Samsung’s Dreamwork

I got this ad on YouTube on Monday and have not been able to stop thinking about it since.

In this cutesy little animated advertisement, Samsung explain that whilst everyone in the 1960s was suckered in by Space Race hype, they were more interested in the terrestrial struggles of everyday people. And they’re still on that emancipatory quest today!

Remember that old Apple advert that Mark Fisher wrote about? The “1984” Super Bowl one? This feels like the wet fart contemporary equivalent of that — woke capitalism meets communicative capitalism on a starry-eyed nostalgia trip.

Whereas Apple declared “we’re the bright colourful female future of post-Soviet freedom”, Samsung says “we’re the American (but really Korean) historical materialists liberating the working class for over 50 years with technological household amenities.” It’s hard to know which message is more ambitious and unnervingly misleading…

Because it’s a lie, right? It’s an attempt to construct this new reality — through the waking Freudian “dreamwork” of PR — that Samsung cares about people’s lives. The future doesn’t belong “to those who explore and challenge earlier than others.” If Samsung is to be a shining example of late-twentieth-century success, it’s tagline should be: “The future belongs to those who buy-in earlier than others.” After all, that’s how they survived the start of the iPhone years — by being Apple’s main supplier of microchips, no doubt buoyed by years of horrific Heart-of-Darkness cobalt mining adventures.

The advert is obviously an incredibly selective and audacious retcon and, when I struggled to find the video online at first, I just assumed they’d decided to bottle it because it’s too cringe. No such luck.

Samsung are here demonstrating their commitment to wha Mark Fisher called “communicative capitalist realism”, spinning yarns of woke familiarity and innovation so that they can float above reality in their capitalist dreamworld:

Communicative capitalist realism acts as if the collectivisation of desire and resources had already happened. In actuality, the imperatives of communicative capitalism obstruct the possibility of communication, by using actually existing cyberspace to reinforce current modes of subjectivity, desocialisation, and drudgery.

It’s not unusual, by any means, but I think this is the most on-the-nose example of this new brand of capitalist realism that I’ve ever seen.

Criticism After Gaming: Notes on Pewdiepie, Cancel Culture and Reactionary Aesthetics

Is anyone else confused by the latest Pewdiepie drama? (Does anyone even care?) 

I have a long draft from 2018 on the topic of Pewdiepie lurking somewhere in the bowels of my WordPress account. I watch his videos a lot and I’ve talked about him a couple of times on the blog before — most extensively in the second part of my “All Roads Lead to Alienation” series

Controversies aside, I’ve long admired Felix Kjellberg’s transparency about his mental health issues and I find him to be an interesting weathervane for the shifting hot air of online subcultures. Any insights that might be drawn from this, however, are often lost to his unfortunate nature as a pretty stereotypical Scandinavian millennial who lacks any rigorous media training, coupled with a naive perception of his own whiteness that, from experience, seems to be pretty common amongst Northern Europeans. (Not that this excuses his worst outbursts but it seems to be a bigger issue than just him.) 

Beyond this, I think his strange position — as the world’s most popular YouTuber who is nonetheless seen as the figurehead for an otherwise marginal fanbase — says something interesting about our online spaces (although what exactly is being said is hardly clear from the outside). His relatable nature seems to come from the fact he is a product of early 21st century online cultures instead of being the kind of movement leader he is often heralded as being given the size of his audience. 

This is to suggest that, although he is regularly mentioned in the same breath as Infowars and Breitbart Media, it seems to me like he has more been influenced by a broader Silicon Valley neo-neoliberalism rather than spreading an ideology of his own. As far as I can tell, this is because he’s online, echoing a worldview that I do not share but one which is incredibly prevalent outside of mainstream discourses, and there are likewise many other cultural pies that suffer from the same issues in which he has his pewdie fingers. I feel like his latest controversy epitomises this.

After reaching a mind-boggling 100 million subscribers, Kjellberg made a video unboxing an award sent to him by YouTube, during which he committed to donate $50,000 to the Anti-Defamation League as a (somewhat fleeting) gesture of goodwill following his previous controversies, during which he has been adopted as a meme by alt-right and white supremacist figures, as well as more personal accusations of anti-semitism. 

Soon after this video went up, there was apparently an enormous fan backlash and, in a follow-up video, Kjellberg decided to rescind his gesture, saying he would donate the money somewhere else.

