The wager of this piece is as follows: it is incumbent on communists to think the commun- of their title, stemming from the Proto-Indo-European root *ḱóm (beside; near; with) and the Latin mūnus (a service; a duty or obligation; a favour; a spectacle; a gift), itself stemming from the Proto-Indo-European root *mey — “to (ex)change”.
We begin by acknowledging that the first goal of any radical leftist political practice is the activation, or raising to the level of self-consciousness, of common ties that had hitherto been obfuscated by force and in the interest of the oppressor1. Whether it be among workers, people of colour, migrants, prisoners, women, queer people, and so on, the initial aim is always to bring people together who the powerful wanted kept apart and compartmentalised. We seek the construction of that initial rowdy meeting, where workers who have never spoken to each other despite working in the same place start talking and making bonds, where women find out they are not alone in the face of belittlement and harassment by the men they encounter, and where migrants who have long felt almost hysterically dislocated from the society into which they have migrated find others who have felt the same impacts of xenophobic alienation. To go even further, we seek the meetings after the meeting, those initial friendly conversations between the meeting’s participants on the bus home, or outside sharing a cigarette, about anything in particular… Those first signs of a budding, the sprouting of something new, matched by the excitement and nervousness about what it could become.
What is the nature of these “common ties” – what does it mean to hold in common? We can begin to reach an answer here by noting how the common is different from the equivalent or identical. While the statement “A is identical to B” proposes that A=B, “A has X in common with B” does not propose that A equals B at all – simply that they are both somehow involved with the common third term X. To state the obvious, A and B can be drastically different in numerous ways, and still have something – X – in common. (This all appears obvious, but I state it to stress the fact that while we often think of communities as founded on a principle of identity or homogeneity, the opposite is true: communities are instead founded on a principle of difference, on that “something extra” that must exceed the common term X.)
This leads us to that mysterious X – the commonly-held thing which we will hereafter term the common X. Now, this X is a strange entity: while it must possess some degree of repetition in order to hold the community together and give it some consistency, it is also something that necessarily exists in excess of any “singularity” (e.g. individual person, television programme, social media platform, whatever). The common X traverses all singularities – it cuts across and surpasses them, in order to “connect” them. Consider the diagram below2: here we have a “community” of four parts, #1-4, which all share some common characteristic, X. If we want to consider the common X in itself, rather than simply as a characteristic of some specific part, we are forced to cut across and traverse all the four parts, leading to the sketchy pink box in the diagram. This “box”, however, is quite unlike the others in the diagram, which depict specific parts with some kind of demarcating line between “inside” and “outside”. For the repeated Xs in the pink common box are not simply a collection of elements, as in a part-box; they are instead the repeated iterations of “one” consistent plateau – X – in different particulars. The common X therefore lacks any principle of interiority: to borrow a phrase from A Thousand Plateaus, the common X “exists only through the outside and on the outside”3 – interiority is alien to it. The X has a singularity and consistency, but no (self-)identity; and it is precisely this quality that allows it to hold together disparate parts, founding a community or commons.
At the “centre” of any community4, then, is this mysterious common X, this element held in common that the community in a way “hinges” around. Take, for example, the community around a particular school: that amalgamated multiplicity of friendships between pupils, after school clubs, relationships between parents, after work drinks between teachers, the conversations in the staff kitchen between cleaners on their break, weekend sports matches, school trips, and so on. Here, the common X may not appear mysterious at all – is it not simply the school, as a material “thing” made of bricks which teachers inside, etc? Yes and no: while a stable material structure is no doubt essential for a school – and thereby a school community – to exist and flourish, so long as we conceive of this structure as simply a “thing” in the commonly understood sense of the term (i.e. an “obvious” object of our consciousness that we can manipulate and control), we will never be able to explain what actually drives or constitutes the school community. For remember, the common X is not a “thing” in the usual sense of the word (i.e. an individual, obvious/transparent, controllable object), but something that traverses such individuated “things”, that cuts across and exceeds them. It is, to use the conceptual language of Gilbert Simondon, not an individual but transindividual5.
