Along with The Apprentice, there’s no better show than Dragon’s Den for tracking developments in a sort of pop-corporate thinking, and discovering just how innocuous presentations of our boring dystopia can be.
No doubt aware of my masochistic viewing habits, the YouTube algorithm threw this clip from Dragon’s Den at me this morning. The pitch is for a company called Gener8 that claims to act as a dam for all your personal data. In “private” mode, they will block all cookies from being attached to your system. But in “earn” mode, they’ll allow you to sell your own data in exchange for vouchers and coupons, etc.
The “dragons” are agog at the pitch and there’s a brief bidding battle for the investment. Having just held the latest XG reading group last night, it wasn’t hard to see why.
We’re still reading Jodi Dean’s book Blog Theory and, in the third chapter, she plots, with depressing prescience, the drive towards personalisation-as-participation in cyberspace, with the ways social media allows us to supposedly personalise our entire experience previously being the main attraction. Facebook and MySpace — perhaps less so Twitter, in that it can be (seemingly) more anon, but also even more atomising — further embolden capitalist individualism as we stake out independent spaces in cyberspace and deny ourselves a sense of community online. (A Facebook or Whatsapp group, or a group DM, though useful for organising, do not constitute solidarity alone.)
Gener8 shows just how bad things have gotten. The issue of digital privacy is dire. GDPR compliance has made us more aware of how companies use our data and interact with us, but it hasn’t helped us do anything more about it. Because companies don’t want to relinquish control of our data. They’ve built an entire economy on top of their presumptive access to it. All they can do now is feign relinquishment, and make us feel like we have a bit more agency, perhaps by — can you believe it? — giving us something back. But Gener8 seems to give you crumbs in exchange for a little bit of your own agency. All the while, it further makes the collective theft of data mining into an individual issue.
Dean’s feelings around identity control in the early 2010s are apt, if quaint (in hindsight). But her analysis of social media’s more innocuous pasts are all the more pressing today. Drawing on the work of Cayley Sorochan, for example, she considers how passive agency is the name of the game when it comes to our social media infrastructures:
Countering enthusiastic appropriations of flash mobs as new instances of demographic engagement, Sorochan presents them as instances of the “fetishizing of pure participation removed from any meaningful political project.” She concludes, “Hopes that flash mobs might represent a future form of political organisation reflect a desire for a politics of convenience where getting together with others is easy and does not involve conflict, commitment and struggle.” In the circuits of communicative capitalism, convenience trumps commitment.
Whereas Dean is talking about follower culture and friend lists, it is clear today that communicative capitalism has put a price tag on this sense of convenience, and does it all so you get to “opt in”. Faced with a suave tech-Jesus, the “dragons” see an open goal. Earning £5-£25 a month as a individual sounds like nice pocket money just for turning on a data mining app, but we know our data is worth so much more. It’s being given pocket change to have someone follow you wherever you go. Gener8 dude is “taking back control” with a messianic hairdo, but the control is an illusion. Nevertheless, it allows communicative capitalism to suture a rupture in its own fabric. Whereas we gain a pittance, capital has even more access to our selves, further defining us as online individuals. The corporate sentiment of “We’re listening” is coated in an empathetic gloss, diluting its de facto sinister nature.
The tension at work here is related to how precious we are about our individuality, but also the ways that our data is stuck in a marketing blender. Uncomfortable with being reduced to “just a number”, we’re given a more active and affirming role in our own exploitation, which only serves to make the data collected only complete. “Improvements” to the system only make our experience of its worse.
Dean’s analysis is, again, on the money. “We have been produced as subjects unlikely to coalesce, subjects resistant to solidarity and suspicious of collectivity”, she writes. “Central to this production is the cultivation and feeding of a sense of unique and special individuality.” On social media, this occurs simply by participating. “Participation becomes indistinguishable from personalization, the continued cultivation of one’s person.” But what we construct is an “imaginary identity”. Distinct from the “symbolic identity” that is, in Lacanian terms, our “ideal-I”, our ego, the imaginary “cyber-I” is instead constituted by corporations, based on decontextualised and depoliticised language scraped from our browser histories and message logs, and is therefore doomed to be anemic and reductive, making even our own “individuality” a shrivelled husk, never mind our collective solidarity.
