver of politics?
Of course, they have to be a bit more careful today. No longer can your friendly neighbourhood technocrat simply sit there and claim that a nuclear disaster simply cannot occur in the united kingdom. Unlike the Bolsonaros of the world, Johnson would never have been able to pretend that nothing was happening. Instead it is with the public outpouring of admiration that we are plied, a trust in queen and country, in fish and chips, common sense and the steadfastness of dear old blighty, the old nationalisms given new life. Even as socialists were jeered away and rejected out of hand for their ties to the past, the Blitz spirit returned, the old slogans wheeled out, the queen sat before us and delivered what seemed more like a simulation than usual for our monarchy, as decked out in pure, unadulterated post-feudal glitz as it may be.
All this crescendoed some weeks back now. People are getting tired of lockdown, it is said, whispers abound of people crowding the beaches, a government caught in the kind of tangled web of disarray it might not be able to escape, the “resilient” economy in tatters… Triumphant pronouncements of the end of neoliberalism should be resisted. Declaring the end is the perfect door through which neoliberalism re-enters our politics. Regardless, hasn’t it been running on empty for around 10 years now? It can go on for longer. Neither, it has to be stressed, is Capitalist Realism over, and to proclaim it over at every moment something happens is to flagrantly miss what makes it such a powerful phrase in the first place; it’s not that nothing happens, its that everything happens, but nothing changes. Left melancholy sets in when we stake our faith in everything and none of it works.
We are, however, at the mercy of history. One thing that we do tentatively seem to have seen the back of is the end of history. Certain pressure valves could no longer hold, and fissures erupted. This was true of Brexit, Trump, and now that we are being assailed by an inhuman entity, the storm of stammering justifications we receive in response. There is nothing currently for us in the centre besides a hideous mass. There is no centre, just an arc of matter in which we find ourselves, an indeterminate horizon somewhere under the spires of parliament into which everything is drawn. What lies beyond this dead anomaly, it remains impossible to say.
As it turned out, this election was just a continuation of the trend, a link in the chain of right wing nationalism that’s been enjoying a resurgence, albeit in some slightly more complex ways. One of the most galling elements of Boris Johnson’s ascendancy is how planned it feels; how, with the aiding and abetting of a number of media figures and commentators who loved for so long to think of him as some kind of loveable buffoon, who practically fed him material for his routine and perhaps laughed to his jokes as long as they got a light jab at him occasionally, it all seems inevitable. Mark Fisher rightly pointed to Johnson as the manifest weaponizing of satire to consolidate rather than attack, the status quo, and there have been whispers for as long as I can remember of his designs on power. Now, finally here we are. He has his wish.
The defeat was devastating, there’s no way around this, it was a massacre. Norwich the next morning felt like a graveyard and there was a kind of unspoken shock on a lot of people’s faces. In the realm of possibilities I imagined a loss perhaps, but such a landslide victory felt like a gut punch when I heard about it, and that sense of it being a bad dream still lingers. The fact that Johnson proceeded to talk about “healing”, and then [amid already stirring mentions of Scottish independence and a united Ireland] protecting the union, seemed like something of a bad joke; but then that’s what “Boris” is, a series of terrible jokes somehow crammed into a sock standing on the steps of downing street. There is little consolation to be had from the result, as much as we try desperately to pull something from it, so the question turns, now at this moment of dreary, crushing defeat, where next for the British left?
Alan Johnson has the answer. The man who wouldn’t know what class politics was if it hit him in the face with a copy of the communist manifesto suggests we have abandoned the working class. The irony of this coming from Alan Johnson, central figure of New Labour runs deep. New Labour was the utter abandonment of the working class by the Labour party. It was the pretence, moreso, that class simply didn’t matter anymore, that we were in a post-political world; the last thing we should do is accept righteous lectures from stranded political agents desperately trying to claw back the time when their world-view still made sense, when they had the hegemony of support and nothing could ever change.
Righteous lectures aplenty however from centrists everywhere, columnists who would probably be better off admitting their desires and aligning with the right if it means that they’ll stop pretending they’re constantly opposing the left out of some kind of limp moral purpose. What we are supposed to believe is that it is over for the left, that the centrists, the moderates have all won the debate. Can’t we get back to some good old sensible politics now, abandon all this… hysteria about fighting for the powerless, building a better world, roll back the utopian ambitions a tad and settle back into the dull, plodding, empty, hopeless and deteriorating limbo of Capitalist Realism. This is supposed to be a thrashing for stepping out of line, for thinking above our station. Does this line up however with the people I’ve spoken to and seen online who disliked Labour BECAUSE of New Labour and Blair, under the mistaken assumption that they remained unchanged? Does this speak to the fact that Blair and co fundamentally cemented a universal distrust of politicians in the British psyche? What left politics tries to do is provide agency to those who have none, and in that matter, New Labour abandoned left politics wholly, coasting by election after election on low turnouts rather than inspiring any confidence, ensuring that the horizons remained closed even as people ceased to care, resigned to their fate.