I didn’t see any of this backlash personally. (That’s an alien part of Twitter and Reddit to me and the part I’m in is weird enough without heading over there.) All I saw were the videos themselves. But my girlfriend and I nonetheless spent much of this morning trying to figure out what was going on after even she became aware of there being some sort of controversy brewing when the story reached the front pages of a lot of national news websites (such as The Guardian and the BBC).

Knowing I watch his videos, she messaged me to see if I knew what the problem was — was the controversy that he was donating to the ADL in the first place, with their history of equating antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel and other dubious political stances? Or was it that he cowed to the pressure of his supposedly alt-right fans? 

What’s interesting to me is that it seems to be a mixture of both and I see this tension are being central to his online existence. It likewise seems to be a sticky situation that only he occupies.

This is part of the reason why I find myself following Pewdiepie’s content so closely. His high profile under the YouTube spotlight means he often appears caught in the middle of our contemporary culture wars. He’s not a part of LeftTube, nor is he explicitly a part of YouTube’s extremism problem. His personal politics certainly seem to lean to the right but he also seems to be at the mercy of both left- and right-wing cancel cultures, and the latter is a form of cancel culture that few in the media seem to fully understand the dynamics and concerns of. Controversies such as this make that explicitly clear, illuminating a broad cultural crisis that is seldom acknowledged.

First, perhaps we need a quick gaming culture recap… The current toxicity of gaming culture seems to be a result of the long shadow left by #GamerGate, the ultimate cultural backlash of the 2010s, and this has routinely been a topic that mainstream news outlets have dedicated summative essays to, trying to explain the controversy to non-gamers. It will never not be strange to me how a billion dollar industry can still be considered to be so politically niche.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever written about this on the blog here before but #GamerGate was something I fell foul of back in 2014 when it first exploded. On an old personal Twitter account, I made the mistake of criticising many of the women who were expressing pro-#GamerGate opinions on the hashtag by using the hashtag myself and throwing into the fray some sort of half-baked 140-character missive about the blatant false consciousness of these female #Gamergaters.

The tweet destroyed my mentions for a whole 48 hours, with the subsequent reactionary pile-on leading to a complete shutdown of my social media pages for another week afterwards as I let things blow over. Commenting of female false consciousness was perhaps, more broadly, not a good look, but it was #GamerGaters only who took issue with it, and being targeted caught me completely by surprise.

I didn’t have any sort of platform at that time. I’d simply waded into the hashtag without thinking and managed to successively piss off all the wrong people as the tweet got shared by hundreds across a combined network of thousands upon thousands. I remember at first reading all the responses whilst sat in my car under the Humber Bridge — a frequent hangout spot when I was living in Hull between 2014 and 2016 and with a very difficult situation at home. I counted the rapid-fire notifications with incredulity as I was hit with literally hundreds of replies a minute. The onslaught lasted for hours. It was terrifying and induced repetitive panic attacks for days. I had to completely unplug to get away from it. No phone or laptop. I almost threw the former straight into the River Humber. I went into complete digital isolation.

In hindsight, it was a telling experience. Here was a broadly reactionary cause that was emboldened by using the same pile-on tactics that the left have now become most infamous for and, after later experiencing it on the other side of the political divide, it is clear to me that this is a contemporaneous and generational issue rather than a fault in any singular political movement — a symptom of rampant neoliberalism with its risk-adverse politics of individualism. As such, it seems to be a dynamic that has defined all of politics over the last five or so years, despite its predominant association with the left. 

This is worth emphasising, I think, and paying closer attention to it. There is a sense that, in some corners of the internet, this latest Pewdiepie drama is a damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesn’t scenario, straddling both sides of the political divide, as well as the divide between gamer culture and its outside.

That’s not to say Kjellberg’s “gamer” fanbase isn’t something of a pressure pot for certain types of politics — it evidently is — but that is precisely why it is interesting to me. The question is: why? And the answer, I think, is not because of online echo chambers and the rise of the an online right. It is symptomatic of a broader cultural — and even aesthetic — moment that should concern us all. 

Here is an industry where a broadly reactionary fanbase has the sort of clout that the left has with other mediums. And what is interesting is that this is compartmentalised as an alt-right issue by the wider media when, in fact, gaming seems to have just been mutated by a broader cultural industry at large. 

When Mark Fisher, Simon Reynolds and the rest of the early ’00s blogosphere were in the midst of their hauntological moment, for instance, they were considering the ways in which old and established mediums were mutating due to the feedback loop of late capitalist cultural production. Reynolds’ book Retromania, in particular, explored the ouroboros of 21st century music cultures that were endlessly recycling themselves. However, whilst this is where much of the discussion remains, the same cannibalistic dynamics can be seen at play in cinema and visual art as well.

