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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…

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A new, more substantial, post is in the works, but in the meanwhile I wanted to quickly share the following passage from a piece I stumbled across last night from Robin Mackay, entitled “Nick Land: An Experiment in Inhumanism”, written back in 2011. In it, Mackay recounts some first-hand experience of being a student of Land’s back in Warwick in the mid-1990s, shedding some interesting light on the oft-demonised thinker. (Disclosure: I have not read Land and I don’t disagree that the shunning of the contemporary, neo-reactionary Land is the right position.) Putting that relatively aside for one moment, however, there’s no doubt that the account Mackay gives on Land has interesting implications for academic and intellectual practice; Mackay, for instance, cites Iain Hamilton Grant, a former student of Land’s, who states that ‘In the last half of the twentieth century, academics talked endlessly about the outside, but no-one went there. Land, by exemplary contrast, made experiments in the unknown unavoidable for a philosophy caught in the abstractive howl of post-political cybernetics.’ Anyone who has had even the slightest brush with academia will be aware of the figure of the “radical academic”, the people who wax lyrical about destroying dominant ontologies, epistemologies and ideologies (etc) and yet completely abstract it from their everyday practice, living frankly boring 9-5 lives that counteract all the promises of their “radical” philosophies. In Mackay’s account, 90s Land seems to signal some way out of this, a way of living philosophy, of fully committing oneself to the life philosophy demands of us. Mackay writes:

In taking this approach, Land not only renounced the respect of his academic peers, but many times even lost the confidence of his supporters, as he sought by any means possible to drill through the sedimented layers of normative human comportment. Strange scenes ensued […] most memorably, a presentation at the conference Virtual Futures in 1996: Rather than reading a paper, in this collaboration with artist collective Orphan Drift, under the name of ‘DogHead SurGeri,’ and complete with jungle soundtrack, Land lay behind the stage, flat on the floor (a ‘snake-becoming’ forming the first stage of bodily destratification), croaking enigmatic invocations intercut with sections from Artaud’s asylum poems. […]. As Land began to speak in his strange, choked-off voice […], the disconcerted audience began to giggle; the demon voice wavered slightly until Land’s sense of mission overcame his momentary self-consciousness; and as the ‘performance’ continued the audience fell silent, eyeing each other uncertainly as if they had walked into a funeral by mistake.

Embarrassment was regarded by Land as just one of the rudimentary inhibitions that had to be broken down in order to explore the unknown—in contrast to the forces of academic domestication, which normalised by fostering a sense of inadequacy and shame before the Masters, before the edifice of what is yet to be learnt—thus reversing the libidinal charge of the ‘unknown’ and turning it into an endless duty, an infinite labour.

Again, anyone with any experience in academia (and elsewhere, to be honest) will know this experience of embarrassment, of not wanting to do something slightly out of the ordinary out of a fear of public shame, audible whispers and giggles, singeing through one’s ear canals straight to the fragility of one’s ego. Is not the whole of the academy run and based on this fear of embarrassment? The desire to be approved by the ‘Masters’? Perhaps this is why most academic writing is so tedious, scattered with the latest trendy neologisms that seem to refer to nothing but their own ostensible self-importance – because it is constantly, desperately, trying to prove itself as a way of deferring embarrassment, with this proof always pointing to some external, immutable Real that the Masters unquestionably take as fact. (Power and (epistemic?) realism being bound together, as Baudrillard argues in Simulacra and Simulation: ‘The only weapon of power, its own strategy against this defection, is to reinject the real and the referential everywhere, to persuade us of the reality of the social, of the gravity of the economy and the finalities of production.’)

Perhaps we can speculatively say that (a particular kind of?) embarrassment is a weapon for containing and muffling the divergent, which, just as Nick Land did when he was croaking and writhing on the floor, must ‘be broken down in order to explore the unknown’, to break intellectual practice out of the confines of the academy and into a new way of life.

