Humbled thanks to Steve Bamlett for writing a review of my latest book, Narcissus in Bloom. It is a book that deals with the joys and terrors of seeing and being seen, after all, and this is one wonderful example of feeling seen by a reader. This is exactly how I hoped it would be read.
I especially want to share the concluding paragraph here, as ending books is hard and ending on an ambiguity is always a gamble as well, and Bamlett has a takeaway that I did not expect, but which makes me feel like the choice was the right one:
Of course I am left with questions mainly about self-reference. Critical commentary and the tone of the book itself makes me believe it is a wonderful contribution to queer theory and yet self-reference in it hardly covers this potential in ways usual to writing. There is, as it were an occluded part of the ‘selfie’ this book constitutes. But why should this not be the case. The invocation of male queer lives, especially Jarman and his role in the beginning of Colquhoun’s own subjective instabilities feels like a story deliberately not told fully, particularly since we are told that the only relationship specified was with a girlfriend. There are so many ways to read this. Has Matt just begun an identity as queer, a queer ally or is their lost story one of transition to non-binary status or a trans male with non-binary preference or is none of this relevant at all. There is always a suspicion of prurience in oneself when asking such questions. The topic of this book makes the alternative of non-relevance unlikely and given that the book continually analyses how identity is distributed across works including and especially ‘selfie’s’ it feels as if one might ask. But in the end, no answer should be given for as the book says ‘the blooming and wilting’ of selves alike is part of the process of narcissism properly understood – a letting happen. And for another to ask for certainties here is a kind of appropriation of the process and its re-insertion into unnecessary conventions.
… learning to live is always narcissistic … one wants to live as much as possible, to save oneself, to persevere, and to cultivate all these things which, though infinitely greater and more powerful than oneself, nonetheless form a part of this little “me” that they exceed on all sides. To ask me to renounce what formed me, what I’ve loved so much, what has been my law, is to ask me to die. In this fidelity there is a sort of instinct of self-preservation.
— Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally
In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson begins by unfolding the tripartite structure of Sapphic desire. Rather than desire understood as a relation between two people, hopefully reciprocated, she insists on the inclusion of a third entity, eros itself.
For Carson, it is only when desire is represented “as a three-part structure” that its “radical constitution” is truly uncovered, as it is only from such a perspective that the role of the personified deity of Eros is made clear, activating “the structural components” of any relation: “lover, beloved, and that which comes between them.” This three-part structure is integral because it represents Eros in and as relation; not as three static points but as a movement or a dance, through which these “three points of transformation” are properly rendered as “a circuit of possible relationship, electrified by desire.”
It is an understanding of desire, borrowed from the ancients, that complicates a more contemporary and psychoanalytic understanding of desire-as-lack. This is to suggest that it is not necessarily the function of desire to lubricate the acquisition of what we do not have; we should instead understand desire as a force that moves through the spaces that exist between ourselves and others. Desire, in this sense, is an eerily entifying kind of attraction. It is magnetic; not absent, since it is clearly causal, but not present either, since it is an affect invisible and mysterious to us. But in setting ourselves within desire’s tripartite structure, we are nonetheless “[c]onjoined” with it, Carson suggests, at the same time as each of the three points of transformation are scrupulously “held apart”.
This very distancing thus becomes an active part of eros’s triangulated relation, since it “irradiat[es] the absence whose presence is demanded by eros,” which is where “perception leaps.” It is in this leap that a strange sort of vision is made integral to the functioning of eros, such that it becomes nothing less than a plane of difference upon which “what is and what could be is visible.”
Continuing her exploration of the Greek’s particular sense of eros, Carson notes how vision is itself an action through which various other affects come into play. It constitutes an affective movement, like when we speak of “being moved” by something or someone — an analogy commonly used wherever eros is near, especially when eros is represented as a winged archer. Describing how the throwing of an apple was once a “traditional missile in declarations of love,” for example, Carson adds that the “glance of the eye can be an equally potent projectile.” This is true not only of the ways that eyes themselves move; eyelids are important too. “From the eyelids may issue an erotic emotion that sets the interval between two people vibrating.” To flutter one’s eyelids becomes a flirtatious gesture precisely for the way it stutters and staggers a gaze, casting waves of vision upon the beloved, drawing attention to a gaze that excitedly flickers, that struggles to sustain itself, as if such a gaze generated an amorous heat that is far more inviting than a cold, hard stare.
This stuttering might well betray a certain vulnerability and self-consciousness as well: a “shamefastness”, as Carson calls it – what the Greeks called aidōs – which is a reticent reverence; a desire that interrupts itself for the sake of other virtues; an attraction that forestalls any ultimate conjoining. Aidōs, Carson continues, “is a sort of voltage of decorum discharged between two people approaching one another for the crisis of human contact, an instinctive and mutual sensitivity to the boundary between them”; it is “a very discreet way of marking that two are not one.”
But we would be mistaken to view aidōs as an affect of a nascent puritanism. Carson’s thesis is instead quite Derridean in nature, such that she suspends a Western logocentrism that sees lack and difference as the fallen opposites of possession and unity. On the contrary, as Greek vase-paintings make clear, “eros deferred or obstructed … is the favored subject.” Joy is found precisely in the in-between. Aidōs is thus at the heart of an “erotic code”, which is “a social expression of the division within a lover’s heart.” The question is thus how to chase and be chaste? Eroticism abounds in the contradiction; in the “sweetbitterness” at the core of all Sapphic desire.
It is for this reason that Carson describes eros as “an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do.” She continues: “the boundaries of time and glance and ‘I love you’ are only aftershocks of the main, inevitable boundary that creates Eros: the boundary of flesh and self between you and me.” But what is most striking about eros, when viewed in this way, is the way that desire is rendered as a fractal, emanating forth in multiple directions — not only as an affect hurled outwards into the social, but that also work backwards within us, caressing the self.
Eros is everywhere. It is at work both within and without, taking flight along the precipice between the two that are not one. “The experience of eros as lack alerts a person to the boundaries of himself, of other people, of things in general”, Carson writes. What is lacked, then, is no so much the object of one’s desire but a more profound accessibility that fully links subject to subject, subject to object. Lack is not the fallen loss of what was once or could eventually be had, since lack is no less absolute than possession is itself. All is filtered through the thin film of self and flesh that keeps things subtly apart.
Eros skirts around all edges; it is all edges, which shift like lines in sand. It is an integral force that is paradoxically defined through its failure to define the very contours of being and a being-with others, such that “the moment of desire is one that defies proper edge, being a compound of opposites forced together at pressure.” It is this strange gap that Carson finds probed in all the ancient love poems she considers, in which eros “moves out from the lover toward the beloved, then ricochets back to the himself and the hole in him.” It is that very hole that is “the real subject of most love poems”, she argues. Thoughts of eros “turn toward questions of personal identity: [the lover] must recover and reincorporate what is gone if he is to be a complete person.”
And who has ever been so complete? Eros begins to look like what Reza Negarestani once called “a (w)hole complex”.
The absent presence of eros, and its quintessential sweetbitterness, resonates with post-traumatic experience. The ever-presence of a rupture mirrors eros in negative, and an evermore peculiar experience is produced when trauma is held aloft in the initial sketching of new relations with another self.
After one year on a waiting list, and a perfunctory assessment last week, I am beginning a course of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy this month. It has been shown that the rhythmic movement of one’s eyes, when accompanied by internal recall of traumatic memories, can help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. When discussing the process with my new therapist, I was reminded of Anne Carson’s discussion of vision, of glances thrown across the amorphous planes of eros.
The ways I have dealt with traumatic experiences over the years have generally been subtle, albeit less so when living in close proximity with others. The typical night terrors, flashbacks and mood swings are only the most obvious ways that the unconscious struggles to sort through memories that that have not been properly processed; other coping mechanisms are related to a litany of self-soothing habits that are relatively innocuous but nonetheless restrict my daily existence and make for an eccentric movement through life as I attempt to live it. They are disruptive habits that I have nonetheless gotten used to, enacting them without thinking.