Expressed in psychoanalytic terms, symbolic identity is increasingly meaningless in the society of control. What we are instead are imaginary identities sustained by excess jouissance, by an injunction to enjoy. More specifically, symbolic identity involves the subject’s identification with an ego ideal, a perspective before whom the subject sees himself and his actions. Imaginary identification refers to the image that the subject adopts of himself. Symbolic identification, we might say, establishes the setting that determines which images appear and how it is that some are more compelling or attractive to us than others. Imaginary identification refers only to my self-image.
The best thing we can do, but perhaps the most difficult, is opt out — and I mean opt all the way out.
Once upon a time, the argument was to intensify cyberspace’s inhumanism. That is to say, rather than welcome attempts to humanise and subjectivise our online experiences, we should make more space for the inhuman. As Mark Fisher wrote in “Spinoza, K-Punk, Neuropunk”:
According to Spinoza, to be free is to act according to reason. To act according to reason is to act according to your own interests. Finally, however, we have to recognize that, on Spinoza’s account, the best interests of the human species coincide with becoming-inhuman.
Social media only proves this point, and with ratcheting horror as the years slip by.
We can now see why becoming inhuman is in the best interests of humanity. The human organism is set up to produce misery. What we like may be damaging for us. What feels good may poison us.
Once upon a time, the blogipelago was a salve to this…
What has begun to emerge on the most destratifying elements of the blogosphere is a depersonalising, desubjectifying network producing more joyful encounters in a positive feedback process in which mammal-reptilian conflict defaults are disabled.
… But no longer. Now they only serve to accelerate a disempathetic feedback loop. The “8” in Gener8 mocks us — an ouroboros generating nothing but more of the same.
Attempting to pick up from where I left off… Before Christmas, I picked up my film camera again and tried to get back into the habit of taking photographs daily. It worked for a while, although getting the film developed was quite expensive… Then my film camera broke, but the itch has since remained. So I recently bit the bullet on something that’s been at the top of my wishlist for about three years now and bought a Ricoh GR II. The results so far have been interesting. I’m having a lot of fun.
Losing photography as an almost constant companion has been a weird and sometimes depressing shift in my blogging habits in recent years, and this is not the first time I’ve complained and been sad online about it. It’s as if I swapped one discipline for another — that is, photography for writing — whilst still approaching them both the same way. You’d think that would make it an easy transition, but it feels like offsetting a chocolate addiction by taking up smoking. I approach both compulsively, and they scratch an itch to engage with the world and myself, but writing definitely feels unhealthier. It’s more isolated, less active.
That being said, the same skills are applied. A large part of how I write comes down to being observant, looking at things and sitting with them, thinking about moments and their significance and the thoughts they generate. Photographs used to be a form of visual note-taking within that process — a way of sticking a pin in the things that caught my eye but I wasn’t able articulated in words yet. Photographs have always been a sort of poetry for me, in that regard — more abstract and free-flowing in their visual language, although some would argue they express more in their condensation than these slabs of writing do. But whereas the brevity of photography might be more naturally offset by the longevity of cinema, it is writing that photography resonates with the most for me, in an almost Sebaldian fashion. Photography is the undertow of an otherwise writerly voyage.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Or since about late February, to be more precise, when I was invited back to the University of South Wales in Cardiff to take part in their photography alumni symposium. I was invited back, in part, to talk about my journey through the world of work since graduating from USW in 2013. After giving a talk to the whole cohort (recently shared on the blog), each of the five alumni speaking that day ran brief 40-minute “breakout sessions”, in which we could talk a bit more about shared interests and give more specific advice. I spoke to a smaller group of students in more detail about my transition from being a “photographer” to becoming a “writer” — although, I must admit, neither has ever comfortably paid the bills on its own, and so, as labels, these words seem contentious.
Nevertheless, I titled the session “Writing as Documentation” and defined it broadly ahead of time, in the hope I’d attract various kinds of student who may have an interest in writing alongside photography — whether that’s related to articulating their own art practice, honing the journalistic side of being a photojournalist or a fashion journalist, or whatever else. At the same time, I was aware that some might not have any idea why they want to write or what they want to write about. That’s what I was like as a final year student in 2013. I just knew I was a big nerd who’d really enjoyed writing his dissertation, and I also found philosophical ideas had a bit more meat on them than the ideas corralled together in your average art exhibition. In the end, I went on a bit of a rant about why I think it’s important for anyone to be able to articulate their own creative practice — not just so you can climb the ladder of industry by saying the right things, but by translating ideas across mediums so you can build communities and forge collaborative relationships that are artistically productive and philosophically generative.
