Cancel Culture and the Betrayal of Truth

Cancel culture is back but, of course, it never really went away. And yet, the recent flurry of controversies surrounding a new narrative no one can get enough of — JK Rowling and the Succession of Statements — makes it feel like the debate around its existence has resurfaced in the popular media with a vengeance.

I have complicated feelings around cancel culture, personally — partly because it is often so scatterbrained in its approach, precisely because it is not the magically unified movement it is often made out to be by its opponents.

This tweet, however, broadly hits the nail on the head:

But this is not to ignore cancel culture’s more interpersonal instances of emergence, where it tends towards the encouragement of a lot of leftist infighting. I’ve spoken before about this — about how I found myself on the receiving end of an attempted cancelling in 2017, and how it really sent me west, pushing me into some dark corners of the political imaginary that I’m happy to have later crawled out of. However, I’ve also witnessed numerous other people go through the wringer of leftist paranoia in this way — a paranoia mistaken for a militant sense of justice — and many of them have unfortunately not recovered.

The issue for me is that “cancellation” is, in its everyday usage, bad praxis. It rarely looks like how it is described above. In less public instances, it often pushes those accused of a leftist infidelity further into the arms of an apparent enemy. It also seems to me like it often resembles a kind of mutually-assured mental destruction. No one who comes out of an instance of cancellation, whether sent or received, does so undamaged. So whilst holding public figures to account is important, cancelling is a terror if it is used as a blunt instrument.

This is to say that I think there is a huge difference between punching up at those who have long gotten a free pass on over-inflated platforms and those who have been on the receiving end of a paranoid “prison politics”. Those who perceived themselves as being victims of a successful or attempted cancellation nonetheless often confuse which side of the divide they are on.

This tendency is epitomised, I think, by Nina Power’s recent article on JK Rowling for the Telegraph. To talk about “a principle of charity” in this regard is laughable for multiple reasons.

Rowling is in a position where she is far too used to a rhetorical charity. It is arguably what makes people of such cultural acclaim stop thinking once they get to a certain level of success and forget that they are human and when they open their mouths what comes out can be dogshit. As such, Rowling epitomises a petite bourgeois white feminism that clings tightly onto experiences of suffering, despite the extent to which her present circumstances have changed.

Take, for example, all of the times that Rowling has spoken about her experiences of depression and anxiety, single parenthood and the struggles of getting published, or her most recent claim that she too could have been trans maybe in another life — she does sometimes publish under a male pseudonym, after all, and that’s basically the same thing. In the spirit of the principle of charity, however, it remains true that Rowling has been through some tough times — and these are experiences that shouldn’t be diminished.

Everyone is broadly in agreement about this. When the Sun opportunistically ran an interview with her ex-husband, who she left amidst accusations of domestic violence, many of those critical of her TERF tendencies were among the first to rally behind her and criticise the Sun. But that alone does not legitimate her other positions. In fact, she seems to be incapable of empathising with those who find her articles and carelessly tweeting to be as upsetting as the Sun’s article about her. Nina Power also fails to grasp the limits of her own argument in this regard.

It is clear that, in that moment, Rowling’s husband was approached through the principle of charity and given a far bigger platform to not apologise for his behaviour on than he warranted. It was also an interview displayed with more prominence than it needed. It was seen by thousands and this was damaging, not just to Rowling but also those who share in her experiences. Evidently, there are instances where a principle of charity is inappropriate.

I’ve been thinking about Nancy Hartsock’s feminist standpoint theory a lot recently, in light of this, after transcribing a Mark Fisher lecture which discusses it. The central point here is one against the moral relativism of this sort of argument, whereby everyone is entitled to their own point of view, but it is also true that some points of view are nonetheless better (and better informed) than others. Applying this to class struggle, Hartsock uses the figure of the cleaner as an analogy — specifically someone who cleans toilets for a living. This person is, as far as society is concerned, at the bottom of the social ladder. They do a job few want to do. However, in cleaning utilities they also understand better than anyone how those utilities are used. Whilst, for a bourgeois establishment, this kind of labour is increasingly abstracted — it just gets done whilst those who do it remain invisible — the person at the bottom sees all. They see the machinations of the capitalist system above them and, if encouraged to break the illusion of immediacy, can have a far better understanding of capitalism in its totality than a bourgeois class that is wrapped up in the ignorance of abstraction.

In the world of twenty-first century gender politics, we are discovering new depths to this upturned pyramid of privilege. There is certainly, in some corners, a race to the bottom, but people’s analyses of the world around them more often than not speak for themselves. However, it goes without saying that trans people have always been on a lower rung of the ladder than cis men and women. This is most apparent when we consider the arguments that trans people are suddenly everywhere. They’re not suddenly everywhere but rather are no longer so socially invisible. They have also been afforded greater freedoms by social progress and now their perspectives on the illusions of gender (given in immediacy) are being heard. It is also clear to many that women like JK Rowling, no matter how contrary this may seem to their personal experiences, have been listened to at the expense of other demographics long enough. Their struggles are real, but their perspectives are nowhere near as omniscient as they like to insist. When push comes to shove, this becomes very much apparent. (See: “Central Park Karen”.)

