Drive is a kind of compulsion or force. It’s a force that is shaped, that takes its form and pulsion, from loss. Drive is loss as a force or the force loss exerts on the field of desire. […] That the drive is thwarted or sublimated means that it reaches its goal by other means, through other objects. Blocked in one direction, it splits into multiple vectors, into a network.
At the risk of making it appear like this review lives rent-free in my head — and, to some extent, it still does on occasion — there’s a opportunity to further clarify something here (for myself, if no-one else).
Some readers seem to miss the fact that Egress is a product of grief (despite making that point repeatedly and explicitly). It’s no secret. The book is an experiment in self-writing, or auto-theory, and a gesture towards an outside to a specific and individualised starting point. It’s certainly melancholic — and openly mournful — but the point is that individual mourning can refract outwards into collective overcoming. “Blocked in one direction, it splits into multiple vectors, into a network.” That’s why the book starts with “I” and ends with “us”.
It isn’t collective politics as a sort of feel-good Hollywood spectacle. It’s not the happiest of reads. But I still think the proof is in the pudding, which is ostensibly beyond the bounds of the book itself. Egress was written as an attempt to get out of personal melancholy and move into collective action, which Mark’s writings insist we do. But that doesn’t mean the former was thwarted in favour of the latter in any absolute sense. It’s a conscious process, and one which I’m still confident Egress sufficiently documents.
The Tribune review understands this point and succintly reiterates it, but gesturing to these politics without acknowledging the space we’re starting from, or dismissing it as left melancholy despite its otherwise blatant thrusts beyond that, is a missed opportunity. Knowing the direction of travel counts for nothing if you can’t honestly access the blocked place you’re starting out from. That was what I set out to do.
[The opening quote is, once again, taken from Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory. We’re reading it in the XG reading group at the moment and it is really excellent.]
Blogs and search engines are different approaches to the same problem, different occupations of the same place. They point, though, in different directions. Faced with the challenge of providing a trusted guide through a chaotic, indeterminable, changing field, search engines say “trust the algorithm”. In contrast, blogs say, “trust doesn’t scale.” So while the former offers a reliability based in equations and crawl capacities, the latter says, know the knower. It focuses on the person providing the link, offering the searcher the opportunity to know this person and so determine whether she can be trusted. Social network sites refract the problem of truth yet again: if the issue with blogs is the credibility of the guide or writer, the issue for social network sites is trust in the audience, in the others who might be following me.
In her 2010 book Blog Theory, quoted above, Jodi Dean gives us a snapshot of online trust at the start of the last decade. Reading it today, at the start of a new decade, illuminates just how much has changed.
“Knowing the knower” is the foundation for blogging’s value. Dean explains how early blogs were little more than curators of links on a radically disorganised and decentralised internet. Knowing the blogger, respecting their opinion, shaped your experience of navigating the World Wide Web, that may have otherwise been utterly and hopelessly formless.
In many respects, the purpose of blogging today remains the same. In others, however, it has been inverted. All too aware of its own value, the blogger has further gone underground. Knowing the knower is now, in some cases, impossible — and that is often the attraction of a blog’s output. Though there is an abundance of content, scarcity of self is exacerbated. This is no doubt because the idea of an “authentic online self” has been undermined absolutely by capitalist capture. The more authentic you are online, the more attractive you are to capitalism, because your trust can be commodified and transformed into marketing gold. Just look at Instagram — anyone who has been on that platform long enough will have likely seen a fun account, run by an extroverted someone just sharing their day, perhaps pursuing some niche interest or occupation. (Case in point, my girlfriend and I follows a couple shepherdesses.) Suddenly breaking into a new zone of visibility, their authenticity is easily hijacked by corporations who then pay the authentic blogger to advertise and/or recommend their product.
This transformation is often bittersweet. Those who let capitalism in are likely those who could use the financial boost, selling a self they may have shaped over the years in the service industry, in an environment where the self is often all you have to give, and where putting on a smile is the best way to gain tips. Though their authenticity is immediately undermined, such is the paradox of needing to pay your rent and having little else to give. In the social media age, personality can become a useful commodity.