This emphasis was an important one. It was missing from my old career days. For instance, I distinctly remember when I was in their position, we had a talk about doing art writing as part of a series of talks and workshops hosted by people who do different work within “the industry”. The writing talk was given by a professor in photography at the university and his overall message was, yeah, if you’re an academic or something, it’s part of the workload, but you won’t make any money from it alone. In hindsight, that’s unfortunately true, but as a way to participate in and contribute towards and engage with culture, it’s indispensable skill to have, if only because it helps you communicate better with your peers. Even then, the point is much simpler: some things are just more important and more life-affirming than what makes you money.
Unsurprisingly, this was a point made with more passion than reason, and this was compounded by my awareness of the fact that writing and reading are difficult for a lot of visual artists — who are often, unsurprisingly, visual learners, and so end up doing art degrees, if they end up going to university at all. I’ve always been somewhere in the middle. I’m a visual learner who has nonetheless learned, with a great deal of effort, how to read and write. And it was worth the effort, and sharing that sentiment, more than any insight into how it will boost your career, was my aim. Sod your career! It will further fulfil your creative life! Yes, it may be counter-intuitive to many, but writing and theory are not out of reach, because photography is already philosophical and theoretical. In fact, it’s less about learning how to read and be disciplined in your reading — though that helps — than it is about learning how to translate visual ideas into verbal ones, and vice versa. They’re both products of thought, at the end of the day.
This is always an interesting thing to talk about with visual artists, or indeed artists of any kind. But it’s quite unpopular. You’ll often hear the adage thrown at music and music journalists, for instance, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I’ve heard that said dozens of times. And, yes, to an extent, it’s true. But I’ll tell you what — I’ve seen people dance about architecture before and it can be really good, actually. It’s even more expressive than writing about architecture can be. Dancing and music make a lot more sense together, of course, in that they are embodied and have a natural resonance, but it’s not an exclusive relationship. The arts are polyamorous. Photography and music, for example, are just as frequent bedfellows, and we’ve been writing about music and art for millennia. The overarching point is this: interdisciplinary skepticism comes, in my experience, from the fact that visual or physical learners will struggle with ideas written down that they might already understand quite intuitively in other ways. Photographing an idea, like dancing to music, might make a more intuitive sort of sense to them than writing it down. But making space for philosophy nonetheless opens up a whole new world. It’s just like learning another language. And soon enough you’re dreaming in French and you’ve got a whole new perspective on the world.
The irony is that, in being a theory bro now, that gets lost on this blog sometimes. Everyone likes to go on about how they’re into both theory and practice, cut from a special cloth that gives them a philosophy degree and a bit of community spirit. Artists, in certain contexts, scramble to catch up to them, overdoing it with the theory and trying to emulate a certain standard of intellectual. But half the time, they’re already doing it. It’s just a case of acquiring fluency between languages; between activities. That’s easier said than done, of course. Or for some people, it might be wholly natural, but they’ve had it beaten out of them by rote learning. That was almost my experience.
When I read something written down in theory, I have always started by imagining how it works in practice — not just when thinking about “political philosophy”, but anything at all. This used to make school really difficult. I wanted to do well and I also wanted to play to my strengths, but that often meant being too “conceptual” in GCSE art class, for example, and at the same time being too “practical” in English literature. I think people thought I was pretentious, but I loved both and couldn’t really do one without the other. I couldn’t paint, for instance, and had no technical ability at all when it came to drawing and painting, but I understood the ideas and the history better, and photography became a better way of expressing that. However, in English class, I was actually really bad at writing essays. On my first attempt, I got an “E” in my A Level English literature exam and had to resit it. Maybe I didn’t practice enough. (I’ve made up for that now, I think.) It just didn’t come naturally. For example, we had a reading assignment over the summer between the first and second year of A Levels. We were asked to respond to a book of our choice and then do a report on it. Standard affair. I didn’t know how to write about the books I was reading, though. I had a lot of ideas but they wouldn’t come out in words. I tried to do a “photo-essay” instead, after reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Something about that scene where the father and son finally reach the coast, and the son finds the ocean as apocalyptic as the land. “Sorry it’s not blue”, the father says. I loved that. There was something about the anticipation and the disappointment and the hollowed out image of the sea that otherwise looms large in the American imagination. It was an image of a purposeless America, after Captain Ahab’s gone industrial and farmed whales to extinction. I could write 4000 words about that now. Back then, I could only take four pictures.