Of course, no one likes to have their worldview challenged in this way. No one likes to hear the suggestion that their view of reality, no matter how “rational” in the parochial context of their own experiences, is off the mark. This often isn’t the start of some dialectical process, however. The likes of JK Rowling — Alan Sugar is also one of the first to come to mind — more often than not retain a firm grip on their time lower down the social hierarchy in order to further abstract their own success as the expense of others. What they end up expressing, as a result, is a kind of cognitive dissonance, whereby their understanding of oppression is acutely blinkered because it is solely defined by their own experiences. It is clear, in this sense, that social mobility does not provide better informed perspectives. The world you left behind is lost in the haze of abstraction.

The irony of Nina Power’s article on all of this is that she has fallen into this very trap, although her mobility has been more horizontal than vertical. Much of her most recent work bemuses many people but I think it makes perfect sense in the context of her combined experiences of state persecution and leftist persecution. The combination of the two blurs the boundaries rather than providing a better view of the whole. It is sad, more than anything. What is dangerous about this, however, is how her own reasoning is draped in the pretensions of a flawed philosophy. This is not simply a case of one person slipping from left to right. For a philosopher of her standing, it is far more embarrassing than that. After all, surely there is no fate more shameful for a Badiou scholar than to end up defending moral relativism in the Telegraph.

I am all for the principle of charity and the left could certainly do with internalising one, but it requires a version of this principle that is far more robust than Nina Power’s. After all, sometimes charity is little more than an attempt to launder an ethics, and obscure the extent to which, as Badiou might put it, we have betrayed a truth.

Under Brighton Pier (2014)

The first of what will hopefully be a few archival recordings, put up on Bandcamp just for fun and posterity. There are too many unfinished projects lingering on my hard drive, started at some point over the last five years — this is one of them.

In 2014, I made a collage of field recordings from a trip to the beach. Stood underneath Brighton pier, I was minding my own business, recording the sound of the shingle being dragged over itself by the tide — my favourite sound in the world, probably — when I was suddenly caught up in a seagull feeding frenzy. Someone had thrown a whole loaf of bread off the side of the pier above me and the seagulls cared far more about their feast than their proximity to me.

The resulting recording and series of images strangely meant the world to me. It was a magical, serendipitous moment that I’d somehow managed to capture cleanly with Zoom recorder in one hand and camera in the other. I had intended to memorialise that moment, encapsulating it within an unnecessarily extravagant object. I made a dubplate of the field recording and began to make a photobook of the images. Later, I set about constructing a box to contain the two.

Things did not go to plan. After spending most of my budget on the record, I abandoned the project and later forgot all about it.

The other day, I remember this weird moment and my plans for it and decided to resurrect it, at least in part. On 31st July, you can download the recording and a digital zine of images, alongside a short text recanting the story as it happened. This will be available for just £1.

I have also produced two limited edition black-and-white prints of photographs taken that day. The C Type prints are unframed, 420 x 297 mm, and each is an edition of 10. They’re priced at £30 each and once they’re gone, they’re gone.

You can pre-order here from Bandcamp and see some images of the prints below.

The Rotten Western (Part 2)

Spoilers for The Last of Us Part 2 from the very start. You have been warned.

← Part One

After the shock of Joel’s horrific death subsides, Ellie and Dina plan their trip to Seattle, where they hope to avenge Joel by hunting down the members of the Washington Liberation Front who are responsible for his demise. What Joel did to deserve such a death is, for the moment, unclear. “Joel pissed off a lot of people,” Ellie admits.

Before heading out, they visit Joel’s house to take on final look at the life they knew — a briefly sheltered life; a brief life with Joel. Inside what we find is not so much a house as a museum piece. It is unclear how long Joel has been gone — days; maybe a week or two? — but already his home feels like a living memorial. However, this home is very different to the homes we’ve so far seen Joel inhabit… For starters, the Old West nostalgia in Joel’s Jackson house is surprising. Whilst, at first glance, it seems to suit an idealised version of the man we’ve come to know, as I lingered amongst its decorations and detritus I also found it jarring with reality.

It was a moment that took me back to the start of the first game. As Ellie staggers around Joel’s now-vacant house, grief-stricken, I wanted to replay the first game’s prologue, in which Joel’s daughter Sarah staggers around their home half-asleep looking for her father.

Sarah and Joel’s house is recognisably modern. It’s messy too; the banal neglect — no doubt the product of an entwined teenage laziness and single-parent fatigue — is pervasive. It is also strangely haunted by a violence to come, in which we can already predict the surreality of a house in ruins, its present lived-in state foreshadowing an inevitable, soon-to-be looted state-to-come. But the house is lived in, at least. Joel’s house in Jackson feels like it has been laid out all too neatly, like it will be the future home of a Joel waxwork. It is sterile, and haunted by an unpredictable past rather than an all too predictable future.

We could argue that, post-outbreak, the entire world is haunted by the past in this way but the eeriness of much of The Last of Us‘s environments comes from the fact that these pasts are forgotten. As recognisable as the suburbs and cityscapes are to us as players, we become accustomed to seeing them as ancient ruins — that is, we see them through the eyes of the game’s protagonists. The difference between the two is, perhaps, one of grief. Whilst we might grieve the sight of a burned down house in our present, as the sight of it invades our capacity for empathy uninvited, we do not grieve the remnants of ancient civilsations.

The tension between the past, present and future in this regard has been the defining enviro-temporal tension of the Gothic for centuries, but this only makes the design of Joel’s house more surreal. It slips somewhere between the two — between the Gothic and the grief-stricken. It’s preservation jars with a narrative wherein life so often ends without legacy.

