Consciousness Raising and #MeToo

In writing a short article for the New Statesman the other day, the short word count left me feeling a little anxious. It was hardly an opportunity to go into the weeds, but nonetheless an chance to point to some of Mark Fisher’s essays that I find useful right now, rather than an essay like “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, which I do not.

As a result, however, a lot was left unsaid, and after some people asked me to expand on that article, I thought I’d knit something together that makes the point far more explicit.

That Mark Fisher was brought into any kind of discussion around Russell Brand and the accusations of rape and sexual harassment leveled against him is bizarre to me. Yes, Fisher and Brand were mutual supporters of each other’s work, once upon a time, but their trajectories couldn’t have differed more over the years that followed the publication of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — making it all the stranger that Mark backed Brand so enthusiastically.

We can put this down to a certain egotism of Fisher’s part. He always wanted to be a pop star, and Brand seemed to encapsulate the sort of public figure that Fisher wanted to see: charming and disarming, articulate and intelligent, but also working class and (by Fisher’s measure at least) camp and queer — something he makes clear in the Vampire Castle essay. Blinded by his own enthusiasms and the general distain he had for “indie sleaze” in other contexts, Fisher seemed to see Brand more as the kind of glampunk figure he’d aways been enamoured by. To discover that his admiration was reciprocated must have been nice.

Two things that struck me on Twitter, in response to all this, were the ways that this admiration flew in the face of advice from Fisher’s friends, such that he published the article anyway. As people discussed the “open secret” of Brand’s conduct, those arguing about Fisher explained that many of his friends had tried to persuade him to back someone else, precisely because Brand’s sexually aggressive stand-up and generally sexist language were red flags. Fisher failed to appreciate these echoes of #MeToo as the beginnings of the new solidarity he was claiming was needed.

(Others suggest Mark was very unwell and manic at this time, perhaps also contributing to things — but this is the kind of reductive speculation doesn’t sit right with me, even if there’s some truth to it; Mark’s work is reduced to his mental health as a shortcut too often, ignoring a lot of his work he did to counter his own depressive tendencies rather than be read as he intended.)

Whatever excuses might be made, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” was still published and all hell broke loose. Although the essay is now upheld as an early argument against “cancel culture”, his most vocal decriers accused Fisher of being anti-feminist because “cancel culture” is but a generalised dismissal of #MeToo’s refusal to stay silent. This was the most significant charge laid down at Fisher’s feet, but rather than try to perpetually defend the Vampire Castle essay today, I think it is worth noting how he responded to these critiques and later went on to (re)affirm feminist thought with a great deal of enthusiasm, never discussing Brand again publicly post-2013 (to my knowledge).

That’s the general argument of the New Statesman piece, but below I want to add a commentary on a couple of Fisher’s essays that I mention there to really draw out the resonances. As one particularly strange idiot argued on Twitter over the weekend, Fisher never explicitly — that is, publicly — renounced the Vampire Castle essay. But the work that followed salvaged the critique of “left melancholia” at its heart and softened the polemic, adapting it to a present moment in popular feminist thought.

Other crank accusations were along the lines of calling me a Fisher-revisionist and an intellectual fraud who is hiding the truth — ridiculous comments that notably echo Brand’s own statement on the charges against him. If I am a revisionist, it is in the sense that the popular perception of Fisher’s work remains bogus and reductive. “Exiting the Vampire Castle” is seen by many to be the last significant thing Fisher did before his death, undoubtedly because he didn’t do much promote what came next on Twitter, which he’d abandoned. But no one who is familiar with the work I’ve done on Fisher’s thought will be surprised to hear that I think what he produced between 2014 and 2016 is some of his most interesting and important work. He began writing with much more care, nuance and optimism on problems that remain essential for the left to address today, and which are notably anathema to the kinds of people who hail him for the Vampire Castle essay alone.

On Twitter I’ve said that this amounts to an about-turn from the Vampire Castle essay, but of course there are moments of continuation. The most significant of these remains his critique of “left melancholia”, but while the Vampire Castle essay was read as a suggestion that this was a problem of contemporary feminism, he was later much more clear in articulating that “left melancholia” is instead a problem most significantly addressed by contemporary feminism.

It is this turn that I want to elucidate below.

In “No Romance Without Finance”, written for Plan C in 2015, Fisher returns to the positive (if buried) thrust of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — its call for new types of solidarity — and positions this not as a task that moves against feminism but which emerges from feminism most explicitly.

He draws on Nancy Hartsock’s theory of “standpoint epistemology”, for instance, which he would likewise discuss with his students in his final lectures a year later. There, he explains that standpoint epistemology is

highly important because it’s a really explosive theory, which breaks with a lot of the key dualisms which still operate in what we still have to call “postmodern thought”, where you either have objective truth — which is defined in some naive way — or you have relativism: nothing is really true; nothing is true at all. So you have po-faced Anglo-Saxon empiricists, saying things are what they are, roast beef, that sort of thing — or you have, in the other stereotype, Continentalists who have to complicate everything and say that nothing is
fixed or stable and you can’t assign determinate meaning to anything… Standpoint epistemology really breaks with both of those positions. It’s saying, there are different points of view, but some are better than others.

The standpoint is different from a point of view, we should say, first of all. And this relates, straight away, to this complicated question of consciousness. I think most of you are somewhat familiar with Marx. One of Marx’s key emphases is on the primacy of the material — something that Nancy Hartsock talks about. The
primacy of the material over the idea. The primacy, in other words, of practice over mental conceptions. Sometimes that primacy is viewed as more than a primacy but actually as causal. The material causes mental conceptions. That’s complicated on lots of levels — complicated and controversial within the history of Marxism: how we think of this relation between mental conceptions and, more broadly, culture and materiality. The material doesn’t only mean physical things; it also means practice.


With that emphasis on the primacy of the practice and the material, it might seem that consciousness lies on the side of the idea. Consciousness surely must be a mental conception, must be an idea, and Marx thought the materialist revolution was to bang things on the head, and put matter and praxis first, and ideas second. But what is meant by consciousness, in this sense? What is meant by class consciousness? It is not the same as ordinary phenomenological consciousness.

[…] The standpoint is not a point of view.

We can all have points of view. And we all do have them. They’re already there. But a standpoint has to be constructed by practice. And the easy way to see this, I think, is by the concept of consciousness raising. This was, in a way, what Nancy Hartsock was trying to codify in her theory of standpoint epistemology: the practice of consciousness raising.

This is one of the most significant changes in Fisher’s thought. Softening his “(dis)identity politics” and disdain for hippies, standpoint epistemology becomes a kind of foundational theory for his reaffirmed psychedelia. He makes this crystal clear in “No Romance Without Finance” when he writes:

To have one’s consciousness raised is not merely to become aware of facts of which one was previously ignorant: it is instead to have one’s whole relationship to the world shifted. The consciousness in question is not a consciousness of an already-existing state of affairs. Rather, consciousness-raising is productive. It creates … a new subject – a we that is both the agent of struggle and what is struggled for. At the same time, consciousness-raising intervenes in the ‘object,’ the world itself, which is now no longer apprehended as some static opacity, the nature of which is already decided, but as something that can be transformed. This transformation requires knowledge; it will not come about through spontaneity, voluntarism, the experiencing of ruptural events, or by virtue of marginality alone.

The feminist standpoint, in Hartsock’s theory, thus rests on women’s knowledge of patriarchy, which is more all-encompassing than men’s knowledge of patriarchy, precisely because women are most explicitly on the receiving end of its injustices. In his lecture on Hartsock and Lukacs, he continues:

I think there’s a good example in the Nancy Hartsock piece about cleaning the toilet. In that scenario, the men, who are walking around with their highfalutin ideas about X, Y, and Z, they’re completely ignorant of the reality of cleaning the toilet and what that means, which is a kind of metonym for all immersion in materiality, or anything that operates as the basis for sociality as such — that is, the social reproduction of humans.

In a way, you could say that access to the lowest level of the materiality of things gives you the potential to have more knowledge of the totality — to come back to that. Because you’re in the totality. The dominant group will just float by and not really notice you that much — that’s part of the reason they themselves don’t see the totality.

In this example, someone who cleans a public toilet (or a toilet in a workplace, etc.) will have a greater awareness of the way the space is treated socially. It is something that anyone who has had a cleaning job will appreciate. Though we might wander into bathrooms and use them without thinking, with a certain abandon or disregard — something all the more likely in pub or club toilets — the person who cleans the toilets when the day is done will be (literally) elbow deep in the material reality of what is, for most people, an almost liminal space.

