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Part III: Proletarian Love
Truth is not an unveiling which destroys the secret, but the revelation which does it justice.
At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.
If the entire problem of the Paradox was precisely that of fetishism, of romanticising things, then we can see immediately that this whole time, without realising it, we have been meditating on one central issue: love. If there is one thing that the Paradox demands of us, it is to practice a true and universal love; indeed, it is precisely this kind of love that proletarian politics aspires to.
As the Che quote above acknowledges, this does, initially, sound vapid, meaningless, and trite. However, in that any meaningful social revolution presupposes some kind of egalitarian fraternity of people who come together under the banner of a shared Cause, it is impossible to deny that the revolution implies revolutionary love, or at the very least some sort of revolutionary belonging. Let us call this revolutionary love “proletarian love”, and the subject that practices this love the proletarian or the comrade. In light of the discussions of the Paradox in the previous two parts, here we round off this essay by thinking through the following question: what is this proletarian love? Which perhaps is equivalent to asking that one vexed, eternal question: what is true love?
I don’t pretend to have any kind of definitive answer to this question, and I am not about to present a “Theory of True Proletarian Love” (which sounds like just about the least loving thing I could do right now). Nonetheless, I do think it’s possible to creep closer to some kind of answer by framing the question negatively, and asking instead: what is proletarian love not?
First off, proletarian love is not a love “for” the working class. This is simply the problem of fetishism all over again, the reduction of the working class to a particular series of fixed attributes and symbols. Instead, our aim is a kind of love which loves the working class insofar as they are stand-ins for all of humanity; in other words, a universal love. In Part II, we described this universality as concerned with a kind of “brush with the void”: the universal expressed itself through the working class via their encounter with the unnameable void at the heart of everything, for example when they attempted to start a community project solely through the resources they had available to them, and without any funding, recognition or validation from the State. Although the working class could be said to have a “privileged” relation to this void (also known as “epistemic privilege” by standpoint theorists and Mark Fisher), in principle anyone can—and indeed more often than not do at some point—have this kind of “brush with the void”. It is in regards to this encounter with the negative that our proletarian love is universal, as will be explored more shortly.
At the same time, however, it is important to clarify that this proletarian love is not universal in the sense that, say, hippies understand it, as a kind of uniform declaration of “peace and love”, or a chilled-out pacifism. This makes a mistake that we also identified in the previous part: the mistaking of universality for identity or uniformity. To practice universal love is not to show the same undifferentiated love to every particular thing we encounter. This, clearly, is not “love” in any meaningful sense: if you claim to equally love both the slave and the slave-trader who whips them, each of them accordingly know your love to be absolutely meaningless. It seems inescapable, then, but to argue that all love is inherently engaged in the activity of taking sides: love fixates on singular things and elevates them above the rest; it orders and prioritises.
And so we find ourselves at an impasse: our universal proletarian love must on the one hand a) aspire to universality, and yet on the other hand also be b) ruthlessly partisan; it must seek a grace and forgiveness that can extend to all, and serve the interests of the whole of humanity, and yet at the same time vehemently draw its dividing lines, say “no” to the bourgeois powers that be, and stand up against oppression and exploitation. So proletarian love in some way loves all humanity; but in another way, it detests the bourgeoisie, and it spits on the careerist demagogues that so frequently lead the people astray. Is this not a contradiction? How can one claim to love all humanity and yet basically hate one small, albeit powerful, section of it? Does this not defeat our entire project?
No, and for this reason: the particular and the universal are not separate “things”, categories or labels but rather, by necessity, dialectically related. In other words we reach the universal through the particular, and not in spite of it. Indeed any concept of “universal” without the corresponding concept of “particular” is quite literally empty, something akin to the hippie’s “universal love” referred to above.
So to reiterate: proletarian love is something that strives to speak for (all) the People—in other words, the Common Folk—but does so through engaging in divisive, antagonistic political struggle. It is a kind of commitment to the Common Folk, the “true”, anonymous People lurking underneath the false images of the People that claim to be it (national flags, emblems, monarchs, and so on).
