Posts on: k-punk
People wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,
drinking a lot and eating a lot,
having a lot of things, a lot of money:
Surely their way
isn’t the way.
Reciting some passages from it in my reading diary, I realise a significant line of affinity that I share with the Tao Te Ching: an intense disdain for busy-bodies, pragmatists and the rich, and a profound sense of care for the most common and “unimportant” things.
This pleases me very much. We can complain about “common folk” being deceived fools, too stupid for their own good, but at least in all this they are honest, and not conceited. The common person goes about their life with no pretensions to doing—or being—anything else; they go to work unenthusiastically, cook meals for their children, care for their elderly parents, call up their friends, and go to sleep. In all of this, there is never any expectation of return, never any hope of recognition or reward, and a humble acceptance of the unremarkable everyday sacrifices that uphold our entire civilisation. There is something genuinely beautiful in this.
By contrast, careerist busy-bodies and networkers always act with at least some ingrained sense of superiority, some desire to sell themselves and their ego. This vanguard of the chattering middle and upper classes enter society with the misled impression that they have the power to control it. Having listened to their teachers, got good grades, and received their university degrees, and thereby dutifully obeyed the imperatives of the bourgeois order, they then make the crucial mistake of identifying this obedience with “their choice”. The chattering careerists, with an almost comic regularity, tragically project their egos onto the most impersonal of things: society, capital, and the labour market. They hold tight to the utterly futile dream, applying for graduate jobs which they will obviously never get while refusing to apply anywhere else, turning a blind eye to the poverty, squalor and exploitation that actually characterises their life, as well as the world around them.
Having reached this position in adulthood, those of the chattering classes either fully sign up to this undead careerist path, or they realise its error, leading to the widespread phenomenon of the middle-class “slacker” (of which one could arguably categorise myself), the person who has benefitted from the advantages of a middle-class upbringing and—ironically through these advantages—come to realise their empty promise. If the chattering classes are constantly riding a never-ending elevator always reaching for that Perfect Career (And Therefore Life!) which is always just out of reach, precisely because it is an illusion, the middle-class slacker leaps off the elevator to join the common folk on the shop floor below, to try and find a genuine exit from this hellhole with them. This is never easy, because the middle-class slacker is used to riding on elevators their whole life; being on plain, flat, horizontal ground is deeply disconcerting to them. Furthermore, they also discover the horrifying sight that the elevator had been powered by the grunts and groans of the immiserated common folk below this entire time—a fact they had always taken for granted. The slacker sees the emptiness on their faces, the marks on their skin, the beads of sweat on their hairline; and yet they also see a rowdy conviviality, a laughter, alongside simple gestures of selfless kindness. Despite being on uncomfortable and unfamiliar terrain, the slacker thus begins to feel their previous emptiness dissipate within them; their hearts open, and are filled with love.
This is why it is the common folk, rather than the prosperous chattering classes, who are the most religious in any society: for it is they who most viscerally feel the brute determinism of life, the sheer necessity of self-sacrifice. It is precisely this necessity of sacrifice that is never truly learnt by the chattering classes – instead they view society entirely through the lens of exchange: everything must have a return, an interest rate. Thrown into the conviviality of the common folk, the middle-class slacker is challenged to do away with all their ingrained habits of exchange, and instead learn to sacrifice: to learn what it means to truly give. When they learn that, they will realise they were one of that strange, borderless and impersonal collective of common folk the entire time; they will learn the beauty of the faceless and the generic.
* * *
So wise souls are good at caring for people,
never turning their back on anyone.
They’re good at looking after things,
never turning their back on anything.
There’s a light hidden here.
Good people teach people who aren’t good yet;
the less good are the makings of the good.
Anyone who doesn’t respect a teacher
or cherish a student
may be clever, but has gone astray.
There’s a deep mystery here.
Hence why I always have more time for common folk than the notable, smart and successful, even if I technically have more in common with the latter. Amidst the common folk there is never anything to prove – one just is who one is. The atmosphere is essentially egalitarian: the assumption is that whatever you do or say, you will still be one of us amidst the muck, still one of us struggling by, and so there is no need or desire to compete with one another. This doesn’t mean that every conversation is amazing and fulfilling, but that they are, at least, honest and genuine, and underlaid by a firm, shared ground of mutual trust and respect. This means that when an intellectual conversation does somehow get sparked, it can develop in an authentic and above all truthful way.
Face to face with some Bright Young Thing From Graduate School who’s clued up on philosophy, however, I freeze: because I know all too well how easy it is to get drawn into stupid dick-swinging contests – conversations whose content is purely the recitation of the “right” sources and names, in order to appear intelligent and, by virtue, superior. These conversations are never fulfilling because the primary concern of each participant is not the production of a shared goal, but simply not to appear like an idiot. Unsurprisingly, this is completely counter-productive to the task of raising collective consciousness. Anxious and untrusting of each other, the conversation degenerates into a charade, subordinated entirely to appearances and self-interest. Unable to open themselves up and loosen the tight security systems of the ego, the truth which is always latent and indiscernible in any situation/conversation is prevented from coming to light; instead what we get is the tedious and undead recitation of facts and soundbites pulled from elsewhere. (Faced with these situations, I usually find the best response is to stay silent, and quietly slink off with all the other bored observers of this dick-swinging contest to talk about something that actually matters.)