In being most explicitly subjugated by that space — at the bottom of the ladder, so to speak — you have a much clearer view of the structures at work above you. It is a subjective position, by definition, but it has a far more encompassing perspective by virtue of its subjugation in material reality. Subjugated persons are far more away of the boot on their neck than the boot-wearer, who might not perceive what exactly it is they have stepped on — to put it another way.

This can easily be a miserable position to be in. Our sense of our personal subjugation can make us angry and less than hospitable to those we perceive as enforcing that same subjugation. But this is where practice becomes essential — that is, where questions of strategy must be addressed. After all, to draw attention to subjugation can be seen as hostile or narcissistic — a false flag I address at length in my new book — since we might make others uncomfortable in drawing attention to otherwise invisibilised power dynamics and our specific position within them. We might not give a shit about that, of course, and actually see a politics of politeness as just another way of keeping us in our place (see Sara Ahmed’s work on the “feminist killjoy”). But in drawing attention to these imbalances, we can also share a knowledge that comes from below and build a sense of political consciousness.

Things are not so simple, of course. It can be a difficult thing to raise consciousness. Plato’s allegory of the cave makes the point that enlightenment — indeed, exposing oneself to the light — can be a difficult experience; we often remain most comfortable in our own ignorance. But as Badiou later argued, convincing others to “see the light” is, at the end of the day, that most fundamental of initiatory political acts.

In the context of the Vampire Castle essay, two forms of enlightenment seemingly face off against each other. A contradiction emerges where those trying to raise awareness of Brand’s predatory nature nonetheless have a tendency to renounce his broader leftist (at that time, at least) politics. This is something evidenced by some of the old clips that have gone viral following the allegations.

Last night on Twitter, both “Sean Lock” and “Katherine Ryan” were trending — Ryan, because she supposedly once called him a predator repeatedly whilst filming a television show with him in the UK, to such an extent that the show was derailed and wasn’t aired (at least that’s what I gleam from the story going viral); Lock, because he was once particularly scathing about Brand on “8 Out of 10 Cats”. We can commend them both for calling him out, but Lock (much like Ryan in other instances where she gets explicitly political) nonetheless advances a terrible politics in the same breath, which is either patently neoliberal or a kind of awkward white-feminism.

The majority of the two-minute clip of Lock going viral online, for instance, says nothing about Brand’s sexual politics (beyond Lock saying he’d hate his daughter to bring someone like him home — a “feminism” still couched in patriarchy) and is instead a denouncement of the kind of comments that popularised him with those far left of centre in the first place. To watch the clip now and see someone outing a predator is to ignore the meat of the statement: dull comments that are anti-Occupy and against any questioning of the current political paradigm, which is what angered Fisher so much in the first place.

This is the rock-and-hard-place that Fisher wrote the Vampire Castle essay within. Those who read it as a denouncement of complaints against Brand’s sexual politics miss the broader lack of political imagination that couched those complaints at the same time. We see the same thing happening now, just as implicitly. The more nuanced response is perhaps that both those things can be true at the same time. We can denounce Brand’s predation of women at the same time as acknowledging the positive impact of his Paxman interview. We can denounce Brand as an predatory individual without also denouncing the emergent collective politics he was significant in popularising within the mainstream.

Ten years on, this obviously feels like a moot point. Brand is far less isolated as a dissenting anti-capitalist voice, and he has since turned this dissent into a self-serving set of conspiracy theories at the same time. Indeed, the most disastrous thing about Brand and others like him is a reactionary streak that has emboldened a new twenty-first-century Strasserism. We do not need an anti-capitalist workers’ movement that is underwritten by anti-Semitism or anti-trans rhetoric or anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. We do not need Russell Brand.

I think Fisher may have cottoned on to this in later years. And what is all the more significant is that he no longer saw the #MeToo movement as somehow in competition with his wider aims. Indeed, raising awareness about patriarchy (through the crimes of high-profile individuals who abuse their power) is not distinct from raising awareness about capitalism — they are one and the same.

But since we still cannot wait for a new political consciousness to emerge outside of capitalism, we nonetheless need figures who publicly raise consciousness. The anxiety that comes from this is that being in the public eye seems to be a good way to drive people to reaction. (I certainly had a wobble after Mark’s death, when speaking publicly also opened me up to a great deal of vitriol — something I’ve been reminded of in writing the New Statesman article and receiving horrible messages that do nothing other than seed misanthropy.)

This is something that a lot of the figures Fisher backed had in common. Kanye West is the most obvious. His output in the 2000s and 2010s was exceptional and deeply politicising. Claiming George Bush didn’t care about black people was iconic; Yeezus remains a pop-modernist masterpiece. But to what extent did Kanye’s contact with the mainstream contribute to his mental illness, which has seen him become isolated and taken under the wing of the new right? It is something that happens all too frequently, but this doesn’t mean that we should give up on disseminating our politics in the mainstream altogether. We need a strengthened underground that is more aware of the risks and challenges and can support people who enter the mainstream to remain advocates rather than become alienated. This doesn’t mean parking our criticality but exercising it with more care and coordination.

As Joana Ramiro put it on Twitter the other day, #MeToo remains a consciousness-raising movement in this regard, despite the ways it has been demonised since and turned into a generalised form of “cancel culture”:

The #MeToo movement is pivotal not as an opportunity to “cancel” or name and shame abusers (as needed as that might be), but as a chance for every one of us to examine our and our peers’ behaviours, to analyse how society taught us to process, normalise and often dismiss abuse

It seems Mark misunderstood this in 2013. He wrote a whole article about purveyors of guilt and shame and saw these affects as undermining any kind of consciousness-raising process altogether. But he changed his tune. He examined his own behaviour and instead leaned into feminist theories of consciousness raising more explicitly. But he also found a more nuanced way to challenge a “hardening of the self” that he saw at work in a growing generational anger.

His “No Romance Without Finance” essay remains a telling example. He opens with a discussion of Jennifer M Silva’s book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty:

Over and over again, Silva finds her young subjects exhibiting a ‘hardened’ self – a form of subjectivity that prides itself on its independence from others. For Silva, this hardened subject is the consequence of this generation being abandoned, institutionally and existentially. In an environment dominated by unrelenting competition and insecurity, it is neither possible to trust others nor to project any sort of long-term future. Naturally, these two problems feed into one another, in one of the many vicious spirals which neoliberal culture has specialised in innovating. The inability to imagine a secure future makes it very difficult to engage in any sort of long-term commitment. Rather than seeing a partner as someone who might share the stresses imposed by a harshly competitive social field, many of the working class individuals to whom Silva spoke instead saw relationships as an additional source of stress. In particular, many of the heterosexual women she interviewed regarded relationships with men as too risky a proposition. In conditions where they could not depend on much outside themselves, the independence they were forced to develop was both a culturally-validated achievement and a hard-won survival strategy which they were reluctant to relinquish.

This is the nuance that the Vampire Castle essay ran roughshod over. Womens’ anger at the normalisation of sexual abuse is obviously valid, but social media nonetheless channels this anger through a hardened online subjectivity that simply replicates neoliberal affectations. There is a danger, then, particularly on social media and the platforms of “communicative capitalism”, that a critique of the present can nonetheless be influenced by neoliberalism’s “mandatory individualism” at the same time. As such, the problem with affects like anger is that they can lead to the further entrenchment of “left melancholia”, and so retaining both our criticality alongside our political hope and agency becomes a delicate balancing act — one that Fisher began to approach from another angle (arguably that of his initial critics).

None of this is to suggest, however, that we should repress our anger. It must rather be seen as a starting point rather than an end in itself. This is something Fisher gets at far more lucidly in “No Romance Without Finance”:

Reading Silva’s descriptions of women wary of giving up their independence to men they perceive as feckless wasters, I was reminded of two R&B hits from 1999: ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC and ‘Bills Bills Bills’ by Destiny’s Child. Both these songs see financially independent women upbraiding (presumably unemployed) men for their shiftlessness. It is easy to attack such tracks for their seeming peddling of neoliberal ideology. Yet I think it far more productive to hear these songs in the same way that we attend to the accounts in Silva’s book. These are examples of consciousness deflated, which have important lessons to communicate to anyone seeking to dismantle capitalist realism.

The next paragraph is particularly notable. “It is still often assumed that politics is somehow ‘inside’ cultural products, irrespective of their context and their use”, Fisher begins — something he may have been guilty of himself in his enthusiasm for Russell Brand. What matters, however, is how we use and respond to these cultural products — something, again, that Fisher didn’t do very well in 2013. He continues:

Sometimes, agit-prop style culture can of course be politically transformative. But even the most reactionary cultural expression can contribute to a transformative project if it is sensitively attended to.