Let’s try and make this a bit more concrete; how would one feasibly practice proletarian love? How does one reach the universal “through” the particular? Our starting point is to remember that though we seek to act as (=on behalf of) the People, we never encounter people as the People, that anonymous, faceless public: we only ever interact with the particular people that we come across in our particular lives. So we begin with those often mundane, everyday moments that we are all so familiar with: a friend is complaining about their relationship, a colleague is moaning about their work, a family member is struggling to get the healthcare they need, and so on. Now, suppose we take the second example here: you are on your lunch break at work and your colleague, who you are quite friendly with, is having difficulties with their manager. Out of a fraternal love, you resolve to help them; after all, it could have been you with the difficulties, and in that situation the friend/colleague would have done the same for you. The colleague figures it’s just a small personal dispute, and they need your help preparing for a meeting with the manager in private, which you oblige to. However, after a little thought, it becomes clear that this situation could not just have affected you two, but almost the entire workplace, and indeed almost the entirety of the public, in principle. This changes things: it means helping your colleague prepare for a backroom meeting with their manager where they can privately resolve their differences no longer feels like a fair path to take. Instead, you and the colleague resolve to, rather than treat this issue as a private one between two individuals, open the issue up: to the other workers, to the public — in other words, to the Common Folk. You call a union meeting and get the workers talking to one another; you write up a press release about your actions and send it to the local newspaper. In short, you transform a private issue into a political issue; you turn a “for us” into a “for all”; you elevate fraternal love (the love between friends) into proletarian love (the anonymous love that exists between the People, as strangers, akin to “the love of one’s neighbour” in the Christian tradition).
It is this act of opening up that is the act of proletarian love par excellence, because it is precisely this that allows a particular struggle to connect with a whole host of others and begin to metonymically “stand in” for them all, and therefore begin to truly express the universal (= the People = the Common Folk). Had the friend kept their workplace complaint to themselves, this universality that the particular issue was “nested” within would never have been unravelled, and we would never had had the People chanting on the streets; we would never even believe such a thing possible.
Now, this feeling (or lack thereof) of possibility is precisely why we characterise this entire process as “love”: because it involves faith, commitment. For as any activist knows, the People do not exist in actuality yet: they have to be built. (This is precisely what distinguishes the Left from the Right: the Right assumes the People always-already exist in an identifiable form.) The People, the Common Folk, are an abstract, ideal, a priori and (Zizek would say) “impossible-real” universality that has no actual existence right now, in that we do not live in a wonderful fraternity of equals who treat each other with total selflessness and kindness. This, however, does not stop the concept from being useful, and indeed necessary for political action1. It is, after all, literally impossible to think any kind of genuine politics without some kind of a priori notion of the People baked in from the start: all political struggle is grounded on the assumption that, at some level, the People genuinely are all equal, and all equally free, and that this a priori state has been corrupted by some injustice that has introduced inequality and hierarchy into the system. Of course, we know that this is basically a fiction, a mythology, but at the same time we cannot do without it: the alternative is to assume that instead of being fundamentally equal, humanity is fundamentally unequal, and this, naturally, simply ends up in strictly hierarchical, caste-like societies which could be said to lack any meaningful definition of “politics”, because everyone simply is forced to stay in their place rather than make claims on some shared resource. Instead of this arrangement, the proletarian dares to make that leap of faith that characterises all love2: they dare to act as if that a priori ideal—the People, the Common Folk—already exists, they dare to speak to, and as, the People, even though this subject does not exist yet, and is always, perennially, to-come. And finally, crucially, it is ironically only by acting as if this object really exists that we eventually actually make it exist. It is only by daring to believe that “the people will be free” that we eventually assemble the chanting mass on the streets that seems to genuinely sound the birth-pangs of a genuinely free People. The process here is always the same: the leap of faith retroactively constructs the ground it leaped from; the proposition back-engineers its own proof. (In CCRU-inspired theory circles, this process of fictions becoming real is known as “hyperstition”. In common parlance? “Fake it ‘til you make it”.)
In the same way, the circle, as a purely abstract mathematical object, is not found as such in Nature; we find many patterns and objects that tend towards perfect circularity (e.g. a soap bubble), but if we were to examine these closely enough, they would not of course be perfectly circular. This does not, however, stop the purely abstract concept of a circle being useful or meaningful to us; indeed, it is only by the a priori concept of the circle that we are able to intuit the natural circular object (e.g. soap bubble) at all. The same is true of any a priori (and thereby universal) concept of “the People” or “the Common Folk”. ↩
This is even the case with romantic love: we dare to make that anxiety-inducing first move and ask the other on a date, as if we had known them forever, even though we have only just met them and have no idea whether the date will be a disaster or not. In other words, we dare to act as if we are a Couple even though, in actuality, we are not yet; and it is only by this (again) leap of faith that the Couple can be built in the first place. ↩
Part II: Untying the Paradox
Although any attempt to “abolish” the Paradox is basically doomed to fail—as will become clearer below—we can hope at the very least to understand it, and where it comes from. Perhaps the best way to initiate this task of understanding is to ask the following question: why is it the Paradox of the Proletarian? Why are the middle classes and the bourgeoisie “exempt”, so to speak, from this trap?