But gaming seems to have been overlooked throughout these discussions because, rather than suffering from slip into retromania, it instead came of age in that moment. This is to say that the gaming industry has internalised a broader cultural retromania to a far more insidious extent, making it the cybergothic industry par excellence today with its accelerative attitude towards technological innovation but with a largely reactionary view of its own broader cultural development.

I think a large part of this has to do with the gaming industry’s own attempts to critically legitimise itself through a development of its own modes of criticism — and this was the central focus of the #GamerGate controversy, lest we forget. This is important because criticism is — and always has been — political, but the gaming industry’s rushed attempts to give itself critical legitimacy have led to a general naivety about criticism’s role in their own culture. This, again, is due to the time in which gamers and their medium came of age — at a time when everyone was becoming a critic and criticism itself had supposedly been de-rigorised and democratised, for better and for worse.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this, video game criticism and journalism still have a long, long way to go in terms of their cultural standing and, like the industry itself, it finds itself speeding ahead as it tries to retroactively apply outdated critical standards to its own development in order to legitimise itself. (It is a critical forestalling that we’ve seen before — I have a whole other theory about this, for another time, exploring how photography went through a similar in-grown period of critical development which has only worsened its internal elitism today as an art form.)

To explain what I think the impact of this is, I want to foreshadow a future post I have in the works, returning to my current favourite literary critic Leslie Fiedler. 

I recently discovered the YouTube archive of the long-running political talk show, Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr., on which Fiedler appeared in the 1970s. It’s a brilliant conversation that Buckley and Fiedler have, and at one point Fiedler even echoes a kind of proto-K-Punk perspective on popular modernism and the divide between high and low cultures, noting how the very emergence of this divide can be documented in tandem to the emergence of literary criticism as a whole.

Fiedler explains that it was in the middle of the eighteenth century that literary criticism first began to “assume its dominance”, at that time when

class had assumed social and economic power that was culturally insecure, and the new middle class, the new bourgeoisie, wanted people to write dictionaries to tell them how to spell words, etiquette books to tell them which fork to pick up, grammar books to tell them they weren’t supposed to say ain’t anymore, and critical books to tell them whether it was okay to read novels to begin with and, if so, which novels were more okay than others.

Those people were sent off to school to study the classics but then came back to talk to their masters about what they should read of current literature, especially to talk about the form that was invented at that moment in the middle of the eighteenth century — what has become the dominant literary form — the novel. And then, after a while, what happened was the people who were entrusted with writing guidebooks … began to get very high and mighty about what they were doing…

Critics were getting high on their own perceived authority but, at the same time, much of society was also ignoring their critical appraisals and indictments. Fiedler highlights, for instance, the persistent popularity of pornography, explaining how literary pornography has always been popular with all socioeconomic classes but always read privately and shamefully — the first (and still our biggest) guilty pleasure.

Later, moving forwards to the 20th century, Fiedler describes how the centrality of the university and pedagogic institutions more generally perpetuated the bourgeois elitism of criticism — an issue he, notably, also points out as prevalent in academic Marxism. He notes that

the determination of what was literature got turned into the question of what is taught in classes is literature — literature is what is taught in classes in literature — what is taught in classes in literature? Literature. It’s a perfectly circular definition which gets you no place.

What interests Fiedler about this is the extent to which this capture of criticism by the academy has made it easier to ignore so that quote-unquote “trash” that is critically maligned nonetheless persists and becomes a major cultural reference point for people. He continues:

If [Fiedler’s students] say to me as a critic: ‘Why do you think Dracula survived although it doesn’t come up to specifications in terms of its language and form and so forth?’ …

Certain books, which may be pretty low on instruction and don’t even ‘delight’ in the ordinary sense of the word… Some of those books may do something else to you, which is to say they may touch that essential archetypal mythological material which is in all of our minds and which is the one thing that keeps us together. This is a populist line I’m giving you…

Sometimes it seems that … all our conscious ideas separate us. You and I, if we discussed many things about politics for instance, might find we disagree but if we were to swap nightmare stories I bet we would discover that there are places where we live in the same region.

It is in this sense that horror and the gothic, in their ostensibly pulp modes, persist within our cultural imaginations despite their distance from contemporary critical trends. Horror movies occupy the same existence — critically trash but culturally central. Such is pop culture more broadly and such is gaming culture most explicitly today.

