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Books post-capitalism

Scanning the Horizon

After the Mark Fisher memorial lecture from Jodi Dean, considering I’d recently picked up a copy of her book the Communist Horizon I decided to promptly give it a full read. Within it, while I found some points she had reiterated within the lecture, I found a wonderfully fleshed out analysis of the problems faced by the left, the loss of the communist horizon, as Dean puts it, to the static repetitions of drive.

In some ways it fits in quite nicely next to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism as an instalment in an ongoing push to revitalise left politics and pull it out of the stupor of the past few decades, if one with a greater focus on action and strategy. Much of the book is devoted to defining a collective subject, a focus on the we necessary to enact political change, navigating the impasses of fragmentation and individualism so characteristic to what Dean calls “Communicative capitalism” in tandem with its close ally neoliberalism. While she advocates throughout a unified collective effort, it would be amiss to define this as some call for people to simply converge into a like-minded singularity. Something she brings us back to around every corner is the constant presence of rupture and antagonism within groups, and eventually even within the individual subject themselves.

This is a point I think rings out all the more as left movements are fragmenting everywhere, unable to tackle their own differences. Antagonism, between the lack of the subject and the lack of capital, between subjects, are everywhere we look, and yet people are capable of acting with unified purpose. The key observation to maintain is this, one that Dean reiterates from Lukacs, that a collective common desire distracts from, but does not erase antagonisms, that the form remains incomplete rather than a perfect whole. There is no “united” collective in a true sense, but while this tempts us to move towards Hardt & Negri’s approach, the ever-changing multitude, Dean is correct in her criticisms that this forms a collective that is too disparate and ill-defined to really enact the change it seeks. The multitude might sound lovely and inclusive, and yet it doesn’t really have the pointed gaze towards a common horizon that is needed.

A good example in a sense, whether it exactly lines up or not, are the recent riots in France, and the “yellow vests” movements that originated from them. They are a clear case against the collective as multitude, as after a certain point nobody could work out what was being fought for and everybody appeared to be angry about their own pet issue. There was no abstract horizon to tie it all together besides an outpouring of anger. This lines up somewhat with Hardt & Negri’s conception of communism as an imminence within society, and yet it does not. All that happened was anger without a point, a goal. What’s more, the fact that this was a “movement” so open that anyone with a chip on their shoulder could claim it as their own eventually led it to dissipate and become equally appropriated by right wing and left wing groups with entirely different aims. In its founding around the precepts of individual concern the yellow vest phenomenon was a miserable failure even as it made clear the amount of resentment bubbling away beneath the surface of society.

What was painfully evident from these riots is that people were angry and wanted to change things but from this point had no clear idea of what they were angry at or how to change it. What Dean points out was present in the occupy movement, a clear antagonism based in class struggle; the 99% vs the 1%, and a tactic in order to amplify this antagonism, was nowhere to be seen on the streets of France last year. The communist horizon as something to direct our desire towards on the left is in some respects works past this by ensuring that whatever each individuals grievance, a common direction and foundation for strategy is in place.

Something that is confronted consistently, and that Dean is highly critical of, is the lapse of left wing desire into drive, a banal repetitious approach mired in aestheticism [politics as commodity, as a t shirt, an instagram bio, a fashion] and inaction. Protest becomes something people do not out of genuine wish for change, but as a limp, ineffectual gesture designed to prolong the protest itself. All the symbols of political resistance are reduced to pictures on a mood board, shorn of power and rendered mere commodity like everything else, subsumed into capital. Political action then has little to do with politics, merely becoming communication, PR, eventually lapsing into melancholy.

So to rediscover the communist horizon … it is a matter not of devising a specific state formulation as many automatically assume as soon as the term communist is invoked [During the first part of the book Dean addresses the many issues with conflating communism with the specific historical configuration of the USSR, or even Stalinism], but re-asserting a collective desire for collectivity and drawing out the means to enact that desire. In the throes of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism we are repeatedly told of our autonomy as individuals, that each of us is responsible for ourselves and that, in Thatcher’s words “There is no such thing as society” and it is difficult not to argue that we are now waist deep in the quicksand of that ideology. What is required is the organised collective, not just because everything we are told pushes against it, but because by ourselves it will be impossible to pull ourselves out again.