It’s important to note that the argument I’m building here isn’t a demand, often made by (understandably) exasperated undergraduates on Twitter, for philosophers, theorists, and writers to “be more clear” or “use more simple language”. The argument (though it’s more an unconscious disposition) here always seems to be that Foucault (or whoever) is too hard to read, and that this is entirely because intellectuals wilfully make their work obscure out of some egotistical drive to appear mysterious and important. While there’s a kernel of truth here (see below), there’s also a micro-policing that I’m not entirely comfortable with, a refusal to give oneself over to the other, the new, and the unknown in favour of a “I’d like to speak to your manager” tendency, a conservative demand for things to be easy and cater to one’s existing way of life, which is of course impossible for any one piece of writing to do. It also baffles me because the difficulty of reading, say, Foucault, or Deleuze-Guattari, or Spinoza, is part of their very value and joy, indexing a pathway to a whole new conceptual world and way of living one’s life. That’s not to say these thinkers should not be made more accessible for people less versed in philosophy – this is absolutely important work, and they should – but that’s the function of secondary literature and work, which picks up bits and pieces from the primary work and elaborates on them, or plays with them, in a specific context: much like the primary work did with the sources it builds off. Don’t demand totalising interpretations; copy, create and mutate…

The issue, then, isn’t really the difficulty of the language but the functions it expresses. Academic language can be tedious, but it’s not so much because it takes effort to understand it, but instead because it seems designed to appease the Masters, to fit in with dominant trends within particular fields, rather than build any useful conceptual machines that people can use to live better lives. Examples of this in academia include always citing the “right” people (in ways that are often supremely gendered and racialised, too), using the “right” terms, and discussing the “right” topics. The challenge for intellectual practice is to shake off the demands of this conformity, and rather than perpetually defer embarrassment and exposure, work through them. Embrace and work through embarrassment, because what it indexes is the Masters attempting (and potentially failing) to keep their grip on their accepted programme of reality – not a personal failing. (That’s what they want us to think.)


Above all, the challenge for intellectual practice (no longer conceived academically, as abstracted from everyday living purely to be distributed across academic journals, conferences, etc) is to be consistent in one’s principles. I make this point inspired by a k-punk post from 2005 that’s been bouncing around my head for a good month now, having brought together and articulated nicely some thoughts I’ve been low-key having for a while (many of which have now been messily expressed above). Fisher writes:

The challenge of religion is to live your conviction. Kierkegaard’s injunction that we leap into faith should be taken less, as is normally done, as a demand for the subsumption of reason into the irrational, but as a call to show fidelity to your conviction. This was what Kierkegaard meant by deriding those who merely ‘believed’ but who lacked ‘inwardness’.

To be genuinely religious is, above all then, to rise to the challenge of consistency. Which is why the Rationalist tradition in Philosophy is religious, whereas the Empiricist tradition, based in commonsense and experience, is atheistic. Hence Spinoza’s flattening of ethics into geometry versus Hume’s claim that the only answer to the dilemmas of Philosophy was to forget about them and play billiards.

Our intellectual practice should be (tied to) a quasi-religious conviction and commitment, a consistency that stretches across all aspects of our lives. It’s custom to scoff at, or be suspicious of, this kind of consistency today, in a way that is unconsciously designed to shame or embarrass the committed. (Small personal example: I refused to shake Goldsmiths senior management’s hands at my Masters graduation ceremony last week on account of them being managers on £200k+ salaries while students and staff suffer with debt and precarity, and who called the bailiffs on the anti-racist occupation at Goldsmiths six months ago – this prompted a somewhat puzzled reaction from my parents and, I presume, those watching.) Chill out! Stop being so serious! It doesn’t really matter! But in these very cries is the plain and simple attempt to keep the problems of politics and philosophy out of the realms of everyday life, to keep them as the abstract playthings that the Masters/capital want(s) them to be. For, unlike previous social formations, capitalism is more than happy to accommodate a whole host of varied belief systems and philosophies (within relative limits), but only if these belief systems are relegated to the status of individualised “opinions” or “faiths” that are basically inert and ineffectual. As soon as these belief systems, particularly the ones explicitly hostile to capitalism, try to actualise themselves into certain behaviours, certain shared ways of life, however, capital must rush to neutralise the threat; and the collective unconscious we embody together is the tool it uses to do it.