As a long-maligned medium that nonetheless attracts and is popular with millions, gaming culture has attempted to develop its critical thinking in reverse and, as a result, has dragged along much of the reactionary thought that defines criticism historically, albeit inverting it in apparently counter-intuitive ways. It has led to a kind of inverse elitism where academicism and capital-C criticism are blocked from having too much of an impact on the medium itself, and it is in this rock and a hard place that the main figureheads of gaming popularity like Pewdiepie find themselves, caught between a reactionary fanbase and an old-style critical media discourse. 

What needs to be considered in more detail is the way in which a reactionary culture — common to the “fanbases” of countless mediums — is conflated with a reactionary politics. This is more obvious to us now with the popular genres of yesteryear. I’m reminded, for instance, of Noel Gallagher’s recent trashing of Jeremy Corbyn and his nostalgia for Britpop’s tandem ascension with New Labour.

With gaming culture, the Venn diagram between reactionary culture and politics seems to reveal a considerable overlap, but the two are not mutually exclusive. We should pay closer attention to the ways in which seemingly innocuous aesthetic nostalgia is wrapped up with the rise in reactionary politics because there is a sense in which those critical institutions attempting to hold Pewdiepie to account are more responsible for the present situation than they are dare themselves to be aware of. The gap into which he falls is a more of a direct result of a persistent subcultural retromania than any alt-right movement grown in a vacuum.

This isn’t to shift responsibility but I think a more nuanced awareness of where these issues have arisen from will give us a far better chance of combatting their increased presence. Clambering around the surface of impotently spherical definitions of our cultural trends and warring cancel cultures is not going to get us anywhere.

Mumbling Systems

I am having a recurring dream lately where I’m back at school in my English Literature class and we talk about everything weird and eerie.

It’s really fun and I can’t help but be impressed by my unconscious. If dreams truly are the brain’s way of figuring itself out and processing all that it’s been doing whilst you’re conscious, a classroom is a brilliantly literal (if perhaps pretentious) way for it to process its own ideas.

Last night was a slightly odd example of this. I dreamt it was a new semester and the kind and inspiring teacher present in my previous versions of this dream had been replaced by a grumpy and difficult woman who started the class with a maths test I could not comprehend.

Later though, we came round to her and, right before I woke up, we were discussing an eerie concept that I like just as much whilst awake.

Discussing the stories of M.R. James, we talked about “mumbling systems” to describe the liminal eeriness of seemingly agentic environments. Not the “eerie cry” that Mark Fisher would talk about but something more explicitly Spinozist, perhaps.

We would talk about the ways that weather systems, and particularly winds, seem to carry voices, exacerbating auditory hallucinations, systems in which murmurs and whispers seep into our worlds.

I was reminded, on awakening, of Yve Lomax’s beautiful book Sounding the Event in which she writes:

Hun-dun, or perhaps the primal noise is mur, the French-sounding word for wall. Mur: the sound of a wall of indistinguishable sounds; a wall of sound that sounds blank. This blank sound is the noise of the void, but let’s not make the stupid mistake of making the void isomorphic with nothingness. No, the void is not nothingness, it is pure possibility, it gapes wide with openness. That is the yawn. The yawn that opens up unbounded multiplicity.

I’d never thought about Lomax’s book in relation to The Weird and the Eerie before but there might be a future post in that.

A Death in Old Weird America

Sad to wake up to the news this morning that Daniel Johnston has passed away.

My first thought was of my good friend Daniel Mawer who has led countless encore renditions of Johnston’s song “Devil Town” when playing gigs solo or with his bands in and around Hull. It felt like, via Mawer, that the song was adopted by us as a kind of regional anthem for our “crap town”. It is a good anthem for weirdos everywhere.

Johnston is an artist who I feel epitomised a kind of Southern Xenogothic. His songs have always been heralded for their “childlike” qualities, simply because of how Johnston sounds in his nasal lo-fi, but there’s also a deep melancholy and darkness to his writing.

Johnston was perfectly American in that sense. Listening to him this morning before I go to work, I’m reminded of Leslie Fiedler’s point about so much of America’s classic literature. No matter what darkness the Great American Novel seeks to plunder, so many of its works are seen as works for “adolescents”. For Fiedler, this is simply a reflection of America’s own adolescence — its social growth and finding itself — and it is an adolescence like any other, far less innocent that social expectations like to imagine.

Fiedler would often hold up Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as perhaps the greatest and most American of novels, existing uncomfortably as a book for children that nonetheless contains a scathing critique of American social values. How many children’s books today deal so openly with racism, alcoholism, death and murder? The sequence in which Huck and Jim find a naked dead back in a seemingly abandoned house feels like a weirdly classic American excursion, a rite of passage.