Most interesting to me, in this regard, are the paintings on the walls of Joel’s two houses. In the first game, Sarah’s room is peppered with posters for bands and films, for instance. As you head into the corridor and, eventually, to her father’s bedroom — it’s the middle of the night and he is, conspicuously, not at home — you see that the walls are decorated with various family photographs and natural vistas.

Much has been said about the snowy landscape “easter eggs” above Joel’s bed and set as his phone’s background, both foreshadowing an environment later on in the game where you first get to play as Ellie, but beyond this it is intriguing to see the majesty of nature devoid of any presence of the human.

On another wall in Joel’s room, for instance, there is a painting of horses running free. It is that stereotypical image of American natural beauty but it also foreshadows the stampede of infected and uninfected that the player is about to be caught up in. Elsewhere, there are pictures of ducks about to take flight, similarly evoking a natural tranquillity whilst also being a sight you might expect to see on the end of a gun. Humans are nonetheless absent in all instances.

In this sense, the decorations are more reminiscent of a dentist’s waiting room or my grandma’s house rather than a modern family home. It inadvertently emphasises some of the critiques of the first game — the player is left feeling more like an observer than an actual participant in the world around them — but, in The Last of Us Part 2, this changes; there are many figures in the landscapes that adorn Joel’s walls, as if the decoration now reflects the forced changes in play style. Actions have consequences. This is no longer (just) about an indifferent nature in-itself. This is a game with a Promethean edge, imploring the player to interrupt the world, even when the odds are not in their favour.

In the game’s next act, this point is made clear almost immediately. Whilst this is true within the context of the game’s new mechanics most explicitly, it is also evidenced by Ellie and Dina’s interactions with their environment. Take, for instance, the musical encounter that has already proved to be iconic in representing the game’s intensified emphasis on player agency and character development.

As Ellie and Dina trawl through downtown Seattle, they chance upon a music shop. Vinyl records fill the bins ready to be flicked through but, perhaps to our surprise, they are not some by-gone novelty for the pair; in Jackson, it is shown that they have the capacity to listen to music from the old world and they also watch old DVDs. Instead, confronted with this snapshot of an old way of life, Ellie wonders if there are people out there in the world somewhere who are making new movies. She writes new songs, she says, as well as listening to old ones, so surely there are people out there lucky enough to have the resources and know-how to make new movies too.

Though it may seem like a somewhat naive question, Ellie’s reasons for asking it are quite convincing. In a world so disconnected from itself, you can never account for how good or how bad other parts of the world might have it, and you also can’t account for what kind of cultural artefacts might remain a part of their social fabric. This is to say that, in its abject primitivism, the Fermi paradox is made wholly terrestrial.

As I play through the game, I find myself thinking about this a lot. Joel’s nostalgic nature isn’t something I want to criticise. In fact, it is all too relatable. In his role as father figure, he wants to inspire Ellie with his knowledge and expertise, showing her things about the old world that she can take with her into the new. Whilst Ellie’s excitement and curiosity in this regard is endlessly endearing, Joel’s own melancholy never quite fades into the background. And it is an understandable melancholy too. If I was able to watch old films or listen to old records depicting a world catastrophically destroyed by a zombifying pathogen, I think the cognitive dissonance would soon start to take its toll. For the younger characters in The Last of Us Part 2, however, this disconnect is taken to be a given. They don’t focus much on what has been lost but always push forwards, considering what they can do next. They seem inspired by the old world but only because it shows them the kind of cultural production possible in the new one they hope to build.

Joel’s is less focused on the future. Whilst this might seem like a cynical appraisal of his character, one look around his house makes it quite clear that, if Joel Miller had a film camera in post-apocalyptia, he’d be making Westerns. Whereas Ellie’s inner songbook contains the works of A-Ha and Pearl Jam; Joel’s starts to feel like a world of reactionary American primitivism — what Leslie Fielder once termed a “higher masculine sentimentality” — where a rugged music like the blues might suddenly makes an ahistoric comeback. After all, there are cowboys everywhere. Joel has even taken up carving them ornately into wood. But this romantic figure of man and horse — seemingly representative of a fraught if nonetheless very human relationship with nature — is far more reminiscent of the life Joel has acquired for himself after the apocalypse rather than being representative of anything that came before it.

In many ways, this is precisely the function of the Western in popular culture — a way of laundering the present through the romanticism of the past. As Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch (among other Westerns), once said: “The Western is the universal frame within which it’s possible to comment on today.” However, in a game like The Last of Us Part 2, this sort of process is most commonly inverted — we launder the present through the horror of the future. As such, it is strange to see the Western’s original polarity contained with the game in miniature; it renders it strangely cyclonic, with overlapping feedback loops, giving rise to a kind of temporal horseshoe of cowboy metaphysics that immediately renders time out of joint.

This strange templexity is only made more apparent by the abundant references and archetypes taken directly from many a classic Wester. For example, walking around dead Joel’s house, I found myself thinking about his previous adventures and general misanthropy — at least in the first game. As I try to picture him as some archetypal cowboy, he starts to resemble Uncle Ethan in Henry Ford’s The Searchers — the coldhearted horse-riding rifleman.

The Joel we met in the first game — before Ellie eventually thawed him out — was similarly violent and cold, traversing the plains of former downtown financial districts, overshadowed by wrecked skyscrapers not unlike the geological towers of Monument Valley. However, this hardly seems like an existence Joel would want to romanticise after the fact, in the way he has done in Jackson.