The consistency Fisher speaks of above, then, is a lived practice of constructing a flat continuous line between belief and behaviour, which necessarily involves breaking down and through a bourgeois shame and embarrassment that seeks to keep beliefs in their place as fanciful “ideas”. The actualisation of the virtual spectre of communism – or even just the Outside – demands nothing less.

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Far from needing theory’s help, music today is already more conceptual than at any point this century, pregnant with thoughtprobes waiting to be activated, switched on, misused.

– Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun, p. -003.

Two weeks ago I was at the always-wonderful DIY Space for London attending the re-launch meeting of their Radio Collective. Things are still very hazy and new at the moment, but there are ambitions for DIY to become a kind of community radio hub similar to RTM in Thamesmead, and this weekend we’ll be doing some training sessions and potentially recording 30 minute snippets of everyone’s potential shows in order to patch together a kind of “DIY Space Radio Variety Show”. (Needless to say, if you’re interested in being involved, send me a DM/email.)

I’ve been meaning to get into radio and podcasting for a couple of months now, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to really develop that interest. Specifically, I’ve been interested in using radio/podcasting as avenues for exploring theory and music in new ways – ways not typically afforded by conventional structures (e.g. academia, mainstream radio, my everyday life routines, etc.). 1) Theory doesn’t want to be centred in the academy. It doesn’t want to continually adhere to conventions of “in this essay I will argue that…” or only be read by professors. It doesn’t want to be produced in precarious, low-wage conditions. Theory is hypostatised, deadened, by the academy. 2) Music is deadened by the continual onslaught on our free time, our dream time. Music becomes an appendage to everything else. Something to walk to work to, to exercise to, to cook to. Always subordinated to an exterior function. Even when music appears to be centre stage – in the club, in the venue, in the pub – it, again, is hemmed in by an exterior function: profit, or more specifically, the logics of capital. What would it mean to actually put music first, to emphasise the (production) process of music rather than its effects? To vibrate with music’s plane of immanence? To genuinely, fully, deeply, be lost in music, caught in a trap?

The gambit of the hypothetical podcast/radio project is: what if we solve both these sets of problems by bringing theory and music together in some kind of productive melange? Sometimes I read beautifully written, challenging and intriguing theory, and I often wonder how it would sound to (carefully chosen) music. Remember all those scenes in your favourite TV shows, where some moving speech is made with some stirring strings intensifying underneath? Then the credits roll, another song plays. You think about all the songs you would put to credits music if you were a director. That you’d end a film with. Where the cut of the credits cuts into the music’s plane and intensifies it. I always think about songs like that; I think about how they could be same but different, creatively mashed together with something else (narratives, stories, cinematographies) to construct accelerating feedback loops that dissolve the music and the visuals into one another to such a degree it becomes impossible to think the two apart. What is Shrek without “All Star”, what is “All Star” without Shrek? And what is Shrek-All Star without the reaction to and memification of Shrek-All Star? There’s a kind of symbiotic mutation going on here continually corroding and infecting reality’s established boundaries: it becomes impossible to think of songs “in themselves” or memes “in themselves” because the open connectivity is built into their very production.

Now, these strange cultural loops aren’t necessarily positive things, and nor do they necessarily produce anything of genuine novelty, innovation and wonder (hence the continual tendency for reboots, returns, sequels, prequels, you name it). However, the sheer speed and intensity of the process does present opportunities for theory, and the chance (if not the guarantee) to produce things of genuine – not simply apparent – radicality and novelty through a process of what Deleuze and Guattari would call “deterritorialisation” or a “line of flight”. Consider the plugging in of theory/philosophy, the contours of its concepts and the flows and rhythms of its text, into the above circuit. The rhythms, breaks and cuts of the music slide over/under the rhythms, breaks and cuts of the text (and vice versa), enabling new connections and constructing new continuums of intensity and feedback loops. A new production: not theory plus music, not music plus theory, not the dead theory of the academy, but theory-music, theory-fiction, another accelerating mutation.