This is the same Old Weird America, the same Southern Gothic America, that Johnston occupied as a child-like persona obsessed with monsters and ghouls and death, and in that sense, despite his inimitable cult status, he was an American classic.

He’ll be missed. RIP.

Nerve Ganglion of Capital

Sat navs do not like Felixstowe. It has taken us three attempts to get here.

The first attempt, tried some months ago, was done by sight alone as we made a slight detour to Felixstowe on our way back to London. After driving around back streets and turning down too many roads we were evidently not meant to go down, we gave up and said “next time.”

This time, putting the official “viewing point” into Google Maps, we were still taken directly into the Port of Felixstowe. Messaging a friend who works on ships and has spent a lot of time there, we were informed that we were indeed lost — not that we needed that confirming — circling around “Berths 8 & 9”.

He told us that, in fact, we shouldn’t have been able to get that far without a security check. Nevertheless, we found all the lorry drivers very courteous as we fumbled our way around stacks of shipping containers and disintegrating office blocks…

We eventually made our way to the appropriate viewing spot, looking out over that major “nerve ganglion of capital” as Mark Fisher and Justin Barton refer to the Port in On Vanishing Land. It was strange being quite so close and yet so far away from it. Standing on the stunted beach, it felt more like a shoreline of undeveloped land rather than beach by the sea. It was like spatial polarities had been reversed.

From this strange vantage point, the Port’s main offloading point was a literal stone’s throw away, and yet nothing looked to scale. It’s difficult to wrap your head around — the sheer size of the operation perpetually unfolding and the labour hours and wealth of commodities being moved back and forth through this city and around the world and the rest of the country.

As if to drive all this home with a healthy dose of eerie, I picked up a flyer as we left the viewing point cafe — they did a good mushroom soup — that was advertising a children’s Hallowe’en event at Landguard Fort, right next to the Port viewing point.

I was half-convinced the event it was advertising was real. Before finding the ad we had just been discussing the eerie nature of these huge and anonymous containers. What is inside them? Do they ever get lost? The flyer read:

A strange artefact known as the Mask of the Dead that was unearthed at the G’harne excavation site in Africa — and then mysteriously stolen — has been found in a container at the Port during a customs check. As a security measure the artefact has temporarily been moved to Landguard Fort for safekeeping before been taken to the British Museum in London.

The mask was reputed to have legendary powers. The wearer could raise an army of the dead, and his enemies would grow weak and die just looking at it. The mask disappeared centuries ago until its recent discovery.

Due to the interest it has generated, for one night only, you are invited to attend a special Open Evening at Landguard Fort on Saturday 26 October — where the mask will be revealed and an expert archaeologist will be present to answer questions.

I thought, in my cultured ways, that the G’harne excavation actually sounded familiar. It turned out this was not my latent knowledge of the African continent, however, but an echo from the Cthulhu mythos.

How wonderfully appropriate to finish our Suffolk trip here, with capitalist and Cthulhic tendrils entangling with one another before the drive back to London.

We’ll be coming back later for another weekend away in a few weeks. Immediately the return to London has brought back the constant anxious hum and chest-tightness that defines every day in this city. We’re so grateful to have friends that will allow us to escape and visit whenever we like. They are a lifeline.

I need to get out of London permanently soon, I think. I’d rather face Cthulhic horrors and natural emptiness than the perpetual buzz of this city for much longer. I’m at a risk of starting to sound like Lovecraft himself, although it’s the landlords and bad drivers that I hate, not some racialised cult of subalterns…

Walberswick

A few days ago we stopped off in Blythburgh and (unwittingly) walked halfway to Walberswick. (The names round here just get weirder and weirder.) Today we tried to do the walk the other way.

The main reason for our return was that, although we ended up in a lovely forest, that wasn’t really what we came to see originally. We wanted to see more of the marshes and the strange dead forests and whatever else. We came back for the emptiness.

And, according to the maps we’d seen, there was supposedly a path we’d missed.

We certainly found more marshes but no path through them. What I thought was a path was likely just a badger trail or vague marking made by grazing animals. Miraculously though, after fighting through various obstacles, we eventually ended up precisely where we’d decided to turn back the other night. I’m not entirely sure how…

Below are a bunch of photographs from our adventure which involved some paths, some cornfields, a bit of forest, marshes and bogs and bridleways and a burnt-out cottage. (Not forgetting the dramatic marshland shot above that the girlfriend took. Thanks, hun.)