Lest this sound overly jargony, let us specify this example some more. Take two children: one is a bookworm and a teachers’ pet, and comes from a middle-class home; the other has had bouts of low attendance because of poor mental health and an unstable family life, and comes from a more working-class background. While the former thoroughly enjoys school and feels “at home” in class, going to clubs and bantering with the teachers, the latter finds the disciplinary environment of the school profoundly alienating, struggles to engage in class, and consequently thoroughly dislikes school. Both of these children are in the same school, potentially in the same class, even sat next to one another – and yet each has an experience of school that their classmate would find basically impossible to genuinely imagine or relate to. So on the one hand, we have “the school” presenting itself to us as a fun, rewarding environment; on the other we have “the school” as an alienating, harsh, and confusing institution. Bring in even more students into this example, and we could add “school as boring” to the mix, “school as racist”, “school as sexist”, “school as funny”, etc, etc – how is it that one “thing” can present itself to us with so many faces? The usual interpretation of such a problem is simply to argue that these are just different “opinions” held by the different students at the school – in this reading, the differences are “colonised” or “domesticated” by the individual subject; each different perspective on school becomes a property possessed by the individual, subordinating difference to identity. In other words, here we read the differences on the side of the individual subject(s), conceived as a separate, self-contained Wholeness. The more radical reading, however, is to posit that these internal gaps or fissures are on the side of the “school-in-common” itself – it is the school as the common X which is split, fractured, internally differentiated, and it is precisely this internal fracturing that enables it to be the basis or “centre” of the school community. When two students from the same school express different opinions about school, this tells us less about the “inner truth” of each student’s personality/individuality but rather, on the contrary, demonstrates the internal differentiation of the commonality “school” itself.
Consequently, the common X at the centre of our imagined school community is not simply “the school” as some simple object consisting of bricks and teachers, but instead what we have called the school-in-common, a strange entity that cuts across and exceeds all the singular elements that hold the school in common (students, teachers, parents, the bricks, the earth beneath it). As we have demonstrated, in order to cut across and connect singularities like it does, the school-in-common (or “common X”) cannot be a fixed, positive, transparent object: instead it is perpetually fracturing itself, emptying itself of any determinate content. The “generating principle” of any community, then, is never some Master or Leader who stands tall at the centre and proclaims to symbolise the community and speak for it “as a whole”, giving it some kind of fullness/presence. No – such a proclamation is always the retroactive attempt to paper over and fill in the self-emptying void of the common X that is the primary basis and “generating principle” for any community6. The common X incessantly splits itself, differs from itself, and it is through such self-differentiation that it becomes open to the outside, that it extends its commonality and builds/generates the community. In contrast to the figure of the Master-Leader who claims to symbolise and “be” it, the community is, then, instead always centred at its edges: it is the way a community “buds” at its fringes, self-differentiates, or changes itself that defines what it is. The community’s becoming is its being.
This is all, naturally, difficult to wrap one’s head around. Primarily, this because no one ever directly experiences the “school-in-common” in itself; the “common X” is not an object that is given at the level of our individual experience and (self-)consciousness. Why? Because it necessarily exceeds all individual experience. If it did not, we would not have a community, but rather a series of detached individual elements – the good and the bad student would be trapped inside their own personal prisons with nothing in common, least of all going to the same school. Thinking and understanding community therefore necessitates that we think in terms of difference, rather than identity – and part of such a thinking involves accepting that at the centre of any community is an absence, an incompleteness. For as soon as we identify a community with some positive object given in experience (“the centre of the school community is the school as a simple, obvious, material object”) we fail to understand the community as such, we “kill” it.7
(It is all somewhat like an asteroid orbiting the Earth; as anyone who has studied physics or mechanics knows, a thing in orbit is technically “falling” towards its gravitational centre point – in other words, the asteroid is technically falling towards Earth, compelled by the force of gravity. Due to the speed and angle of its departing flight path, however, it never reaches Earth. One can thus imagine us as aliens on an orbiting asteroid, constantly under the impression we are about to hit our gravitational centre, the mysterious X at the centre of our community – but always doomed to fail, for to hit the centre would be kill the orbit, or in our analogy, the community itself…)
This was originally a fragment from what was to be a multi-part series of posts on social media that I had been very gradually and haphazardly adding to since last May, and intended to publish here early this year. Other projects have come up, though, and as a whole the series feels already like something that I have moved beyond, so I have decided to drop it. This fragment, however, I still like, and think stands on its own two feet. Again, I have already “moved beyond” certain bits of it, but a lot of it still works, and it’s good to have some kind of testament to the months of work that ultimately led up to it. ↩