Again, a sensitivity that was missing from the Vampire Castle essay.

It is possible to see the work of the late Stuart Hall in this light: as an attempt to bring to leftist politics the messages that culture was trying to impart to it. If this project was something of a tragic failure, it was a consequence, not of the shortcomings in Hall’s approach, but of the intransigence of the old left, its deafness to the desires and anxieties being expressed in culture. Ever since Hall fell under the spell of Miles Davis in the 1950s, he dreamed of somehow commensurating the libidinal modernity he encountered in popular music with the progressive political project of the organized left. Yet the authoritarian left was unable to tune into this ambition, allowing itself to be outflanked by a new right which soon claimed modernization for itself, and consigned the left to the past.

This is a passage that contemporary defenders of the Vampire Castle essay should consider at length. Many of those who praise Fisher for his anti-“cancel culture” essay are precisely those Gen X members of the old left who hate just about everything in contemporary pop-culture. And Fisher, too, was susceptible to an old-left intransigence.

And although the “authoritarian left” mentioned above are generally thought of as those who are accused of propagating nothing but guilt, this is a charge that applies to many other people as well. Authoritativeness takes many forms. The popular left in general, today at least, seems to have been outflanked by the modern right with devastating effect, but I am certain that Fisher would view those who have joined the new right — like Russell Brand and Nina Power and particularly those writers for Spiked, Unherd, etc. — as having responded far more disastrously. The right has certainly claimed modernization for itself, but joining them rank and file is not the way to claim it back!

From here, Fisher goes on to discuss Ellen Willis, who he would return to time and again over the last few years of his life. I think Willis can be seen as someone that Fisher felt a lot of kinship with. Both were cultural commentators with a firm interest in the raising of political consciousness, but who nonetheless found themselves at an impasse, caught between the old left and the new, such that both were as mournful of the old left’s failures as they were enthralled by present and future potentials of new movements, thus feeling the disparities between them all the more forcefully.

Fisher, in “No Romance Without Finance”:

In her 1979 essay, ‘The Family: Love It Or Leave It,’ Willis observed that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”. It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a ‘social and psychic revolution’ could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history.

Fisher’s life and work was shaped in much the same way, and it is for that reason that I think his work can also still be viewed with the same enthusiasm as he views Willis’s own.

There’s probably no better account of the Sixties’ counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light. As Willis makes clear in her introduction to the collection, she frequently found herself at odds with what she experienced as the authoritarianism and the statism of mainstream socialism. While the music that she listened to spoke of freedom, socialism seemed to be about centralization and state control. The counterculture’s politics were anti-capitalist, Willis argues, but this did not entail a straightforward rejection of everything produced in the capitalist field. Certainly, pleasure and individualism were important to what Willis characterises as her “quarrel with the left,” yet the desire to do away with the family could not be construed in these terms alone; it was inevitably also a matter of new and unprecedented forms of collective (but non-statist) organisation. Willis’s “polemic against standard leftist notions about advanced capitalism” rejected as at best only half-true the ideas “that the consumer economy makes us slave to commodities, that the function of the mass media is to manipulate our fantasies, so we will equate fulfilment with buying the system’s commodities.” Culture – and music culture in particular – was a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital. The relationship between aesthetic forms and politics was unstable and inchoate – culture didn’t just ‘express’ already-existing political positions, it also anticipated a politics-to-come (which was also, too often, a politics that never actually arrived).

Here we find Fisher continuing to wrestle with the ways he found himself at odds with certain parts of the left, but he allows his optimism to win out. He does not just shadowbox with the things he dislikes but turns to Willis to consider how he might contribute to the present, precisely by writing about his own experiences and memories of prior moments. If what he struggled with was a seeming break in the left’s momentum, he nonetheless acknowledged that new (feminist) movements were building this momentum once again:

It is beginning to look as if, instead of being the end of history, capitalist realism was a thirty-year hiatus. The processes that began in the Sixties can now be resumed. Consciousness is being raised again.

“Exiting the Vampire Castle”, in the midst of this positivity, begins to feel like a grumpy outlier. There are other essays that advance this same position, including one of my favourite Fisher essays, written for e-flux a few months before the publication of the Vampire Castle essay itself. Fisher’s major fault at this time is, for me at least, little more than an all-too-human instability and inconsistency, echoing the cultural landscape he found himself in. He gives in to his pessimism at times, even fatally so at the end of his life, but prior to that moment, he always found ways to transform that pessimism into a more productive negativity.

This site of struggle within Fisher’s own thought was as personal as it was political, and he acknowledged this too later, in “Good for Nothing”, an essay on his experiences of depression that takes aim not at the vampires corralling around him on social media but the vampires that lived within, attacking that “sneering ‘inner’ voice” that “is the internalised expression of actual social forces”.

Against accusations of “anti-feminism”, Mark sought to show how his critiques were inherently feminist in nature, but the biggest misstep of his final years was seeing critiques of Brand and critiques of capitalism as wholly disarticulated. There were (and continue to be) moments where the argument is unclear — within Fisher’s writing and the writing of those who called him out (and continue to) — but unfortunately, I think the overarching point is missed by his supporters and critics alike.

On the one hand, Mark was wrong to ignore those who saw Brand as a less than helpful spokesperson; on the other hand, those who write him off entirely for that one essay alone also fail to see the good he did on either side of it. “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, in the context of Fisher’s broader consciousness-raising project, was a failure, in the sense that it has been used as further evidence of his own pessimism and alienated countless people who may have otherwise been interested in what he had to say. But the underlying critique nonetheless presents us with an integral problem to be solved by feminist and anti-capitalist discourses in equal measure. We can and should continue to build on the left’s prior interventions, especially those that failed. With that in mind, I think I put it best in the conclusion to the New Statesman article:

None of this erases the harm the 2013 essay did to Fisher’s reputation, but his later writings clearly attempted to integrate the critiques he received into his work more broadly. This distinguishes Fisher from Brand profoundly. Rather than viewing his denunciation as a conspiracy or leaning into his own anger and pessimism, Fisher changed to keep pace with a politics-to-come. He was far from assured that his own work would stand the test of time – since the power of his blogging lay in the persistent attention he paid the present – but he also believed in the recuperation and salvage of radical politics from movements that otherwise failed. He sought to salvage the potentials from his personal failures also.

Mark Fisher was not Russell Brand:
XG in the New Statesman

I’ve written a short essay for New Statesman today, which attempts to address the return of Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” to Twitter discourse, in light of the damning allegations made against Russell Brand.

I try to offer a balanced reading of Mark’s essay, the problems with it (mainly Brand’s inclusion), whilst pointing readers to essays he wrote in 2014 and 2015, which I think show a great deal of contrition on his part as he addressed his own mental health more candidly and began writing about contemporary feminism far more emphatically.

Unlike Russell Brand, who has responded to these very serious allegations with more conspiracy theories, doubling down on a reactionary rhetoric all too common amongst an “anti-woke” red-brown commentariat, Mark Fisher listened to his critics. He logged off, reflected and found a new clarity with regards to his vision of a post-capitalist, post-patriarchal, post-work future. He looked anew at the past and the present and hoped to salvage a far more positive political project, not only from the wreckage of a twentieth-century left, but from the mistakes he had made in recent years as well.

You can read the essay here. (It is paywalled, unless you sign up for three free articles a month. If that’s not your bag but you’re very interested, I can email it to you.)

The Primal Wound:
An Anti-Oedipal Consideration

This essay was originally published on in 2019. I am now extending it into a PhD project. Hoping to revisit it recently, I noticed the original page had gone down, so I thought I’d post it here for posterity and for my own reference.

The map has started tearing along its creases due to overuse
When in reality it never needed folds
                — “Smells Like Content”, The Books [1]

When I was 25 years old, I met my biological mother for the first time.

Our meeting was casual but secretive, taking place in a retail park coffee shop on the edge of a city in the north of England where, as it had turned out, we both still lived. An unspoken anxiety surrounded our reunion. Neither of us wanted to be seen by anyone we knew. Not out of shame at our situation—although this may have unconsciously been a factor—but rather out of a desire for privacy as we sought answers to a lifetime’s worth of questions, specifically the most basic question of all: “Who’s this?”

The meeting had not been arranged through official channels. Following two years of therapy and some fraught detective work on my part through which I had finally located my biological mother, my girlfriend agreed to reach out to her sister—my aunt—on Facebook, acting as a buffer in case my mother did not want to meet. Thankfully, she did, but it was here that all third-party mediation ended. The desire to meet was mutual, after all, and we were both adults, so we chose to ignore the professional—and, to my mind, overpriced—advice of the local council. [2] Nevertheless, it felt like what we were doing was dangerous.