In the theory blogosphere, hiding behind aliases and avatars was once seen a way to challenge this norm. “Getting out of your face again” was a rejection of the new face of capitalism and a way to seed knowledge on the peripheries of its libidinal circuits. This tradition continues to this day. The knower is, more often than not, hidden. But the reasons behind the donning of a cybermask are long outdated. Now, there is a problem: the unknown knower is just as susceptible to capitalist capture as their more visible rivals have long been.
The unknown knower sells their inauthenticity just as the authentic poster sells its opposite, albeit in a more clandestine fashion. The anon’s profile supersedes the authentic self, easily accruing more followers and more influence than their more visible counterpart, all because they are seen to be in possession of forbidden knowledge. Rather than putting their own face out there because they have something to gain, the anon hides their identity and corrals a sense that they may have something to lose. To hide is made brave, cowardice is inverted. A crowd gathers to listen to the untainted prophet.
The encouraged assumption that the unknown knower has more to lose is, in my experience, very accurate. But this is not because they are bearers of inconvenient truths. It is, more often than not, the establishment, the reactionaries, the conservatives who hide their faces online. They get off on its clandestine networks of tradposting. They go underground, only to disguise any chinks in their overground armour. All the while, those with something to say should go overground with more ferocity. Recognising that the right’s burrowing underground is down to their vulnerability overground suggests now is the time to rise up. Mark Fisher’s argument from 2014 is argubaly more resonant now than it once was:
Perhaps now is the moment when New Times can finally happen – if we can emerge, blinking, from our barricaded (but now extensively connected) cellars, and step out into the desert of a destituted public world, into a mass culture reduced to bland hedonic homogeneity by corporate depredation. Yes, this is hostile country, occupied territory. But how well defended is it? What possibilities are there for us here, now? What could happen, that is to say, if we go overground?
Update: Irony of ironies, the day after posting this I was tagged in a Twitter thread by someone’s burner Twitter account about former NRx blogger, Bryce Laliberte, doxxing his friend to a journalist.
Alt-right anons telling on alt-right face-posters who doxx their secretly alt-right friends sums up the whole circle jerk that is the alt-right mask economy better than I ever could. Most people don’t care, because it is clear that all they’re capable of is generating inconsequential outrage over an establishment that is guilty about protecting its own self-interests.
And someone’s shocked that alt-right solidarity is paper thin?
Buckingham Palace announced this morning that Prince Philip has passed away at the age of 99. In the interest of partisanship, most of the press has skirted around saying anything too critical, neglecting to mention his most horrific gaffes.
I’m all for not speaking ill of dead before they’re even in the ground, but as the press reflects on Philip’s influence over the royal family in the twentieth century, it is telling how his own ideological tendencies are revealed nonetheless. He has been held up as a moderniser, encouraging the royal family, as an institution, to adapt to a changing world. For better or for worse, I couldn’t help but see this attitude reflected in his work as a conservationist.
This legacy, in itself, was built on a founding gaffe. The Guardian, for instance, in its long-winded and otherwise glowing obituary, notes how Philip was credited with killing a tiger on a hunting trip to India in 1951, the same year he became President of the newly founded World Wildlife Fund. As if the Prince immediately turned on an ideological dime, various commentators have celebrated him today as an early public defender of the natural world. And yet, it seems that these two pursuits — of royal modernisation and natural conservation — are fundamentally connected, and in a far less “progressive” sense than the press hopes to suggest in its memorial coverage.
The Prince’s change of heart about killing those “kings of the jungle” seems to reflect his own sense of the royal family’s dwindling relevance. Watching the BBC’s increasingly awkward rolling coverage over the course of the day, the quotations chosen to illustrate the Prince’s interest in conservation seem to make this clear.