Like all the diagrams in this piece, this is ridiculously speculative. The diagrams presented here are simply little drawings I have made to set some thoughts into motion, and while they undoubtedly claim some productive and clear relationship to “the Truth”, they equally do not claim to accurately “be” or “represent” it either. (This is a bad approach to diagrams in general, anyway.) The “rigorous” logician or mathematician would no doubt balk at this approach; in particular I can imagine a set theorist picking apart and redrawing this diagram quite ferociously, reconceiving the boxed parts here as round sets, which all intersect Venn diagram-style over the shared element X. This intersection – which in mathematical notation would take the form #1 ∩ #2 ∩ #3 ∩ #4 – could then be described as its own particular set of its own, ridding the “common X” of all its “strange features” I discuss here. I can’t claim to have the knowledge to counter this, but I do have a sense that the set theory approach freezes and fixes the necessarily dynamic movement in commonality, thereby ironically misrepresenting it. However you feel about that explanation, Badiou’s Being and Event is in the post as we speak, which leans on set theory quite a lot, so this isn’t the end of this line of thought… ↩
ATP 2013, p.2 ↩
In his seminars on postcapitalist desire, Mark Fisher states how he dislikes the term “community” because it suggests an “in” and an “out” of the community. I share Fisher’s weariness about the term, but note that his uneasiness comes from a reaction to a communitarian or nationalist appropriation of the term “community” that, as the theorising in this post is explicitly shows, is in fact a botched notion of community that subordinates it to some racialised Master-Leader. The right may be the ones speaking the language of “community”, but we should be open in exposing this as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and assert instead that a correct theorisation of community, or collectivity, is indispensable to the Left. (As an aside, it is worth noting that Fisher was perfectly comfortable with and supportive of the notion of “collectives”, stating in a 2004 blog post that “there is no more urgent task on this hell planet than the production of rational collectivities”, for example. If one is uneasy about the use of “community” in this post, then, you can simply swap out the word “community” for “collective” and rest easy in the knowledge that you have “got it”.) ↩
For a short but rigorous introduction to Simondon’s works, see Muriel Combes’ Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. ↩
And such a “filling in” often has disastrous consequences: as Zizek notes in both The Sublime Object of Ideology and The Ticklish Subject, it is this attempt to fill in and “gentrify” the emptiness at the centre of any community that defines totalitarianism as such. The problem with Stalinism, for instance, is that the Party/Leader claims to stand in for, or coincide with, the People in toto without any leftover, meaning that any slight deviation from the Party’s/Leader’s rules – as inevitably happens, such is the nature of community sketched above – is construed as a deviation against the People, and therefore in need of violent repression. The truth of the matter is, though, that this act of deviation, far from being an act against the People, is what constitutes the People as such. ↩
To put a Kantian twist on it, we might say that community or commonality is the necessary precondition of individual experience as such; there is no singular individual without a community or field of commonalities that precedes them. ↩
I may as well begin this roundup with a frank admission: at the beginning of this year, I did not know how to read.
Sure, I knew the technicalities: I was familiar enough with the particular socially agreed match-up of phonemes, graphemes and meanings that constitutes the English language. Familiar and capable enough, in fact, to practically inhale vast quantities of the written word. But we should be clear in asserting that such an ability to automatically respond to linguistic cues is not the same as reading, thinking, or intellectual practice in general. While it is such a practice’s necessary precondition, it is not the practice itself, which maintains its own singularity and uniqueness. For it is one thing to inhale, quite another to extract from that inhalation the oxygen that nourishes our intellectual bloodstream.
Things are changing, though. Last month, all too late in the year, I started a reading diary as a place to log my preliminary thoughts about the stuff I was reading, which were previously transiently flowing through me only to get lost in the aether. Principally, the diary is an attempt at commitment: a practice of staying faithful to and honouring the transformative impacts that books have on me, of – in Badiou’s terminology – showing fidelity to the Event (of reading). In our first readings of books, all we are left with is an accumulation of (positive or negative) sense-impressions or thoughts (“that bit was cool” “this bit was boring” etc), and maybe a few notes in the margins. Our duty after this first reading is to almost immediately begin a second reading, which drills into those particular sense-impressions and tries to clarify them, work out what in the book caused them to happen, at a level detached from (yet immanent to) the immediate experience of reading the book. This is what the practice of keeping a reading diary allows one to do: to give ourselves up to the books, to fully and psychedelically follow the path away from our “selves” that they set in motion.