I think we were both surprised to discover that it all felt very natural. There were tears, of course, and plenty of small talk too, but we spent most of the hour we had to ourselves happily absorbing each other’s company.

It was clear that we both wanted to get to know each other as people rather than make up for lost time. We were strangers. The recounting of our life-stories would not change that. That was just superficial information. We wanted to know each other’s mannerisms, habits, tics, gaits, tastes, and thought processes. We wanted to witness each other be. It became an experience that was largely internal, establishing an unavowable connection between us. Far more was exchanged than said.

I joked later that this hour together had felt more like an intense first date than a reunion but this was far closer to the truth than I felt ready to admit at that time. In the weeks that followed, I experienced an attraction to her that was disturbingly familiar, albeit in a context that was new to me. I felt an intense pull, a crush even, and I wanted to spend all of my time with her. It was an interpersonal desire that I had only ever experienced romantically but here it was felt with an unprecedented intensity.

This is what I imagined having a child was like, except I was the child—a 25-year-old child, feeling that hormonal and genealogical attachment, that love and warmth, for the very first time. I couldn’t make sense of it at first. It made me painfully aware of the childhood experiences I hadn’t had.

Did I feel I had missed out on these experiences? I don’t think so. How could I have? I was just newly aware of the gap, the displacement at the heart of my existence.

The reductive constellation of “mommy-daddy-me” that constitutes the standard Freudian model of the Oedipus complex is, for the adopted child, ungrounded by an earlier formation: that of the mother-child-mother.

Here, two mothers—one adoptive, one biological—attempt to share a post-natal relation and, as a result, create a moment of displacement wherein the child passes between two disparate points. A moment of egress presents itself as the genealogical container of the nuclear family opens outwards and finds itself distorted, unravelled by the introduction of an outsider. What is made possible by this unravelling? What—if anything—escapes?

This urtraumatic experience is the focus of Nancy Newton Verrier’s The Primal Wound—a book recommended to me by a friend shortly after this first encounter between lost mother and child. My meeting with this book was almost as affecting as the other. It is part psychological case study, part self-help book, shifting between different tones—at once academic and psychiatric, but also mystical and anecdotal. [3] It is a strange book about an even stranger experience. Regardless, I have found that The Primal Wound describes my own experiences as an adopted child with frightening accuracy, as well as—most interestingly—echoing the philosophies I have gravitated towards throughout my adult life.

Verrier describes the “primal wound” in terms of a postnatal separation that ruptures the bond between mother and child experienced in utero, going on to highlight “the resultant experience of abandonment and loss [that is] indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds” of adopted children—including the often-unacknowledged affects this event has on a person in later life. [4] However, this urtrauma is not simply the rupture of a single genealogical relation between one person and another. It is exacerbated by the introduction of a third: the adoptive parent.

As such, the traumatic assemblage of mother-child-mother takes in three grieving figures who find themselves in orbital syzygy: the biological mother who grieves a child given up; the child who grieves a mother unknown; and the adoptive parent who grieves their own limitations.[5] Together, they produce a living trauma that runs contrary to the Freudian understanding of it as a fault lodged in the memory of an individuated and stratified psyche. As a result, the adoptive triad constitutes a problem for Freudian psychoanalysis.

This is not to suggest that the adopted child somehow sidesteps Freud’s Oedipus complex. (To quote the Lacanian psychoanalyst Juan-David Nasio: “No child escapes Oedipus!”) [6] In fact, it is an issue that predates psychoanalysis itself but that is also already entangled with its unruly origins. The experiences of the mother-child-mother embody this preceding relation and, as such, confront psychoanalysis with its own process of development—indeed, with its own mirror stage.

In post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the mirror stage is an apperceptive process, first described by Jacques Lacan, through which an infant starts to observe themselves from outside themselves, thus beginning the broader process of psychological individuation that Freud first sought to describe. This process begins early in a child’s life—at around 6 to 18 months—preceding the Oedipus process that Freud observed as occurring around the age of 4. [7] It is, in some respects, literal—a child becomes capable of recognising themselves in a mirror—but also symbolic—in that a child becomes capable of recognising those around them as distinct Others. We can perhaps argue, in relation to this, that Lacan, as a central figure within the continued development of psychoanalysis as a discipline during the twentieth century, occasioned the beginning of psychoanalysis’s own mirror stage; in part considering psychoanalysis as an institution from outside of itself and further developing its potential implications for the world at large.

Considering Sophocles’ fifth-century Theban play Oedipus Rex—the inspiration for Freud’s theory—in light of this development, we should note that this myth does not simply describe the events of an incestuous rivalry and copulation. It also tells of how the events of Oedipus’ life are foretold prior to his birth in a prophecy, leading to his own abandonment by his biological parents, who feared said prophecy’s fulfilment. The trauma of this abandonment leads Oedipus to become a detective unearthing the secrets of his own genealogy; an interpreter of his foretold destiny. It is only after he has inadvertently wedded his mother and had children by her that, vowing to find the man who killed Laius, his predecessor and—unbeknownst to him—his father, he meets the blind prophet Tiresias who proclaims, to Oedipus’ initial disbelief and denial, that he has fulfilled the prophecy that first occasioned his abandonment, with Tiresias declaring: “you yourself are the murderer you seek.” [8]

Refusing to believe what he’s been told, Oedipus sets out on a quest to discover the truth for himself—a labyrinthine truth that, at its centre, reveals to him his own Self and results in the fallen king plucking out his own eyes, horrified by his once metaphoric blindness. This is to suggest that Oedipus’ experiences mirror not only the psychosexual birth of the Self and the Unconscious as Freud would describe them, but also the birth of psychoanalysis itself. It is here that the figure of the mother-child-mother highlights some of Freud’s blind spots.

Freud may have imagined himself as the Great Detective of the Unconscious but, for the adopted child, the traumatic experience described in Oedipus Rex is far more immanent and distressing. The adopted child, as Oedipus so tragically demonstrates, runs the risk of becoming both the analyst and the analysand of a fragmented I, embodying the very fissure in the familial form that the psychoanalytic couple seek to heal.

With this in mind, Nancy Newton Verrier notes how the adopted child’s primal loss entails that a splintering of psychosexual fluidity—which every child must at some point undergo—must be experienced and dealt with prematurely. At first, she emphasises the importance of a mother’s postnatal presence for her child, writing:

The nature of the relationship between mother and child is characterised, not by subject and object, but by a kind of fluidity of being, of mother/child/world transcending both time and space. The mother provides a container for the child’s developing ego, just as she had previously provided the container for his developing physical body. [9]

This is not to fetishize the importance of biological relation, [10] but rather to consider the reality of an interrupted development and its causal acceleration of an otherwise natural separation process, following the start of adoption proceedings [11] —potentially leading, Verrier warns, to a malformed sense of self.

She goes on to describe the onset of a “premature ego development” whereby a child’s ego develops far earlier than normal and leads to a neurotic demand for self-sufficiency underpinned by a distrust of their primary caregivers, and a perpetual abandonment anxiety which persists into later life as the adoptee struggles to form lasting relationships with others. She also describes a kind of super-egoic hyperdevelopment through which this perpetual anxiety of future loss and recurring abandonment produces people-pleasing and overly coöperative adoptees. She summarises:

This wound, occurring before an infant has begun to separate its own identity from that of its mother, may result in a feeling that part of oneself has disappeared, leaving the infant with a feeling of incompleteness or lack of wholeness. That incompleteness is often experienced, not in the genealogical sense of being cut off from one’s roots, but in a felt sense of bodily incompleteness. [12]

The tragedy of Oedipus Rex is that this unconscious desire for wholeness leads unwittingly to an incestuous reconnection, through which the feedback loop of desiring-production is constituted negatively rather than positively. This is to say that, in making himself “whole” and learning the truth of this hard-won wholeness, Oedipus forecloses his own existence and sets in motion a series of tragic events that will continue to impact his children long after his death. He seems to recognise, with terror, his own capture in a genetic from which there appears to be no escape and so, in seeking to remedy his own incompleteness, he damns his family for a generation.

Faced with this tale of inevitable trauma at the heart of existence, the alternative for the adopted child is, perhaps, to do what Oedipus himself could not: to affirm our own displacement rather than attempt to fix it; to continue to be Oedipus, albeit another Oedipus, in contradistinction to the Oedipalising form of psychoanalysis—that dogmatic form that Oedipus has been consolidated into. The task is, then, to “become who you are”, as Nietzsche might say; to become, in his own near analogy, the anti-Christ when faced with the moralising and limiting dogmas of an institutionalised Christianity [13]—and what is Christianity itself if not a retelling of the Oedipus myth: a child, separated from his father, who dies for a supra-genealogical truth and finds his wholeness only in death, setting in motion a moralising desire for the same amongst his flock? As with Nietzsche’s anti-Christian subject, we must likewise vow to become anti-Oedipal when faced with the mental enclosure of the psychoanalyst’s cot.