I was told that these habits produce diagnostic problems for various mental health professionals, especially when treating children. When a traumatic event is not necessarily remembered or shared by the child suffering, it has often been the case that PTSD is misdiagnosed as autism, as the behavioural profiles for both conditions share a lot in common. This new knowledge alone has allowed me to view myself with a lot more compassion than I had previously. Whereas awareness of the difficulties experienced by autistic people are now much more commonplace, the daily impact of PTSD is still generally more misunderstood, reduced to the Hollywood image of depersonalisation to the sound of choppers once heard in ‘Nam, whereas the presence of autistic traits becomes its own kind of generic catch-all for certain asocial behaviours.
For example, I’m reminded of a popular TikTok, making fun of older generations who are cynical of the growing number of autism diagnoses, suggesting autism was not “a thing” in their day. Meanwhile, the TikTok passes comment on older relatives who find conversation hard, make the same thing for lunch every day, and might also be really into model trains — the suggestion being that autism simply went undiagnosed previously, now that we recognise these symptoms for what they really are. But I am left wondering whether these older generations of men, who perhaps fought in one of the twentieth century’s many wars, were not simply suffering from PTSD and self-soothing in colloquially “autistic” ways. (We will, of course, never know.)
Where PTSD and autism differ, most obviously, is that the former is evental whilst the latter is developmental; the symptoms of the former follow a specific experience or set of experiences, whereas those of the latter emerge during cognitive development in infancy. A tension arises where one is seen as a condition to be managed and supported, the other a condition to be treated. In truth, both can be managed and supported in equal measure.
This is most apparent when someone struggling with PTSD makes (and asks for) allowances when it comes to relating to others. There is an attempt, in wrestling not only with mental illness but also non-normative forms of living. It is interesting, after all, that Carson’s Derridean approach to eros is explicitly Sapphic in nature, at once exploring love through ancient and (most implicitly) non-heteronormative ways of thinking. And what is Sapphic desire in the twenty-first century if not a more conscious preparation for “the crisis of human contact”?
Dating queer, as I have found over the last two years, is to be far more attuned to other people’s traumas. “It’s part of our culture,” as someone recently quipped to me, and the sweetbitterness of dating while queer and traumatised is more potent than I have ever previously known it to be. It can make for such wonderfully sad encounters.
As my first proper EDMR session looms, I have noticed that I have gradually made new space for the memories I hope to process, but have long repressed. The paradox of an therapeutic literacy, after all, is that it can make emotions more easily communicable if nonetheless still hard to control. Today, these emotions and memories sit apart from me, quietly vibrating, as I circle them and prepare to make my approach, or otherwise lead another person to the site of trauma in order to vulnerably share a truth that might one day be lovingly shared.
To develop a crush on a person and talk about it soon necessitates an attempt to make them aware of this “baggage”, as you also take the time to sit with their own. It is hard to sit still as this ritual is performed. It is, on the one hand, a warning to the curious: as intimacy is sought and established, it is a way of making the other person aware of the vulnerabilities that lurk behind the everyday self one presents to others. On the other hand, it is a forewarning that is always-already vulnerable in itself, as preparing for an approach is no less difficult than the approach itself.
In writing Narcissus in Bloom, I hoped to elucidate this kind of approach on a grand art-historical scale. In reflecting on that project, I have repeatedly returned to the Derrida quotation above. It is true that “learning to live is always narcissistic“, as the sharing of experiences and difficulties in one way in which we allow ourselves to newly live with ourselves and others, announcing that, in order to “live as much as possible, to save oneself, to persevere,” it is necessary we sketch out the particular contours that “form a part of this little ‘me’ that they exceed on all sides.”
But to date with trauma leads to a painful contradiction. “To ask me to renounce what formed me, what I’ve loved so much, what has been my law, is to ask me to die.” Yes, that much is true. But the painful stasis of a traumatised self is to feel death approaching when we recognise the ways we must overcome so much that has formed us to our detriment. “In this fidelity there is a sort of instinct of self-preservation.” But what if the self to be preserved is already knowingly flawed and afraid? We learn to live finally in so many ways, but to learn to love finally is more difficult a process than I know how to put into words. Self-preservation and self-dissolution come to define the whirlpool of eros, dragging all things torwards that “hole in [me]”, which wants to be filled, as much as I forbid anyone else to touch it.
The arrows of eros both penetrate these holes and make new ones. First contact is never easy.
There’s a new interview with me in the latest issue of revue Prostor, the Czech cultural magazine. The interview was conducted over the phone a few months ago, around the time Narcissus in Bloom came out. Many thanks to Ivan Loginov for the questions and all the work done to translate my garbled thoughts.
I arrive in Edinburgh mid-afternoon, already dusk, and navigate my way around the throngs of tourists, carving out a frigid triangle between the station, my hotel and the Radical Book Fair. I’m early. Gary Younge is already on stage, regaling his audience with stories related to his latest book, Dispatches from the Diaspora — time spent with Nelson Mandela’s entourage, being threatened with guns as a Black man looking for directions in Mississippi, and tumbling drunkenly from Maya Angelou’s limousine.
During the Q&A, talk turns to journalistic ethics and retaining your integrity. It is surprising how familiar Younge’s advice is; surprising how emphatically it needs to be repeated nonetheless. It is advice easily forgotten. Most mainstream political journalists see themselves as pollsters today, it seems, noting how attentions are routinely turned towards future election prospects, foregoing any insightful description of or even engagement with the present, and in this way only lubricating the further repetition of capitalist stasis.
Younge recalls an allegory I’m certain I’ve heard before, but he can’t remember its origin either. There have been reports that it is raining: persons A say that it is; persons B say it is not. It is not simply the job of a journalist to relay what persons A and B have to say; it is also their job to go outside and “see if its actually fucking raining”.
It’s an important point and one that furnishes an integral journalistic belief of Younge’s: there is no such thing as objectivity. It is something that can just as easily be said about writing in general.
We three who follow Younge half an hour later — Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Nathalie Olah and myself — would no doubt all agree with this sentiment.
Our three books are quite different; our host, Noor Hemani, confesses a curiosity at Lighthouse as to whether they would fit together well at all. They fit together wonderfully, in fact, even if they hardly overlap that neatly, because we seem to share an understanding that no such stories ever do, but that is why we write them. We share a certain bemusement, perhaps, facing down the politics of representation, of seeing and being seen, and the sometimes torturous trap of self-awareness and self-expression, writing through it anyway.
Drinking an overpriced pint of lager before all of this, I leaf through Blanchot’s The Space of Literature again, a book that is becoming more important to me during every subsequent read. “In the solitude of the work — the work of art, the literary work — we discover a more essential solitude”, he writes. “It excludes the complacent isolation of individualism; it has nothing to do with the quest for singularity.” The space of literature is a space of intensive concentration later opened outwards and offered up to others, where we ourselves may no longer be able to dwell comfortably. The four of us gather there briefly in Edinburgh regardless.
I won’t recount the particulars of our discussion — you can watch it above — but I want to at least affirm how lovely and oddly therapeutic it was to share our anxieties about these things together on stage. One thing Suhaiymah said that resonated with me and my own book was an insistence on “seeing” with other parts of yourself: not just seeing with your eyes, through which we might more painfully feel the gaze of another reflected back at us, but also “seeing with your heart”.
That night, I had so many dreams, of the sort that often follow a therapy session; I clearly had a lot to process.
Noor concluded the discussion by turning to the overall theme of the fair: “revolutionary feelings”. My thoughts turned to David Hume, who was born and eventually died in Edinburgh, and for whom, as Deleuze once wrote, “reason is a feeling”.
This is the subject of the first chapter of my PhD, which I’m currently working on. Just as Gary Younge spoke of the first principles of writing about this world that many journalists have seemingly forgotten — the impossible straining for an always elusive and always illusory objectivity — I think often of how this impossibility has been cemented in culture-war discourses following Ben Shapiro’s idiot idiom: “facts don’t care about your feelings”. It is (Deleuze’s) Hume who provides the perfect antidote to this.