What we have to do first of all is reject wholesale this idea, that if only we had a “sensible” candidate we would have won. We can’t know for sure of course, but by all accounts this simply isn’t true. We only have to look at the Lib Dem performance this election and the hasty immolation of Change UK in the European elections to see how much people are supposedly flocking to that kind of politics, and what is being suggested here is that we follow the same route. We suffered a disaster this election, of course, but are we really suggesting that the only alternative is to embrace a tactic that is now failing everywhere, that is out of ideas and out of support, facing embarrassment everywhere it plays its hand. No. For one thing this roundly ignores the far better performance Corbynism put forward in the prior election [the missing element Boris Johnson, which is key to understanding this one] which does somewhat mitigate the idea that there was something fundamentally rotten that people rejected about the project, and for another it ignores the rather obvious point that Johnson’s landslide was won on anything but the kind of moderate, Cameronesque, centre-right platform this might suggest is the only route to victory, rather we have seen the fringe right offer their near blanket support, hard right rhetoric and talking points becoming somewhat accepted fare among the Conservative party.
Does this mean that the British electorate are all fascist lunatics? No, it doesn’t, and we shouldn’t sink to such easy and clumsy answers. That Johnson’s appeal to the right wing of the Tories and beyond was constantly disavowed and hidden behind BORIS the character, the clown, the court jester, speaks to a rather well-executed campaign of misdirection. That people fell for this shouldn’t be surprising, not because they’re plain old idiots, but because it appeals directly to their fears and anxieties in a way that Labour sadly failed to accomplish. Johnson was, to those who supported him, a heterodox figure, an anti-establishment, punk rock figure who didn’t give a damn about the press or well-groomed speeches. This has always been at the heart of the project of BORIS, a degree of flippancy and carelessness that feeds into an image of British eccentricity and avoids what are seen as the typical politician’s evasions all while plying us with dreams of affable upper class englishmen.
Against this, what was seen as Labour’s constant triangulation all too often fell into the trap of appearing to be “like the rest of them”, too much like what was innately distrusted. This is despite the best of foundations, the pleas to “bring the country together” and a strong Manifesto of genuinely meaningful positive changes, things which were lovely, and admirable, but we now have to tackle not that they were completely misguided missteps, but that they failed to cut through the indeterminate paste of Brexit and political disillusionment. The reasons are, honestly, complex. While guardian columnists are busy admonishing the Labour left and recommending that we re-install the Blair auto-pilot, and some are making much of how many votes were lost to leave, a host of issues, many of them contingent, emerge. When it comes to Brexit, we lost votes to both leave and remain; on top of this there’s little to suggest many 2017 Labour voters stayed home this time, which all lends itself to a slightly confusing shifting picture.
So if we have established that capitulating to the sensible middle is off the cards, which, let me re-iterate, I will establish a thousand times, how can the Left survive this? A partial answer is that it already has. Unexpectedly I found on Friday a strong network of support and solidarity that I can’t see disappearing overnight. There is now an active, enthusiastic left contingent in British politics that for its flaws is remarkable for simply existing where there was a void not so long prior. If we are to continue into this long dark night, we have to brace ourselves for a series of oncoming crises which I can only see wracking the Tories and their support from top to bottom. The umbrella of these crises is the impossibly fragile base material of the Tories recent majority, and that is the promise of “Get Brexit Done”, three words which in their simplicity play directly towards all our fatigue, our wish to move on to different, perhaps greener pastures. The idea of getting something like this “Done” is however deeply questionable at best once we consider the length of time we will be stranded negotiating trade deals in varying scenarios, the very real possibility of the complete breakup of the union, a global recession, and the knock-on effects of all of this in at least mild social unrest and even breakdown. We have to come to terms at some point with the impossibility of this simple wish, and I hate to say this but it may take the active deterioration of life for this to dawn. The point however, is that “Get Brexit Done” is a house of cards and a promise of an ineffable utopian middle England that will collapse with the slightest pressure.
It is at this point that we cannot repudiate the need to fight for the dying, the dispossessed and the powerless, for they will be at a greater risk than ever, without recourse. This is central to what we should consider on the left, and was central to that crushing feeling of defeat when I heard the exit poll. What bothered me about the shrugs of some was that this isn’t just about my football team losing, millions of lives and their wellbeing are at stake in an election, so the cost of this runs far beyond my own feelings of discontent. In effect, vast amounts of people did end up voting for their own repression yet again, and that, for me, is profoundly depressing not simply because of some failing on their part, but because of the avalanche of piss that they themselves are going to have to endure. Of course, this question; “Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” can be found running through Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus, and continues to be a primary issue for the Left to counter. To many, there is nothing innately attractive about emancipation, again they are resigned to their fate through a series of impersonal drives.