There is one particular example that I think can help us begin to answer these questions, and it’s a phenomenon known as “class tourism”1. Class tourism essentially describes a practice of certain members of the middle and upper classes, whereby they venerate and appropriate cultural symbols and practices usually associated with the working class (e.g. ways of dressing, speaking, making music, eating, etc), while still, ultimately, living a comfortable middle-class life. Through this, these symbols are emptied of their meaningful content so that they can become window dressing for these classes: it gives them a bit of “edge”, “spice”, or a veneer of “authenticity”. In other words, these practices are ripped out of their context of emergence, often one of real poverty and struggle, and are reduced to superficial appearances. (A very specific of example of this might be, for instance, white middle-class “fans” of grime or hip-hop, who usually—but certainly not always!—simply like the “beat” or immediate sensation of the music, without engaging at all with the culture behind the music, which is intimately bound up with a whole host of social, political and economic issues.)
Although it may seem obvious what the problem is here, lets challenge ourselves to make it explicit. The problem is this: these middle-class “tourists” are essentially fetishists. They fetishise working-class life, which is the same as saying that they reduce it to a set of representative images without any depth; in other words, what matters is the image of the thing rather than the thing itself. (Indeed, for the fetishist, the former comes to replace and stand in for the latter.) Consider how the favoured buzzwords of the middle-class fetishists are “real” or “authentic”, connoting how a particular style of music or cuisine has emerged from “real” people living in “real” poverty with “real” struggles, to such an extent that this actual struggle has infused the style itself with some mystical “raw” aura. Now, there’s a hilarious irony here in that, if the middle-class fetishist is appropriating something from elsewhere that isn’t theirs, then any attempt here to be “authentic” is in fact clearly inauthentic, an utterly pathetic charade2. Everyone who isn’t the fetishist can see this clearly, and laughs heartily as a result, but the fetishist doesn’t see this problem because for them the thing and the image of the thing coincide: the style and the struggle it emerged from are effectively equivalent, in such a way that the style effectively embodies the struggle behind it, and the struggle is ultimately expressible as a series of symbols. It is through this magical act of equivalence that the fetishist is able to a) feel as if they are experiencing a “real” “rawness” when engaging with working-class culture3, while also b) essentially seeing working-class culture as a series of floating symbols and styles that can be exchanged just like any other. The reader will notice a clear contradiction here—how can something be more “raw” and “real” if it is just a “floating symbol like any other”?—but it is precisely the magical effacement (read: repression) of this contradiction that defines the fetishist as such, recalling that the word “fetish” was first coined to describe the mythologies and religions of “primitive” peoples in the colonised world, specifically their attributing of magical or supernatural powers to particular objects, such as totems. Fetishism has always been an affair of magic.4
There is another way of describing this fetishism. If fetishism is based off a kind of overabundant positivity (meaning is jam-packed into very specific objects, overflowing them), then we can say that a constitutive error it makes is to ignore the negative dimension of language. Language is ultimately made possible by a murky realm outside language, a point which Alain Badiou, via Samuel Beckett, terms “the unnameable”. This sounds complicated, but there’s actually a very easy way to demonstrate it. Imagine a dog. It’s by your side, yapping at you; it’s hungry. Now try and to define this dog without using the word “dog”. (Have a go, then return to this text.) You might have come up with something like “animal with four legs often kept as a pet by humans”, then realised this wasn’t specific enough (this could include cats), so changed it to “barking animal with four legs often kept as a pet by humans”. But then you think: what if a dog loses a leg; does it stop being a dog? And what do I mean by “animal”? You clasp your hands to your head at the enormity of the task and start breaking down, realising that this entire time language had been a fragile house of cards teetering over the brink of an a-linguistic void. For as soon as you lost the word “dog”, you lost any hold on the thing you were attempting to name. No words seem to be able express the yapping thing beside you—the “definition” just isn’t an adequate replacement. Curled in a foetal position on the floor, you stare down at your leg, and all you see is the hideous thing emitting its yaps and growls. Before long, it starts gnawing at your leg for sustenance. You look into it; all you see now is an unnameable horror. The Thing; I must name The Thing, you think… finally, you exclaim “dog!!!” and suddenly, looking in its eyes again, you see a friendly, fluffy Collie licking your shin; the wound is gone.
If that demonstration descended into schlocky horror, it is because the unnameable is something naturally horrific or traumatic: hence the endless SF and horror films with titles such as The Thing, It Came From Outer Space, and, quite literally, The Unnameable. Putting that aside, the point is that language is not simply a set of labels that we stick on top of “things” that exist separately to, or before, language. Language is instead that which makes these things “things” in the first place, which cuts something out of an indeterminate, pre-linguistic multitude and gives it a name. Although this fact becomes effaced through the regular and routinised use of language, every single symbol we encounter has its genesis in this way. The fundamental trauma of language is that its conditions of existence exist outside language, at what Giorgio Agamben has called that “strange point in which language and real in a way coincide”.