This is the task undertaken by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their seminal 1972 work, Anti-Oedipus. Further problematizing Freud’s Oedipus complex, they argue that, if no child escapes Oedipus, then all figures in this complex network of interpersonal relations become potential starting points for a Freudian detective work. Rather than this plurality opening out onto an opportunity for healing, though, they argue that Freud reproduces the Oedipal error of foreclosure by trapping all relations within the locality of a familial—that is, institutional—structure. At no point does Freud affirm, as they think he should, the movement of this relation; its “plurality of centres”.

In light of this, Freud’s often parodied “tell me about your mother” becomes, for Deleuze and Guattari, an exercise in asking an egg about a chicken, exacerbating the negative feedback loop of the Oedipal complex that the excessive force of desire perpetually exceeds. [14] Desire is, of course, the fuel that powers the event of psychosexual becoming which Freud is attempting to describe, though it is an error, as far as Deleuze and Guattari are concerned, for him to try and contain it. For instance, one of the ways in which Freud attempts to confine this excess of desire to the restrictive mechanisms of psychoanalysis is through the concept of “transference”, plugging the desirous rupture of a primal wound with himself and producing the ephemeral figure of mother-child-analyst, pushed through the bottleneck of the therapeutic process, wherein the analyst adopts the position of the Other within the analysand’s own consciousness, leading—so says Freud—to the analysand’s application of external experiences and emotions to the locality of the therapeutic experience. [15] Such is the risk the analyst adopts by positioning him or herself as a surrogate.

As Maurice Blanchot writes in his 1974 work, The Infinite Conversation, in theorising the process of transference Freud may have sought “the proof that what occurs between the two persons who are brought together involves either obscure forces or the relations of influence that have always been attributed to the magic of the passions.” [16] Instead, this experience becomes “one of a fundamental insufficiency” whereby each attempt to account for the whole of a patient’s experiences only exacerbates the lack contained within. Blanchot continues, through the telling analogy of childbirth: “To be born is, after having had everything, suddenly to lack everything, and first of all being, inasmuch as the infant exists neither as an organized, self-contained body or as a world.” As such, it is “always around lack, and through the exigency of this lack, that a presentiment of the infant’s history, of what he will be, is formed.” [17]

In an attempt to reintroduce this excess that psychoanalysis so often excludes back into its own processes, Deleuze and Guattari highlight Freud’s therapeutic practice of free association—one strategy he uses to attempt to guard against the negative effects of therapeutic transference—but, again, “rather than opening onto polyvocal connections,” Deleuze and Guattari note that Freud still only succeeds in confining psychoanalysis “to a univocal impasse.” [18]

This polyvocality, which remains both desired and required, is an important consideration for Deleuze and Guattari. Echoing Blanchot, they would argue that the “magic of the passions”—the drive; the Will that constitutes desire—damages all attempts to account for it, and so desire itself—and the amorphous forms through which it flows—must be radically rethought. To do this, the pair would argue for a newly cartographic conception of psychoanalysis—a schizoanalysis—in opposition to the excavations of layered strata preferred by Freudian psychic archaeology. Deleuze would instead speak of maps, superimposed on top of each other “in such a way that each map finds itself modified in the following map, rather than finding its origin in the preceding one: from one map to the next, it is not a matter of searching for an origin, but of evaluating displacements.” [19]

Here we might observe that, in being born-displaced, the adopted child underlines a difference produced from within the socially “given” presuppositions of genealogical repetition, and so we might reimagine parents, as Deleuze does, as “a milieu that children travel through”, passing over their “qualities and powers [in order to] make a map of them.” [20] This reorientation means that “the unconscious no longer deals with persons and objects, but with trajectories and becomings; it is no longer an unconscious of commemoration but one of mobilization, an unconscious whose objects take flight rather than remaining buried in the ground.” [21] Deleuze continues:

The father and mother are not the coordinates of everything that is invested by the unconscious. There is never a moment when children are not already plunged into an actual milieu in which they are moving about, and in which the parents as persons play the roles of openers or closers of doors, guardians of thresholds, connectors or disconnectors of zones. The parents always occupy a position in a world that is not derived from them. [22]

The most profound aspect of my post-adoption experience came a few years prior to our first meeting.

Shortly after my 18th birthday, my adoptive mother gave me what looked like a battered family album. Sky-blue with a faded gold trim, the book was overflowing with photographs but also letters, mementos and documents, all gathered together around the time of my adoption.

The photographs documented my first few weeks alive, in the company of a rotating roster of social workers and foster families; and, later, the post-adoption bonding of new parents with their child.

The documents were official photocopies of procedural interviews, including an incomplete family history. Loosely collected papers, already faded and falling apart, these documents were later lost over the course of various house moves. Today, I only remember certain details and oddities contained within: maternal grandfather dead in his forties, brain aneurysm; mother too young, wants to stay in school, become a hairdresser; father unknown, mother tight-lipped. It is official procedure that the father is informed of the decision the mother is making, if only so that adoption services can be made aware of any hereditary medical issues that father and child might share. Regardless, she would not comment on his identity. The few identifying responses she does provide are related to his interests and hobbies, but even these are comically vague. He wears jeans, goes to the pub with her friends, and works in an abattoir.

The letters were written by my adoptive mother: an attempt at writing the story of us. All scribbles, erasures and false starts, they were included all the same. Perhaps she had forgotten they were even there. Piecing together the narrative, I found a futile attempt to explain middle-aged infertility and teenage pregnancy to a child far too young to understand but nonetheless expressed in the condensed and simplified tone of a children’s book. “Matthew’s mummy and daddy could not have children of their own.” Taken together, the whole was at once beautifully endearing and unspeakably tragic.

Tucked away at the back of this strange collection of documents was a stiff, brown envelope. Inside: a professional studio portrait of a young woman, eighteen years old, as I was when I received it. Holding it for the first time, I felt nothing. It’s your mother, I was told. “Huh—so that’s her.” I carried it around with me all the same, oddly attached to it. Everyone I would subsequently show it to would see the likeness immediately. Some cried at the sight of it. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. They all pointed to her “T-Zone”—her nose, eyes, eyebrows, and forehead. It’s yours, they would say and, after a while, I saw it too. It’s mine.

Whether in the flesh or in photographic form, each meeting with my biological mother was defined, for me, by the same sensation: an encounter with the same. Never before in my life had I experienced that kind of recognition. Never before had I seen another human being and found my face in theirs.

I would later meet the extended family. Watching her son, not yet ten years old, I saw myself at his age—a figure from my own childhood photos made flesh. I would catch my maternal grandmother looking at me with a haunted look of love. She would tell me that I was the spit of her late husband. Her sister saw a nephew with the same curly hair as she has, a trait that my mother was spared—and, again and again, that same T-Zone. As I look at them, even today, I still don’t know what I see. I see the same, but through our differences—acquired through a space and time we did not share.

I think about my adoptive mother, now a reclusive schizophrenic, following a breakdown some years ago, who knows nothing about any of this; who I’m sure would be supportive but heartbroken if she knew and was still in good health; who would be happy for my gain, even though it might remind her of her original loss. I’m not sure how she’d react now. It’s hard to predict how she’ll react to anything.

The mirrored parental figures within the mother-child-mother constitute a “revolving door” through which the adopted child passes, extending and problematizing a traumatised space-time between them.

I’m reminded here, perhaps surprisingly, of Kerans, the protagonist in J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World, who is all too aware of the difference between the world he once knew—through cultural memory if not immediate experience—and the world as it is now, as he passes over its newly amorphous and anonymous surface.

Drowned, the floodwaters of a planet in the throes of its own heat-death have covered over the world as it once was. Kerans wonders, early on, if he is in—or rather, on top of—London. It is hard to tell. Iconic skylines, protruding from the depths, are all he has to surmise his location. They are less landmarks and geographic signifiers, more anonymous protuberances, like faded obelisks in a graveyard commemorating events now forgotten by memory. The maps of the old world are irrelevant and so Kerans exists in perpetual displacement.