Taking its cue from the reading diary, then, the principle of this roundup is precisely the opposite of showboating. Initially, the plan was simply to post a list of what I’d read this year, as some kind of achievement – but it quickly became apparent that this would be of no use to anyone, least of all me. A list such as that is like the initial material extracted from a mine, or the raw data collected by some online marketing platform: crude, incoherent, quite simply not ready. It is an uninviting mass that, far from being galvanised by some kind of connective or inspirational principle, simply lies there as sheer magnitude. A big, mangled rock of readings of philosophy, music criticism, literary modernism, SF and gothic horror, that no one wants to touch. (And even if, perversely, they wanted to, they wouldn’t know where to begin.)
When heaved and lugged onto the platforms of social media, those digital mirrors that provide the contemporary self with the reflected image that it mistakenly identifies itself with, this big mangled rock can only be self-serving and exhibitionist; a pseudo-intellectual form of dick-swinging. And lest it not be obvious, this is precisely what this blog stands against: the transmogrification of intellectual practice – quite simply, the practice of staying true to the Truth – into a putrid careerist ego-fiction. Intellectual practice cares little for what books are ostensibly “about”; it does not read blurbs. Instead it seeks to channel the real conceptual movements that weave through texts, extending and intensifying them into new, unknown zones. It operates in the underscore.
The below, then, has nothing to do with me. I can only predictably concur with k-punk when he wrote in 2004 that “writing, far from being about self-expression, emerges in spite of the subject.” And so it is with reading: when accumulated under the subjective frame of being “things I read”, the readings below can only appear as crude material, a mass of undifferentiated junk characterised only by its magnitude. But when the raw material is felt, held, and cradled, one begins to notice patterns; protruding excesses are transformed into murder mystery clues, ambivalent signs of something far stranger – and far beyond – any personal subject. (Adorno: “Every work of art is an uncommitted crime.”)1
What follows is therefore “my 2020 reading” as it deserves to be presented and acknowledged2. Not an individual ego-fiction, but various plateaus or planes of consistency, impersonal threads of connection. Not tightly policed “schools” of interiorised thought, but the open fields of the Outside. (Deleuze-Guattari: “A book itself is a little machine… [it] exists only through the outside and on the outside.”)3
Inherently defined by such an openness to the outside, such threads of commonality naturally bleed into and cross over each other – where does one field “end” and other “begin”? – and I will likely end up repeating myself. This is no problem, though: in fact it is precisely what allows us to see the works in their true form: flaming sites of multi-vehicle pile-up, the singular points of collision and intersection of the various planes of consistency that cut through them.
Or to put it more classically, we can say that this messy excess of cross-bleed is what allows us to stop seeing books as self-contained parts, and instead as particular instances of the Universal.
When one knows this, one knows how to read.
Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, part 72, “Second harvest”. ↩
Editorial notes: The below includes a mixture of books and shorter length pieces including articles, essays, interviews, blogposts, etc. A few things – some of them exceptional – have been left out, for one of two reasons: (1) because they did not seem to belong to any of the common threads that were at work in my reading this year (which is fine); and (2) because I either thought they were just not very good, or I still do not “get” them, or how to put them to use. ↩
A Thousand Plateaus, p.2. ↩
Spooky, Gothic vibes in all shapes and sizes
theory-fictional pop-culture intersplicing
post-punk, gothic rock, darkside, industrial, trash
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Activists and Artists
Let us begin by proposing that “the Left”, since its inception, has been divided into two main camps: a) the “bread and butter” up-the-workers Left of the trade union movement and various activist organisations, and b) the progressive counterculture or avant-garde located around the spheres of art, music, film, poetry and so on1. While both of these aggregates are united in adhering to some kind of anti-capitalist critique, each approach and enact their critique of capitalism in strikingly different ways and languages, varyingly leading to either 1) productive mutually reinforcing collaboration or 2) bitter hatred and resentment between the two camps. For shorthand, let us conceive of this as a split between the activists and the artists. (With all the usual caveats that such a shorthand is necessarily reductive - of course activists can also be artists, and artists can be activists, and many people actually are both those things.)