But even in a film as revered as The Searchers, the cowboy’s life is deeply disturbing. Ethan the anti-hero, played by John Wayne, isn’t just cold; he’s a horrible and vindictive racist — surely even by the standards of 1956 (and this is apparent from the opening scene). The horror that often greets his actions, painted on the faces of his dysfunctional and god-fearing posse, is tellingly triggered most often by the strange disregard Ethan has for the living and the dead. He mutilates corpses out of spite, for instance; he also has no sympathy for the Indians, allowing them no respite so that they might deal with their dead and wounded after a shootout. This disturbs his fellow travellers even more than the racialised threat of the Red Man. (These attitudes are less scandalous when expressed following a zombie apocalypse, when the Indians are substituted by undead hoards, but we might note that this only normalises Joel’s familiar contempt as dead.)

Despite all of this, The Searchers, in the popular imagination at least, continues to be upheld as this classic and deeply romanticised representation of the Old West. It is as if the sheer majesty of its location quite literally overshadows the deeds depicted on screen.

Joel seems to romanticise his own life in much the same way. The majesty of the classic Western becomes a way for him to look beyond the violence of his life and revel in nature. It is an understandable compartmentalisation, considering the plant-horror of the cordyceptic pathogen, but still, the extent to which his house starts to feel like a Searchers shrine, with its paintings of gun-toting cowboys in Monument Valley, seems oddly out of place.

Why does Joel retain such a firm grasp on the Old West? Is this just Joel romanticising his own trauma in order to better deal with it? Is this him compartmentalising a life he never knew in the form of old genre tropes many of those younger than him may have never seen? Is a fall back into the Texan stereotype really all it takes to scrub the horror of his life away?

Perhaps this mournful dissonance is unescapable for Joel. After all, he seems to recognise, implicitly, that he lives in a new Rotten West, but the only way he can find hope for himself is by going backwards. Ellie and Dina, retaining a very different (post-)cultural foundation, find the West taking on a very different form — theirs is a postmodern Western, no doubt, but it is far more hauntological in that sense; that is, it is a kind of “good PoMo”, as Alex Williams once put it, compared to Joel’s “bad” form of reactionary pastiche.

I think this is because, whilst Joel has a world to mourn, it is a world that decisively dies with him. Most of what Ellie and Dina know of life is violent political factionalism and the equally violently indifference of nature. Whilst this might resemble the Wild West absolutely, they don’t seem to know that. It’s not an echo of the past for them; just the present that they know. As such, they’re still mournful, but their alienation seems to come from the fact that they don’t actually know what it is they’re supposed to be mourning. They live a hauntological existence precisely because they are mourning their own stuckness.

I’d argue that this position echoes my own (revitalised) version of hauntology quite acutely, but Alex Williams’ old critique is still worth bearing in mind. For Williams, hauntology is always representative of “a cowardly move, lusting after utopias that never were, or which are now unreachable, a retreat into childhood/youth, just as trapped in the endless re-iterative mechanistics of the postmodern as the lowest form of retroism, merely in a hyper-self-aware form.” Because of this, hauntology “cedes too much ground to what it attempts to oppose, because of an a priori assumption: that there is nothing else (at this moment in time at least), that nothing else is possible, and as such we [must] make the best of this (and that the best we can do is to hint at the possible which remains forever out of reach — with all the pseudo-messianic dimensions this involves).”

What we see in Joel’s house is precisely a “making the best of it”. The scenes represented on his walls are representations of the life he already lives, but exorcised of all horror and instead jettisoned to a few hundred years in the past. This temporal displacement is precisely an aesthetic instantiation of the a priori Williams is talking about. There is nothing else at this moment in time at least; ergo, all that is really possible is to return to a past moment, and a past moment that Joel himself has not experienced. It is a theoretical past rather than an observed one; the very definition of the Western as an ideological a priori.

So, what of the girls? Williams’ nod to Badiou in his conclusion is a factor I think most people interested in hauntology and accelerationism have forgotten. For Williams, Badiou’s “analysis of the emergence of the new” — recently discussed — “would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.”

This is perhaps where Ellie and Dina lie. Whereas Joel, no matter how loveable, inhabits the reactionary misanthropy of a classic Western like The Searchers, Ellie and Dina personify a more revolutionary kind of homesteader, given the fact that they do not see themselves as some sort of iteration of the past. They respond with vengeance but because they are determined to pass through their new world of grief and transform it into a world where the same thing cannot happen again.

It is an intriguing form of the categorical imperative. They act upon the world in such a way as to punish those who live amongst them and think they can act with impunity. But they do so without much consideration for the now-normalised zombie apocalypse. This is, in itself, an intriguing gulf also present in many a genre film. The characters in any Western exist on a knife edge, where the indifference of the desert and the indifference of their fellow human beings produce quite distinct (but also oddly entangled) responses. In the Rotten Western, this already fine line becomes impossibly blurred. Nature and society are no longer false dialectical opposites, as they have been since the Enlightenment — or, perhaps, it is precisely that, but the falseness of this relation now takes precedent, transforming nature/society into a kind of corpse bride, with each mirroring the other and with each causing the other to rot.