Although often seen as a precursor to the Enlightenment rationality of Immanuel Kant — woefully understood by many as being necessarily affectless and dispassionate (see this example I saw on Twitter earlier) — for Hume, feeling is paramount. “The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation”, he writes in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. It is not, then, that facts don’t care about your feelings, but rather that the ideas we later come to hold about our feelings are but pale imitations of what is first experienced. This makes thought strange, since it is so innately tangled up with feelings and our perceptions of them, which we then try to relay to others through various forms of communication. As Hume continues:
When we reflect on our past sentiments and affections, our thought is a faithful mirror, and copies its objects truly; but the colours which it employs are faint and dull, in comparison to those in which our original perceptions were clothed.
But it is the desire to describe them anyway that leads us to pursue knowledge and art and a better world more attuned to them.
To try and represent these feelings as fully as possible, it is necessary we experiment, reaching out to truth through an supposedly inapposite expressionism, never forgetting our place in Nature and our drifting between reason and passion. In point of fact, despite Hume’s reputation for rationality, he pointedly asserts that this task of expression and reflection cannot be left to science alone, no matter how highly we hold scientific thought in our esteem. “Indulge your passion for science”, Hume says, ventriloquising Nature, “but let your science be human, and such as may have a direct reference to action and society.” Hume’s empiricism, in this sense, is a most affective and affected materialism. “Be a philosopher; but amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.”
I went to visit Hume the day after the panel, having a few hours to kill before my train home to Newcastle. There is a statue of him on Edinburgh’s High Street, which is now a peculiar sort of tourist attraction.
Unveiled to the Scottish public in 1995, the sculptor Alexander Stoddart denied Hume the clothes of scholarly propriety, instead draping him in a cloth that barely covers an original perception. He presents Hume to us reclining with a tablet, like one of the ancient Stoics he so admired, both defiant and vulnerable, laying the body beautifully bare. It is nonetheless a strange way to render a modern philosopher, whom we might expect to see buttoned up in academic thought, not lounging around in near nudity. But it is a rendering that is wonderfully evocative of Hume’s thought, particularly his thoughts on art’s relation to other forms of knowledge.
The talented artist, Hume once wrote, “possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions, and the various species of sentiment which discriminate vice and virtue.” It is essential that the artist, in representing life, learn to render the body accuratelythrough feeling. It is no easy task, but it is a noble one. “How painful soever this inward search or enquiry may appear, it becomes, in some measure, requisite of those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners.”
But art also needs science in order to do this, Hume argues. With a nod to Malebranche, he remarks on the ways in which we see the world through the knowledge provided by the arts and sciences (and other things too, of course) in tandem, situated somewhere between the “ugliness” of anatomical reality and the “beauty” of its mimetic rendering (with any transgression or subversion of these aesthetic judgements also requiring some knowledge of their normal functioning). Hume writes:
The anatomist presents to the eye the most hideous and disagreeable objects; but his science is useful to the painter in delineating even a Venus or a Helen. While the latter employs all the richest colours of his art, and gives his figures the most graceful and engaging airs; he must still carry his attention to the inward structure of the human body, the position of the muscles, the fabric of the bones, and the use and figure of every part or organ.
Hume’s statue can be viewed in much the same way, even if they are not fully aware of how we do this unconsciously. Consider the most vulnerable parts of Hume, as rendered by Stoddart, which are his toes. They dangle invitingly over the edge of the plinth on which he sits, glinting in the winter sunshine. We see them, no doubt struck by their prominence, and are surely entertained by the fact that we can tickle this man presented to us with such high esteem. This is indeed how people often choose to interact with this sculpture, with Hume’s toes now humorously polished by the touch of superstitious passersby.
Local tradition dictates that the touch of David Hume’s toe will bring good luck, though the practice ironically defies the philosopher’s vehement rejection of superstition. Due to the statute’s placement to the High Court, suspected criminals are also said to rub the prodigious digit to help with their case. Since 1997, when the public statue was erected at the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, it’s become an international point of interest for handsy passersby.
Here Hume is situated between the law, that most “rational” social scaffolding, and the irrational flows of the social in actuality. But Hume also placed his own thought provocatively between the two, and so Stoddart’s sculpture, imbued with both thoughtful reverence and an anatomical beauty, becomes a tandem expression of forms of knowledge that Hume would have no doubt enjoyed. Similarly, I do not think this irony is entirely in contradiction with Hume’s thought. In fact, I imagine it as a habit that would tickle Hume in more ways than one.
It is not so simple to suggest that Hume was a supreme Enlightenment rationalist — of the sort admired by many who are beholden to a politically impoverished scientism. Hume challenges all knowledge, all of “human understanding”, when he uncovers the ways that ideas are formed through habit. This is true of all empirical “knowledge”, in the sense that science and superstition share a kind of empirical testing and processing, even if we later recognise the latter as being ultimately mistaken. This is to say that both are grounded through repetitive observations.
In a scientific experiment, for example, it is the task of the scientist to construct a situation in which a particular phenomenon can be observed, thus allowing for the demonstration of a hypothesis. Doing x to y should lead to z, the scientist suggests, but may nonetheless be aware that z will not always be the result achieved in every instance. It is for this reason that, in attempting to account for all interference and influence, the scientist will repeat their experiment enough times until their hypothesis can be said to be (at the very least) probabilistically true, all things being equal or at least appropriately understood within our general theory of relativity. But the same logic is exercised when I come to pick out my lucky pants, to give another example, since I have repeatedly observed good fortune occurring when I wear them. This superstition may lack the same weighted veracity of “objective” scientific truth, but both habits nonetheless begin with a feeling we believe can be verified — and I have personally met enough scientists passionate about astrology to appreciate how our thinking about cause and affect in the present has yet to purify itself in purely scientistic terms.
All of this is to say, as Hume himself argues, that so much of our knowledge is habitual. We recognise “truth” only as an observable tendency, which may not be true in every single instance but happens often enough to form beliefs. Habits thus present us with knowledge that shapes our behaviours. But if all knowledge is in some way founded by belief, then the task of “moral philosophy”, for Hume, is to logically explain how one set of beliefs is more viable than another and thus identify and differentiate between good habits and bad. This is no less true of philosophy itself, since, as Hume writes, the general reader may feel that any metaphysics may appear to “arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these entangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness.”
Distinguishing between good and bad habits is also a process grounded in feeling, and it is considering how we feel about different things that can lead us to journey outside the realms of social doxa. People who have embarked on such journeys were everywhere at the Radical Book Fair. So often, these books begin with an inherent understanding of how the world should be, of how we are led to believe the world should function, and an experience that contradicts that truth. Any kind of marginalised person will already know what this is like. As individuals, we grow up in a world that takes certain normative positions for granted — whiteness, heteronormativity, our categorisation within a cisgender binary, etc. — and come to understand that this structure of understanding does not (at all or in part) allow us to understand ourselves in a way that makes sense.
We come to understand our difference and, if we feel so inclined, begin to communicate that difference in order to further furnish human knowledge and understanding with other points of view. When we hear someone like Ben Shapiro claims that “facts don’t care about your feelings”, then, as he is so famous for doing, he is explicitly advancing an anti-intellectual position dressed up as its opposite. It is of course unsurprising that a social conversative would be against progressivism, but when phrased in this way, as a statement so baldly epistemological rather than simply political, Shapiro denies a fundamental tension within the human condition that arguably makes thought possible in the first place. Facts not only “care” about feelings, they are wholly dependent on them, and so, via Hume, we find them newly entwined and problematised in equal measure.
The irony of the superstition surrounding Hume’s toe becomes an interesting expression of this same tension. Hume himself did not escape superstition or error; the door is always left open for new forms of knowledge. And knowledge, we must remember, is an object of collective ownership. Superstition is not eradicated, then, so much as it becomes the central problem to be questioned. How we distinguish superstition from fact is the central question of Hume’s philosophy, in this sense, and he demonstrates that the two are not as easily distinguishable as they might first appear.