Reflecting on this, I offer the following conclusion: in order to get to the stage where intellectual discussion feels genuinely enthralling and productive, one must pass through the “common” or “base” stage first – one must be willing to expose and humiliate oneself in front of the other. In short, only when both are bathed in filth and excrement can two people, facing each other, have a worthwhile intellectual conversation.
This is essentially what I have with Nick and Alex: together us three have been through the highs and the lows, seen each other at our absolute worsts, and it is precisely these acts of mutual debasement and sacrifice—in other words, a true and eternal friendship—that allow us to intellectually converse in a way that feels true and genuine. All the heavy, stifling load of egotism and self-importance have been long dropped at the door, allowing the intellect to run free.
If you think being intelligent makes you a “superior” person, then, you are still clinging all too tightly to that object that you ultimately must renounce: the ego. The development of intelligence is not the simplistic movement up a hierarchy (this is an illusion fostered by academic qualifications), but rather a paradoxical—some would say divine—movement that is simultaneously an ascension and a descension. The person digging deep into the grounds of her trauma, for example, feels as if she has been struck by the light; she feels refreshed, anew, with a new clarity of understanding and purpose regarding her life. And yet, as she experiences such beatitude, she is surrounded by dirt and soil, the raw matter of the cosmos, all the traces of her pain and suffering, her traumatic memories, worse times. This, however, is not a contradiction – rather, it is precisely what makes her enlightenment true, genuine. To truly move up is to, simultaneously, move down.
It is this dialectic of high and low that helps explain why Mark Fisher was revered so widely: because unlike all the trendy social theorists who lurk the conference halls of academia, he was flagrantly open in his acts of self-debasement. In reviewing Girls Aloud singles and Terminator films, he was essentially destroying any hope of appearing a “serious”, “highbrow” or “important” critic, or in touch with any of the hip trends in academia, cultural criticism, and so on. But this was also what endeared us to him, for it was an essentially proletarian, or “common” sensibility – for if this is what he was listening to or watching, why pretend otherwise? Why not just start there? This hard-nosed prole sensibility – a kind of unsentimental “realism”, for wont of a better term – is often corrupted into a reverence for “common-sense” and the obvious, but in essence it need not be. It is not the demand to know one’s place, to stay stuck writhing in the dirt of the ground, but the knowledge that one can only stand tall thanks to the firm and dirty ground they compress beneath them. Indeed, understood correctly, it is neither a base anti-intellectualism, nor a cloying middle-class desperation to keep up appearances, but instead a plain-clothed commitment to the Truth. It is a commitment to start from where one brutally and totally is, warts and all: to genuinely see who and where they are, rather than, as the chattering classes are wont to do, turn a blind eye.
After all, the Now is all there is; each and every one of us is happening for both the first and last time.
Start there.Read More »
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. ↩
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 »
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. […]
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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)
Thaemlitz is a useful figure because, as a musician and DJ (though they, understandably, prefer the term “media producer”) rather than some dreary academic, they represent how coldness indexes not a lack of joy but a higher state of it. The typical image of “being cold” evokes a miserabilism that refuses to accept change or do anything different, which is quite literally frozen into particular habits. But this only holds if one sees coldness as an absence of heat, rather than thinking coldness in itself. The question that Thaemlitz, producer of chilly deep house classic 120 Midtown Blues, thus prompts us to ask, then, is: where does coldness lead us, if not nothingness?Read More »
What is Pop? Or equivalently, what is the popular? This is the question Simon Reynold’s book Rip It Up and Start Again forces us to confront, particularly towards the middle of the book, where the focus pivots from post-punk to early 80s New Pop: the moment many post-punk artists such as Scritti Politti and The Human League get tired of post-punk’s puritanical commitment to fringe experimentalism and turn their sights to the mainstream, the popular. What’s valuable about Reynolds account here is that it gives us the perspective of approaching Pop from the outside: we are introduced to a rag-tag clan of artistic misfits who are desperately trying to crack the code of the popular, to break into the Top 40 and become stars, as if it were some alien language beamed in from another galaxy. It is these people, those who consciously have to crack and break into it, who really understand Pop, rather than those who have unconsciously been interpellated or conditioned by it (such as the “popular” kids at school).
This is because the popular – Pop – has very little to do with what “is” popular, statistically and numerically. Pop is not simply a kind of molar statistical aggregate, a name for a thing lots of people know of or do. Commuting to work – to conjure up the most banal example I can – is something millions of people do, but one would really be stretching to call commuting “popular”, or “Pop”. It’s part of the grey background of everyday life: precisely the thing that Pop strives to stand out against and rupture. Pop needs to be a spectacle, a concentrated singularity, quite literally the centre of attention, in order to exist. Pop is a centralisation or it is nothing.Read More »
The Fisher-Function has routed itself so thoroughly in my neural circuitry that I am no longer just echoing and citing k-punk (at an almost embarrassingly high frequency) but anticipating its thoughts accurately. Upon reading some posts on Nietzsche in an attempt to help me get some bearings on the notorious philosopher, I came across this passage from a 2006 post that spectacularly wires together Nietzsche and Celebrity Big Brother:Read More »
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.Read More »