“We depend on being part of the web of life”, he is shown to say at one point. “We depend on every other living thing on this planet, just as much as they depend on us.” This attitude of “we’re all in this together” echoes the changing nature of the British class system, and the royal family’s relationship to its subjects. Over the decades since, this sense of a class equilibrium would gradually come to dominate. Our prior understanding of the “ruling” class has been downplayed in favour of a liberalised sense of difference, through which class positions are defined less by disparities of wealth and power than they are differences in taste and tradition.
Nevertheless, the twentieth century remained a time of great upheaval, and Philip’s fear for the monarchy shines through the ages. In a colour clip, evidently filmed later than the Prince’s appeals to equilibrium, increasing democratic power and its threat to the monarchy permeates his ecological anxieties. Philip says:
If we as humans have got this power of life and death — not just life and death, but the extinction and survival of other species of life — then we ought to exercise it with some sort of moral sense… Why make something extinct if we don’t have to?
More than any other clip, it is this one that contains the most subtext relevant to the royal family’s own survival. Nevertheless, Philip’s seemingly wholesome and compassionate attitude was repeatedly contradicted by his love of hunting and other stereotypical class pursuits, which make attempts to show a mastery and command over nature that no other stratum of class seems compelled to exercise.
The BBC, to its credit, nodded to this tension in its coverage, whilst nonetheless privileging the Prince’s own defences of fox hunting and the hunting of game birds. Defending himself, the Prince explains:
There is an advantage in people wanting to shoot, because if you have a game species you want it to survive, because you want to have some more next year. It’s exactly like a farmer — you want to crop it, you don’t want to exterminate it.
Though it may sound cynical, this seems commensurate with the ruling class’s attitude towards the working class and their own position in contemporary society. Don’t exterminate us, the royal machine cries, we are prime crop for tourism! It is an argument that seems to oddly resonate with the more reactionary quarters of the working class, who mistakenly believe the royal family contributes far more than their own families do, in terms of their economic impact on the national bank account. In the sprawling class (eco)system of the postmodern Britain, the royals position themselves as a particularly regal animal, which has its place alongside more common species.
It is a belief that the Prince would more or less confirm for himself in his later years. In an interview for the BBC, for instance, he rejects being labelled “green” — that is to say, an environmentalist in the compassionate post-hippie sense of the word. When asked why, he responds:
I think there is a difference between being concerned for the conservation of nature and being a bunny-hugger. When I was president of the WWF, I got more letters about … the way animals were treated in zoos than about any concern for the survival of the species. People can’t get their heads around the idea of a species surviving.
It seems the Prince, in turn, could not get his head around the fact that some people see survival in captivity to be a technicality rather than a life worth living. Meghan Markle’s complaints about royal life come to mind. Her experience of royal captivity made her suicidal. It seems that Meghan and Harry, in their arrogance, have revealed themselves to be bunny-huggers of another variety, more concerned about their own reputations and comfort than the survival of the royal species.
But here we see how Prince Philip’s ecological thinking has always been outdated. His primary interest was in preserving the natural world for his own enjoyment of its riches. Though his anxieties reflect the anxieties of the royal family in general, he hoped to maintain an existing ecosystem, static and doing just fine, rather than interrogate our understanding of ecology — the relationships between species, ourselves included, and the consequences of those relationships of the environment at large.
This was, of course, an argument put forward by Felix Guattari in his book, The Three Ecologies. Arguing that a new kind of ecological thought is necessary if we were to understand how the media, technology and class are integral to any genuinely radical environmentalism, he suggests that “this is the only possible way to get social and political practices back on their feet, working for humanity and not simply for a permanent reequilibration of the capitalist semiotic Universe”.
Guattari’s insistence that we think about the environment politically — that is to say, as a concern that is innate to other sociopolitical concerns, such as class and capitalism — casts the royals’ environmentalism is stark relief. In fact, it is telling that many members of the royal family have taken up environmental causes as a way to root around their agreement not to get involved in the country’s political affairs. (Although Prince Charles has often revealed how thin this line is in being repeatedly accused of political “meddling” on environmental issues.) Guattari was, once again, ahead of the curve here. He continues:
Current ecological movements certainly have merit, but in truth I think that the overall ecosophical question is too important to be left to some of its usual archaizers and folklorists, who sometimes deliberately refuse any large-scale political involvement. Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority or with qualified specialists. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity and capitalistic power formations, whose sweeping progress cannot be guaranteed to continue as it has for the past decade.