It is here that that Lacanian injunction also becomes apt “The only thing of which one can be guilty is having given ground relative to one’s desire”, this becoming of course a key realisation as to how elections like this work. The vote for BORIS was jouissance, a capitulation to the demands of desire at the expense of shared value or support, and this is no surprise given the emaciated sense of political agency of the British electorate. We want better lives, but we can’t see how. We may have thought or hoped that a programme of social democratic reform might have spoken to people in this regard, but truth is its never about the ideas, its how you sell them, how you eroticize them. The BORIS programme presented that in spades, no matter how unpleasant it seemed to us, a sunlit uplands beyond Brexit as objet petit a, even the cartoon buffoonery of his projection was an appeal to a kind of unsubstantiated British ideal, the Prime minister who embodies a kind of little england aristocrat. In this way this election becomes about the past more than the future in so many regards, that wish to retreat, to return. As in Brexit, via a subconscious post-colonial melancholia a dark strain of nationalism seized the moment and implemented itself behind the mainstream dominance.
All of this may be of little consolation right now, but its key I think to at least understand not only what the Left failed on, but how the right succeeded. We may have done far better two years ago, but that was against Theresa May, Boris Johnson was always going to be a different, far more dangerous proposition precisely because of his blunders and fuck-ups. There was a tendency to take aim at him for things like snatching the image from the journalist, hiding in the fridge and generally doing the things that were precisely the pull for many supporters. He’s not Trump, but like Trump, its his “not a politician” demeanour that was a huge draw, precisely that he isn’t bound by such things as decent political conduct and will just do things. There is an excitement to that for many that simply became far more important than any list of policies or political programme.
The key thing now I think is to establish that “Corbynism” as a term is dead, but the Left is not. The worst mistake we could make is to attach socialism to one man, as if he is the last representative, the final gasp of left politics. We are not going to progress with “Corbynism”, but with socialism, and keep pushing. If I’m perfectly honest I reach points of thinking what’s the point, really. I imagine how it must feel to have your political side win consistently by hook or by crook for so long that you can’t even remember not winning and a certain degree of despair beckons. The left are never going to win are we, the right will always be a step ahead I tell myself. But really, this is only true as long as we let it be. Physically, materially, there is nothing to stop us building a better world, but it is always the impersonal mechanisms of politics, of desire, that stymie this modest goal. Moving forward, we have to work with this, to try and mould ourselves around these mechanisms and learn their operations. We have to make sure than when push comes to shove, we are waiting with a new offensive, and this time, the tide of feeling won’t be so easily stemmed. The Tories have won, and they’ve won big, but all this means is that the pressure has built to unsustainable levels. We are at a point where things cannot remain, where the immortality of capital has become an impossible dream, and at this point the last thing we should do is retreat, back down, cede ground and accept reality.
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.
“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.
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.
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 Crackle – Afrofuturism 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.
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.
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
I, and others like me who were born after a certain point in the late 20th century, have never known anything but the long dark night of neoliberalism. The first time I ever became aware of politics it was Tony Blair’s innocuous grin in the newspaper, perhaps 9/11, the Iraq war.. New Labour, for many now, has been the limitations of our horizons, the extent of what “left” has ever meant. Shorn from the long experience of defeat altogether, is it hardly any wonder that, setting forth on the task of rebuilding leftism practically from the ground up, we struggle and falter?
What is “electability”? Those who often throw it around talk as if it were some kind of impartial judgement delivered from somewhere above, perhaps by some political demigod, but beyond that what can it really designate besides an ideal, a mould against which all politicians are measured? Of course what brings this into much clearer focus is the assembly lines of immaculately coiffured replicants pioneered under the New Labour brand of politics, wherein your average politician was a shiny, branded white male android programmed on demand to deliver a series of relatively believable platitudes to the public and perhaps emote to specifications. Politics appeared as, and was expected to be a branding exercise, a slick, well produced sheen akin to an apple commercial wherein the future was contained in the perfectly ironed folds of a suit and the “relatable” grin of a young prime minister. Tony Blair’s administration very much pioneered this more-human-than-human approach and you can see its innovations all over the off-putting smarm of David Cameron.
What this has done is nothing less than building the image of the ideal politician that now we either wish to escape or return to. It seems reasonable to think that this is a huge reason why Ed Miliband was given such a hard time both as Labour leader and in the 2015 election for reasons often beside his politics. Many references were made to the “wrong brother” being put in that position, and this speaks to a particular expression of the political hegemony. What was it that made David Miliband a supposed preferable option to his brother? Simply put, he looked and seemed correct. David fit perfectly into the model of the New Labour politician, the cloned appearance, free of blemishes or hiccups, the look of a car salesman with a healthy salary. “Red Ed” was simply a faulty model, and deviated from what we were supposed to be looking for in a politician, the effortless PR gloss that reeked of finance capital.
This really seems to lie behind the idea of electability; it is an idea of what we are supposed to expect, a baseline. Tony Blair became a kind of original from which all must be cloned, each time with just enough differences that we mistake them for another person… this vision of the default, the baseline test to ensure we don’t stray too far from our purpose, is something familiar to all of us in the form of the everyday etiquette of work, of interaction, the conformity of ritual that defines the rhythms of postmodern capitalism. It is the ideological hegemony, contained in a million repetitions; kneel and clasp your hands as if in prayer, and you shall believe, to paraphrase Pascal, and once we know nothing but the action of prayer, any deviance from this motion is an unacceptable break in rank..