The exploratory unit of which Kerans is a part attempts to navigate this new world; to understand it. Adrift—both literally and psychologically—a strange madness has begun to affect various crew members. Kerans is reminded, in observing the “growing isolation and self-containment” that this madness incurs, “of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis.” [23]

It seems that while, on Kerans’ Earth, both cartography and psychology face imminent redundancy, this psychogeographic displacement has nonetheless opened up previously unknown avenues of mental and spatial travel. Ballard writes: “Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.” [24]

In AntiOedipus, published a decade after The Drowned World, Deleuze and Guattari position their own hypothetical schizoid, a displaced Kerans-like subject, at a similar intersection between the death of the old and the birth of the new. They write:

The schizo knows how to leave: he has made a departure into something as simple as being born or dying. But at the same time his journey is strangely stationary, in place. He does not speak of another world, he is not from another world: even when he is displacing himself in space, his is a journey in intensity, around the desiring-machine that is erected here and remains here. For here is the desert propagated by our world, and also the new earth, and the machine that hums, around which the schizos revolve, planets for a new sun. These men of desire—or do they not yet exist?—are like [Nietzsche’s] Zarathustra. They know incredible sufferings, vertigos, and sicknesses. They have their specters. They must reinvent each gesture. But such a man produces himself as a free man, irresponsible, solitary, and joyous, finally able to say and do something simple in his own name, without asking permission; a desire lacking nothing, a flex that overcomes barriers and codes, a name that no longer designates any ego whatsoever. He has simply ceased being afraid of becoming mad. He experiences and lives himself as the sublime sickness that will no longer affect him. Here, what is, what would a psychiatrist be worth? [25]

Anti-Oedipus, like The Drowned World before it, demands a new cartography for this new earth, but perhaps it is an earth like the one Kerans already inhabits. He, too, wonders what a psychiatrist is worth in these new environs, and what use is a geologist on a world that is nothing but ocean; nothing but change; a world of new depths which cannot be dug; a world of trajectories without destinations?

We still talk sometimes. I am bad at emails. We live six hours apart but I try to call her on her birthday and she calls me on mine.

I’m unsure how much our reunion has changed me, if at all. I withdraw from it, no longer frequently in touch with either adoptive or biological family. I, too, feel adrift.

Previously, perhaps trying to compensate for something, I took a great deal of interest in the genealogical history of my adoptive parents, particularly on my father’s side. His mother, like so many grandparents these days, treats her own genealogy as a hobby.

Both sets of adoptive grandparents have shoeboxes full of photographs going back generations. My mother’s parents have in their possession a small and undoubtedly rare daguerreotype portraying some now-unknown relative that I have long been fascinated by. With a keen interest in photography, shared with my adoptive father and his mother, I relish every opportunity to see his own genealogy in photographic form; to rummage through the appropriately disorganised documentation of his milieu.

A year after our first encounter, I meet my biological mother once again, in another somewhat anonymous location—a pub just off the motorway, close to a city to which nobody present has any connection. It is less a destination than a waypoint. This time, I travel to see her with my girlfriend, and my mother arrives with the rest of her biological family in tow.

My maternal grandmother brings her own shoebox with her, containing photographs of persons to whom I have no social connection. I see the face of my maternal grandfather for the first time. We do indeed look alike: same hair, same build. Once again, I’m surprised to find that this experience means less to me than looking through my adoptive family’s photographs, which depict persons with whom I have no genetic relationship. I understand their significance to my own life better. I understand the role of these unrelatives as the openers and closers of doors; as the guardians of thresholds.

Looking upon this newly disparate collection of images, I appreciate that I already have a map of my own existence, but here I am, presented with an alternative one; a map that could have been. We eat, drink and then part ways. They travel back east and we travel back west. I continue to travel further onwards, always somewhere between the two, forever becoming what I am—a displaced third.

I would like to thank Max Castle, Tobias Ewe and Robin Mackay for their feedback, comments and conversation throughout this essay’s gestation.

[1] The Books. Lost & Safe. Köln: Tomlab, 2005, track 4.

[2] Having contacted a charity that dealt with reunions between adopted children and their biological relatives, working closely with but independently of the local council authority, I was informed the entire process of reconciliation would cost me around £700 to cover administrative fees and the cost of therapy before, during and after our first few meetings. Whilst appreciating the caution and professional risk evaluation on offer, I nonetheless took great offence at learning I could not afford to get to know my own mother.

[3] There are numerous occasions throughout the book where Verrier defers to recurring anecdotes that appear within her case studies and speak to an experience wholly other to the psychiatric discipline she is otherwise adhering to. She refers to these stories as the “mystic aspect” of the adoptive experience, noting how many adoptees speak of “meaningful coincidences” when they are reunited with their relatives—that is, things held in common between them despite a lack of the social contact that one might assume is necessary for the transference of such information. She likens these experiences to the Jungian concept of “synchronicity”. In my own experience, I discovered that my biological mother and I both shared a fantasy of packing up our bags and moving out to the American Midwest to become storm-chasers—the synchronicity of this fantasy between us was both unsettling and hilarious in its specificity. Verrier, Nancy Newton. The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. London: CoramBAAF Adoption and Fostering Agency, 2009.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] “The adoptive parents, who have been waiting for a baby and who feel ready to love and nurture him, come into the picture at a disadvantage. In fact there are four areas of concern about which they may not have been made aware: 1) the mother has not had the benefit of the 40-week preparation period of gestation, 2) neither parent may have been alerted to the fact that their baby has suffered a trauma upon having been separated from his biological mother, 3) most adoptive parents have not dealt with their own feelings about their own losses, including the loss of fertility, and 4) those who already have biological children may not have adequately explored their reasons for wanting to adopt or the impact this will have on their family life.” Ibid., 43-44.

[6] “This legend [of Oedipus] concerns all children, whether they live in a traditional family, with a single parent, in a family composed of previously divorced parents, whether they grow up with homosexual parents, or whether they are abandoned, orphans, or wards of the state. No child escapes Oedipus! Why? Because no four-year-old child, boy or girl, escapes the flood of erotic drives that surges through them, and because no adult in his or her immediate surroundings can avoid being the target of these drives and of having to resist [endiguer] them.” Nasio, Juan-David. Oedipus: The Most Crucial Concept in Psychoanalysis (trans. David Pettigrew and Francois Raffoul.) Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010, xix.

[7] See: Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function”. In Écrits (trans. Bruce Fink.) London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

[8] Sophocles. The Theban Plays: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (trans., eds. Ruth Fainlight and Robert J. Littman.) Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009, 16.

[9] Verrier, 23.

[10] It should be acknowledged that Verrier does articulate a concern around the politicisation of the act of surrogacy. She is not overtly critical of this process but recognises that, like the process of adoption itself, it is an insufficient solution to a very complex social problem. In many cases, however, it is the only solution we have. Her issue with surrogacy is, then, that we do not always consider the inadvertent affects and traumas to which her book is dedicated, and that these must be considered anew if we are to fully embrace a politics of expansive and communal care that works for all. We must take care—in seeking the abolition of the family—not to throw out the baby (quite literally) with the bathwater.

[11] This separation is an event common to all children, and it is this process that Juan-David Nasio points to when he declares that no child escapes Oedipus. With this in mind, we might note that the Oedipal complex is only one phase within a broader process of psychological individuation.

[12] Verrier, 30.

[13] See: Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Anti-Christ”. In The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols and Other Writings (trans. Judith Norman, ed. Aaron Ridley.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[14] Discussion of this “movement” is taken up again in the pair’s second collaborative work, A Thousand Plateaus. They argue that the innate nomadism of such a movement is anti-institutional in allowing itself moments of escape from standardised and, in the case of psychoanalysis, arguably reductive, limiting and inadvertently oppressive models. Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans. Brian Massumi). Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

[15] “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg—but also the father and the mother, or the child? Psychoanalysis acts as if it were the child (the father is sick only from his own childhood), but at the same time is forced to postulate a parental pre-existence (the child is sick only in relation to a father and a mother). … Oedipus itself would be nothing without the identifications of the parents with the children…” Deleuze, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus (trans. Robert Hurley and Mark Seem.) London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, 313.

[16] Blanchot, Maurice. The Infinite Conversation (trans. Susan Hanson.) Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, 231. Emphasis added. Here, it is worth noting that Blanchot is emphasising that a child’s very being must be (re)established following its separation from the mother postpartum, beginning the process of becoming that Deleuze and Guattari would later make central to their own philosophy.

[17] Ibid., 231–232.

[18] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 70.

[19] Deleuze, Gilles. “What Children Say”. In Essays Critical and Clinical (trans. Michael A. Greco). London/New York: Verso Books, 1998, 61-62. Guattari would write elsewhere, using a rather more abstruse analogy, that this ontology of difference shared between them is an attempt to “construct a science in which dishcloths and napkins would be mixed up, along with other things that are more different still, in which dishcloths and napkins could no longer even be encompassed under the general rubric of linen.” Guattari, Félix. Schizoanalytic Cartographies (trans. Andrew Goffey.) London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, 18.