In light of the present discussion, the royal family loom large as a peculiar set of actors in this debate. In making the environment an apolitical or suprapolitical issue, they have found a way to make a subtly political stand in favour of their own survival, reinforcing their own relationship to the land and the peoples and creatures who live on it. Prince Philip’s death has given the establishment an excuse to put this kind of thinking on display, and we might take note of this in thinking about the future of the royal family themselves, as members of what Guattari calls a “social ecology”.
The death of Prince Philip will remind many people that the Queen herself cannot be much longer for this world. When she passes, Prince Charles will likely become king, and Prince Philip has coached his son magnificently in the game of environmental suprapolitics. Charles’ own passion for Britain’s various ecosystems will surely enable the royals to persist in their place for decades to come. Unless, of course, we find a way to discuss their cynical environmentalism for what it is — a belief in the preservation of one species in particular: their own.
Thanks to Matheus Calderon, who sent over the text for Noys’ lecture. Below is a more in-depth commentary on Noys’ talk, made up of a few concessions, notes and further confusion following my previous post.
With that previous post in mind, let’s turn to what Noys actually had to say. You can watch the talk back below.
In my previous post, I was mostly confused by Noys’ appeals to the present. This is clarified very early on. Drawing on various texts from queer theory, afrofuturism/afropessimism, and accelerationism, Noys writes:
In all cases, there are complex articulations of past, present, and future that could be discovered in these texts and in these contrasting lines of thought. They are also, obviously, turning to the future and the past to address the present. This complexity does not, I argue, invalidate the point that the orientation to past and future risks abandoning the present. The splitting between a past primal wounding that provides a negative rupture and a utopian future that sends its ‘tendrils’ into a destitute present, leave us living in the worst of all possible worlds… In these orientations, however, this absent present is addressed as a moment of stagnation, degeneration or decadence, what Badiou calls an ‘atonal world’ that lacks points of decision.
But this still ignores Alex Williams’ founding accelerationist argument where he explicitly affirms these same Badiouian points of decision, calling on us to address them.
I can nevertheless see what Noys is trying to do. He is attempting to intervene in a kind of Parmenidean paradox. To say things need to start moving suggests an impossible moment of prior stasis. Noys seems to be arguing that, in presenting the present as static, we trap ourselves in an impossible perspective that is fatally limited to the first-person. The point should be to get beyond the privileged positions we give ourselves as individuals — what Noys nicely conflates with “the bourgeois viewpoint” — which observes the world in its flux only in relation to our own stasis. For Parmenides’ partner Zeno, in particular, the opposite was also true: we cannot say the world is still, only because we ourselves are moving at speed. Either everything is moving or nothing is, and nothing, as a kind of radical stillness, is an impossibility. Instead, we should look to the bigger picture of what is happening around us.
This is how I am understanding Noys when he writes:
If we currently exist in a present emptiness, one half of the bourgeois viewpoint, the alternative offered is an original, or future, fullness. While these theoretical currents claim to transcend the antinomies of bourgeois thought, we may also be suspicious of such self-characterisations. Certainly, the antinomy between original fullness and present standstill does seem to remain resonant, even if these terms are reworked by the currents I have sketched.
But wasn’t this Lyotard’s point regarding the impossibility of an outside, later taken up by the accelerationists?
Putting Lyotard to one side, our references to the pre-Socratics are intentional here, since Noys mentions them repeatedly, albeit only in passing, noting Heidegger and Nietzsche’s turns to antiquity, which they acknowledge as that founding moment in philosophy. There we find a familiar discussion regarding the generative capacities of finitude and infinitude, which has particular bearing on how we are able to categorise difference, change, and the new.