It is a gross (but also nihilistic and realist) bastardisation of the relationship that dominates Joel’s house. Whereas he sees the best in this entanglement, represented by the image of a cowboy and his bucking broncho, in a cyclonic relationship that surfs the tension between natural rebellion and societal respect, the flatline construct of body alive and body dead is perhaps a far more honest appraisal of their new reality.

The figure of the survivor on horseback is an apparition; the reality is two humans, survivor and undead, in a never-ending tussle.

XG on Acid Horizon

I had a really great time chatting to Craig, Matt and Will of the Acid Horizon podcast last week. We talked about my recent book Egress, a new editorial project coming out on Repeater Books soon, and a lot of stuff in between.

Thanks a lot to Acid Horizon for having me. You can check out an hour of our conversation above — you can also listen on Soundcloud and on Apple — but we spoke for much longer than that…

For the rest, sign up to the Acid Horizon Patreon here.

A Realism that is Still Speculative: The Blogosphere After Badiou

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Alain Badiou’s 2012 book Philosophy for Militants.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve found myself wondering repeatedly about the extent to which philosophy needs to play catch up again, just as Badiou demands it must in much of his post-2007 writings. After all the complexity of Being & Event, it seems (perhaps under the influence of his good friend Žižek) that he realised the broader consequences of his philosophy warrant a more accessible form of presentation; one that will assist the moment at hand (the financial crash and its aftermath) and help to guide people other than philosophers out of it. This is necessary because, for Badiou, philosophy is a discipline that is, more often than not, put in the service of capital rather than helping to birth new ways of thinking about our ever-changing world. This isn’t just that age old tension between philosophy and sophistry, however. As there is less and less difference between the two, antiphilosophy — or even non-philosophy — must soon enter the equation.

Just eight years on from the publication of Badiou’s book, however, it is clear we are responding no better and no more efficiently to our current capitalist crisis. This is obvious when we consider how little the questions of our age (in our field at least) have changed. What good is philosophy now? How can it survive the present capture of capitalism? Furthermore, how can it actually effectuate the birth of a new world beyond the capitalist realist one we know? How do we inaugurate a truly speculative realism in response? Even those of us outside of any academic philosophy spend very little time writing about anything else (whether that is directly or indirectly).

It seems to me that, whilst Badiou’s philosophy of the event attempted to answer these questions explicitly, and whilst it remains a really useful body of work for anyone asking the questions above today, we are in a moment that necessitates our recognition of and an attempt to fully enter into an post-Badiouian moment. Why? Frankly, because Badiou is cringe, but we can retain the baby — the new — as we drain out the stagnant bath water.

In Philosophy for Militants, Badiou addresses these concerns by first briefly discussing Althusser, for whom “the birth of Marxism … depends on two revolutions, on two major intellectual events”. The first, he writes, is

a scientific event, namely, the creation by Marx of a science of history, the name of which is ‘historical materialism’. The second event is philosophical in nature and concerns the creation, by Marx and some others, of a new tendency in philosophy, the name of which is ‘dialectical materialism’.

Badiou, in describing “the enigmatic relationship between politics and philosophy”, is arguing that it has often been the case that “a new philosophy is called for to clarify and help with the birth of a new science”, and this raises a lot of questions for us in the present. (In fact, these are questions that, in my recent research into the early accelerationist blogosphere, were considered quite explicitly by a number of thinkers and writers from that time — a fact that is oddly forgotten today, with Badiou seldom written about in the context of accelerationism, despite being a central referent once upon a time.)

Badiou goes on to address the fact that philosophy’s future “does not depend principally on philosophy and on its history, but on new facts in certain domains, which are not immediately philosophical in nature.” Focusing initially on the relationship between philosophy and science, he provides a compelling list of philosophers whose works have retained a canonical importance precisely because of the ways they synthesised the new knowledge of their age into their own philosophical concerns — “for example, mathematics for Plato, Descartes or Leibniz; physics for Kant, Whitehead or Popper; history for Hegel or Marx; biology for Nietzsche, Bergson or Deleuze.” However, Badiou adds that he does not wish to “limit the conditions of philosophy to the comings and goings of science.” Instead, he proposes “a much vaster ensemble of conditions, pertaining to four different types: science, to be sure, but also politics, art and love.”

Badiou, with his trademark egotism, sees himself as being a worthy successor to this roll call. He continues:

Thus, my work depends, for instance, on a new concept of the infinite, but also on new forms of revolutionary politics, on the great poems of Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Pessoa, Mandelstam or Wallace Stevens, on the prose of Samuel Beckett, and on the new figures of love that have emerged in the context of psychoanalysis, as well as on the complete transformation of all questions concerning sexuation and gender.

We could thus say that the future of philosophy depends on its capacity for progressive adaptation to the changing of its conditions. And, if this is indeed the case, we could say that philosophy always comes in second place; it always arrives après-coup, or in the aftermath, of nonphilosophical innovations.

Badiou’s charge is an important one and the unruly crowd of Speculative Realists, circling around the first blogosphere, certainly took the implications of this drive-towards-newness seriously. There are echoes of this throughout their writings. Graham Harman, who sees himself as the next Badiou most explicitly, once claimed, quite explicitly, that H.P. Lovecraft was to their movement as Mallarmé had been to their predecessors, claiming the cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s implicit post-Kantianism as a cultural touchstone of philosophy today.