Though it felt like a handicap, this sense of translation was essential when approaching the first branch of philosophy to pique my interest: phenomenology. Being & Time (with a little help from Hubert Dreyfus) was the first work of philosophy I read from cover to cover, back in 2015-16. It took me 18 months. In hindsight, I don’t think I found it all that influential. I’m far from a Heideggerian. But I’ve since spoken to so many photographers who end up wanting to read Heidegger or Husserl or Descartes or Sartre for the same reasons I did. Because — or so my theory goes — they feel they are, on some level, almost predisposed to “get” it. And of course they are. This strange first-person medium is phenomenology in practice, with all of its intuitive gestures and its reductive flaws. It is the visual study of things as they appear. But then, soon enough, after scratching underneath the thin veneer of romantic realism that photography is often associated with, these photographers find the medium’s unconscious, which they have struggled to give a name to, where very few things are ever as they are. Soon enough they’re thinking about how a camera thinks and the pictures they see and make take on a nihilistic quality, not as slices of truth but as noumenal objects, halfway to machine vision and a world-without-us. Photography suddenly becomes a quandary for materialism and a process of abstraction. They eventually wonder what it’s like to be a bat, or see colours like a insect. Although many visual artists may feel like philosophy is not for them, or it’s just a crutch to pretentiously embolden and intellectualise what is not an “academic” activity, they are nonetheless often trying to articulate interests and ideas that philosophy also struggles with. Photography, like art more generally, is philosophy, albeit communicating in a language of its own.
Thinking about all of this led me to pour over my archive again. This is a process that I have engaged in periodically over the years, and it usually culminates in a post like this one, in which I reminisce about certain threads of thought that once used to trouble me greatly, but which I’ve realised I have since found a way to articulate without giving myself a headache. Because of this, this very post might already seem familiar to long-time readers. But it never ceases to amaze me how, just when you think you’ve turned over a new leaf and started walking down a new path, you find yourself still beholden to the same problems that set you off reading and photographing in the first place, albeit lying dormant and formless in your juvenilia. This familiar experience was all the more potent after talking to the students at USW, to the extent that I decided against just waffling on about old concerns, carefully selecting some of the least embarrassing examples of old work, and instead set about reconnecting the dots once and for all.
It took me quite a few days, spread out over a few weeks, and it drove my girlfriend absolutely mad with the repetitive clicking, but if you venture to the Xenogothic archive, or click the menu button (the three horizontal lines at the top of any page), you’ll find that all my old blogs have now been migrated to the xenogothic.com URL. As such, although this blog was born in early October 2017, the posts now stretch back to 2007.
In many ways, this mass migration has been a long-time coming. Last year, I shared this old photograph that my Dad took of me, sitting on a bridge along the abandoned Hull-to-Barnsley railway. It has always been an important picture to me, and coming across it again was a nice opportunity to reflect on old Noughties sensibilities. That abandoned space was magical to me then and, when I think back to it now, I am left with warm memories of my friends, my Dad, and the various albums I’d walk there just to listen to. But I realised recently that it has a further significance. Although I always think about my Dad’s photographs taken there, which are far better than mine, the photographs that I took on that day were nonetheless later used for one of my very first blogposts on my very first Blogspot.
To blog about an old picture and its magical atmosphere — an atmosphere I could not previously put my finger on — only to find out that that same location was the catalyst that got me blogging in the first place, was quite a nice feeling. Discovering this consistency anew made a lot of other things fall into place. I suddenly saw a through-line where I’d previously seen stops and starts and detours. Affirming that this blog thing and the various twists along the way have nonetheless constituted one long journey, from there to here, felt like some sort of revelation.