[20] Deleuze, “What Children Say”, 62.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World (London: Fourth Estate, 2012), 14.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, 131. 

Trans-Lament 2

This Friday, I’ll be taking part in the second Trans-Lament at the Lubber Fiend in Newcastle. At the invitation of Kiik Amor, I’ll be trying out something new. To open the night, I will read John Donne’s 1633 poem “The Sun Rising”, followed by a poem of my own about Donne, Derek Jarman’s garden, the sun and queer time, based on the final chapter of my latest book, Narcissus in Bloom.

For tickets and information on the rest of the lineup, click here.

Welcome to the abyss of trans-sonic storytelling. TRANS-LAMENT 2 is presented as a theatrical performance platform for musical storytelling, improvisation, alternative / queer histories, dualities, world-melding performances and experimental DJ sets; a theatrical speed date in the land of future folklore tales, epic neo-mediaeval bards and trans-sonic unfoldings.

DRESS-CODE — FOR THE FAITHFUL FAIL FROM AMONG THE CHILDREN (Future Folklore | Neo-Medieval, Heavenly Bodies | Harrowed Deep Blue Water Sluts | Sea Spirits and Sirens)

Róisín Murphy Against Glampunk

The swirling backlashes kicked up around the “cancellation” of Róisín Murphy have been predictable and sad. As always happens when someone lands themselves in the daily news cycle for being transphobic, the TERFs of Twitter have been out in force to declare that #IStandWithRoisinMurphy. We all know the drill by now.

As ever, most of her new supporters had no idea who she was before she used her personal Facebook account to parrot misinformation about puberty blockers. Ironically, I can imagine her act being denounced by many of them if she’d come on their radar just a few weeks ago, as her public persona has long stood contrary to their growing crusade in defense of “family values”. She’s called herself a “drag queen” before, after all, and we all know how TERFs feel about drag queens.

This is probably the most significant part of the story, which has been rapidly memory-holed by her new defenders, if they were even aware of it at all, but it speaks volumes with regards to the extremity of the u-turn that Murphy’s comments constitute. She has seemingly turned wholly against her own act and the lineage she was once a part of. Murphy hasn’t only betrayed her fans but also herself.

With all due respect, Murphy has always been something of a cult icon — she is hardly a household name — and so it is somewhat surprising that a singer of her relative stature would cause this much of a ruckus. That is why it must be remembered that Murphy hasn’t simply said the wrong thing but spread misinformation about her own fanbase. Indeed, this whole thing blew up because Murphy played up to queer audiences for years — something she went on to strangely deny in her public statement on her comments — and so it is wholly understandable that her queer fans have expressed their disappointment.

This is worth emphasising because it truly takes the steam out of the TERFs rallying to her defense. Is it really a “cancel culture mob” when the person has perpetuated misinformation about their own fanbase? It would be so much stranger if people stuck around and let it slide.

But there’s more to this disappointment than transphobia. It is a betrayal that runs so much deeper. Though Murphy has said little about the extent of her beliefs — although her Facebook comment suggests she’s fallen for a few of the classic lines (“TERF is a slur”; “puberty blockers are a readily accessible crime against nature”) — they signal a profound dissonance between the person she has seemingly been for decades.

Murphy’s queer fanbase does make “absolute sense”, as she said to Gay Times in 2020, because she has long produced a kind of politicised disco that Mark Fisher placed firmly within “the glampunk art pop discontinuum”. (He wrote about her a couple of times in 2004, in fact, and I also wrote about her relationship with Fisher back in 2020.)

Fisher always wrote about glam(punk) as a kind of auto-erotic gender-fuckery, a queer deconstructivism that takes aim at all gazes and socio-psycho-sexual expectations. Take the following comments made about David Bowie as the crown prince of glampunk:

In many ways, and leaving aside his fashion statements and his gender ambivalence (both much more radical, much more important, than most of his music), Bowie functioned — sonically — as a force of reterritorializion. Before I get leapt on, this wasn’t to do with his popularizing of the avant garde. On the contrary. It was to do with his fixating upon the most deterrorialized, most intense elements, and ushering them back into the fold of r and r and melody. Compare his pedestrian and, for me, surprisingly plodding productions of Reed and Iggy with the fissile, molten rock Cale wrought for the Stooges, or the glacial volk he created for Nico. But those very moments of incorporation couldn’t help but inspire a movement in the opposite direction: listeners sent off on voyages of discovery, flights from the self, invention of artificial identities…

This is the core function of glamour (or what Fisher called “glampiricism”): “listeners sent off on voyages of discovery, flights from the self, invention of artificial identities…” Murphy has taken from this lineage, this aberrant “discontinuum” — a triple entendre for the force of disco, its political discontent expressed through dancefloor joy, and its frustrating of any rockist attempts at respectable canonisation — in order to carve out a quite singular niche for herself, securing a career with a surprising longevity, itself assured thanks to an errancy borrowed from the flows of queer time.

She has somehow reneged on that, caught up in the proliferating brainworms of a “gender critical” movement. It is a real shame, since glampunk has long been critical of gender in a far more positive sense. It may shock the TERFs now crowding around her that one comment would derail her career so certainly and suddenly, but they misunderstand how her “bravery” has yanked away the core foundation on which her whole career was built. Murphy is not just another TERF caught up in conservative conspiracies. She has instead enacted a far more pointed and poignant kind of self-destruction. She has betrayed an entire ethos in a single Facebook comment.

Is Another Narcissism Possible?:
XG on Red Medicine

After hosting the first public reading from Narcissus in Bloom a few months ago (which you can listen to here), Sam Kelly and I had a further chat about the new book for his Red Medicine podcast. We talk about narcissism as pathology, its underappreciated political potentials, and other attempts at reclaiming the self and its world from the Stoics to Hervé Guibert.

You can listen below or over on the Red Medicine website here, as well as on Apple and Spotify.

»Sehnsucht nach dem Kapitalismus«:
Postcapitalist Desire in German

Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures of Mark Fisher, which I edited and introduced back in 2020, is getting a German translation from Brumaire in October 2023. This edition features new illustrations by Andy King and has been translated into German by Alexander Brentler. You can order it here via Jacobin.

There are other translations also available of this book. Check the page on for an up-to-date list.

The Monkey

The monkey on your back, as they say — an intriguing analogy for a burdensome problem or perhaps an addition. I wonder if this old idiom works well as a nod to the primitive brain, for the unconscious as it sits within the body, like a parasite on the spinal cord, filtering out messages and sending missives of its own up the wire. The monkey on my back has kept me in bed for a few days. I sleep a lot and the mind calms but the body aches. My back hurts especially.

I keep coming back to old Cormac McCarthy interviews, drinking in his short comments on the nature of the unconscious. He speaks with a poet’s brevity that leaves you craving so much more.

“The same thing that tells you what to write tells you when to stop writing it”, he tells Oprah. Somewhere else — I can’t remember where — I think he says that the only thing you need to be an artist is an interesting relationship with your own unconscious. (This might just be something I have said to myself.)

“Interesting” is an appropriate word here. It feels free of judgement. It says little with regards to whether that relationship is good or bad, positive or negative. It must simply be interesting.

I started rewatching Twin Peaks: The Return last night. I was recently asked about David Lynch and Mark Fisher in an interview, due to be published in Spanish in a few months’ time. I want to share the response given in English out of context here and now, if only because it is on my mind:

David Lynch is of course renowned for his ability to unveil the dark surreality of American life. His films reveal the nightmarishness innate to the political passivity of the American dream. In this sense, we might refer to Lynch’s nightmares as critiques in their own right. Their political content may be obscure, but they feel innately political to me, if only for the ways they make manifest an oneiric plane upon which we might begin to think differently. And yet, the elevation of Lynch to the status of auteur, the elevation of his particular cinematic signature to the singular term “Lynchian”, transforms the many curtains that define his works into brick walls. Those viewers who denounce his works as weird in a pejorative sense do so to restrict their potential affects. In fact, the affectivity of his films should not simply be understood as the work of a singular genius but rather the work of a man who has found a particularly affective (and effective) way of visualising our collective unconscious. When we go to see a film by David Lynch in the cinema, then, we should not welcome our momentary visitation to his world, but rather acknowledge the ways he allows us to think differently about our own.

The use of curtains in Lynch’s films is of central importance here. As Fisher writes in The Weird and the Eerie:

“The division between worlds [is] often marked by one of Lynch’s frequently recurring visual motifs: curtains. Curtains both conceal and reveal (and, not accidentally, one of the things that they conceal and reveal is the cinema screen itself). They do not mark a threshold; they constitute one: an egress to the outside.”