What is the nature of this split?
To start with the artists, we can first note that they primarily enact their critique aesthetically: their aim is oriented around the production of a singular Work or Event that ruptures common sense and forces us to drastically rethink our place in the universe, sometimes to such an extent that it initially offends all our pre-existing tastes and sensibilities. As indicated, this approach is driven by a logic of singularity, seeking to strike that uncanny moment that is simultaneously both absolutely unique and yet absolutely universal, a kind of return of the repressed that both horrifies and captivates us.
Consequently, while the artist is (usually) highly sympathetic to the critique of capitalism, they try and integrate such a critique into a broader, more universal frame. This often makes such a critique more muffled or abstract than, say, the activist would like: a film director may decide to critique capitalism’s ecological destruction by directing and writing a film that is heavily laden with ecological themes, without mentioning the words “capitalism” or “working class”, for example, at all in it. Nonetheless, in that the film presents us with a particular vision of Nature that capitalism works to obstruct, the artwork can be said to function as a critique of capitalism.
This is because the artist seeks to conjure and use a language that is poetic rather than direct and literal. The intention is not really to use language as a tool whose only function is to “point to” things in the exterior “real” world, but to treat language as a medium to be explored, stretched, cut up, etc, as a raw material with its own Truth. To borrow a point from Badiou, the artist seeks a Truth that is not propositional (i.e. does not take the form of a proposition which we then “prove”) but poetic. Or to put it in a Deleuzian register, artistic language follows a logic of expression rather than representation2. The artistic “language” of (a) painting, for instance, is not one that ultimately seeks to refer to an exterior ground – though it may, by happenstance, do that – but rather seeks to be a ground itself, to be a new Truth of its own.
In contrast to this aesthetic approach, the activists approach their critique politically, attempting to organise the working class into some kind of collective organisation (party, union, guerrilla, etc.) held together by a common vision. Unlike artistic production, this organising is driven not by a logic of singularity but commonality: the activist does not seek to “stand out” among fellow members of the working class, like a singular artwork, but rather endeavours to be a mediator between such workers3, helping them to see past their particular differences and become conscious of their shared subjugation. The activist is a far more deferential figure than the artist as a result: they become skilled in the arts of conversation and persuasion, learning to tease the worker out of themselves and into dialogue with their fellow workers. The activist is always keenly aware of this: it is not their voice that ultimately matters, but the subjugated members of the working class that they organise with.
Alongside this organising activity, a political programme emerges, which seeks to give concrete expression to this commonality, acting as a faithful cross-section of its members’ situations and interests. What quickly becomes clear when drafting this document, answering the questions “Who are we and what do we want?”, is that what the workers hold in common is not so much a set of positive qualities or attributes, but lacks: lack of control over their work from their boss, lack of ownership over their home, lack of money, lack of respect from the police, and so on. Dark, spectral and vaporous, it is these lacks that form the truly generic set that, initially, forms the basis for the activist political organisation.
Translated at the level of the programme, such lacks dialectically become the basis for demands: open antagonisms rather than simple negations. The activists name their enemy and hold them responsible for their oppression and exploitation: the boss, the landlord, the police, the media. Through such a translation, it becomes evident that the logic of commonality that structures the political organisation necessarily leads to it being openly particular in its membership and approach4. Deferential to its members and openly antagonistic, the organisation never claims to speak, or be for, everyone, and nor could it function this way. Consequently, unlike the artwork, the political organisation is particular and pragmatic, grounded in specific concrete situations that they seek to intervene in. And it cannot be otherwise: for, as the “frame” of a situation is widened outwards and outwards, both in space and in time so as to become less and less particular, it becomes increasingly difficult to make and sustain political judgements. After all, from the point of view of deep cosmic time, does it really matter all that much if you organise your fellow workers at the job you hate and want to quit? Is going to another miserable protest worth your time? The activist can never really answer these questions, which anyway do not concern them: they care about the here and now, the blood boiling in their veins. Seeking to distance oneself from the immediacies of the present is scorned, either as lazy or aloof – a bourgeois privilege.