Every new blog has previously felt like a do-over. Starting a new one becomes an attempt to cauterise a certain period in my life, abandoning the baggage of well-trodden ground before starting up somewhere new with just the few lessons I’ve decided to hang onto. In reality, now that I’ve painstakingly gone through my whole archive, these periods are a lot less clear cut than they once were in my head. As a series of online imagoes, they were not thrown off as succinctly and cleanly as I’d once imagined. What felt like a series of distinct “eras” of self instead constitute a real mess of conflicting forces and interests.
But, despite the mess, there’s still some order to the chaos. Throughout, there are visual expressions of the same ideas I write about today. In going through every single post I published from 2007 to 2017 — a necessity, in case there was anything a little too cringe or personal revealed — I suddenly became attuned to those waves of development, starting in my teens. Each new blog became less of a “break” and more of an oscillation, demonstrated by my changing but nonetheless recursive subject matter. Post-gothic Yorkshire countryside gives way to inner city dance parties, which give way to Lynchian photographs of old factories and blown-out portraits, which give way to vibrant colours and peculiar objects, which give way to chasing fog all over Europe, which gives way to vernacular poetry, which gives way to visual jokes and puns, which give way to moody landscapes and abstractions. Time and again, as I reconstructed this blog archive, and no doubt bouncing around at the mercy of my own mental health, I found a bipolar engagement with the world. I found a xenogothic sensibility there from the start, bursting forth. A sensibility that was both melancholic and joyful in equal measure. In hindsight, the pivots are quite amusing. I click through posts full of photographs of crystals and lasers, channelling the neo-psychedelia of the 2000s, in which I, myself, am never seen. Then the camera is turned on me, frowning and depressed in a Burzum t-shirt…
World and self appear out of alignment. Same as it ever was. Affirmation and negation fight for primacy. Goth and disco sit side by side. Travelling forwards through to posts from May 2012, I find a project prematurely announced and never finished, in which I consciously try and turn away from my own habits: “I want to stop what I’ve been doing recently — looking for an ambiguous ‘joy’ in photography and the acts of looking and taking pictures — and go back to making something … heavier.” Almost ten years later, I’m still there, trying to counter my own moods, pulled between two seemingly incompatible tastes and tendencies. Rainbows and raves on the one hand; death and decay on the other.
But still, despite all that, there’s this sense of continuation. It’s affirming because I used to think this “xenogothic” tendency was a sort of fatal flaw. Non-committal, I am a cultural weathervane blown about by unfathomable feelings, never quite fitting wherever I decide to land. I used to like that, trying to bounce to the time signature of a given moment, whilst feeling unstuck and out of joint, staying abreast of the new with a medium that is as conservative (aesthetically and technically) as photography. I think that’s why I was first drawn to figures like Nietzsche, Deleuze and Bataille, alongside certain kinds of music. Art is a dice throw — it begins with chance but is followed through by a commitment to the result, whatever that is, and at least until you roll again.
I found this sentiment articulated with a single word, in a blogpost written in 2008. I was seventeen, listening to The Books and trawling Bradford Cox’s old blog of mixes, Deerhunter demoes and solo material. The cut-up lyrics for “Be Good to Them Always” have echoed around my head ever since, containing fragments of obsessions, from alienation to the American imagination, accelerationism and chance:
You know, I simply cannot understand people
Oh how sadly we mortals are deceived by our own imagination
This is not real life. This is, for us, aleatoric television
A mixed concert of soft instruments
I can hear a collective rumbling in America
I’ve lost my house. You’ve lost your house
I don’t suppose it matters which way we go
This great society is going smash
“Aleatoric” became the word I fixated on then, and a whole blog was christened in its honour. In the aftermath of my talk at USW, I found myself thinking about an aleatoric approach to photography with a new intensity. This, in turn, morphed into thoughts about blogging.
Earlier today, I was reading Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory, in preparation for the XG reading group. Dean critically discusses the blogipelago and the extent to which it is integral to, whilst always imagining itself outside of, the networks of drive that constitute communicative capitalism. She asks, “What fantasies, what possibilities, what kinds of subjects, do multiply intersecting and increasingly personalized media and communication technologies stimulate?” That was a question I hoped to ask with almost a decade of photoblogging, albeit never articulate so succinctly. Shifting interests and masks gave form to stimulated subjects, prodded and poked by affects from outside. Blogposts like this one, cutting together and sequencing disparate photographs, accumulated over a short period of time, told a story of stimulation. What sort of narrative emerges from this sequence of images? Something entirely other to the reality in which they were taken, that’s for sure.