This model of the politician may no longer hold the sway it did, but it plays into a certain hankering for the times of old, the supposed glory days of the 2000s from which we have been so violently torn. How else could we explain that some in fact think this era was some kind of golden age than that we have no direct experience of anything better than its profound mediocrity?
I disagree with Paul Mason on a lot of things [and will proceed to do so here], but I think his reference to Eric Fromm here is worth picking up on. I think it’s very true that the ruling classes are now very much relying on a deep despair and frustration to consolidate their position. They are gambling on the assumption that we will all be too fed up with the situation surrounding Brexit to do anything to stop them. But then, should our aim here be “the road back to normality”? Bluntly put, no, and I think this is a misstep if we are intending to move forward. The wish to restore normality has been the driving force behind political hegemony for decades now, the pull to the centre. If we have any commitment to the socialist project we must if anything resist the pull of the normal. This return is surely the most reliable gesture of the reactionary?
“Normality” like “Electability” in politics are values we should move away from entirely at this juncture. If there is something the populist right have picked up on and steamrollered ahead with, it is the realisation that these paradigms no longer hold the all-encompassing sway they did. We on the left should not oppose them by countering this realisation, as surely the situation of normality here is, if we are to understand it in terms of power dynamics, hugely damaging. We may look back to the pre-crash era of the 2000s with fondness, when there was the illusion of prosperity [for some], but surely in the long term we must take into account that such recessions are a regular an inherent feature of Capitalism, never mind the bloated debt fuelled economies of today. All we’ve been doing is living on borrowed time, as borrowed time is the only time capital can offer; the time of work, frittered away worrying about whether you can make the next payment, until the next time your landlord decides to up the rate of blood extraction.
Any point of normality we might hanker towards is defined by this, it was never going to last, and was simply the moment of decadence before the fall. What Blair and his cohorts may have sold to us as a time of plenty, what some who still stand by their politics seem to hold as a golden age, was a time, if we look under its surface, thick with the viscous sludge of ruling class excess, an edifice at the brink of collapse. I’m sure some of us would love to simply undo the crash and all its particulars, but this belies its place in the historical continuity of capital, the events that led up to it, ignores the sheer economic despondency, the depressive impotence of the left New Labour represented in all its pomp and hubris. Indeed, we now stand upon the edge of what might, by some accounts, be a global recession many times more serious than that 11 years ago, demonstrating that in all this time we simply pushed forward the inevitable, that all this pretence that underpinned the brutal program of austerity and the “Fiscal responsibility” of successive Tory governments is nothing but a pathetic sham.
9 years. That’s how long we’ve now been under conservative rule, and taking into account the broken promise of new labour, we can reach back through the millennium into the 20th century and find that it may have been at least 4 decades since the left was a meaningful political force in Britain. Given this context, it is indeed understandable why many now believe that New Labour is simply the best we can expect.. what else have we to go on? But it is imperative that we create something new, and glimmers of this already exist today. Of course the surges in leftism among younger people have been imperfect, the organisations and parties they underpin have made mistakes and will continue to do so, but given that we are trying to build something that has lain shattered on the ground in a million pieces for decades, this is understandable and to be expected. Right now we must avoid condemning what little we have to go on for its imperfections and try collectively to move politics to the left. The socialist project today remains fragile and ready to fall apart, but if we ensure its further success into the future we may in fact be able to see something beyond the vapid, empty forms of normality.
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.
Peppered throughout the new track from Algiers, “Can the Sub-Bass Speak?” are conversation-pieces, quick-fire statements, on the bands music, on the classification of Black music and the Black experience, a direct quotation from a negative review of the band’s last album on that gleaming bastion of taste-making “cool-kid” pluralism Pitchfork. “The effect is weirdly impersonal.” The track is unlike anything the group have made before, and cements their status as a genuinely exciting and exhilarating imposition on the musical landscape, an overwhelming machine-gun fire montage of re-contextualised snippets, a re-construction of experience and a conflation of segments surging through a justifiably venomous savaging of absurd outbursts of criticism, a re-framing of ugly behaviour and points of reference that might otherwise slip past the field of vision.
“The effect is weirdly impersonal.” Indeed, impersonal, it’s not about you. Weirdly impersonal is the unique capacity of art to re-frame subjectivity, not the tired cliche of “wearing someone else’s shoes”, but a genuine deconstructive tendency that probably owes more to the developments of modernism than the fluffy ironisms of PoMo culture. It’s the stage at which, rather than simply aiming to reflect an experience back at us we are struck roundly by a barrage of disconnected snippets threaded together into a narrative dis-continuity. It is not a no-nonsense account of real life we are faced with here, but in its overwhelming scattershot sprawl we find a certain worldview, each place it appears cut-and-pasted into the next, spread across the floor before us in a single line and only then being projected full force back towards us. There is a necessary violence to the track, a broadside directed at safe platitudinous assumptions around the supposedly “unified” Black experience. It’s supposed to be hip-hop, or soul, or one thing or another, “You don’t know how to act”.
