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Posts on: criticism


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.

  1. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, part 72, “Second harvest”. 

  2. 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. 

  3. A Thousand Plateaus, p.2. 

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Someone at the first session of the k-punk quarantined online seminar series yesterday made quite an interesting slip of the tongue. Discussing how we got into Fisher’s work, one PhD student described themselves as a fan of Fisher’s works, before almost immediately pulling themselves back and saying something along the lines of: “well, not “fan”, fan’s not the right word…”

Said in a moment amidst technical difficulties before the conversation proper started, I didn’t say anything in response to this when it happened. But needless to say, this kind of academic and postmodernist aversion to “fandom” is exactly what Fisher was rallying against in his work (amongst other things, of course). All of Fisher’s work starts from the basic starting point unveiled in different ways by Nietzsche, Freud, Spinoza, and various others: there is no libidinal neutrality. 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.

Fisher most explicitly makes his case for being a “fan” in two 2009 blog posts, “Fans, Vampires, Trolls, Masters” and its follow-up. Against the idea that fans are simply the mindless zombies of groupthink, lobotomised of any critical faculties, he asserts in the latter:

Far from being uncritical dupes, fans will often be more critical of their object of adoration than anyone else is; in part, evidently, because they care far more than those who haven’t made the libidinal investment. (This doesn’t mean that fans won’t close ranks when their object is attacked by an outsider.) I say ‘object of adoration’ but ‘adoration’ doesn’t really capture the fan’s relation to the object. The object isn’t so much adored as fetishised, elevated into the position of an idol, the figure around and through which libido is organised. But the mistake of anglo-American deflationism is its notion that we can simply dispense with this kind of fetishism and just deal with propositions. Some kind of attitudinal/ libidinal stake is always necessary to get things going; the issue is whether it is foregrounded and affirmed or occulted and denied. Passing beyond being a fan is not achieved by occupying a chimeric position of libidinal neutrality, but precisely by following the implications of the libidinal investment.

The question this poses is: if you like Fisher’s work to the point of being invested in it, why shun the label of the “fan”? Why deny that investment? The idea that being a “fan” of Fisher jettisons one of any critical engagement with his work is patently silly, and far from enlightening the disinterested “truth” of his work, only deadens it into a flat apparition to be slotted neatly into pre-existing categories. Indeed, as Fisher notes in “Fans, Vampires, Trolls, Masters”, “there is a strong relationship between the Fan and the critic”. This is something I elaborated further in my post on Iain Nairn and criticism – good criticism actually incorporates fandom in that it intensively places itself within its object, gives itself over to its mobilisation of the libido. But – and this is something I neglected to mention in that post – this is not enough in itself: the placement of one “within” the object of criticism must then also be matched by a flight or escape from it. (This is demonstrated by the banalities of everyday life: often we only realise the truth of a past situation we were involved in because the passage of time distances us from it and allows us to reflect on it from the outside, having previously been “in” it.) But in order to make that escape, one necessarily must have previously been “within” the object at hand; it’s not enough to simply sneer from the outside.

Adorno gives this a theoretical rigour in aphorism 46 of Minima Moralia, which I quote at length because the force of his argument here is lost if one reduces it to a pithy citation:

Naivety and sophistication are concepts so endlessly intertwined that no good can come of playing one off against the other. […] Knowledge can only widen horizons by abiding so insistently with the particular that its isolation is dispelled. This admittedly presupposes a relation to the general, though not one of subsumption, but rather almost the reverse. Dialectical mediation is not a recourse to the more abstract, but a process of resolution of the concrete in itself. […]

The morality of thought lies in a procedure that is neither entrenched nor detached, neither blind nor empty, neither atomistic nor consequential. The double-edged method which has earned Hegel’s Phenomenology the reputation among reasonable people of unfathomable difficulty, that is, its simultaneous demands that phenomena be allowed to speak as such - in a ‘pure looking-on’ - and yet that their relation to consciousness as the subject, reflection, be at every moment maintained, expresses this morality most directly and in all its depth of contradiction. […]

Nothing less is asked of the thinker today than that he should be at every moment both within things and outside them - Münchhausen pulling himself out of the bog by his pig-tail becomes the pattern of knowledge which wishes to be more than either verification or speculation. And then the salaried philosophers come along and reproach us with having no definite point of view. (p.79-80)

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As I mentioned over there, I have to thank the Twitter hivemind for turning me on to the excellent 1972 BBC series, Nairn Across Britain, which is on iPlayer here.

I had never heard of Nairn before this, but he comes across as immediately magnetic, eccentric and above all convincing: a character of real passions, or, as Jonathan Meades puts it in his preface to the show from some time in the 80s, the “enfant terrible of architectural criticism”. Meades continues:

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