The artists, however, famously thrive on such distanced territory. Artistic genres and aesthetics such as the Gothic, sci-fi, and cyberpunk (to give just a few limited examples) have much to say about such cosmological, theological, ecological, technological, and philosophical concerns: the relation of man and machine, evolution, science, consciousness, aliens, God, the natural vs. the artificial… The activists? Not so much. Such distanced, abstract topics appear to have little immediate use in building the organisation.
Now, it is worth stressing that neither of these modes are better or worse: they are simply different ways of responding to a shared situation, and both can (and indeed often do) work together very productively. Today, most musicians, artists, and writers are broadly left-wing and have great sympathy and admiration for the work of organisers, particularly in unions like UVW and IWGB (the former of which now has a branch for creative and design workers). Furthermore, some of the most visible union struggles in the UK and US recently have also been in the creative sector, such as workers at the Tate, National Theatre and Southbank Centre striking over job losses two months ago, or staff at both Pitchfork and Vice forming unions which have won recognition and new contracts, as well as doing work stoppages.
Simultaneously, however, such growing class consciousness among artists and creative workers does not seem to have been met with a growing “artistic” consciousness among activists on the Left. Indeed, for much of the contemporary “bread and butter” Left, the avant-garde is still something to be treated with suspicion: a pretentious, bourgeois plaything that is unnecessarily esoteric and detached from the everyday person’s life and concerns. And this is where the carrots come in.
The term “expression” may sound like vague nothing-speak, but Deleuze very rigorously theorises it, and its differences from signification/representation, in Expression in Philosophy: Spinoza. ↩
Clearly such organisations are not just made as workers – replace “workers” with “tenants”, “people of colour”, “queer people”, “women”, where appropriate, etc. ↩
The terminology is used precisely here: singular is not the same as particular. Whereas “singular” directs our attention to a certain absolute uniqueness, “particular” points us to the Whole that this particular thing is part of. When we talk about a “particular apple”, for instance, we are identifying this round, green object through the Whole (Apple-ness) that it is a part of. ↩
Messy, speculative dispatches from an alien encounter…
On a visit up to Scotland two weeks ago to see Nick, we, utterly accidentally, came across alien territory: territory all the more alien for being so absolutely earthly.
Vast Martian expanses of rusty red rock; the half-destroyed 14th century Tantallon Castle on the horizon; a small harbour filled with grubby, viscous sea foam; an eerily neat pile of slimy seaweed tentacles; a brooding, apocalyptic sky… It was all utterly unhomely, utterly untimely: simultaneously before and after the end of the world, in and out of time, on and off this planet.
We were lost for words, revelling in this place’s unanswerable secrets. This place was literally, not at all metaphorically, psychedelic.
Retroactively, we discovered this place was called Seacliff – but all accounts of it seem to domesticate it or make it cosy, effacing its eerie cosmic energy. It’s all compartmentalised and explained away: all tales of war games, private beaches and the wealthy families who own them, tourists and dogwalkers, the local crab fisherman who uses the harbour.
Nice try, but the rocks speak for themselves. Seacliff is far more weird, trippy and unsettling than any of these authorities could ever admit. The question remains though: why?
Maybe it’s all just sublimity. The sublime, as theorised by many philosophers including Kant and Burke, refers to a kind of objective, absolute magnitude that is of such a quantity that it overwhelms all our faculties of comprehension. Think of, say, the Grand Canyon, or the view of Earth from the Moon, or the waves continually crashing against overhanging cliffs: this is the sublime – a grand magnitude that leaves our mouths agape, lost for words (for such crude human inventions cannot possibly do it justice). As this demonstrates, the sublime lies beyond such sense-faculties – it is supersensible, a surplus or leftover that cannot be captured, explained, and operationalised.