An experiment in theory-fiction radio, then, would not be about propping up either theory or music as they currently stand. It’s not about making theory fun, or making music “intellectual” (although these wouldn’t necessarily be bad by-products). Instead it’s about establishing a kind of continuous circuit between the two, where music mines the resources of theory and theory mines the resources of music. As Mark Fisher wrote in 2005:

The whole pulp theory/ theory-fiction thing was/is a way of doing theory through, not ‘on’, pop cultural forms. Nick Land was the key figure here, in that it was he who was able to hold, for a while, a position ‘within’ a university philosophy department whilst dedicatedly opening up connections to the outside. Kodwo Eshun is key as someone making connections the other way – from popular culture INTO abstruse theory. But what we all concurred upon was that something like jungle was already intensely theoretical; it didn’t require academics to judge it or pontificate upon it – the role of a theorist was as an intensifier.

Here’s another quote from Mark Fisher (from an interview with Simon Reynolds) on music as a kind of conceptual/theoretical resource, or “lab”:

Music became the centre of the culture because it was consistently capable of giving the new a palpable form; it was a kind of lab that focused and intensified the convulsions that culture was undergoing. There’s no sense of the new anywhere now. And that’s a political and a technological issue, not a problem that’s just internal to music.

The notion of music being a “lab” is an important one, I think, and neatly distils the cultural and political impetus behind theory-fiction radio. If we are today facing a crisis of the production of the new, then maybe theory shouldn’t obsess with unravelling hidden “truths” or critiquing dominant discourses in order to “tell it how it is” (a disposition that can facilitate the reduction of political praxis into a kind of negative micro-policing that is all too prevalent on Twitter), but instead seek to act as an intensifier. New worlds are always-already out there. As Keir Milburn has noted, remarking upon Jeremy Deller’s fantastic documentary Everybody in the Place, “there are songs in which you can literally hear the proof that we have the collective capacity to remake the world”. Music channels affects/intensities that are rhizomatically open-ended, refusing to be contained in any individual form, always fleeing, always travelling, always taking us somewhere else – there is a reason why music makes us daydream, livens up our walks to work with hallucinatory images and rhythm, makes us picture other worlds, acts as a “lab”. Theory(-fiction) shouldn’t seek to arrest that (in this case musical) movement or expose it, but actively flow with it, play with it, intensify it, thereby enhancing our collective capacities to act and potentially incubating what I have called elsewhere “psychedelic consciousness”. This is the hope of theory-fiction radio.


As all this all demonstrates, the idea of wiring theory and music together is nothing particularly novel. Indeed, just this week Robin Mackay over at Urbanomic unearthed an old tape of a “performance” by the infamous Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) called Swarmachines at a conference in Manchester in 1996. It essentially involves members of the CCRU including Sadie Plant, Nick Land, and the late Mark Fisher reading a CCRU text (which can be found in the reader here) over some “premium mid-90s jungle”, cut together with all the primitive editing software mid-1990s personal computing afforded. Disparagingly for me, perhaps, the result is pretty poor, or at least dated; the CCRU collective barely seem to give the music space to breathe throughout the performance, crowding it out with their infamous brand of verbose theory-fiction. As one of the Soundcloud comments puts it, “the second-hand embarrassment is unbearable”; another pithily states “bro it’s a bunch of quotes over music there’s nothing great”. The balance, relationship and fusion between text and music here just doesn’t seem quite right. The hyphen in “theory-fiction” never quite materialises.

However, I can’t help but feel some sense of admiration for the intentions here. At the very least, it’s an interesting example that one can learn from and build off, demonstrating the narrow tightrope one must walk with theory-fiction. And as Mackay, himself a former CCRU associate, correctly argues in the podcast, the performance does “attest to the confluence of sound and text, or the mutual intensification of words and music, that was crucial to CCRU. And it’s continued to be important to many of us in various ways ever since then.” I’ve linked the podcast below if you want to listen:

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