Posts on: writing
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”. ↩
Part I: Introduction
Before you learn anything about it, have a look at the artwork above. Sit with it for a while; feel it between your fingers. Notice the gradual, curving shadows of the figures’ spheroid heads; notice the way they stand beside one another; notice the stretching fields behind them.
When, in 1930, Kazimir Malevich painted Peasants, pictured above, it was intended as a solemn portrayal of the tragic consequences of the Soviet collectivisation programme that was then under way in the country. This process touched him in a personal way: Malevich had spent much of his childhood growing up—and working—on sugar-beet plantations in remote villages in Ukraine, and always felt a deep affinity with the peasant way of life. “I always envied the peasant boys who lived, it seemed to me, in complete freedom, amidst nature”, he writes wistfully in his autobiography1. “They tended horses, rode into the night, and shepherded large herds of pigs which they rode home at night, mounted on top and holding onto their ears.”
What stuck with Malevich the most, however, was the peasants’ natural predilection for art: a mixture of an artisan craftiness and a rich sense of folk mythology, symbolism, and iconography. As he writes:
The main thing that separated the factory workers and peasants for me was drawing. The former didn’t draw, didn’t know how to paint their houses, didn’t engage in what I’d now call art. All peasants did.
Later on he adds:
The village, as I said earlier, engaged in art (at the time, I hadn’t heard of such a word). Or rather, it’s more accurate to say that it made things that I liked very much. These things contained the whole mystery of my sympathies with the peasants. I watched with great excitement how the peasants made wall paintings, and would help them smear the floors of their huts with clay and make designs on the stove. The peasant women were excellent at drawing roosters, horses, and flowers. The paints were all prepared on the spot from various clays and dyes. I tried to transport this culture onto the stoves in my own house, but it didn’t work. I was told I was making a mess on the stove. In turn came fences, barn walls, and so forth.
Malevich knew this world was special because, ironically, he did not entirely belong to it: unlike the peasants, he identifies himself as living in a “second society” of “factory people”, owing to his father’s employment at the nearby sugar refinery, where he often worked night shifts. Whereas Malevich sees the peasants living a bucolic life of freedom, the factory people worked in something akin to a “fortress” in which they “worked day and night, obeying the merciless summons of the factory whistles”. “People stood in the factories, bound by time to some apparatus or machine: twelve hours in the steam, the stench of gas and filth.” Meanwhile, in the winter, as the factory people worked day and night:
…the peasants would weave marvelous materials, sew clothes; the girls would sew and embroider, sing songs, dance, and the boys would play fiddles. […] There was none of this with the factory people. I quite disliked that.
Raised amongst the peasants, then, Malevich saw clearer than most the miserable, mechanised (un)life that saps the urban working class; and so, when the Soviet collectivisation reforms came along, he could only apprehend them with horror. As individual farms were forced to collectivise and subjected to strict production rules and quotas, the previously rich cultural life and traditions of the various were assaulted and erased. Peasants were reduced to homogeneous cogs in the State’s machinery; they were, quite literally, faceless mannequins. Lives, as well as cultural traditions, were lost: the collectivisation reforms contributed to a famine that led to millions of peasants losing their lives. The Face of the Future Man, runs the title of one of Malevich’s paintings from this period: it is simply yet another blank, haggard head.
The back-story of Malevich’s Peasants, then, appears unequivocal: they are damning critiques of the undead Soviet machine, mournful elegies for a lost peasant way of life. But, alas, on this point I must make a confession: for quite some time now, I have seen in Peasants, and indeed all Malevich’s work from this period of his life, a quiet beauty. Until recently I had assumed that they were celebratory pieces produced in the early, heady times of the 1917 Revolution: muted, utopian expressions of the new Soviet man, stripped of all parochial identifications and hang-ups. Against bright, multicoloured fields, Malevich’s figures appear like modernist symbols of a fresh start, a new humanity, that looks forward into the future while still remaining close to their roots, quietly undertaking the essential work of tilling the soil, growing food, and feeding the people. Old yet new, cultured yet grounded, proletarian yet in power, Malevich’s mannequins gave me hope that all those wild, contradictory dreams that leftism seeks to realise were possible: because look, they’re there, on the canvas; we can see them. And if it can be captured in art – why not in practice?
And yet, as I was soon to find out, there had been a mix-up. Malevich intended exactly the opposite of the above: the peasants’ facelessness was not to be exalted as a “fresh start”, but mourned as the sign of the death of various rich cultural traditions. One wonders: how could I get it so “wrong”? How could this piece of art elicit two so completely opposed readings?
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 »
It’s always about getting past that barrier: the psychosocial barrier of embarrassment, the fear of nakedly putting something “out there”, of exposing oneself.
I write, I try and cobble some things together. At the slightest hurdle I convince myself that this whole labour is pointless, that actually completing this and trying to publicise it would just be a deeply embarrassing thing to do, because no one actually cares, no one is going to read it, and I haven’t done anything interesting.Read More »