The construction of experience, is it “weirdly impersonal?” Is this a problem? Is it in fact a mistake to assume we need to broadcast the personal to have an effect? What is contained in the assumption that a deeply political expression of urgency is “impersonal” in a negative sense? Isn’t it the impersonal, the dis-continuous, the cross-referencing, here that precisely gives the track its power? It is indeed not about the individual subject but about an experience, a very real, material experience, but one we don’t all share, that is not a unity, that lies fractured on the planes of subjectivity… what emerges on this track nothing a searing statement of anger and intent. It’s fast, its disconcerting, its profound and its a deep and unassailable cultural-political flash of energy in the best way possible..
I will admit I recently fell into a bit of a political slump. Usually I’ve maintained, despite volatility, an optimism and a confidence in the left’s capacity to win, and the potential to build a future, but the labyrinthine collapse into personal grievances and polarized trench warfare that the issue of Brexit provokes has really tested that optimism with a choking, persistent aura of dread. Now that positions have calcified around an all or nothing scenario it’s difficult to see past the pissing contest that ensues, and attempting to do so has practically left me with a migraine… this, coupled with my creeping thoughts regarding the catastrophic consequences should the left be defeated again, has led me also to an exasperation; at the Remain camp as much as the leavers, if not more. Despite this, I’ll attempt to unravel my thoughts somewhat, if only to get this crushing feeling out of my head.
I oppose Brexit. I think it is, as it stands, something borne out of reactionary fantasy and mired in impossible promises, a conjured chimera presented as a kind of backward-looking medicine for our troubled times. This said, it didn’t emerge out of a vacuum; we have to understand our politics in terms of structures and networks of affect, not simply a series of events that happen out of the blue yonder, and Brexit is no different. It emerged due to a number of factors, promises made and campaign lines run on, but the core libidinal attractor of the Brexit vote was a distinct disaffection and sense of impotence. The lesson we can pull more broadly from the rise of the far right, of styled eccentric populism, of reactionary sentiment both here and across the atlantic, is a desire for change, and as it happens what precise form that change takes becomes of little importance. This is why Farage and others have found it so easy to appeal to their followers on the most simple terms, they have an understanding of what people are looking for, that being a way out of their predicament, and they have at their disposal a cabinet full of nice easy solutions for a cheap price.
In this regard, the fundamental error of the remain campaign, one that aligns with the error of the Clinton campaign, contradicts the initial surge of Corbynism, and one that has been made again and again, that we show no clear signs of learning from, is the lack of positive solutions. What Farage is increasingly pushing now is not only pulling on the disaffection soaking the very ground we stand on, but an optimistic vision and promise of how to escape it. Now from this position we can tell he’s selling snake oil, but that doesn’t belie precisely how well he’s selling the stuff, shifting boatloads not because “people are idiots” but because he knows, like any good capitalist, how to take hold of people’s desire, to fashion it into profit. This has been the major impasse of the left for some time now, the failure to deliver a positive vision. If we continue to campaign on the back of “we’re not those guys” or “not that”, we will fail, fail, and fail again, as this simply misunderstands where we’re at, through appealing instead of to a desire for change, to the desire of the bourgeoisie for things to stay the same.
This of course feeds into a widespread fantasy, one where we can speak magic, consign Brexit to some crazy episode of history and everything will revert back to a pre-brexit state where things definitely seemed more stable. Did they? We seem to have lost our memory. Surely this is the only explanation as to why we are so quick to reconcile none other than Alistair Campbell, key figure of the left’s neoliberal capitulation and architect of Blairite limbo, speaking as if he is some noble, beset upon figure. What of the Liberal Democrats. They have become no more convincing in their utter lack of conviction, refusal to stand for anything and readiness to say anything if it might lead to election success.. have we forgotten the part they played in ushering in the best part of a decade of Conservative rule? That despite their current opportunistic anti-Brexit platform they had been pushing for an EU referendum since about 2008? What do they represent more than some petit-bourgeois protest party? We claim to vote for them based on their lack of fence-sitting over Brexit while they are a party of fence-sitters. They do practically nothing but sit on fences all day and only announce a position if it might garner them more votes, making sure they can nimbly hop back onto the fence again at the first sign of difficulty, the Lib Dems are an answer to nothing and a home to nobody. They offer nothing but more of the same, turgid, grey dystopia, a melancholic attachment to the neoliberal boom of the 2000s.
And so this is the root of my fear, that due to the total dominance of Brexit as an issue we have completely lost sight of any kind of slightly large picture, that we will happily jump behind anyone, no matter how dubious their political aims if they support a remain position. It seems, based on recent outcomes, that we will happily risk scuppering the left’s chances of victory and opening the floodgates for the far right if we get our personal wishes on Brexit validated. The famous Rosa Luxemburg quote has repeatedly come back to me at this moment; “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” It strikes me that we stand at just such a crossroads, and that the left simply cannot afford to fail, lest instead of collectively building the future we regress through individual fragmentation into a fascist resurgence. The centre has died, and it will not wake up again no matter how many times we try to resuscitate it.