Unfortunately, Harman is also the most obvious example of a Noughties philosophy falling arse over head into co-opted cringe. In his introductory book on speculative realism for Polity Press, for instance, he knowingly places himself in a superior position, noting that, whilst he wants to give fair coverage to his interlocutors and critics, his Object-Oriented Philosophy, in being the most popular product of the SR movement, sort of speaks for itself. But, as ever, Harman’s hubris is lacking. In fact, in allowing SR to affix itself to a certain art world zeitgeist with ease, he arguably places an infuriating amount of drag on the movement. This isn’t a series of non-philosophical events demanding new thought, this is philosophy hopelessly profiting on the back of art world pretension and naivety — and it is this fact that seems to have intensified the Speculative Realist’s subsequent falling out with one another.

Harman’s move is similar to that of Timothy Morton in this regard, whose best-selling foray into the anthropocen(tr)ic discourse of new materialism has reduced it to little mroe than a plaything for capitalist fashion-flux. (Not that that is solely Morton’s fault, but he’s certainly helped extend its reach.) As such, many argue these branches of philosophy are popular for all the wrong reasons; they are all too easily assimilated by the bourgeois mechanisms of the art world and its theoretical impotence. This, in turn, is arguably just a symptom of its fidelity with a well-established liberal politics rather than helping to birth something truly radical and new. This may just be a question of perspective, but it is a given to many that much of that produced in the name of new materialism or object-oriented ontology exists for the sake of hollow academic shilling, giving rise to the final form of an outdated Seventies eco-humanism rather than a new philosophy for our so-called “new dark age”. (Pete Wolfendale’s mammoth demonstration of this fact remains highly convinving; Dom Fox’s review is still excellent explanation as to why — the book “is ultimately a defence of philosophical seriousness, of a particular way of holding such commitments and consenting to be bound by them.”)

As interesting as these debates can be, what hope does the new have of emerging in the way Badiou envisioned it when political debates are often caught between — in the case of new materialism most explicitly — a repressive Marxist orthodoxy and a reheated hippie humanism? Put another way, what use is the “anthropocene” when all it does is update our present geological understanding of the world in which we live, rather than updating it to make good on the new cosmic perspective that more recent science provides? In this sense, the term “anthropocene” becomes “the end of history” but for ecologists, symptomatic of a melancholy covered over by a hot new buzzword. It destroys the old but does it produce the new?

It is because of this that so much of what emerged from the late Noughties must now comes in for some reflexive critique. Back then, it was clear that philosophy was entering a new phase of stagnation, but this is true again today, and it is a great shame that many of the old Speculative Realists now find themselves at the helm.

What I am struggling with at the moment is the negative feedback loop of this sort of frustration. It is far too easy to point this out and despair when what I’d really like is to find a space for reflexive critique that is truly productive.

In the present blogosphere, there is a similar sort of cold war ongoing between the so-called neorats and libmats — the neorationalists and libidinal materialists. It is a war that stalks the old frontlines of the accelerationist blogosphere, between left-accelerationism and left-Landianism (or, put another way, between Ben Noys and Alex Williams). [1] The former tendency has since pulled increasingly in the direction of a philosophy of science, and renames itself according, but inevitably gets so bogged down in the science that it is often slow to keep up with all other non-philosophical events; the latter is accused of revelling in the mud of materiality and political factionalism and ignoring all science, as if it hopes to inaugurate a new dark age in which we are but pawns on a chess board occupied by capitalism and its odd future.

It’s hard to know where to stand at present. I find myself increasingly turned off by the representatives of both. But maybe that’s a good starting point. If we are to follow Badiou, at least in this 2012 guise, surely the right approach to now is something between the two. This was, arguably, the path taken by Ray Brassier but his contempt for the blogosphere means that few who have had their interest piqued by this online environment will take the time to keep up with where his thought has gone since. This only extends our concerns, of course. The academy is where philosophy goes to die, but this is no less true of the internet. It is afflicted by a different disease, maybe, but the result is still the same. We can say that this is a critique of the worst of us, pointing to the asinine and theatrical egotism of Philosophy Tube or Contrapoints, but are we, over here, really so different?

As far as the old Noughties crowd is concerned, I’m sure I don’t need to do a bullying roll call of names to inform people who has gone from inspiring mind to inept headcase. However, as much as this might sound like little more than killing your idols, I feel like it is more of a sneaking disappointment in those responsible for cementing our desire for the new in the first place but who have struggled to stay on the buckaroo of their own commitments. However, this new generation is missing a trick if millennial ridicule is all it can muster rather than a re-commitment to these demands. Philosophical extensions and revisions are a better response than giving more attention to some of the more (self-)abusive has-beens. Indeed, the fact that Badiou and those who once wrote about him have become victims of their own analyses is not a point of cynical celebration to me but has more recently become an acute point of concern. Is that future as inevitable as it seems? Are must of us doomed to becoming internet Dads that a next generation finds endlessly embarrassing?

This realisation might account for why so many of the second blogosphere’s initial participants have ducked out of the internet altogether in recent years, seemingly in order to pursue more revelatory, long-term projects — just as Brassier did.

*proceeds to take hard, long look in the mirror before logging off*

[1] As much as we like to term it as a war between left-accelerationism and right-accelerationism, I think the indifference of the right with regards to these philosophical debates is today understated and, if a diffuse online right ever does decide to step into the fray, it’s because they mistakenly think it is expected of them thanks to the paranoid framing of debates by the left themselves. This is to say that left-accelerationism often drew battle lines by insulting its opponents by calling them rightist, even if this wasn’t (strictly) the case. After all, Alex Williams’ initial blogospheric “left-Landianism” was far more influenced by the post-Landianism of Ray Brassier’s nihilism than retaining a fidelity with Land’s own. This established Land as a contemporaneous bogeyman despite the conversation having move explicitly beyond him and his immediate political concerns quite explicitly. Put another way — and much to Land’s own delight, I’m sure — he becomes a bludgeon that the Left like to hit itself with.