Perhaps true to form, these notes were intended to be about something else entirely. I have a thought burgeoning at the moment about Althusser’s Philosophy of the Encounter. His “aleatoric materialism” seems so prescient, albeit coopted by communicative capitalism at large. There is pleasure to be found in the juxtapositions of mindlessly changing television channels, or subscribing to an unending stream of blogs, or scrolling through a horrendous torrent of tweets. But the algorithm only feigns chance. A game of content roulette, it hides the fact the game is rigged and the house always wins. What do we call that algorithm inside our heads that reacts to randomised affects from without? Writing on blogs can so often be overwrought. Does photoblogging seize upon relinquished ways of seeing, of a kind that Instagram has given over to the algorithm? Blogs seem to be coming back, as a primitive form of curation that Jodi Dean was previously troubled by and cynical of, whilst her own blog was nonetheless a major node in the network. Though we shouldn’t romanticise those times, since they clearly birthed the world we now know and struggle to love, now old-fashioned blogs make good on an old promise. The ads you see will still be determined by cookies, not be chance. But all the rest of it is aleatoric television.
More photoblogging soon.
Next month I’ll be taking part in the rA/Upture_2 conference, organised as part of the OFF-Biennálé in Budapest, Hungary. I’m going to be talking a bit about postmodernism’s deflation of political agency and how projects like accelerationism and speculative realism hope to intervene in the depressed space this creates.
After brief talks from myself, Ulrike Gerhardt and Julia Hartmann, we’ll have a panel discussion.
Find the abstract to our cluster of talks below, and see you there!
When we think of binaries it is we who embody a third observer, distanced enough to divide between sides. To embrace this conjuncture of dia_logistics we introduce the notion of a third actor. The third actors confuse the binary sense of co_existance, it re-situates the monologues hidden behind dialogues by responding or reorganising the manners of communication. How can we use this figure to untangle the trinity of past, present, future then?
Is the past allied with the present forming a retrotopia against the future? Or is it a bond between future and present against the past utopia?
Perhaps the past bonds with the future against the present as a dystopia. How can we intervene in these binary chronological orders?
Many thanks to the staff and students at the University of South Wales in Cardiff who invited me to take part in their photography alumni symposium at the end of February 2021. Below is the talk I gave on the day, talking about my work and reflecting on my various sidesteps since then, and what led me to go from wanting to be a photographer to becoming a writer.
I wasn’t going to share this at first — hence posting it now in April — but this was such a brilliant day and talking to the students inspired me a great deal. It led to me migrating all of my old photo blogs onto the xenogothic.com URL — which you can peruse from the archive — as well as reigniting my interest in photography and rediscovering its persistent relevance to my more philosophical concerns.
I was going to rewrite this talk, making it more general, folding in a few of my subsequent reflections, but the post has been clogging up my drafts for months now. As it is, it’s a talk of two parts: a brief self-introduction, explaining who I am and what I’ve done over the years; and a reflection on how photography and my arts education is nonetheless integral to my divergent non-photographic trajectory. Rather than try and cleave it all apart, I think it’s best to share this as it is and leave you with a “watch this space”.
Linked throughout are a few relevant blogposts from the archive. Enjoy those if you fancy a bit of blog spelunking.
More photography talk and reflections soon!
Hi. My name is Matt Colquhoun. I graduated from USW in 2013, and I’m really excited to be here today. It’s been an interesting 8 years since I left USW, and over a decade since I first showed up on campus. Counting those years made me feel incredibly old; it probably makes your lecturers feel a lot older.
I should probably start by giving you a brief rundown of what I’ve done since then: I started my graduate life with 18 months of unemployment but ended up as the exhibitions officer at Ffotogallery in Cardiff. I later worked as exhibitions coordinator at BAFTA and Anise Gallery in London. I’ve worked as a music photographer, mostly shooting festivals and bands. The last big project I worked on was William Doyle’s 2019 album Your Wilderness Revisited, which I shot the album art for.