I don’t want to expand on this history too much here, as I’m planning to write on this in far more detail for my upcoming talk at Ctrl Network. I’ll no doubt have to work some of Noys’ points into that lecture between now and then. For now, suffice it to say that what we find in the pre-Socratics are those first attempts to rigorously stamp out the obscurantism of Heraclitean riddles. For Heraclitus, the apparent truism that we cannot step into the same river twice is not just a philosophy of nature but a way of problematising epistemology as such. For him, all language is poetry, the meaning of which can change in every instance we encounter it. But this is only true from the limited perspective of the individual, so argued Parmenides and Zeno. Collectively, we can speak of things that are true for all of us. Indeed, that must be where we turn our attention. (Mathematics takes the cake here, and continues to.)
When Plato later banishes poets from the republic, in the name of his theory of forms, he does so to service this kind of truth. Poets are still great thinkers, and contribute much to culture and society, but he insists that we must be able to decide on the proper names for things — as Ideas or Forms — before we can begin to play with them. Otherwise, how would we have language? We need shared understanding. Without it, how would we be able to converse with one another? (This is of central importance to Plato. Conversation is the primary form that his dialectical philosophy takes, after all.) In the end, we can say there is difference, and naming difference is how we give form to the new, and even new ideas. It is the goal of philosophy to set that process to work and maintain its motion.
It is downstream from here, from this Platonic river of forms, that we find the great ocean of philosophy. The tension here is never quite resolved. Aristotle makes an attempt, and reigns supreme for centuries, but Plato soon returns to the fore, both positively and negatively. The battle over his contemporary relevance no doubt falls to that central dialectic of the mid-2000s blogosphere, between the anti-Platonism of Deleuze and and the Cantorian Platonism of Badiou.
Even prior to that moment, we might turn to Alfred North Whitehead, who was famous for having said that “the European philosophical tradition … consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” But this was not to diminish the thousands of years of thought to have followed since Plato’s own, as if it is all derivative in a pejorative sense. It is instead to understand philosophy – and, indeed, thought itself – in a Platonic manner. Whitehead’s comment is, in this sense, reflexive: the form of Plato’s ideas – nothing less than a theory of ideas themselves – provided a structure from which all ideas since could emerge. He provides us with an Idea of philosophy, against which we can judge all other variants. We find ourselves connected across millennia. Plato sought truth and so do we. And yet, a fundamental tension remains.
If there is such a thing as truth – and we know that there is: two plus two will always equal four, for example – then how do we account for all that has changed in the meantime? If truths don’t change, how do we keep inventing new ones? Are we even “inventing” the new if truths are things that have always been true, but were previously unknown? If we “discover” the new, is it still really new? Or only new to us? This tension defines twentieth century philosophy, and underlies some of its central texts: Being and Time, Process and Reality, Difference and Repetition, Being and Event. (There are other examples still, albeit not of the same canonical stature, but Yuk Hui’s Recursivity and Contingency is another that comes to mind.)
Suddenly, our understanding of the new no longer seems so linear… Indeed, not even Plato can be held up as a central origin; his theory of forms was not wholly original in itself. Philosophical positions very similar to his were already circulating in other parts of the world at this time. Confucius, for instance – whose thought predates Plato’s by about a century – developed his own theory of forms. His “reification of names”, as it was called, is worth noting because it perhaps clarifies why Plato’s theory is so important to his Republic that he would ban all poets from the city in its name. Contrary to first impressions, Plato is not a joyless authoritarian but rather seeks to build a utopia based on the true order of things. He hopes to live, first and foremost, in accordance with nature and natural law – an attractive proposition, since to do so would negate all the pretensions of ideology. Similarly, Confucius suggests that all social disorder can be traced back to an inability to give things their proper names. The theory of forms, then, takes on a social dimension – to name each thing in its proper place, not just Plato’s tables but emotions and experiences as well, is to be able to articulate one’s self in accordance with nature. “When names are not rectified, what is said will not seem reasonable”, Confucius writes. “When what is said does not seem reasonable, nothing will get accomplished.”
The political dimension of the new now comes to the fore, and it is this sentiment that is explored consistently throughout the entirety of recorded history — not history understood as a linear progression but as a problematic always re-problematised in the present in which we encounter it.