The Rotten Western (Part 1)

Below are some preliminary thoughts on The Last of Us Part 2 that I’d like to add to as I keep going with my current first play-through of what is already an incredible game. It should go without saying that this post comes with a big spoiler warning: come back later if you haven’t played it yet.

This post is also part of an ongoing project I’ve mentioned a few times in recent years and which I’m (still) very slowly building behind the scenes: a book I’m calling Frontier Psychiatry. More on that soon.

Every era of modernity has had its own Western. The genre is a cultural weathervane for the United States (in particular but not exclusively) to reflect on, as well as assigning it a trajectory. By morphing and responding to each new phase of the USA’s history, the Western – although modelled on an ideological (and, therefore, also idealised) form of the past – suggests a state of mind in the present and what it sees in its own future.

The Sheriff, in this sense, is a great American imago. In many a classic Western, it is the sheriff or lawmaker who fights off the Red Man, the mad dogs, the robbers and rapists. And yet, he is also often an anti-hero – embittered, traumatized, perhaps a drunk. Indeed, as the genre has developed, along with America’s sense of itself, so too have the archetypes at its heart – and these developments have not always been positive. For instance, the frequently explored subgenre of the Acid Western paints a picture of the Wild West that acutely reflects the anxieties of the 1960s and 1970s. Most importantly, despite the horror of the environment, it is a subgenre that imagines the West as a mythical land that still retains a psychedelic function – that is, it retains its imaginative function as a land on which new (non-capitalist) worlds could manifest.

It is becoming ever clearer that our stories of a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested United States describe a new West for today – a putrescent West, rotting from within. The TV adaptation of The Walking Dead epitomised this new kind of Rotten Western with a distinct lack of subtlety. The show’s sheriff protagonist, Rick Grimes, definedthe show as a piece of transitional media in this regard. It walks a midway point between states of mind: between a nostalgia for the frontier and a fear of it, with the zombie hoards functioning a little too well as a racialised native other, at home in death.

Whilst this was an interesting tension in 2010, a decade later it is clear that the show exists in a very different world, in which the show’s internal drive to make a post-apocalyptic America great again takes on a far less melancholic momentum. With this in mind, the (apparent) death of Rick Grimes – the downfall of the great white imago – was long overdue and overwrought. By the time it happened, the show’s audience had begged so long for something new that the change went unnoticed by those who had stopped watching many seasons ago, but it was also unsurprising. For a long time, it had be necessary for the show to put its money where its mouth is.

No character can be afforded plot armour – that was The Walking Dead’s central traumatic assurance to its audience. This often led to grief being used as a plot device, often profoundly, but this rule seemingly began to test the writers’ own resolve as their audience staggered onwards in a brutalised daze. If the show was to stay true to its word, it had to refresh itself frequently. In a way, it was like the show’s narrative could do what much of its cast could not – shedding its skin, healing, becoming-new rather than becoming-rot. For many, it failed in that regard, and Rick Grimes’ lengthy rule as the only sheriff in town was the show’s Achilles’ heel. The sheriff was long best his best when he finally got the axe, both within the narrative of the show and within culture at large.

What has struck me most, in my playthrough (so far) of The Last of Us Part II, is that this franchise seems confident that it will not make the same mistake as its televisual cousin. Not only have characters been refreshed – I found that Ellie’s big nose, no doubt affixed to her face to settle that fall out with Ellen Page, took some getting used to – but, most controversially, the central character of the first game, Joel Miller, is brutally murdered at the end of the first act. There has been a lot of consternation online about this, and a lot of outright anger, but all I see in these responses is grief, of the sort that any viewer of The Walking Dead should be used to. In a zombie apocalypse, there is no plot armour. Joel, in the first game, demonstrated this in reverse. It was his daughter who died at the very start of that game’s first act, but in the final act Joel saves Ellie from a similar fate – murder, essentially, at the hands of the “state” (loosely defined as a pervasive militarised body) or, perhaps, for the sake of an apparent greater good. (A contentious connection to make between the two characters and one I don’t want to unpack here for the sake of brevity.)

The second game takes this brutality to a whole new level, Indeed, violence is one of the game’s primary USPs. This is a really fucking brutal game. And yet, the fact that the emotional impact of the game matches up to its gory spectacle is commendable. There are enough games out there that are all gore and no heart.

This sort of brutality is one of the defining characteristics of the Rotten Western – and, indeed, the Western more generally. In fact, what we are seeing with The Last of Us as a franchise is that it seems to be building towards some sort of trilogy, like the Spaghetti Westerns – those “operas of violence” – of the Seventies.