With all this in mind, I do not think Hume would ridicule those who tickle him, but rather ask that his ticklers consider what it is about human psychology that makes them want to tickle him in the first place. Knowing that this superstition is a touristic habit, one which supposedly flies in the face of Hume’s own philosophy — an irony no doubt repeated by every tour guide who leads their flock to Hume — why do it anyway? Because we know that others have. Because even superstitions can become truths under the veil of social doxa. That tickling Hume is a superstition is, in a sense, besides the point. Regardless of whether we believe in this superstition wholeheartedly, we perform the ritual to take part in a collective experience, and thus experience a sense of social solidarity. This is what makes Hume so interesting for Deleuze. As François Dosse writes, for Deleuze, Hume’s question “is less one of taming selfish ardor than of extending solidarity.” Deleuze himself writes:
The moral and social problem consists in going from real sympathies that exclude one another to a real whole that would include the sympathies. The problem is how to extend sympathies.
This superstition regarding Hume’s toes, then, is one that I imagine would have fascinated Hume greatly. It gets to the very heart of this thought on habit and truth, recognising the inescapable problem of subjectivity, of the knowing subject, later so pithily summarised by Lacan: “truth has the structure of fiction”.
Hume’s psychology of human nature presents us with a new awareness of our strange fallibilities, and Hume himself is not exempt from these. In fact, Hume’s bad habits of thought are particularly egregious today and demonstrate a failure of extended sympathies and solidarities that fly in the face of his own thought.
The short article about Hume’s statue on the aforementioned travel website also notes, for example, that the statute “has come under fire with the progressive Black Lives Matter movement”, given Hume’s assertion that “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to whites” — something I did not know and which made me feel very embarrassed to have mentioned my enthusiasm for him at the close of our panel at the Radical Book Fair, in which we had discussed multicultural solidarity explicitly in light of Israel’s current genocidal assault on the Palestinian people.
“There was never a civilised nation of any other complexion than white,” Hume continues, “nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” It is a horrible sentiment but one that is disproven easily, since our subsequent elevation of other lives has made their eminent actions and speculations so much more visible to society as a whole. In this way, the greater and more uncomfortable irony of Hume’s thought is not a popular phalangeal superstition, but rather the way that his own thought humiliates his short-sighted racism. Alive during the transatlantic slave trade, we see Hume engaging in a kind of dehumanisation that neglects his most important observation: that feelings are tantamount within the human condition, and fascinating precisely because they are so difficult to represent. Enslaved Africans, lest we forget, were dehumanised primarily through a disregard for their feelings, with their wailing grief reduced to the grunting of livestock rather than expressions of abject emotion.
This is why affect is otherwise so integral to his empiricism. It is shared feeling and the shared association of ideas that constitutes civilised society, and in this comment on the uncivilised nature of Black life, Hume unwittingly demonstrates the lack of civility of his era. But it is a lack of civility that we no doubt still share, as we witness Palestinians and their supporters being dehumanised in much the same way, such that grieving revolt is dismissed as inhuman noise. Our humanity is nothing if we cannot recognise the emotions and passions expressed by others for what they truly are. Reason is a feeling, and feelings give us reason to act and speculate on other ways of living in greater sympathy and harmony with the / each other. This is what makes feeling revolutionary.
I write all of this down in my notebook, perched on a stoop outside the National Gallery of Scotland, shaking off my bad dreams with a coffee beside me and a cigarette precariously placed in the hand not holding a pen. It is Armistice Sunday in two days’ time, although the media has begun to spin a new narrative of us having an “Armistice Weekend”, something I nor anyone else has ever heard of before, as a way to legitimate their ongoing disapproval of peace marches calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
It is always striking how habitual (in a pejorative sense) this annual day of remembrance has become. As I walk from the National Gallery to Edinburgh Waverley station, I turn my nose up at a mobile poppy shop, downwind of the newly opened Christmas market, selling all kinds of merch for mourning, raising money for indeterminate but tacitly nationalistic causes.
A short walk later, this cynicism becomes shame as I pass the Garden of Remembrance that flanks the Scott Monument on Princes Street. An old man bows his head before a temporary memorial, shivering with emotion and reaching into his various pockets in search of some sequestered handkerchief. His face is contorted as he rummages, as if looking not only for a tissue but for words, holding tears and the painful memories he has nonetheless given him space to quietly recollect. Here in a man in the midst of a remembrance.
Nothing else grows in this temporary winter garden, other than than balsa crosses and plastic poppies that gather in rows. I am never unmoved by them, and though my own grandparents never spoke about the wars they lived through, I do remember visiting Flanders on a school history trip in my early teens, seeing the thousands of graves and hearing the Last Post at the Menin Gate. No remembrance industry is so effective at passing on those inexpressible feelings, the horrors experienced in lives led long before mine. That is surely the whole reason for remembrance on Armistice Day: the transferal of feeling outside of experience and the revolutionary sentiments that grew out of them. Whilst the media has kicked up a storm around marches for Palestine overshadowing a more lazy remembrance, there is no better tribute to the feelings of those no longer with us than unearthing those feelings here in relation to present horrors. That too is a revolutionary feeling.
On Saturday, back in Newcastle, I walk across town with friends to the Central station, and join a silent protest on the concourse.
The weather in Newcastle (and elsewhere) has been so unpredictable over the last month. The first bright, crisp days of autumn have finally arrived, but we were battered by uncharacteristic heat, humid rains, thunder and lightning, and gales as they made their way to us. I’ve spent most of that time alone in my flat, either playing The Legend of Zelda or watching it all unfold as I write and read on my perch in the bay window.
This is a mix for haunted and unpredictable weather. I have had it on repeat at home for weeks. I hope you find it equally satisfying to live in as the seasons change wherever you are.
Mark Fisher’s final essay, “Cybergothic vs. Steampunk”, published shortly before his dead, is a short commentary on Alain Badiou’s Our Wound is Not So Recent. What Fisher takes from Badiou’s short text, which reflects on terrorist attacks perpetrated by ISIS in France and the West in general, as well as the West’s role in ISIS’s formation, is an almost comic-book (or science-fictional, hence the title) re-staging of the War on Terror. To aid its efforts, the West frames ISIS as its ultimate enemy — a feeling clearly reciprocated — but to an extent that is so Hollywood, on both sides, that ISIS become a supervillainous inversion of capitalist realism itself.
It is this reciprocity that is of interest to Fisher, in that ISIS and the West are informed by the same logics of capitalist realism. They are two sides of the same coin, spinning frenetically in place without a future. This is to say that the supervillainy of ISIS is framed in such a way that they become invaders of this radically other world, but nonetheless propagate their own propaganda with a surreally capitalistic valency. ISIS, like any capitalist entity that wishes to violently assert its own sovereignty, has a media arm. It has an aesthetic, a set of production values; it has cybergothic methods of representation (“beheadings on the web”), which remain oddly capitalist in their spectacularity, even as ISIS asserts its own sense of othering to this global order of the spectacle. In a sense, it asserts and translates its demands in a visual language it knows its enemy is already familiar with. As Fisher writes: “If nothing else, ISIS is a slick brand — a brand that is far more effective than anything capital can come up with at the moment in any case.”
“ISIS holds up a mirror to twenty-first-century capitalist nihilism”, Fisher continues. As a terroristic response to “a new form of (post)colonialism, in which states of conflict open up a temporary autonomous zone for capital accumulation, and plunder can continue without the irksome duties involved in setting up and running a state”, ISIS becomes a potent crystallisation of capitalist-realist excess.
This mustn’t be mistaken for a kind of sardonic admiration for ISIS, however; though Fisher is advancing the sort of nuanced approach easily dismissed by bad-faith actors as “terrorist sympathising”, its existence nonetheless “points to the very serious problem that capital now faces.” ISIS isn’t simply an army baying at the gates, after all. Many of the terrorist attacks it claimed responsibility for were perpetrated within Western countries by disenfranchised youths who found themselves socially displaced, with one foot in and one foot outside of Western social norms, making them vulnerable to radicalisation. ISIS were certainly opportunistic, in this regard, but this vulnerability is nonetheless a problem of capitalism’s own making. Faced with the limitations of a violently racist and dispiriting system, it is up to capitalism itself “to offer some other cause, some other purpose” to those most at risk. If the West’s own citizens defect, we must ask ourselves what could possibly make ISIS more attractive than the nations in which they were often born and raised.
Fisher thus asks:
What happens when you demoralise people, destroy their capacity to commit to any purpose in life beyond capital accumulation, and don’t even pay them? What if you don’t even offer them the possibility of being exploited, and classify them as a surplus population?