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How Many Have we Lost Due to Our Failure to Treat them as Comrades?

“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 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.

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Sex Education and Capitalist Spacio-temporal Collapse

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Have you ever felt out of time and place? I did, while watching Netflix’s recent series Sex Education. As a dramatized exploration of awkward teenage sexual discovery it is, well pretty serviceable, even well done, if it does rely upon exaggerated stereotypes to get its points across in many instances. It is admittedly a step above some of the other misfiring attempts to do the same thing in recent years; that said something that stood out above all this while watching it, having decided to give it a go on a whim, was the luridly surreal disjuncture of the setting.

Immediately, like many viewers in Britain I would wager, I noticed something incredibly strange. While ostensibly it takes place in England, and everyone in the show speaks with a British accent of some kind, the setting of the school seemed to be screaming american high school at me. We here had all the known stereotypes of the american high school drama, the jock, the nerd, the angry outsider, the bully… you get the picture, and multitudes of details within the show merely accentuated this, from the american football to the clothes people wear.

And it goes further; numerous times in the show I asked myself when it was actually supposed to taking place. While certain aspects of it seem to communicate a contemporary setting, others seem to flit about between the 70’s, 80s, other distinct time periods. As it went on, the show embodied not just a spacial disconnect, but a spacio-temporal one. The setting was multiple folded into one, some mash-up of now, then, here there that created a strangely disorientating effect, further amplified by the strange absence of references to an outside world [as one might reasonably expect to filter into the teenage experience]. Not only is the world of Sex Education one where multiple times and places can be found in one location, the location itself appears to exist in some bubble, removed from the comings-and-goings of any country beyond its walls. People arrive, people leave, but outside the strangely indistinct environs of Sex Education, somehow achieved despite obviously shooting on location in multiple instances, there appears to be no communication.

Believe it or not, the makers of the show weren’t actually trying to create some strange Lynchian dream-space, this is the material interests of capital at play. Gillian Anderson, who stars, talked about the purposeful decisions made in an interview, and that it was a purposeful attempt to make a British show that would appeal to the huge American market. Regarding the strange incongruities of the setting, perhaps heightened by the realism the show shoots for in other areas, it was hoped seemingly that “Americans wouldn’t notice”.  Indeed the strange intermingling of settings is probably noticeable largely to anyone who has experienced the British education system.

The setting of Sex Education then, encapsulates the folding of capital, the singular cutting and pasting of time and place that occurs when one can walk into the same shop on two different sides of the planet and buy the same product. The British sixth form becomes the american high school and vice versa, every high street becomes the same high street, every cultural object has the same reference points, a universal patchwork of repeated cultural touchstones repeated ad nauseam. Combined with the temporal confusion and we have a product redolent of Jameson’s postmodernism, the collapse of historicity and a culture of nostalgic repetition under the stretching, abducting and re-configuring construct of capitalist desire. It is something that is only heightened by the move to streaming platforms, the shrinking of the planet not only via transport but via the interlinking of cultural objects, the object of desire becoming a singularity of one-sides-fits-all cultural interface, where all become one and one becomes all.

This is by no means the first instance of this, but Sex Education simply provides me with the most obvious example to date, where the utterly surreal quality of the breakdown of difference and the folding of space and time in fiction when considered outside of the shows purpose and context resemble a Phillip K Dick story. It a simulacrum of a place we all have in our heads, we all see as real, but doesn’t actually exist. It is real as a disparate connection of pop-culture references, representing a pulling together and blending of various things we recognize from countless shows, films, books and other artifacts. This is largely in fact extended to the characters themselves, who I mentioned earlier resemble exaggerated stereotypes. Like the setting of the show, these aren’t people, but pieces of other people we know from other fictional references pulled together into a collage. Peel back the layer of Sex Education and you find only more cultural references, as far back as it goes.

This is not, despite appearances, dismissing Sex Education as something worth watching entirely, but despite it being well made and written in many regards there was a distinct feeling dogging the whole show for me, a constant reminder that none of this was real. It exists in some capitalist hyperspace, suspended in the collective consumer fish tank, perfectly assembled, filed off, sanded, polished… designed for purpose and beauty, but strangely devoid of its own identity.

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Noise/Fire

anti-oedipusI 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.

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On the Virus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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