The feeling of the sublime, however, doesn’t totally capture the affect evoked at Seacliff. Sublimity seems to suggest a kind of separation between the exorbitant, excessive sublime object and the limited subject-interior that is submitted to, and has to adapt to, it. But the feeling at Seacliff wasn’t exactly about some grand exterior object that we could merely gawk up at – instead, it was about a vast exteriority that was revealed to have been “in” us from the beginning. This was the unsettling – and psychedelic – thing about Seacliff and its cooled volcanic landscapes: rupturing through the surface-level tension of our everyday experiences, it seemed to expose some traumatic, repressed core that had been underlying them this whole time, without us noticing. The most internal became the most external…Read More »
I have never fully understood why revolution is expected to be so drab. The dictatorship of the proletariat has so often been interpreted as the dictatorship of the ugly and shapeless that it begs the question why glamour is anathema to so many advocates of social upheaval? In all of recent revolutionary history the only truly glamorous revolutionaries I can remember - Che notwithstanding, who was handsome but also a scruffy bastard - were the drag queens of Stonewall in Greenwich Village who went toe-to-toe against the homophobia of the NYPD in 1969 and scored a major victory for gay rights and the crucial liberty of sartorial self-expression. Ever since, I have been with them all the way, a true believer in the legitimacy of fighting the good fight in high heels.
…the majority of the up-the-workers Left… seemed totally unaware of the great tradition of the English working class dandy. The wideboys of the Forties, …the teds of the Fifties and the mods of the Sixties were all progressive versions of what Orwell described as ‘young men trying to brighten their lives by looking like film stars’ and George Melly later called ‘revolt into style’. The workers never wanted to look like the proles of Metropolis but they were too wretchedly paid and brutally overworked to do otherwise… One of the great attractions of the Blackshirts was that they offered unemployed louts snappy uniforms. The lone Red of my acquaintance who had both an awareness of power through style and the flash that came with it was a self-proclaimed Stalinist who rode a Triumph Bonneville and favoured Jim Morrison-style leathers and a swan-off Levi jacket, with a hammer and sickle in place of the motorcycle club patch. More than once he told me, ‘I’d join the Hell’s Angels, but it’s the bastards you have to ride with. They don’t have a clue. I mean, how many could I discuss Frantz Fanon and The Wretched of the Earth with?’
– Mick Farren, Give The Anarchist a Cigarette
The above quote, found while trawling the archives of Owen Hatherley’s old blog, succinctly gets to one of the, in retrospect, key limitations of Corbynism (and, by consequence, Starmer’s Labour).
As I have argued previously, the initial promise of Corbyn, when he was first elected, was that he was not just a rejection of the neoliberal status quo at the level of policy, but also – crucially – the level of style and culture. In the early days of his premiership, Corbyn visibly and starkly stood out against the bland austerity-lite managerialists who ran the party at the time. He didn’t look like your boss, but an eccentric regular at an urban greasy spoon, doffing a fiddler cap and filled with secrets and anecdotes from the city’s grimy underworld. Cycling away into the distance, he had lived the life we wanted to live but had always been impeded from doing so by capital: he was one of us, in all our imperfections and rough edges. The difference between him and the grey vultures, circling around the already-ravaged carcass of New Labour, was palpable (as the painfully awkward picture below visualises).
The limitation of Corbyn’s “alternative” style, however, was that it was largely negative in character: it rejected the black suit and white shirt by forgetting the suit altogether and unbuttoning the shirt’s top button, rather than wearing something else entirely (a la Che or the Stonewall drag queens). Hence the frequent denigrations of Corbyn’s “scruffiness” – to be scruffy is always defined in relation to a dominant ideal which it fails to meet through a messy excess (long hair, unclean clothes, etc). The scruffy can be easily denigrated because it is not a style that stands on its own terms – it is only the failure of another, dominant, style.
Instead of continuing this negative trajectory through to its conclusion, however – which would have seen him doubling-down on his scruffiness and lack of “professionalism” in order to create a new, positive, alternative style – Corbyn caved to the neoliberal style council remarkably quickly. Beige suits were replaced by dark ones by the time the 2017 general election campaign came around, and such a stylistic capitulation was only further entrenched by Labour’s success at that election, which ostensibly dictated that the party must look like a “government and waiting” and Corbyn a “future Prime Minister”. Consequently, 2019 election Corbyn seemed to have lost all the spark and difference of 2017 Corbyn: years of “image management” and trying to out-government the government during the charade that was the Brexit withdrawal process had smoothed out all his edges, turning him into just another functioning component of the cynical electoral machine. (Something that unsurprisingly led to Corbynite Labour’s defeat – Corbyn was never elected or designed to be a functioning cog, but a spanner lodged in the mechanism, rupturing and destroying it. This was the role he could convincingly and persuasively play, not “future Prime Minister”.)Read More »