Capital doesn’t have much of an answer, but ISIS does. A disputed poll ‘suggested that more than one in four French youth between the ages of 18 and 24 have a favourable or very favourable opinion of Isis, although only 7–8% of France is Muslim.’ Whatever the truth of this survey, the willingness to believe it indicates that there is a growing suspicion that societies dominated by capital are now encountering mass disaffection and defection. ‘More than three of every four who join Isis from abroad do so with friends and family. Most are young, in transitional stages in life: immigrants, students, between jobs and mates, having just left their native family. They join a “band of brothers (and sisters)” ready to sacrifice for significance.’ The motivation is belonging and fellowship, not hatred.
This makes ISIS a kind of “identitarian” development born of postmodern capitalism itself, as Badiou himself argues in his essay. But Fisher then adds in a bracketed aside: “In calling Islamism identitarian, Badiou doesn’t credit the extent to which ISIS offers at least a partial escape from the dismal identities that capitalism has assigned to so many young muslims, and to so many others too.”
Fisher, expressing that late optimism still ignored by so many of his readers today, sees a moment of opportunity here for progressive politics. If we recognise that this is a problem that capital has no answer for, it is no less true that ISIS are an equally (if not more) horrifying alternative. They are but a further symptom of neoliberalism’s broader global failure. It is necessary, then, that we encourage and develop other forms of solidarity and kinship than those offered by either warmongering side.
In 2016, it was clear that this was already happening, albeit on two familiar fronts. Just as “neoliberalism was designed to eliminate the various strains of democratic socialism and libertarian communism that bubbled up in so many places during in the sixties and seventies”, neoliberalism’s subsequent failure has fallen back on the battlelines that defined its emergence: a radical (often feminist) rethinking of kinship on the one hand, and a return to “traditional family values” on the other. Both proved attractive, with the left and the right both gaining ground at that time, precisely through offers of belonging and fellowship that were severely lacking for all, no matter your political persuasion. As Fisher concludes:
the rising tide of experimental political forms in so many areas of the world at the moment shows that people are rediscovering group consciousness and the potency of the collective. It is now clear that molecular practices of consciousness-raising are not opposed to the indirect action needed to bring about lasting ideological shifts — they are two aspects of a process that is happening on many different time tracks at once. The growing clamour of groups seeking to take control of their own lives portends a long overdue return to a modernity that capital just can’t deliver. New forms of belonging are being discovered and invented, which will in the end show that both steampunk capital and cybergothic ISIS are archaisms, obstructions to a future that is already assembling itself.
Six years later, this future feels both more proximal and more threatened than ever, as it now seems to hinge on the desperately needed and long-overdue liberation of the Palestinian people. But 2016 is hardly that far back in the rear-view mirror. That year’s political tragedies return as this year’s media farce.
Following Hamas’ attack on an Israeli music festival on October 7th, much of the West has joined the Israeli government in denouncing this massacre of civilians as a terrorist attack. But Israel has also gone a great many steps further. In a heavy-handed attempt at consent-manufacture, Israel has attempted to legitimise its retaliatory (and far more egregious and genocidal) war crimes by repeating ad nauseum the flimsy equivocation “Hamas = ISIS”. Plenty of people have ridiculed this claim, pointing out that Hamas and ISIS are not remotely allies and share nothing in common beyond the vast umbrella of the Islamic faith. Their intentions in putting this equivalence forward hardly need much explanation. It is a marketing ploy, more than anything, to rally people to their imperialist cause.
But reflecting on Fisher’s essay above, perhaps these purposes are pulled into sharper focus. In fact, the present ideological (as well as literal) assault on the Palestinian people starts to look like an attempt to further the mechanisms illuminated by Fisher’s argument. The global solidarity expressed towards the Palestinian people is precisely a process of consciousness-raising, hoping to assemble a future for Palestine in particular. But this is not the only consciousness-raising process at work. Or rather, to make an important distinction, it is not the only process of solidarity-building at work.
We are finding all kinds of kinship are being radically redefined, and these are as capable of producing false consciousness and negative solidarity as they are their truer and more positive variants. But what has changed, perhaps, is that we do not have a group akin to ISIS to effectively represent some “other side”. Rather than capitalist realism on the one hand and a more violent nihilism on the other, we have something that are far less suicidal than both of them. (Faced with an worsening climate catastrophe, both are clearly “death cults” in their own right.) The resurgence of Palestinian struggle in popular conscious instead strives to establish a form of kinship that is radically other in another way. But Israel doesn’t know what to do with this raised consciousness other than force it unconvincingly back into a West-ISIS dichotomy.
Israel is, in fact, more fascistic than Hamas is, and this places Israel closer to ISIS than it is willing to admit, with its violent attempts to establish a pure ethno-state for the Jewish people being the most obvious point of comparison. But this works in much subtler ways too, such that Israel, through its zionist realism, strives to reform Jewishness itself, as an identitarian category, through the logics of capitalist realism more broadly — something it has been quite successful in doing.
In a recent clip shared on Twitter by Moya Lothian-McLean, Barnaby Raine illustrates this point by telling an anecdote from canvassing on doorsteps prior to the last UK general election, when Jeremy Corbyn faced off against Boris Johnson. He describes a meeting with man who symbolically identified himself with the right (even far-right), adorns with all the accoutrements of a classic English nationalist. But whereas the far-right has itself long been identified with antisemitism, this man exclaims that antisemitism is the primary reason he won’t be voting for Corbyn.
What this man — and the media at large — had done was “[redefine] what Jews were”, Raine explains.
Jews had come to him to be in an era of the state of Israel… Jews had come to him to be not the Semitic outsiders that they were in the antisemitic imaginary of most of the twentieth century, but a symbol of whiteness, hated by … the wretched of the earth; hated by black and brown people with Palestinians in the lead and Arabs … and all the anti-imperialist, anticolonial nations of the world behind them. Jews are also a symbol of wealth. We had a Labour MP telling us — Siobhan McDonagh, I think it was — […] that to be anti-capitalist was necessarily antisemitic…
Jewishness, then, in its populist recoding, no longer refers to a persecuted minority position so much as antisemitism is weaponised as a obfuscatory stand-in for a wokeness that attempts to imagine non-capitalist forms of fellowship and kinship. It is of no surprise, with this in mind, that so many TERFs are also supporters of Israel, for instance. (As @adornofthagn so succinctly summarised their shared interests on Twitter recently, both task themselves with “maintaining the exclusivity of a ‘safe space’ through escalating brutality, framing it as an existential necessity”.) It is a fear of other forms of life and social production that drives each fascist project.
As such, the problems identified by Fisher in 2016 remain much the same. As Raine continues:
So what you see there is both conditions for a real rise in antisemitism and a moral panic which claims to be about the antisemitism which is really rising. Synagogues are really under attack, Jews are really feeling threatened, but [the weaponisation of this rising antiseminitism] in fact is about constructing Jews in such a way that you can imagine, in this case, the antisemities as these folk devils who are the black and brown people threatening your Western hegemony and workers and the poor threatening capitalist power… So I think that’s important, right? Moral panics aren’t just lies, they’re not just inventions. They respond to real social crises.
Palestinian solidarity becomes a potent expression of another form of kinship that humiliates both capital and its zombified nemesis in ISIS. Because “Hamas” (as a useful by-word for a dehumanised Palestinian diaspora in general) are not like ISIS at all. Theirs in instead “a future that is already assembling itself”, and has been since 1948. Then and now, it is this future that capitalist realism fears most of all.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, landowners across northern Europe developed a penchant for building follies. Having returned from their Grand Tours of more distant climes, they brought newly acquired visions of Romantic ruins home with them, populating country gardens with simulacra structures devoid of context or history, but seeking to evoke both.
These structures are appropriately named. Follies are architectural misadventures, purposefully built without purpose. They betray a longing for an imagined past; architectural fictions erected to imbue the surrounding landscape with what was, in their owners’ eyes, a missing historical grandeur. Unlike Rome or Athens or Istanbul, the towns and countryside of northern Europe lacked the arid air essential to preservation. As anyone living in the rainy north of England will tell you, it is a place predisposed to rot. But perhaps the nations of northern Europe also lacked a reverence for the past as well – at least a past belonging to anyone not belonging to its aristocratic class.