This all seems to represent nothing less than one giant hangover from Thatcherism, the neoliberal doctrine that languishes now in a state of terminal decline economically and yet still maintains a spectral hold on our consciousness. We still think in terms of individual preference, of voter as consumer, of the nicely packaged individual psychology wherein our subconscious musings stem from us and us alone, where the political can sit in comfortable distance separate from the personal. This is how we justifiably expect a political movement, instead of moving us towards a broader aim, towards changing society, to simply give us what we want. The consumer logic that drives an ostensibly free market applies here to the ways in which, rather than think in terms of collective transformation, politics resembles instead the segmented, individualised and yet notably formulaic factories of social media, where the illusion of that mythical beast, individual autonomy, takes hold of our psyches in the darkness of cyberspace.
I still maintain confidence. It is definitely true that anti-capitalism is inching its way into mainstream discourse, and that there is a general sense that things cannot proceed as they are for much longer, especially set against the looming threat of ecological collapse. What is essential now, if we are to progress, and to move towards an imagined collective future in earnest, is a psychological re-orientation, nothing less than to change what Thatcher addressed as the “heart and soul”. What is needed is a reconstitution of solidarity, abstract political belonging and ultimately comradeship as Jodi Dean outlines it, for unless we can meaningfully unite as a political entity this left future is but an individual fantasy, consigned to the scrapheap to be ground up into paste under the ironclad boots of the future war machine. We must on top of this realise precisely what is at stake, the serious polarity of the situation and the cost of failure, to pull from this crushing negativity a reason to continue.
Yesterday, Theresa May, despite holding on by her fingertips for months, finally let go of her position as Prime Minister, delivering a resignation speech in front of number 10 that picked apart was a truly offensive display, at every turn giving an opposite account to the political consequences of her government. In what was an interesting and jarring echo of history May, like Thatcher, broke into tears on her way out, giving credence to those who hold that these times stand in parallel with the 80s, with the hopeful Corbyn Labour party representing here the failure of Michael Foot and the wider, bitter failure of the left during that decade. Of course, the comparison holds about as much water as a sieve, falling apart as soon as one bares in mind the stark contrast between what both Thatcher and May were leaving behind.
Thatcher, despite her eventual fall, had succeeded. Unlike May’s government in the very first instance, she had set out to wage ideological warfare with an uncompromising goal, and over the course of the decade, had fought tooth and nail to achieve the complete demoralisation of the left, the dominance of neoliberal economic doctrine. Her iron-clad war-machine had run rough-shod over all opposition. Amid the bodies, the spoils of war, she had been victorious, and as such her tearful exit holds an air of the army general ousted before his time. She had more war to wage … if only she’d been given the chance to wage it. She didn’t have to, however. Her victory proved total, to the extent where in the following decade the Labour party rode in through acquiescing to the war machine, surrendering to the neoliberal terminator and ultimately turning it onto us, leading into a time dominated by the underlying assumptions of Capitalist Realism. We now enacted our own domination, the march of post-fordism ensured our inability to see past it, in time dividing not only resources but time, time to act, time to think, time to change.
May came in, the result of a sudden leadership contest in the aftermath of the EU membership referendum, amidst the dying embers of the established order. The total ideological victory of Thatcher, neoliberalism, had grown lazy, arrogant, and decadent. During the 2000s the assumption was that it would last forever, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the “End of History” was all too real, an endless limbo from which we could not escape. First the financial crash of 2008, then years later the surprise result of the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump in the US, alongside a number of sudden resurgent fascist interests and imitators, were ugly impositions on the assumed comfortable reality of Post-Fordist capital, of course representing the repressed knowledge that it was never that comfortable at all.
The time of Theresa May’s PMship can be recognised as the desperate scrambling attempts of the conservative party to restore some semblance of order, against the backdrop of a gradually more apparent descent into squabbles and infighting. The Tories, having put into practice their idea of being the natural party of government for so long now, can’t now reconcile their insistence on maintaining the limbo of yesterday with the collapse of today. May exits on a pile of unspoken misery, of the onward march of a ruined respectability. Increasingly she struck the figure of the aristocrat holing themselves up in castle Gormenghast, away from the destitution below and amidst the crumbling, overgrown parapets of a dead or dying order.
It is against all this that her sadness must be measured. In a blustering, sputtering response to Owen Jones yesterday upon his statement that he felt “less than no sympathy” for May, we heard a plea for a “human response”. What is a human response if not to point out the absurdity of presenting a “woe is me” narrative in relation to someone who in tandem with their allies furthered a wave of misery and destitution, who refused to acknowledge their part in the deaths of hundreds of working class people in fear of weakening their ideological hegemony. There should be no more sympathy here than she and her government ever displayed to the people they plunged into precarity, poverty and homelessness, the people they have systematically shamed for finding themselves at the bottom of society.