It is from here we uncover the tension between idealism and materialism that Noys points to when he argues tangentially against a certain form of capitalist realism, which collapses capitalist ideology onto a Platonic understanding of the universe. This is to say that capitalism establishes itself as eternal, as always having been here, and it has now finally won out over the twentieth century’s alternatives. “The end of history”, though a point of critique for Fukuyama, is then picked up and affirmed by conservatives who herald their own victory. Truth has won out and its name is capitalism. For many, it is no doubt very easy to believe them, as they appeal to various habits of human relations — exchange, trading, etc. — that have always been with us and which, for them, constitute the seeds of our true capitalist nature. That is, until we put in the work to actually track capitalism’s development. Suddenly we see how forms and names can be manipulated. So we look for the origins of language — structuralism — before acknowledging that, yes, language does not lie inert and unchanging. It does change in every instance we encounter it — post-structuralism — but all the more reason to make note of those encounters and the differences between him, in the present. (Shout out Althusser.) So Noys writes:
These statements do not say all we have is the present, but rather we must account for this present through historical reconstruction, hence the Phenomenology of Spirit or Capital, while tracing the possibilities of the present as potentials to realise a future of self-determination and freedom. In each of these iterations of the phrase it is implied that we have to grasp the present conditions as the site of overcoming. My point, therefore, is a simple one: contemporary radical theoretical forms have embraced the future or the deep ontological past in a flight from the present. Images of stagnation and inertia remain to characterise the present of high capitalism in accents that are more Nietzschean than anything else.
From here Noys goes on to challenge this history, attacking the forgetting of Being in Heidegger. “Western metaphysics begins, with Socrates and Plato, to forget Being and Being leads a fugitive role in the history of that metaphysics”, Noys writes, summarising Heidegger’s position. “We need to return to before the rift, to the moment of the pre-Socratics,” Heidegger argues, if we are “to find a thinking of Being qua Being.”
As mentioned last time, this is where we can turn instead to the importance of Whitehead, and of Steven Shaviro’s speculative injunction in the philosophy of the late 2000s (as well as his particular brand of accelerationism, which I find to be wholly commensurate with much of what is called “unconditional accelerationism” — or, as Shaviro might describe it, “accelerationism without criteria”.) “What if Whitehead, instead of Heidegger, had set the agenda for postmodern thought?”, he asks. The question of beginnings is once again central. Shaviro continues:
Where does one start in philosophy? Heidegger asks the question of Being: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” But Whitehead is splendidly indifferent to this question. He asks, instead: “How is it that there is always something new?” Whitehead doesn’t see any point in returning to our ultimate beginnings. He is interested in creation rather than rectification, Becoming rather than Being, the New rather than the immemorially old.
Oddly, Noys does not follow this trajectory, which feels characteristically accelerationist to me, in being contrary to capitalism’s insistent that it is immemorially old. Indeed, there is plenty out there that explores and further clarifies Noys’ own position. Instead, he seems to be on the lookout for enemies. He turns to Nietzsche’s “philosophy for the future”, which is “scathing towards the ‘frivolous deification of the present’, and dismissive of ‘the barbaric turmoil known as “the present”‘.”
The non-linear development of thought presents itself again. Though it feels more natural to suggest Nietzsche’s futurism inverts Heidegger’s history, the opposite is true. But then what was Nietzsche reacting to? Isn’t Heidegger following that Enlightenment tendency, from Rousseau through to Freud and all the rest of it, of finding our primal scene? Nietzsche certainly emerges from this context as an anti-Enlightenment figure, in the way that he attempts to prefigure, as Noys puts it, “a past of hierarchical authority that throws a bridge to a future authoritarian rebirth of rank.” But both are accelerationists, apparently, in their own ways. Together they give form to the double-articulation that accelerationism, in Noys’ view, hopes to affirm: Nietzsche cloaks the left hand of a dark future whilst Heidegger shrouds the right in the truth of philosophy’s deep past, before it alienated itself from its true object.