But no matter. As the Industrial Revolution accelerated technological progress and the further accumulation of wealth, with the monoliths of new industry and power sprouting up to impose themselves upon the landscape everywhere you looked, men with money to burn set about reintroducing some wreckage into the new age of mechanistic construction. By building false ruins of their own, they provided themselves with intentionally unfinished buildings to wander around and contemplate, wistfully daydreaming of their own ancestral pasts and future providence.
As such, these false ruins were not simply evocations of an imagined history, but markers of a new and perpetual present. Perhaps thinking themselves gods, the wealthy saw their power as eternal. Their self-assurance would beget no ruins, but still they longed for a time of conquest, importing relics from sorrier worlds, both real and imagined. Their comfort was too comfortable. They had to fray its edges in order to imagine their power deserved.
During the Coronavirus pandemic, I moved to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire for a brief eighteen-month stint. We would often pass by Wainhouse Tower, on the outskirts of nearby Halifax. A Gothic spire that towers over the surrounding Calderdale valley, it is the tallest folly in the world.
Though an incongruous apparition, impossibly transplanted from some quasi-Byzantine empire, and with no signs of industry surrounding the tower today, you would be forgiven for not knowing that its official purpose was to serve as a decorative chimney for the former local dyeworks. Overseen by local businessman John Edward Wainhouse, he insisted the chimney not only siphon off pollution but also double as a thing of beauty. But this tale was only a cover for the tower’s true purpose: it was, in fact, a project primarily undertaken to antagonize a local rival.
Wainhouse’s neighbour, Sir Henry Edwards, often boasted about the privacy he enjoyed as he roamed his Halifax estate, and so Wainhouse decided to erect something so ostentatious that his rival would see it everywhere, as well as allowing Wainhouse to provocatively see in. A true panopticon.
It is strange to learn this. Wainhouse Tower remains a grand imposition on the local landscape, still inspiring wonder in all who can see it from miles around. No one looks out from it any longer. It remains little more than an architectural jibe, erected to exacerbate a neighbourhood squabble among the landowning class. The folly is a mockery; its history a farce that has no sense of tragedy. But the trees that crowd around it remember. Their twisted, stunted branches writhe outwards with a sinister intent. You might almost think they were tangled in a long and enduring pain. Over a century and a half since Wainhouse Tower is built to pollute the skies, the woods have yet to fully recover from exposure to the toxic fumes of long-gone industries.
“The trees encountered on a country stroll / Reveal a lot about that country’s soul”, wrote W.H. Auden. “A culture is no better than its woods”. Though Auden may have felt our woods give us a connection to a primal past, in jousting with the Romantics he also suggests that they tell us a great deal about where we’re going. We struggle onwards, twisting, reaching. What is left for us is to seize the chance to dream as whimsically, encroaching on that tower of dead power and its labours… It gives us something to aim for, something to destroy. No dream without folly.
I had resigned myself almost immediately to its seizure at customs, but the bottle arrived from Oceania without a hitch, and quicker than expected.
Three or four weeks ago, sick and isolating at home, I decided to shave off my beard in the hope it would change everything. Of course it didn’t. There was no latent femininity hiding under there. Just the weathered and sagging chin of a hard-done-by thirty-two-year-old. I decided to grow it back, knowing there was something much deeper beneath my skin that I wanted to experiment with. Then, I placed an order for Estradiol on the Internet. It felt good. It felt right.
When the pills arrive, I unwrap them and stare at the bottle for a while. I go over the spring-loaded information leaflet, tightly bound and taped to the lid. There was surprisingly little there to worry about. Just the usual. But of course there is little information about the kinds of effects I’m hoping they will have. It is time to wait and see.
K asks if I’ve started them yet and I say no. I want to grow my beard back fully, I say, and only then start, so I can see what I want to do with my face later. I expect my facial hair to grow considerably slower over the months ahead, so best to have as much as possible to play with.
Two hours later, I change my mind. What am I waiting for?
B offers her congratulations. I do feel like celebrating. A few words of caution: “watch out for the emotional recoding,” she says. I like her phrasing. A second puberty (of sorts) is what I am most anxious about, but I have yet to shake off my erratic teenage mood swings anyway. Fuck it.
I go to work an hour after taking my first pill and feel a rush of such intense euphoria on the walk over. It is certainly not the pill itself, but the choice to take it makes me feel so unexpectedly high.
K arrives not long after I do. We chat across the bar and I tell them I changed my mind. No deferral. The journey starts today. They’re excited for me. “Are you going to write a book about it?” they ask, only half teasing. It feels like a prerequisite for any trans writer. You obviously have to write about your transition. But again, I say no. I don’t want to be that predictable… But I will be keeping a diary…
We brainstorm titles. Estro Addict is the only one I remember, the allusion no doubt obvious.
Like visiting London, Tokyo, Paris or New York, it is hard to document your own journey to certain places and not replicate the most famous depictions of all. It is hard not to couch this experience in any number of pop-cultural references. It is an experience so alien, you reach out for whatever moorings you can. Writing them down, it is hard not to emulate, at least in spirit, Paul B. Preciado.
I recite the Transperson’s Creed: This is my transition. There are many like it, but this one is mine. But no one can transition alone. And Preciado is hardly bad company. But first I turn to elsewhere. I get home from work and think about Spinoza, falling deep into the trenches of the Ethics.
For Deleuze, Spinoza’s Ethics “is necessarily an ethics of joy: only joy is worthwhile, joy remains, bringing us near to action, and to the bliss of action.”
Accepting this basic principle of joy sought in action, foundational to philosophy since Plato’s dialogues on the beautiful and the good, is one thing. But faced with the ease of a resentful conformity, what is to be done? How do we then act upon this ethics of action?
It is, as Ronald Bogue puts it, “an ethic of choosing to choose”, adding: “Those who choose to choose affirm the possible.” And to choose to choose is always to choose otherwise. To choose something other than what is given, because what is given may well be intolerable. And: “The only viable response to the intolerable is to think differently, to disconnect the world’s networks of certainties and pieties and formulate new problems that engender as yet unmapped relations and connections.”
In choosing to choose, Deleuze asserts that we must ask ourselves three practical questions:
How does one arrive at a maximum of joyful passions?
How does one manage to form adequate ideas?
How does one become conscious of oneself, of God, and of things?
This is no philosophy of hollow affirmation; no bleary-eyed Romanticism; no limited subscription to the pleasure principle. There is nothing so deferential in choice. Indeed, the joy that leads to — and is found in — our resistance to the drudgeries of the given is the opposite of affectless acquiescence. We are born, then we choose to be born again — this time against nature; once more with feeling. After all, we are all too aware that “our place in Nature seems to condemn us to bad encounters and sadnesses”. But in light of this, how do we then attune ourselves to our “free and active feelings”? How do we form ideas of feeling that do not, at the same time, render them inactive? How do become conscious of our nature, without giving in to the poverty of the “natural”?
A possible answer, far from neat and complete, to Deleuze’s questions:
We must follow the joy which emanates across all the organs of reason, now newly in concert. Follow your head, heart and gut. Understand each as part of a multiplicitous and borderless expanse: the body without organs. It is what Deleuze, in Difference & Repetition, repeatedly calls “a Cognito for a dissolved self.” But once dissolved, how does a self unbound from its form begin to de/reform itself? We must better understand the Cogito’s processes of formation: how it thinks. And we do not yet know — not really. We do not know all that a body can do. We have not yet begun to truly think.
The formula of “I think, therefore I am” is a problem inverted. Descartes puts the cart before the horse, quite literally. “The determination (I think) implies an undetermined existence (I am, because ‘in order to think one must exist’)”. Against Descartes, Kant moves in the other direction, arguing, according to Deleuze, that “it is impossible for determination to bear directly upon the undetermined.” It is a confused form of determination that amounts to something like time-travel, albeit wholly illusory. Hurtling outwards from the explosive site of all creation, hindsight is unthinkingly 20/20. What we mistake for determination is simply a glance over the shoulder, transforming past contingencies into inevitabilities. But the search for the good life must always be future-oriented.
