Categories
Books post-capitalism

Reflections of K-Punk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K-Punk is finished, but not done.

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

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

Laboria Cuboniks – The Xenofeminist Manifesto

Jodi Dean – The Communist Horizon

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

Donna Haraway – The Cyborg Manifesto

David Toop – Oceans of Sound

Categories
post-capitalism

Emergent Cultural Realities – Part 1: Denaturalize!


To upend the social order is to defy the given precepts of its nature. To defy the precepts of the nature of order is a daunting proposition, and one that while we may envision occurring overnight may only set in entirely over several generations. This is something Mark Fisher noted as the fatal flaw of the ’68 radical moment, the lack of patience, the assumption that all would change within a single generation. It is key to any consideration of the future that we situate the molecular within the cellular, the cellular within the larger life-form, the life-form within the ecosystem. This stretching of time and space is something that precedes the realisation that what seems to be a solid rock-face is indeed transitory, that we live atop shifting sands, dividing and exacerbating into different intensities and formations. Nothing is permanent.

i. THE NATURAL ORDER

We are a social and historical animal. What I and others mean by this is not to strip away individual experience, but to place it within its surrounding matrices, to acknowledge that individual experience is a series of affects, connected indelibly to other individual experiences and surrounding stimuli. This is something pointed out in recent affect theory, Deleuze & Guattari, Massumi… and yet it can be found if we simply return to Spinoza’s Ethics. Spinoza preceded many of the concerns of modern science in his philosophy of affects and passions, his breaking down of the mind/body duality that had defined Cartesian metaphysics before him. Spinoza informs us that our mind and body are not separate, but engaged constantly, one informing the actions of the other. Ones state of mind is undeniably connected to physical health in a multitude of ways and vice versa, the matter of both engaged in a dialogue of affects and effects, generating lived experience as a determined and constantly shifting whole.

In this way, we can understand ourselves as subjects not as the much vaunted individual agent, but as a conscious link in an ever-expanding spacio-temporal map of causes. It both disrupts and desublimates the ego as an arena of production, placing “me” next to a million other mes all acting upon one another, and sketching the clear outline of humanity the social creature. The factor of determinism in this picture makes us uncomfortable, as we like to think ourselves as defining our own destiny, but is it deniable that we lack a large degree of control over what drives us? Is it deniable that we are, if not entirely, not insignificantly enslaved by our sociopolitical reality? The one question that must be asked from this point is how agency can be meaningfully achieved in this picture, which is something I will return to.

This has illustrated the ways in which we are driven by forces outside our control, and can also be extended to history. The act of historicizing something, placing it within a time-line of causes, immediately rips it out of its comfortable status within the present and places it within a specific social context as the result of innumerable events and attitudes. What, for instance, may today seem like a purely natural state of affairs, common sense, may quickly unravel upon being placed within historical context, becoming something wholly temporary or arbitrary. Historicizing something effectively denaturalizes it. It’s why Fredric Jameson places such great emphasis on historicizing in his analysis of media and popular culture. If we place something within the universe of affects, events, intensities… it becomes out of time and place, and it becomes contextualised within sociopolitical tendencies, modes of production.

ii. WAYS OF DISMANTLING

Freedom is not a given – and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’

– Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto

The process of denaturalization is the dismantling of theology. Appeals to nature, some kind of inherent “essence” belie the fact that whatever this essence is, we remain in a state of constant alienation from it; they also deify, whether willingly or not, the processes around us, and point towards the kind of backwards motion that leaves the left stranded in the current trying to fight back the tide. To step away from appeals to an inherent nature and deal with the forces of production as they exist in relation to each other is the necessary step to realising the first hint of a left project, for to decouple our ways of thinking from such ideas, while difficult for myriad reasons is a process of a emancipation itself.

Not for nothing do conservatives and right wing figures often turn to ideas of essential nature to justify themselves. For if you can root tradition and subservience to authority in the natural order in a way where it appears to be an eternal, solid entity rather than an imposition or fantasy it becomes something unavoidable, something which it is futile and foolhardy to imagine an alternative to. It is, after all the way things are. 