Soon enough, Heidegger falls away, his role left unresolved. Noys instead warns against any form of left-Nietzscheanism that may seem tangentially resonant with much of Marxism. We must not confuse the two, he insists, even though Nietzsche’s elitism may seem to resonate with the vanguardism of Marxist-Leninism.
This is a fair observation, but from here I am lost. Noys turns to Mark Fisher, rather than the more obvious choice, Nick Land, to explore the fallacies of such a thinking. He makes Fisher out to be the central left-Nietzschean of our age. This is a reading immediately complicated by any consideration of Fisher’s far more prominent Spinozism (not to mention Nietzsche’s anti-Spinozism), but let us take Noys at his word here. In reference to Fisher’s critique of “the slow cancellation of the future” that he began his talk with, Noys writes:
The cultural diagnosis of Mark Fisher we cited, for example, is explicitly Nietzschean, and Fisher identifies with Nietzsche’s aristocratic critique of culture. While Fisher identifies capitalism as Nietzschean ‘slave morality’: resentful, levelling, opposed to innovation, identifying the working class with experimentation, the structure of aristocratic critique remains. The present remains a stagnant present. While this Nietzschean critique is often given a radical accent, or presented as a radical gesture, or even ‘the most radical gesture’, it comes at the cost of fundamentally losing the basis of a critical radicalism.
It is here that my inchoate critique reemerges.
What is this “critical radicalism” that Fisher was losing sight of? It was a “critical radicalism” that manifest itself as a “reflexive impotence”, recently discussed here. In previously citing Natasha Lennard’s article for Salon, I mentioned how what was being rejected at that time was the looming “celebrity vanguard” that many on the left feared the likes of Russell Brand and Owen Jones represented. This was a left whose “critical radicalism” amounted to nothing more than an impotent horizontalism; a radicalism that didn’t so much critique its pop-cultural figureheads as denounce any cultural representation whatsoever. It was a leftism that kept making appeals to an illusory outsideness, arguing that what we needed was a form of cultural representation that wasn’t produced under capitalism. Fisher’s point was that familiar Lyotardian one: there is no outside, the only way out is through.
Though he may reference Lyotard and Nietzsche in his critiques, this thought has next to no relation to the hysterical accelerationism Noys once took aim at in The Persistence of the Negative. This is Fisher’s “popular modernism”, which decries the impotence of a “critical radicalism” that no longer sees any role for popular culture in the creation of certain structures of feeling. It is an argument that has since been vindicated. When the left eventually dropped this pretension to an impossible purity, it discovered a resurgence of its ideas in the political imagination. In 2015 Jeremy Corbyn broke through, with the grassroots movement surrounding him making active use of capitalism’s cultural dynamics, producing memes and conflating Corbyn with designer fashion as part of an irreverent merchandising campaign — a clear example of what Fisher called “designer communism”.
Though defeated in parliament, this new leftist energy has persisted. The memetically intelligent and culturally attuned Northern Independence Party is showing how this kind of defiant cultural participation can actively produce new conversations and, one hopes, real change. It was this sort of role that Fisher saw in the likes of The Jam and, yes, Russell Brand. Though a controversial suggestion, then and now, even Brand acknowledged that things must be dire if it was up to someone like him to raise consciousness in the 21st century. Brand arguably rose to the top because there were few other representatives to rally around. (Now his influence seems to have diminished somewhat, but only because people have followed his lead and engaged with politics in a way that, at one time, only Brand dared to.)
Clearly, this wasn’t elitism. This was generating structures of feeling, and using popular individuals to awaken collective undercurrents — something that Noys’ “critical radicalism”, at that time, was quite allergic too. As Fisher writes in his 2014 essay “Going Overground”:
One of the problems with many of the horizontalist models of political action is that they assume that we already know what we think and feel, and we are simply prevented from expressing ourselves by oppressive power structures. Yet mass mediated art could name and focus feelings that were not only suppressed – by ‘internal’ as well as external censoring agencies – but which were inchoate, unformed, virtual. Mass mediation transformed, not merely ‘represented’ these affects; after they were named and brought into focus, the feelings ‘themselves’ were experienced differently.