Here we gain an insight not only into Fisher’s interest in Lynch but his interest in cinema as a whole. These films are not simply dreams, detached from reality; they can affect reality profoundly, and indeed, portray for us a reality affected. To make a film, then, is to document the manifestation of another reality. Shakespeare’s oft-repeated adage that the whole world is a stage is inverted, such that the dreamwork of Hollywood soundstages constitutes the very real production of worlds other to but nonetheless inside this one. (Fisher: “There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was.”) 

Deleuze writes on this same non-Euclidean folding at length in his two books on cinema, in which he attempts to conceptualise what we might call the “visual language” of cinema itself, whilst being careful the emphasise the ways that cinema’s regime of signs is profoundly other to all of the languages that make up the written or spoken languages on this planet. Indeed, his concepts of “movement-image” and “time-image” become ways of conceptualising the “language” of cinema that purposefully refuses to borrow too readily from the already-familiar mechanics of other signifying mediums. This newness is important and radical, and uncovers a truism we take for granted. For instance, whilst we might recognise how most cinematic “scenes” are structured in ways that make narrative sense to us, we cannot say that a scene is constructed like a sentence. Thus, cinema, Deleuze concludes, “constitutes a whole ‘psychomechanics’, the spiritual automation, the utterable of a language system which has its own logic.” 

What is so fascinating about Lynch’s works – as well as those of the other masters of surrealist horror and the cinematic weird and eerie, such as Bergman, Kubrick, et al. – is that they seem to channel the unconsciousness of our cinematic systems. They play with the common logic of cinematic sense to demonstrate other ways of thinking cinematically. We call their strangest films “dreamlike” perhaps because we recognise how the non sequiturs and non-narrative visual collages found in their works echo the non-linguistic communications of our own unconscious, but we have far more agency over the production of cinema than we do over the production of our own dreams. Indeed, whereas our dreams seem strangely inaccessible to us, emerging from the darkest realms of the self, cinema appears before us with unprecedented clarity, making it an innately and unprecedently psychedelic medium.

Films are dreams alive, and therefore have more purchase on our imaginations than we may give them credit for. Cinema is innately hyperstitional, in this regard; films are fictions that make themselves real. To talk about film as a “first step”, then, is to undervalue the constant movement that makes cinema what it is. Deleuze writes: “Those who first made and thought about cinema began from a simple idea: cinema as industrial art achieves self-movement, automatic movement, it makes movement the immediate given of the image.” He continues: “Automatic movement gives rise to a spiritual automaton in us, which reacts in turn on movement.” The relatively new medium of cinema, then, begins to feel like a new conduit between new thoughts and new representations. 

Here, Deleuze adds a footnote, quoting from Elie Faure’s Fonction du cinéma, in which Faure writes that cinema’s “material automatism … gives rise inside these images to this new universe which gradually imposes on our intellectual automatism.” What cinema constitutes is a new feedback loop in regimes of sense-making, such that we experience, in Faure’s words, “the subordination of the human soul to the tools which it creates, and vice versa.” This vice versa is of the utmost importance, and is arguably most felt in all great art, but cinema provides us with a radically new way of thinking this kind of relation. It seems, however, that we shy away from doing this. 

This is to say that when we detach cinema from the means of its own production, we fail to recognise how cinema is not simply a medium that affects us but also a medium that is the product of new affections. A new film with a radical political message, for example, is not an exciting prospect simply because it might change people’s mind; its very existence reveals how thought has already changed. We can watch the Barbie movie as a potent recent example: though its political content may newly inspire young viewers to investigate the histories of feminism, the very fact that the film was made signals that we are living in a new moment, in which the basic tenets of feminism have found mainstream appeal and in which capitalism has found new ways of appropriating radical politics – something which unnerves those on both the left and right of politics, although seemingly not in equal measure. But Mattel’s corporate feminism, as dramatized by Greta Gerwig, is far from self-confident. It is anxious. It is a film that prevaricates on the dwindling relevancy not just of Barbie as a product but of capitalism’s broader ideals.

To reiterate, with this in mind, cinema is not so much a first step as it is the actualising of an always-already moving thought. Films are critiques, which are curtains, which do not mark a threshold so much as they constitute one. Barbie remains a vivid example: though we might celebrate its potential to inspire new thought, its production by Mattel as a kind of relaunch of their intellectual property suggests an anxiety with regards to the affectivity of previously popular commodities. Barbie has re-entered our collective consciousness in a bold and assertive new way, albeit through a film that betrays innumerable anxieties that surround the efficacy of a commodity-politics. We might argue, then, that Barbie is a movie about post-capitalist desire – and our desires are so often anxious – because it illuminates and wrestles with our changing thoughts and habits, which might well leave Barbie, as a commodified ideal of womanhood, on the scrapheap of capitalist history. The film has already made over a billion dollars at the global box office, and this will no doubt increase tenfold when we factor in the sales of movie merchandising. But whereas my friends – it is true – are enjoying a post-ironic moment of filling their wardrobes with pink, Barbie nonetheless still constitutes a shift in our political imaginary. Barbie is not a first step but a much later step on a post-capitalist journey; it is a film that demonstrates a corporation anxiously responding to a future upon which it may have little ideological purchase.

A week or so after writing these words, Phil Elverum makes the connection between Barbie and Twin Peaks: The Return all the more explicit in the latest edition of his newsletter:

I watched Barbie last night. Not that I want to wade into the wide trench of interesting conversation on the internet about this movie, but here’s my one thought:

It reminded me of Twin Peaks: Season 3, “The Return”. There are probably some other deep heads online talking about this, how could there not be? The doppelgangers, the real/fake, dark/light counterparts parallel existing in dream world/real world. Dark Cooper/Agent Cooper, Doll Barbie/Human Barbie Owner, the portal opening between worlds, demonic transformative manifestation of inter-generational trauma, etc. The end of Barbie when she’s in a featureless void space contemplating becoming an “uncomfortable” mortal human reminded me of this part where Cooper is floating on a dream satellite thing between realms. The vast dark sea where ideas come from. And something about the ending of Twin Peaks, returning to Laura’s house, “what year is this?”, the scream of half-recognition, it felt somehow the same as when Barbie Pinocchios into a human and walks into the doctors’ office. That’s my little blip of an observation.

Both not only dramatize but actualise the otherwise hidden affectations of the unconscious. They bring to life those parts that linger in some elsewhere. They represent the life of the mind, rendering the unconscious in rich colours of velvet and plastic. Shadows be gone.

We are all irrepressible-thoughts-of-death Barbie at the end of the day, teetering on the edge of short and long sleeps.

I want to cover over the gaping maw, the pit within. To sleep without dream. The other night someone spoke about how dreams feel like they last the night, but the only dreams remembered are those had whilst you emerge from unconsciousness. Dreams are only remembered when sleep is disturbed. To sleep without dream is to truly rest.

I haven’t had a rest for a while.

I daydream about how to patch the hole that leaks old traumas. I coddle myself in my duvet and open Sappho on fragment 100. I misread the line appropriately, as if the unconscious reorders the words before me, twisting reality in a way too subtle for me to notice on the first pass:

and with delicate woven cloths covered up her well

New Tenderness 015

You can now listen back to episode fifteen of my New Tenderness show on Slack’s radio.

I hadn’t been into the studio for a while, on account of working most weekends, so when the opportunity arose to get in the booth on a Saturday evening, I jumped at it — despite not really having real plan on what to play. Expect general chaos as I flick through a bag of thrown-together records.

Ivor Cutler — A Red Flower
Andrew Ashong and Theo Parrish — Flowers
Arthur Russell — Fuzzbuster #10
Spooky Black — Pull
Dollar Brand — Little Niles
D’Angelo — Everybody Loves the Sunshine
Rude Bwoy Monty — Summer Sumting
Rhythm for Reasons — The Smoker’s Rhythm
Cutty Ranks — The Return (Bizzy B & Ruffcut Remix)
Aquarius — Dolphin Tune
Dead Calm — New Format Jazz
Lee Gamble — Jove Layup
The Beatles — Blue Jay Way
Aphrodite’s Child — The Four Horsemen
Space Afrika — Noise Sweet
Space Afrika — B£E
Shit and Shine — Jream Baby Jream 
Art Garfunkel — I Only Have Eyes for You
Oneohtrix Point Never — I Only Have Eyes for You
Tirzah — Gladly 
Sam Prekop — Showrooms
Jim O’Rourke — Not Sport, Martial Art