This is not to suggest that “I think, therefore I am” can simply be rethought as “I am, therefore I think”, but at least in this framing we recover the coveted capacity of decision-making. “I am but what am I?” Or perhaps not even that. We stumble at the “I am?” Nevertheless, I declare that I have a say. I begin with consciousness and then immediately take leave from the squandered heuristic. I do not start with “I”. It is far too hollow. “I” itself is undetermined, and so, to become conscious of myself, truly conscious of myself, I must choose to choose another self. I choose myself a new name.
Preciado begins Testo Junkie with a note on conspiratorial decisionality, introducing the reader to a new self that he hopes will not only rejoin the world in a new way, but be welcomed anew as well. The “conspiratorial” is not used in a pejorative sense here. To inspire is individual; to conspire is collective. Thus, Preciado’s assertion of self requires co-conspirators in order to be fully actualised. A decision made for oneself means little without reciprocal collaboration. A multitude of decisions are made defiantly, speaking and acting out one’s truth, but never not in dialogue.
I choose to choose, and hope others will choose to choose with me.
To decide on a new name for oneself is a poignant example of this conspiratorial gesture. We seldom speak about ourselves in the first-person; we rarely address ourselves on a first-name basis. Most of us are aware that our names are chosen for us. We are warmed by the designation of a nickname, given out of affection and familiarity, by those who truly know us. All of these social informalities highlight the strange feeling of naming oneself, of individually deciding who we are, and of hoping that confirmation will follow when such a decision is communally affirmed.
We often speak only once we are spoken to; we are spoken to only as often as we speak for ourselves. It is perhaps a sensitivity to this tension that causes Preciado to begin with a note on “the (undecidable) decision to change my name to Paul — as slaves, upon purchasing their freedom, would take new names, as the names of the villages of Palestine will change when they are once again uttered by those in exile.” It is undecidable in that it is preceded by other decisions, other circumstances, other throws of the dice; undecidable in that the decision always emerges in discordant concordance with others.
The right name strikes us as a solitary moment of inspiration, but is preceded and followed by many more conspiratorial moments. As such, a naming “is not the final, definitive step of a gender transition”; nor, we might add, is it ever the first. It is “merely another practice of displacement and resistance.” A community is called upon, a community that may not yet exist, but the naming of oneself can allow a new community to form around you. It is a dice throw outwards, away from oneself, towards the other, who is the only one who can read aloud what is cast.
“Naming, here, is simply another fable, albeit a collective one. Now it’s you who must grant me the right to wear this mask.” There was once another name, another mask. Throughout the book, BP designates the initials of a dead name. But whereas death suggests an intractability, Paul proceeds like a dominant twin who has chosen to cannibalise its other in love, in that irregular spacetime where the self di/gest(ate)s itself. “Understand that Paul absorbs and assumes all that was once BP.” Selves are created and decreated in tandem. We endeavour to “undo the creature in us”, as Simone Weil once wrote, constructing a newly conceptual personage through grace.
This consummation of self has produced what is inevitably, Preciado informs his reader, a “body-essay”; “a somato-political fiction, a theory of the self, or self-theory”, but one always in dialogue with others: other people and other selves. It is a book that wanders through the somato-political complexities of affective decision-making, but not even the feelings as his (or mine) alone. He adds:
I’m not interested in my emotions insomuch as their being mine, belonging only, uniquely, to me. I’m not interested in their individual aspects, only in how they are traversed by what isn’t mine. In what emanates from our planet’s history…
… which is dead names, defamiliarized language, old forms of categorisation. But also chosen names, new lexicons, categorical deformations. In short, metamorphoses. Or put another way, to quote Guattari: “Revolution or the re-emergence of a plane of subjective consistency that salvages desire, it’s all the same.”
Preciado puts it like this: “I’m not taking testosterone to change myself into a man or as a physical strategy of transsexualism; I take it to foil what society wanted to make of me…” Revolution now. For myself, yes, but not me alone — never me alone. The task at hand: “To accept the fact that the change happening in me is the metamorphosis of an era.” Join me in my joy, my desires, my ecstasy. It is ours.
There’s an aside in Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire lectures that I keep thinking back to at the moment, on the strange irreality of marketisation and consciousness deflation.
Fisher is initially talking about “bullshit jobs”, or at least about the intensification of bullshit in jobs of all kinds, such that even jobs we might understand as “essential” are suffocated by useless admin. He sees higher education as one such job. We accept the social necessity of education in general, but nonetheless recognise the ways that universities are under attack. The issue here, of course, is with the types of education being offered. The British government generally sees universities as incubators of supposed radicals today, and so attempts to implement changes in curricula that are more in line with its ideological position. But this process is totalizing, such that it isn’t just curricula that are strongarmed but working conditions in themselves, making consciousness raising difficult both in and outside of the classroom.
Fisher gives an anecdotal example from his time at a Further Education college:
When people have common experiences and can talk about them, then you’ve got the potential for developing consciousness very quickly. That’s why workers aren’t allowed to talk to one another! One place where I worked, when I worked in Further Education, the Head of Human Resources, who was exasperated by the development of some sort of class consciousness amongst their teachers, was like, “Well, you can’t just sit in the pub and talk to each other!” (Laughter.) She actually said that! What do you mean?! It was like the usually unspoken rule — you’re not supposed to do that. You can go to a pub and just talk rubbish, but you can’t go to a pub and talk about the conditions of your work together. Don’t do that. You can’t do that. (Laughs.)
The obvious intention here is to make workers time-poor. If we cannot directly control your capacity to meet and converse outside of work hours, we will make work so exhausting and dispiriting that all you want to do afterwards is go home and isolate yourself in order to recover before the drudgery begins again. It really is that intentional. As Fisher adds:
Look at it this way: Capital must always … prevent that awareness amongst people that they could live differently and have more control over their own lives. It must prevent that. It has to do it, and it has to keep doing it. Capitalists moan about hard work — and it is hard work! It never stops. It always has to keep preventing that potential.
Universities are, again, a prime example. “Universities were a red base — so-called”, Fisher adds, and so we can see the current acceleration of marketisation within higher education as a way to stifle the actual work of consciousness raising inherent to education itself.
If someone chooses to go to university, at any level, it is essentially a time spent outside of the general workforce where you are given the time to educate yourself in a given field. This is often necessary because education takes time — a time that is far slower than on-the-job training often is, for example. But this is something increasingly and paradoxically stifled from within education itself through processes of marketisation. That is to say, through the implementation of labour temporalities that we generally understand as being other to education itself, education is not improved but suffers. As Fisher explains:
Marketisation: they’re not making any money out of it — it’s not about that! It’s just about stopping the conditions for certain kinds of consciousness developing. Because people were taken out of the workplace for a while — young people — taken out of the workplace, free from those imperatives, and it’s about time, right? In order to raise consciousness, you need time. And that’s the difficulty, always.
An infuriating contradiction is produced, whereby students, in paying astronomical fees, expect more for their money than simply “time” to learn, so time is constricted in general for all, impeding of lecturers’ time to educate properly.
Fisher is then more explicit about how time-poverty impacts a given workforce in other circumstances:
Say you’ve done your day of work and then you go home. Are you going to leave the house now? I’m tired! Then you’ve done a double day of work — you’ve done a full day of work and then you’ve done domestic work on top of that, which is still overwhelmingly done by women more than men. So, you’ve done that, then do you want to go out and raise your consciousness? Yeah, OK, but… I’m kind of tired… (Laughter.) We can laugh about it, but we all do this. We’ve all got forms of this. It’s like healthy eating or something. We know it’s better for you, but why don’t we do it? You might know things but you’re not able to act on them. We can’t be hard on ourselves about it. Time-poverty is real. And that’s what they’ve done! That’s why they want it — scarcity of time! As Marcuse said, we could all be working much less now, but that’s the insanity of it — the full insanity of the capitalist system!