In my jumble of thoughts provoked by his abstract, I suggested that Noys’ critique of Fisher was dependent on a misremembering of what form this “critical radicalism” took, which was either impotent horizontalism or neoliberal centrism. However, it doesn’t seem to me that Noys is so forgetful. Unfortunately, it seems worse than that. Noys seems to affirm the leftist melancholy of the late 2000s, as if we didn’t get to see the results of that moment’s great negativity. He recruits Mario Tronti to his cause, affirming Tronti’s argument “that working class passivity and lack of struggle could have effects on capitalism.” Drawing on Tronti’s analyis of the crash of 1929, Noys suggests that a
lack of struggles… robbed capitalists and capital of the ability and knowledge it gained from the struggle by workers. Without workers’ struggles no innovation and no development and no knowledge.
We could argue there is an air of “anti-praxis” here, taken from unconditional accelerationism, or even the horrorism of Nick Land’s “do nothing”. Either way, the same issue lingers over Noys’ talk. But the real implication is that this is nothing more than an echo of the dominant leftist position that emerged around the crash of 2008. No leaders, no programme — that is how we win.
But we didn’t win. Nothing happened. Austerity instead made everything worse. Noys’ position suddenly appears like more of a kakocracy than accelerationism ever was. It echoes the impotence that define an era, that Fisher and others put on blast, and which accelerationism was an ardent rejection of. Noys was always a critic of accelerationism, so perhaps this is unsurprising, but I’m sure many would not expect the rejection of accelerationism to be such a depressive rejection of praxis. Though Noys’ talk began by denouncing a Fisherian pessimism, he suddenly seems more pessimistic than Mark ever was.
This, to me, feels like an instance of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In light of Noys’ full critique, I am willing to admit that Fisher’s theoretical allegiances may have been a bit confused. Nietzsche’s aristocratic radicalism is certainly less popular in the present, and Fisher may have been conflating his Nietzschean analysis with a sort of Marxist-Leninism, as Noys seems to suggest. (Although there is clearly more of an emphasis on the latter here, compared to some of Nietzsche’s more loyal twentieth-century adherents, who Fisher was explicitly not a fan of — Bataille and DH Lawrence come to mind, even though I’d argue they both lie on the pop-mod spectrum in that they encouraged the emergence of specifically psychosexual structures of feeling in their own times.) Regardless, the point of the previous post remains intact. Noys’ appeals to a “critical radicalism” are misplaced. What counted for critical radicalism at the time Fisher was writing was a leftist melancholy that refused to engage with the present, which Noys nonetheless seems to interpret as the only viable response to a present defined by “weakness and disorientation”. Surely this is more indicative of the self-fulfilling prophecies of “reflexive impotence” than Fisher’s “slow cancellations of the future”? As Fisher remarked of the reflexively impotent:
They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Denouncing left-Nietzscheanism might sound good now, in the aftermath of Losurdo’s newly translated critique, but what this amounts to, placed back into the historical context under consideration, is a defense of a period when the left was arguably least capable of engaging with the present as a site of struggle. Tronti’s argument that an end to class struggle may presage an end to capitalism, rather than vice versa, may have once seemed attractive in its contrarianism, but not now. His analysis of the post-crash world after 1929 hardly seems resonant with our post-crash world since 2008. That is, in part, because class struggle had already been eliminated — at least semantically. The beginning of the twentieth-century was defined not just by the ultimate ascendency of global capitalism, but also by the defaulting of an entire country to the middle class — that generic class position used to deny the very existence of class as a struggle. In the late 90s, the British centre-left declared that we are all middle class now, and suddenly everything was meant to be fine. But capitalism kept churning regardless.
Yes, capitalism may generate struggles that we allow to persist in our resistance against them, but I’d argue that is because our resistance has not been strong enough. Any argument that suggests the left should once again weaken its own position is an awful one, and one that is wholly out of touch with the actual struggles of the present.