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 »
Just to while away the time, I’ve been trying to list what my – and I suspect many others’ – writing tics are, especially when writing theory/criticism. (The tics I’ve identified below I know for a fact I have obtained through reading Anglosphere theory/criticism/philosophy, so it can’t just be me afflicted by them.) I’ll explain more below, but this isn’t to mock or shame people: there would be no language without repeated turns of phrase (tics), and we all have them. I’m just interested to see what happens when we elevate them from unconscious reflexes to the level of conscious reflection.
Here’s some I’ve identified, in both myself and others, off the top of my head:
…, of course, …: This is my worst offender, I think, largely because I don’t even use it as it’s meant to be used. I use it usually to add rhythm or a breather to sentences, rather than to express something that’s actually obvious and would therefore allow an “of course”. The result is that it just comes off as pretentious and performative.
Far from…: E.g. “Far from escaping desire for the cherished realm of dispassionate objectivity, anxious attempts to rein back “subjectivist” desire only further demonstrate it through their jittery acts of denial.” (from an old blog post of mine – there are plenty of examples…).
Against the…: Interchangeable with the above.
The story goes like this: Largely big in theory-fiction/accelerationist writing, inspired by Nick Land’s “Meltdown”. E.g. I noticed it on the Psuedoanalysis blog (again, this isn’t to mock – the blog’s one of my favourites, and I’ve learnt a lot about psychoanalysis through it)
Italicising almost every other word: I shamelessly do – and stand by – this, but I do notice it’s something that only theory/philosophy seems to do. How often do you see it in fiction or more factual non-fiction?
Here, I want to…: I’m trying to present tics neutrally here, but this one does get on my nerves. It’s something I see more in strictly academic writing like journal articles or PhD theses, and it reeks of academic self-flagellation. If you’ve written something, you don’t want to do something, you have done something! Just say “I’m going to..”
…, and is this not the …?: Zizek does this a lot.
… - and this is precisely the point - …: Ditto, but I like it.
It’s interesting: where do you stop when listing writing tics? Because I could easily extend the above list: I could have included particular sentence structures (something which the “Far from…” tic hints towards), particular ways of opening or introducing pieces, particular neologisms or words, particular topics, particular citations, particular uses of punctuation, particular likes and dislikes, etc, etc…
The answer is that, well, you can’t: writing is, by nature, a kind of tic. Or, more generally: language is a kind of tic. Instead of being the perfect representation of an individual self-consciousness, language is by definition adopted through a cumulative imitation of external speakers, which we then interiorise and eventually use automatically. Rather than a (self-)conscious, linguistically coherent thought occurring before every act of speaking/writing, language is simultaneously more than and less than the subject. More than because language always comes from, and is directed towards, the external Other; less than because its use is determined primarily by pragmatics and unconscious reflexes, rather than being grounded in a self-conscious intention prior to language. In other words, language lacks an interior; it exists purely on the outside, for the outside; and it is for this reason that William Burroughs famously described language as a virus.Read More »
As tru fans of the blog will remember, over the first two months of Covid lockdown I ran an almost-daily email newsletter called LOCKDOWNTIME, which sent out a variety of music/TV/film/book recommendations to give people some good cultural nourishment while being trapped inside their homes. The archive of these posts can be accessed here.
Unfortunately, as I returned to work and lost the free time that lockdown afforded, I was unable to keep up sending so many recs, and wanted to focus on writing more in-depth blog posts (e.g. my posts on Beckett and The Sopranos). Consequently, I quietly dropped LOCKDOWNTIME in early June, planning to return in some way at some point.
Thanks to some technical re-jigging, I can now say that: the recs newsletter is back. What I’ve done is merge the blog and the newsletter. By subscribing to the newsletter below, you not only get alerts of new blog posts, but also all the kinds of recs that I enjoyed sharing via LOCKDOWNTIME. Unlike LOCKDOWNTIME, though, these recs have no set frequency. I will send them out whenever I feel like it or come across something I really like. The vibe will generally be a lot more low-key than the blog.
TESTIMONIALS FOR “LOCKDOWNTIME”:
“You should all sign up to @jake_underscore’s daily email recs. Since signing up I’ve gone into a post-punk hole and rediscovered a bunch of bands I haven’t listened to since I was in high school. Banging.” – @MurrayShookchin
“big fan of this newsletter! really enjoying the recs” – Sean, head honcho of the late great panic.fm
“Just come across your newsletter and have spent the evening blasting through the archive, just as I was getting bored of lockdown, think I’ve found enough incredible stuff to keep me going for the forseeable, so thanks so much for collating and hyping it all up!” – reader Tom
“I think it’s really good” – Nick aka. Quantized Crow
“Agreed” – another reader, probably
“unsubscribed” – two peopleRead More »
Warning: SPOILERS for many plotlines in The Sopranos from the very beginning, including the show’s finale.Read More »