Theresa May’s sadness cannot be seen as a mere individual reaction, it is a sadness undeniably loaded with the delusions of the ruling classes. The fact that so many right wing politicians and commentators will jump onto this to moralise at the left … show some empathy … demonstrates precisely how rich her tears are with symbolic leverage. For years we’ve seen the unspoken insistence reign that more empathy is to be shown for the respectable bourgeoisie than the feckless scroungers at the bottom, and this is why; so that when it comes to facing up to the human consequences of their actions the leverage of sympathy lies with them, so that we all feel sorry for the fallen politician who was dealt a rough hand and was only trying to do their best, rather than tackle the real violence they perpetrated in the role and the ideological underpinnings of their policies. So by all means, show some sympathy, but not for May, for all the people who’s lives she and her government helped ruin and take. Indeed is it sympathy as much as anger that should be driving us in this moment, an anger that can be effectively channelled into something to replace this crumbling edifice for good.
“The thing that men and women need to do is stick together Progressions can’t be made if we’re separate forever”
A Tribe Called Quest – Verses from the abstract
This line, delivered by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on their most remarkable work the Low End Theory, came to me over the weekend as encapsulating something of the energy and the thrust of solidarity behind Jodi Dean’s insightful and provocative instalment of the Mark Fisher memorial lecture this year. This seemingly simple observation; that unless we put our heads together despite differences, engage with each other in tandem, working towards a future becomes impossible. Mark Fisher recognised that such sentiment must be expressed anew in a contemporary left climate where we are all at each others throats, where we seem incapable of formulating a coherent movement through a haze of individualist moralising and comfortable aestheticism.
It is this observation that got Fisher into a good deal of hot water with his piece Exiting the Vampire Castle, one of those “controversial” pieces of writing that managed to demonstrate through its reactions exactly the problems it outlined; namely the devolution of left politics into fractured, knee-jerk, individualist identities and the undermining of class and comradeship as abstractions that cut across subjective differences and backgrounds. This is precisely why I was glad that Jodi Dean used this piece as a central reference for her lecture, a quote from its finishing lines projected behind her as she spoke, and also potentially why the lecture attracted its fair share of bad faith questions from the room, the Q&As in part seeming to resemble an attack on Dean as well as the usual trumpeting of Ego.
That the call for a rediscovery of Comradeship [the word “comrade” taking pride of place here, and forming the backbone of an exploration of the decline of the symbolic through Doris Lessing’s novel the Golden Notebook] provokes such a backlash from certain elements of left wing politics appears precisely to demonstrate the disparate mess that it becomes, exacerbated by the rampant individualist circus of social media, revolving around “me”, “I”, a pre-copernican system of people all convinced that I don’t need anyone else, that I know better, that it is the individual action and moral character that in all essences precedes the collective purpose.
Throughout Dean’s lecture, titled “Capitalism is the End of the World” I made connections in the back of my mind to my recent piecing together, gradually, of Spinoza and his relevance to politics, something I came to via Fisher himself. The importance of collective solidarity to political action rang out loud and clear throughout as she moved from discussing capitalist realism towards the breakdown of meaning in lieu of the aftermath of communism. The connecting tissue to Spinoza here was the generating of joy, that being the ways in which we increase our power of knowing and acting within the world, and how this is increasingly difficult if not impossible the more we isolate ourselves from others, the more we regress into a Hermit-like existence, eschewing interaction with others for the solace of our own pod-like brains.
This is in essence the individualised atomization of social life we see under Neoliberalism seen as the “eclipse of class consciousness” on the modern left. Indeed this is where contentions lie, when Capitalist Realism moves from being a general attitude to what Dean here made sure to emphasise, as Fisher did in Vampire Castle, as a pathology and a fatalism of the left. I have no doubt that this focus on the acquiescence to anti-communism, to neoliberal dogmas of the individual, to the idea that there is no alternative, as a problem so specifically encountered on the left ruffled more than a few feathers. The ultimate discomfort is when you read a critique of an attitude and a voice at the back of your head starts saying “shit, that’s me”. The criticisms Fisher presented then and Dean reframed here seemed to hit a bit too close to home for many, but this only makes them all the more prevalent at a time when the very-online left is intent on tearing itself to shreds at every turn. As Dean phrased it; “If we see enemies everywhere there is no side”.
I haven’t yet moved on to discuss the positive vision of communism Dean presented, one that I will admit has nearly won me over to the term Communism itself, more than its admittedly rather hum-drum alternative post-capitalism, a term that it always struck me was used more due to a concession to re-definition without really alighting upon anything satisfactory. Dean throughout much of the lecture vehemently stood by her own position that to try and invent some new terminology gave in to the PR game of capital, and everything that we envision is already there in communism, that to invent some other term is ultimately to abandon that vision. Indeed “post-capitalism” seems so unsatisfactory because of the lack of implied vision, the prefix “post” merely implying “after”, thus never really giving us a solid idea of what we are aiming at. Communism is a word that immediately encapsulates a communal future, and it is a mistake to simply leave it in the dust and let its image be permanently damned by a few men.