Then comes an apparent non sequitur in Fisher’s narrative. Although it appears like an unrelated aside, however, it extends the implications of time-poverty not just to individual productivity but also to consumerism. The further benefit of a scarcity of time, after all, is that it makes us more willing to accept a more general scarcity of resources — this being another way of understanding the contradiction at work in higher education: students want more out of their time-money, but conjoined with a scarcity of resources, experience only even less value for their time-money as a result. But of course, this contradicts capitalism’s sense of its own abundance. So it is necessary that we feel inundated with choices — of commodity, of degree, of employment opportunities — even if those choices are wholly pointless, spurious and unappealing in being laden with more of the same normalised bullshit. We are faced, then, with
the production of spurious commodities that nobody wants, like slippers with the faces of alligators or whatever… Imagine, you see those sorts of things and the amount of work that’s gone into them; the amount of effort that’s gone into transporting them from wherever to get to Lewisham where they’re less than a pound and no one wants them…
The link feels tenuous, but I think it is insightful. These “spurious commodities” will be a sight familiar to anyone who has gone to a market in the UK. You’ll find things you need — cheap fruit and veg, cheap clothes, random households appliances — but also a cacophony of ephemera that might be useful to someone or desirable in its peculiar novelty but in such an abundance that it is hard to imagine a future for most of it other than the scrap heap.
Ultimately, its usefulness doesn’t matter. It’s all there for you to consider regardless, as part of an inescapable semioblitz that interrupts thought itself. It is consumerist noise, which we may ultimately pay little mind, but which nonetheless intervenes in and constricts our attention spans.
I am admittedly taking Fisher at his word here. Personally, I feel capable of walking through a market and ignoring all of this — or so I think to myself. And yet, I can’t help but notice the same abundance of useless ephemera online as well, where its impact is far more obvious.
Since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, I have retained the habit of blocking most ads on sight. But what I notice these days — as everyone has — is the vast increase in ads for utterly useless things. Whether it is life-coaching from capitalist hacks or the same useless commodities I’d expect to find in the corners of a local market, I spend most of my time blocking ads that are for things I could never remotely imagine myself wanting or engaging with. Then why are they advertised in the first place?
Ultimately, I must conclude that it is irrelevant whether I purchase these things or not. It impacts my use of Twitter regardless, such that the drudgery of scrolling past all of these useless things changes how I engage with the platform. And again, how I use Twitter hardly even matters. That I am seeing these things alone is enough to generate ad revenue, I suspect, but the indirect result is I also use Twitter in general more passively.
This is particularly egregious at present. The horrors unfolding in Gaza have brought Twitter back to life. The past few weeks I have engaged with the platform more than I have in recent memory, reading the swathes of information shared, further strengthening a sense of solidarity with the Palestinian people as consciousness of their struggle is emphatically raised by an international community of reporters, activists, researchers, and observers. As horrible as the past few weeks have been — a horror that cannot be overstated — Twitter has not felt this productive as a political space for years.
This makes the passive scrolling past ads for useless things all the more surreal, however. Their imposition is all the more jarring. An abundance of political messaging suddenly overrides the superficial abundance of spurious commodities. It really does feel striking, however, that it takes such an impassioned outpouring to do this. Consciousness is being raised in spite of Musk’s exacerbation of bullshit ads.
Unfortunately, over the past few weeks, I have been suffering from very poor health (and a bout of depression to boot). I am leaving my flat infrequently, and so I have not experienced any of the street protests supporting Palestinian resistance. I can only imagine how these protests feel in actuality. But the footage of tens of thousands on the streets nonetheless seems comparable to the outpouring online. The semioblitz of everyday life is overrun by signs of other kinds. In videos, I do not see advertising in its ubiquity, but Palestinian flags. It is so necessary and so powerful. Still, I wonder how this same kind of outpouring, this actual abundance of a raised collective consciousness, might be sustained in the face of other, more mundane injustices.
This hardly feels sustainable once the atrocities stop, and so there is a hope that nothing goes back to normal, that the Palestinian struggle galvanises a fury to reject not just Israeli fascism but the fascism of the capitalist everyday (of which Israel is just a particularly egregious example). Indeed, the unbelievable lengths that Israel is going to to seed its impoverished propaganda feels like a mask-off moment for our reality at large. So much is faked, exaggerated. So many sets of teeth are lied through. And yet, although we refuse Israel’s attempts to manufacture consent for war crimes, we are taken in by similar strategies on other issues by other government (such is the “culture war”). What comes next? A general strike for Palestine right now, then the world? This was a situation we only imagined and hoped for two years ago. I wonder if now this feels that much more possible…
Still, the question remains: why does it take such an extreme situation to arrest this semioblitz and highlight its ideological incongruities? Perhaps this is a question already answered. It is worrying that we must be inundated with so much information about Gaza to overcome the information that otherwise distracts us. This is the information overload necessary to shake us from the mundane semioblitz of spurious commodities. These commodities, in their ubiquitous mundanity, signify the accumulative obstacle that makes it so hard to raise consciousness of other issues. These ads remain so pointless and ignorable, but perhaps now we can make ourselves more aware of the ways they facilitate, in their abundance, an ignorance and passivity towards so many other things regardless.
Our friends at Editorial Metaxis have just published the sixth edition of their fantastic webzine. The current issue explores Mark Fisher’s work in great depth, with essays from a number of students at the University of Barcelona, various interviews and other texts. It’s a very rich compendium!
Alongside interviews with the team at Caja Negra and Amador Fernández-Savater, there’s also an interview conducted with me. We talk about Fisher’s legacy, my new book Narcissus in Bloom, Foucault’s author-function and Mark’s Fisher-Function, photography and film, the dreamworlds of David Lynch, and a bunch of other stuff too.
The zine is mostly in Spanish, but the editors have also included the original English version of our interview as an appendix.
There’s a lot to dig into and I’m excited to work my way slowly through the essays included. Here’s a rough translation of the pre-text provided on their website:
Days have passed. We have received resonances and disjunctions orbiting at different distances from Mark Fisher’s center of gravity. We have spoken with Matt Colquhoun, with Amador Savater, with the founders of the publishing house Caja Negra that popularized his name in the Spanish language and there have been beautiful contributions that we have decided to include in this issue.
Both with Colquhoun and with Amador and the directors of Caja Negra, Diego Esteras and Ezequiel Fanego, we have been discussing the escapes, the possibilities that are in potential and are still half said, the joy of meeting and seeing the rebirth of new ways of understanding life and acting, of creating, questioning not only the theoretical-critical bulwark but its diffusion and the ways in which it is received, the great renunciation, the great depression, the great dissent, the meteorite of the climate crisis, of mental health, of machismo, the emergence of a new narcissism and tendencies of the reflective metamodern spirit. Stills that contain flashes that spring from the same pulse emitted by electronic music. Utopian environments that delineate the values we lost through pent-up rage. We thought without realizing that at some point we would have to carry it out, but, as we have been exploring, now the mutant force lurks everywhere, crouched, invisible… upper cut.
Anna, Toni, Alba, Julen… Young philosophy students, aware that they inhabit a planet in decline, do not lose their seasoning and, as their writings show, they already carry in their biographies the experiences with which they make their compasses and sketch cartographies of the spirit. The pharmaceutical industry, the dopamine-producing machines, the praise of acid communalism, the frontal clash against the devices disseminated by cities, institutions and hundreds of cultural objects… It is not the emergency that leads to writing but to running. Writing understands other kinds of emergencies: urgent, urgent, I have to shout, but I have no mouth. So, we make lips, tongues, teeth, windpipes, time to sit down and shout on the white paper the dark and bright of being alive without permission.
Fellow member of our committee, David, with his stylish pen as he has already demonstrated so many times, outlines, sketches, concepts and issues that, to this day, are still relevant since the publication of that Capitalist Realism that made Fisher so well known.
In this post-scriptum, we are on record that we are many, even if we do not speak to each other. That we are deeply in love, even if we do not confess it. That we are aware that we have been captured by specters who take us for cattle and that our quarrels are meaningless when we are only the remains of an exorcism or the flowers of a daffodil in bloom on the shores of a lake. A new world is approaching of which we only intuit what the wind whispers when we stop listening to ourselves. Its fatality seems to crack, although it remains in force. Here, we leave a record of the non-being that has brought us together. I wish we could tell you how beautiful it is every time it happens, but these affinities, when they appear, you will resent them to us and we will speak the same language.