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Posts on: aesthetics

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.

  1. Something I spoke about in the “Corbyn, Glamour and the Working-Class Dandy” post. 

  2. 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

  3. Clearly such organisations are not just made as workers – replace “workers” with “tenants”, “people of colour”, “queer people”, “women”, where appropriate, etc. 

  4. 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. 

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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”.)

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Halfway through Samuel Beckett’s excellent Malone Dies, the titular character details a highly evocative visual metaphor that quickly gets right to the heart of the Beckettian project:

… I feel it my duty to say that it is never light in this place, never really light. The light is there, outside, the air sparkles, the granite wall across the way glitters with all its mica, the light is against my window, but it does not come through. So that here all bathes, I will not say in shadow, nor even in half-shadow, but in a kind of leaden light that makes no shadow, so that it is hard to say from what direction it comes, for it seems to come from all directions at once, and with equal force. (p.58)

You can picture it in your mind’s eye: a dull light that illuminates basically nothing apart from indiscriminate amorphous pools of dark colour that we can barely perceive, that for all intents and purposes is not “light” at all. And yet, this is not simply darkness either… there is something that we sense, but without any of the clarity that light is supposed to bring…

It is not just Malone’s room that is bathed in this eerie “leaden light”, which he evokes multiple times throughout the book: it is seemingly the entirety of Beckett’s oeuvre. Beckett’s characters are often decrepit, impotent, forgetful and elderly figures that stalk not just at the fringes of society (for example in mental institutions) but also at the fringes of the human itself.  Constantly reflecting on and editing the texts which they are purportedly the author, flitting from one topic to the next, his characters seem to lack any of the regularity or constancy that define human interiority. And yet, they stubbornly remain human: with a dark and bleak sense of humour, they continue to think, walk about, and even have sex. Much like the leaden light, we can grasp at “something” with Beckett’s characters, but paradoxically because of this, they remain unclear, dark, “nothing”.

It is precisely this commitment to the eerie, contradictory fringes that makes Beckett’s books often challenging and difficult to read: absent a plot or characters in any substantial or coherent sense, the major footholds a reader typically depends on when reading are gone. For most people, this amounts to a cardinal sin, and an immediate turn-off: why read a book where nothing happens? Where we know essentially nothing about the characters involved? Why are there pages, indeed a whole physical book, when really there should be none? Indeed, for most people these are entirely legitimate questions, and the “common sense”, instinctual reaction to Beckett’s works would be to stop reading after 20 pages and tell everyone you know how boring the book was. But such criticisms, rather than seriously invalidating Beckett’s works, actually demonstrate the radicality of the philosophical claims they make on us. For in order to seriously engage with and enjoy them, Beckett’s works demand nothing less than this: that we adopt a whole new ontology, an ontology right at the limits of ontology itself.

The central philosophical question prompted by Beckett is this: how do we think nothingness without turning it into a “something”? How do we think a being that, paradoxically, is nothing? What kind of “being” is the leaden light?

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