The lecture was an example, like Marks work, of everything left politics needs, and though extremely well attended, not enough people can lend their ears to what Jodi Dean has to say. To envision a better world may be something that in the eyes of many, cynics, pessimists and liberals alike, becomes this silly, petty thing; “pah, you silly little fool, daring to think you could actually improve the situation”, the communist, acting as a comrade to others becomes an aesthetic, a meaningless picture on a flag, a patch of red cloth. As Dean explored in Lessing’s work, poltical work dissolves and a shared language is lost. Everything devolves into the trilogy of individualism, aestheticism, and moralism. the mind and the collective disintegrate, the parts less than the whole, the whole now a distant fantasy.
This depressing reality is that also described by Fisher in Capitalist Realism, where the dream of communism, of something beyond what we have becomes routinely dismissed in a dull ritualistic everyday descent into the quotidian, political action merely something people laugh, sigh, or twitch at after the dopamine hit of a notification on a smartphone. It is now, where we see the cracks in the facade and the collapse of the boring dystopia, where we see a potential resurgence of belief in something more.
The main takeaway from the lecture was an emphasis on the importance of comradeship. How many have have we lost due to our failure to treat them as comrades? This does not mean, as Dean emphatically said during the Q&A, that justice for wrongdoing goes out of the window, merely that it is important for us to acknowledge that people change, and that we should be more willing to allow people a path back to the movement, not to simple “cancel” individuals for good once they say something slightly out of line, the credo of the twitter call-out, the social media whirlpool of knee jerk and absolutist moral judgements which forms the heart of so much modern politicizing.
It was stirring stuff, despite her concession that her deeply apocalyptic framing of capitalism may not have made anyone feel good about themselves, and the lecture left off on distinctly positive sentiments. It may have been divisive to some, but the message of comradeship, of abstract political belonging, is one that feels apt to any emancipatory desire, for how can we hope to get anything done if we hole up inside our cocoons, so assured of our importance as individuals? To create we must act, to act we must think we act, and to act and think effectively we must think and act relationally. We must in Spinozist terms generate encounters of joy, and to do this we must work together, as Comrades, not as the mythic hero acting alone to save the planet. For the collective is the embodiment of action, the action of embodiment. It seems like a painfully obvious point, but it is when we act for and with others that may reach for the communist horizon and find our way out of the murk of Capitalism.
I recently went to see the band Algiers, having had a bit of a long sabbatical over the past year or so from live music tied into my own struggle with the void and related correlates. This was the kind of firecracker of a concert that frankly puts a lot of other turgid re-animations of the past to shame, from one of the most vital bands of our time.
Algiers are a band that I’ve found difficult to accurately summarise to people who ask what kind of music they play. I usually say something to the tune of “well it’s kind of gospel/post-punk/industrial” and this never fails to feel like a disservice to what the band achieves, pulling together disparate influences organically into what feels like a genuinely new sound, something that feels far from the usual retreads of past moments and breaks through into a new reality, capturing through its anguished howls the paranoia, anger and resentment of the current political climate. They marry a political vitality and strength of feeling with sounds that feel just as exciting, just as important. Any trite cross genre explanation I might give on a whim to anyone asking what kind of music they play is bound to fall short of all that.
Algiers are one of those groups that feel like a much needed blowing away of dust. The tired decrepit old avatars of indie/classic rock going through motions and limply gesturing at the crowd through a lens of utter disinterest, the mire of conservative, dull new-averse rock bands putting out the same record for the last 20 years, the hangers on of Brit Pop, the revivals. Beyond these fusty relics re-enacting questionable scenes of youth nostalgia for a youth that never was, one reaches a space where the musical landscape opens up, where re-invention becomes the order of the day. And so it is with a band such as Algiers, who arrive as rock re-formed, the pieces still there but arranged in an alien way, their politics more than a vague gesture and more a fully formed battering ram.
It’s true that their influences call back to that which came before. Lead Vocalist Franklin James Fisher’s background in Gospel shines out full and clear, a clarion call over the industrially tinged rhythms, and stabs of noisy guitar, recalling the fury and the experimentalism of punk and post-punk’s most daring moments. The synthesis of these elements however is what proves so utterly compelling, on their first self-titled album and even more-so on their second, The Underside of Power. Algiers are not a band that are here to give you a warmed over repetition of something you know, they aren’t interested in comforting you, or even I would say in making you feel good about the world. Their performance is a call to action of sorts, a roaring reminder of the injustices of the world and a powerful sucker-punch to the emotional centre. Compared to the constant rotation of unexciting indie bands singing vaguely melodic songs about love, Algiers strike an imposing figure, replete with fire and noise, with Utopian desire and purpose.
What I found in the twisted gospel thunderstorm in a converted church, was a convergence of struggles, a universal call to arms that while deeply resonant with the racial paranoias of the American south, the oppression of the underclasses everywhere, only really makes allusions to specific political causes in the lyrics, which importantly encompass a sense of political potency that is felt across the world. There’s no explicit anti-Trump anthem here, but the blood pumping urgency nonetheless remains, simply disconnected from any spacio-temporal specificity, standing in form as a manifesto of raging emotion rather than a direct political screed against any political party or individual. This is political music, protest music in fact, but it captures in its energy something deeper than the problems of the present, becoming the conjuring of anger, of resentment, of hope.