The greatest contribution made by Deleuze & Guattari to how we consider the social order is their focus on its abstract potentials, the constant becoming and shifting intensities that lie beneath the surface of what we consider reality. Indeed, has this not been the impact of the most successful avante garde movements and impositions? What we get, for instance, within Jazz improvisation is a testing of the limits of an instrument, to tear the musician out of the comfortable boundaries of the social order and make what seemed previously ordered chaotic, unpredictable, unnatural. It reveals the presumed natural state of musical expression to be but one fiction, one imposition onto the real. In the space of the improviser, we see the forming of a new order from the jumbled ruins of the prior one, one that falls apart as soon as it is created, consistently existing on the boundaries of formation, the gap between realities, never fully existing and embodying the state of constant becoming.

If Avant Jazz can be the musical expression of denaturalization, weird fiction can act as the symbolic exploration of it. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy if it is about anything is about nature, but it is about weirding nature, fundamentally denaturalizing nature itself. We enter a space in which nature has confounded our attempts to categorise it, moved beyond our epistemological limits and reorganised itself into a shifting, mutating viral entity. It occupies the intersection that weird fiction specialises in, again a space between realities, the imposition of one on another where the other is displaced, changed. Nature becomes unnatural, in other words resisting the comfortable rules we assign to it, generating a certain fear and anxiety somewhere in this antagonism. This is the power of the weird, something that Mark Fisher talks about in The Weird and the Eerie, that unlike fantasy, which constructs an entirely new order/reality, the weird displaces the current order, bringing it into contact with an Outside.

iii. WEIRD POLITICS

This displacement echoes and precedes any concern for an emancipatory politics. For if our aim is towards an order, which we may name Communism, which seeks to replace the natural order of Capital … it is first a necessity to plunge these territories into disorder, frame them as fictional impositions on disorder. It is not as much in this case a shifting of reality but of our perspective on reality, to the point where we must acknowledge the cracks, fissures and general incompleteness of its visage.

Something that is talked about a great deal in leftist circles is the harmful influences of stereotypes of social impositions such as gendered toys, what many might call “indoctrination”. The tricky aspect of this is that we eventually run into the realisation that however we proceed some form of this “indoctrination” is inevitable, unless we choose somehow to subsist in some entirely neutral grey zone which no sane person would likely wish upon themselves or their children. That said, this is not to say there isn’t a point here, there very much is, and this is regarding the naturalisation at play when we repeat the ritual of gendered inoculation time and time again. It effectively generates through repetition a natural order wherein anything outside it is automatically considered unnatural, the effects can be seen historically if we look at treatment of many groups considered outside the natural order of the time, and such issues persist.

This has often been the value of subversive cultural turns. I wrote about this a while back, framing it as disruption, but I would take this further and say that it represents, down to an ontological level, a denaturalization, in the sense that unleashing the explosion into a bloated, long-running established culture shifts it along its foundations, introducing an element so disruptive that it must realign to cope. The punk ethos becomes a tool of cultural leverage, an expression of negative discontent that tears away the appearance of natural reality, presenting itself, like a Lovecraftian otherness, as something that simply shouldn’t be there, and more than that, something that knows it shouldn’t be there and doesn’t care. Therein lies the value of cultural transgression to a political framework, the idea that we are to confront those agents of the natural order an incongruity so immense that they climb over themselves to try and condemn it. This is, I have come to believe, also the value of Communism as an idea, precisely the provocation that lies within it and the incongruity that it presents to anyone enamoured with the way things are, or who demonstrate an unthinking reverence towards it.

I was planning to make this a single post but as I wrote it I believe this is best expanded upon over two or three, as subjects I was planning to write about fit neatly under the same heading, and serve as a nice way to approach the same thing from multiple angles. In a way this is my attempt to return to what I wrote about disruption at the beginning of this blog and really dive into what I briefly and to my mind unsatisfactorily outlined there on cultural subversion and transgression. There will be a post arriving in the near future on demythologizing that will examine in greater detail some of the things I only touched upon here, as well as some of the contradictions and antagonisms contained within them.

Categories
Uncategorized

Post-ironic Metamorphosis; Detachment, Horror, Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

Confronting Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

Irony does not cancel reality

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

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

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

What?

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