In the first game, you have an archetypal story of deliverance, specifically for Joel. It was the big Texan’s reluctant task to (quite literally) deliver an immune Ellie to a militia group, the Fireflies, so that they can develop a cure. But underneath it all, Joel also has to set himself free from the trauma of his daughter’s death at the start of the outbreak which has, at first, made him brutally cold to the world around him. It is Ellie who eventually thaws him out. [1]

In The Last of Us Part II, the tables have turned. The wintery tundra in which the first act of the game is spent tells us one thing only: Joel and Ellie’s hearts may have warmed, but the world is still cold to them – and to us. A fire still burns, however, and it reignites deliverance, turning it into vengeance. [2]

I think it is important that this act of revenge comes following the violent destruction of Joel as the sheriff-imago. In fact, it couldn’t realistically be anyone else. The Walking Dead‘s over-reliance on traumatised women and the horrific demise of the Asian-American Glenn, though still traumatic, felt like familiar instances of American dispensability for too many. It is a superficial twist on the black guy always dies first, swapped out for the minority always dies worst. This is to say that, in The Walking Dead, more abstractly but no less predictably, the less archetypal characters always had less plot armour than the likes of Rick Grimes.

Many have complained that the priorities of The Last of Us Part 2 betray a violent wokeness, through which the teenage lesbian outlives the patriarch, but it seems to me like this is the world that The Walking Dead didn’t have the nerve to inaugurate until its audience was passed the point of caring: a world in which the unseen and more nomadic subjectivities embedded within American life fair better than those we are more accustomed to cheer on.

Think again of the Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We have long wrestled with the fact that there is a future that may not be for-us. We might think of that as a world without the human race, or we might think of it as a world without the hegemonic subject of capitalism.

This is the first lesson taught by the Rotten Western.

[1] Western’s often play on deliverance like this, particularly in their video game variety. Fallout: New Vegas anyone?

[2] In fact, this is one of my favourite things about the haven of Jackson – the little frontier town out in the mountains of Washington where Ellie, Joel and co. have been holed up since the events of the first game. Whenever it is mentioned, I can’t help but think of June and Johnny Carter singing about how they got married in a fever. Joel and Ellie may not be “married”, but the threat of the characteristic body burn-out of infection certainly cemented their bond.

Palestinian Lives Matter

Rebecca Long-Bailey was fired today for retweeting an interview with Maxine Peake in the Independent in which Peake claims the Israeli police taught American police the restraint techniques that have been killing unarmed black men and women throughout the US.

Clearly this is the result of a Labour Party hair trigger on the issue — warranted after the last few years of chaos — but how inaccurate is the claim really?

The offending paragraph reads as following:

“I don’t know how we escape that cycle that’s indoctrinated into us all,” continues the 45-year-old. “Well, we get rid of it when we get rid of capitalism as far as I’m concerned. That’s what it’s all about. The establishment has got to go. We’ve got to change it.” Born in Bolton to a lorry driver father and care worker mother, Peake is strident and expressive; if religion wasn’t anathema to her, she’d be perfect in the pulpit. “Systemic racism is a global issue,” she adds. “The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.” (A spokesperson for the Israeli police has denied this, stating that “there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway”.)

It’s a thorny claim. Is it inflammatory? Clearly. But does that amount to antisemitism or just anti-Zionist hyperbole? The Israeli police may deny that they have recommended the use of that particular tactic, but they don’t deny that the US have trained with them, and so Peake’s overarching point — that systemic racism is a global issue — remains perfectly in tact.

In this regard, Amnesty International supports Peake’s claim. In an article on US forces training with their Israeli equivalents, they report:

The Department of Justice report cited Baltimore police for using aggressive tactics that “escalate encounters and stifle public cooperation.” This leads, the report said, to use of unreasonable force during interactions for minor infractions, such as quality of life matters.  Furthermore, the report details how an overall lack of training leads to excessive force being used against those with mental health issues, juveniles and people who present “little or no threat against others,” such as those already restrained.

For years, Amnesty International has found Israeli military, security and police forces responsible for the same behavior.

Most tellingly, however, is this article on US-Israeli cooperation when training law enforcement from the Jewish Virtual Library, which reports that these exercises began in earnest following 9/11:

In January 2003, thirty-three senior U.S. law enforcement officials — from Washington, Chicago, Kansas City, Boston and Philadelphia — traveled to Israel to attend a meeting on “Law Enforcement in the Era of Global Terror.” The workshops helped build skills in identifying terrorist cells, enlisting public support for the fight against terrorism and coping with the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

“We went to the country that’s been dealing with the issue for 30 years,” Boston Police Commissioner Paul F. Evans said. “The police are the front line in the battle against terrorism. We were there to learn from them — their response, their efforts to deter it. They touched all the bases.”

“I think it’s invaluable,” said Washington, DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey about the instruction he received in Israel. “They have so much more experience in dealing with this than we do in the United States.”

What exactly is the terrorism that Chief Ramsey is referring to here? Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation? There are Palestinian groups that have absolutely committed terrorist offences under international law, but the Israeli forces are hardly capable of discerning who is a Palestinian terrorist and who is just a Palestinian. Their shameful record on human rights abuses makes that abundantly clear. It is evidently Israel’s position to fight terrorism with terrorism.

This is exactly what we’ve seen in the US in recent months, in which the police fight those protesting against police brutality by turning their brutality up to 11. It should not be controversial to suggest that the USA treats its black citizens the same way that Israel treats the Palestinians. As far as they are concerned, both are the enemy within.

Kier Starmer’s response to a claim like Peake’s — intimated indirectly via Rebecca Long-Bailey — should not be to blow the anti-Semitism whistle on a rival but to get down on his stupid knee again and make a change.

If black lives matter, Palestinian lives matter too.