So, if we return to our middle-class “tourists”, we can see that they make the quite easy mistake of ignoring or repressing the unnameable, and essentially treating the world as if it was just an endless, floating array of intelligible symbols that can be exchanged and used at whim. (The fundamental myth here is that language is its own foundation, and thus that everything can and indeed does have a name; thus we can freely appropriate symbols and names from elsewhere.) The working-class people whose “culture” (to use a rather blunt term, all too aware of the paradoxical trap that is constantly beneath us in these discussions) is being appropriated, though, know that these ways of life are not mere symbols. They emerged out of the brute, unnameable realities of their existence which no available words, styles or symbols seemed to accurately express; consequently, they had to come up with their own. Through their real struggles, they know that the unnameable is the thing that drives us to name, and to create new names. They know intimately, in short, that language has its limits; that it is a wager, a hedging of one’s bets, a leap over the unnameable.
Also known as “poverty tourism”. ↩
For clarity’s sake, this is not me arguing that it’s bad for middle-class people to partake in or enjoy the kind of working-class styles, music, cuisines etc invoked here. The issue is the way we approach these various styles that are not “ours”, which I tackle more in Part III. ↩
The term “working-class culture” is, of course, pretty problematic (as I mention a few paragraphs below this). As long as we are loose and charitable with how we read it however, it works in the context I have used it here. ↩
Needless to say, my arguments in this post are not designed to apply to these “kinds” of fetishism; instead they are a playful reworking akin to Marx’s “commodity fetishism”. ↩
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. ↩
Just to while away the time, I’ve been trying to list what my – and I suspect many others’ – writing tics are, especially when writing theory/criticism. (The tics I’ve identified below I know for a fact I have obtained through reading Anglosphere theory/criticism/philosophy, so it can’t just be me afflicted by them.) I’ll explain more below, but this isn’t to mock or shame people: there would be no language without repeated turns of phrase (tics), and we all have them. I’m just interested to see what happens when we elevate them from unconscious reflexes to the level of conscious reflection.
Here’s some I’ve identified, in both myself and others, off the top of my head:
…, of course, …: This is my worst offender, I think, largely because I don’t even use it as it’s meant to be used. I use it usually to add rhythm or a breather to sentences, rather than to express something that’s actually obvious and would therefore allow an “of course”. The result is that it just comes off as pretentious and performative.
Far from…: E.g. “Far from escaping desire for the cherished realm of dispassionate objectivity, anxious attempts to rein back “subjectivist” desire only further demonstrate it through their jittery acts of denial.” (from an old blog post of mine – there are plenty of examples…).
Against the…: Interchangeable with the above.
The story goes like this: Largely big in theory-fiction/accelerationist writing, inspired by Nick Land’s “Meltdown”. E.g. I noticed it on the Psuedoanalysis blog (again, this isn’t to mock – the blog’s one of my favourites, and I’ve learnt a lot about psychoanalysis through it)
Italicising almost every other word: I shamelessly do – and stand by – this, but I do notice it’s something that only theory/philosophy seems to do. How often do you see it in fiction or more factual non-fiction?
Here, I want to…: I’m trying to present tics neutrally here, but this one does get on my nerves. It’s something I see more in strictly academic writing like journal articles or PhD theses, and it reeks of academic self-flagellation. If you’ve written something, you don’t want to do something, you have done something! Just say “I’m going to..”
…, and is this not the …?: Zizek does this a lot.
… - and this is precisely the point - …: Ditto, but I like it.
It’s interesting: where do you stop when listing writing tics? Because I could easily extend the above list: I could have included particular sentence structures (something which the “Far from…” tic hints towards), particular ways of opening or introducing pieces, particular neologisms or words, particular topics, particular citations, particular uses of punctuation, particular likes and dislikes, etc, etc…
The answer is that, well, you can’t: writing is, by nature, a kind of tic. Or, more generally: language is a kind of tic. Instead of being the perfect representation of an individual self-consciousness, language is by definition adopted through a cumulative imitation of external speakers, which we then interiorise and eventually use automatically. Rather than a (self-)conscious, linguistically coherent thought occurring before every act of speaking/writing, language is simultaneously more than and less than the subject. More than because language always comes from, and is directed towards, the external Other; less than because its use is determined primarily by pragmatics and unconscious reflexes, rather than being grounded in a self-conscious intention prior to language. In other words, language lacks an interior; it exists purely on the outside, for the outside; and it is for this reason that William Burroughs famously described language as a virus.Read More »