I went back to uni in 2016 and did a Master’s degree at Goldsmiths in Contemporary Art Theory, mostly because I wanted to become a better writer and scratch an itch I had to study philosophy. I spent three years after that writing a book about my time in London called Egress, which was about a lecturer at Goldsmiths, Mark Fisher, who unfortunately passed away whilst I was a student there.
Mark wrote a lot about culture and politics and philosophy and their intersection, and he generally explored how we might escape this world of capitalist drudgery, breaking out of this obsession we have with our own past and into the futures we’ve long been promised, carrying forwards this modernist, post-punk attitude to always rip things up and start again. But Mark unfortunately died by suicide and so, in some ways, Mark’s own death called a lot of his own work into question. So Egress was basically a document of a collective grieving process, dealing with big questions around politics and depression. The rest of that year in London was horrible for all sorts of reasons — Trump had just been elected but, closer to home, we had terrorist attacks and Grenfell and an awful general election. But the book was more about how my friends and I managed to channel the joy in Mark’s work despite all that was going on around us, and despite what happened to him. It was about how that process of affirmation in the face of such negativity became this really life-affirming collective project that has continued ever since. That book came out in March last year. And just last month*, I published a second book called Postcapitalist Desire, which is an edited collection of Mark’s final lectures, and which was, as of yesterday*, Amazon’s #1 bestseller in socialism. Make of that contradiction what you will…
I’m basically more of a writer now rather than a photographer or an exhibitions person, and that is largely down to the pandemic. I lost my London arts job because the gallery I worked at closed, I moved to Huddersfield, and now I write full-time because it is the one thing I can do from home. I should say I also do a lot of talks and lectures and podcasts and things, which is my excuse for having this massive microphone. But this shift from photography to writing has actually been really fruitful for me. I put Postcapitalist Desire together during the first few months of lockdown. And I’ve taken on a lot of other editorial work related to fiction, philosophy and politics. But I’ve still got a foot quite firmly in the art world. Before Christmas, I worked with Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey, and most recently I co-curated a sort of online club night at the ICA in London at the end of January.
Now, I’m by no means raking it in, but I am always busy, and I think part of that comes from this attitude towards community that I write about in Egress, but which first became really important to me at USW. The relationships that were forged between peers and lecturers have continued now for over a decade. And those were some weird times back then too. We didn’t have a pandemic but there were a lot of changes happening, not only internally within USW but also nationally, like with the trebling of student tuition fees. A lot of my first year at uni was spent on buses to London to go and protest. And what came out of all of that was a firm interest in how we’re able to collectively respond to arduous circumstances, and that’s sort of what I want to talk a bit about today, and hopefully also later in the breakout session, with those of you who choose to join me.
If I was to describe my own art practice or writing practice or whatever, it would as a responsive practice. Every step of the way, I’ve tried to find the best way to respond to whatever life throws at me and my friends, and actually work with those events quite directly as a way to make work that I find life-affirming but also political. And I think that’s what photography demands of us anyway – that sort of responsive relationship to the world as its changes around us.
But the thing I want to emphasise is that that’s an attitude that goes far beyond photography. It’s exactly the same drive behind most of the writing I do. So what you learn now can be put to work in so many ways, and be fertile ground for collaborations and opportunities that you could only dream of, if you know how to use it…
When I showed up at USW, I don’t think I had any real idea what I wanted to do with my life. Photography, for me, was just a way of engaging with the world. I know it will sound really cliché, but I was just fascinated by the way that holding a camera makes you engage with the world completely differently, and notice things that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. I found that to be quite a visceral experience and all I wanted to share was that joy when you encounter something new or a bit weird that doesn’t quite fit in with our expectations of how the world is supposed to work or look. It made for some interesting projects. I was quite aimless, but I was also committed to that aimlessness.
Case in point, when I was in your position, working towards a final-year project, I was throwing together all of these strange images and documents of peculiar experiences and encounters, a lot of stuff that I was just coming across by chance. For my degree show, back in 2013, I put together this loose, disparate installation of photographs, objects, books, music, embracing this random collection of things I liked but also trying to use them to dissolve that gap between looking at the world and looking at photographs in a white cube. I wanted to make looking at photographs as much of a multi-sensory experience as taking them was. It didn’t really have a strict narrative form — it couldn’t be read from left to right — but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to try and reveal this other world, that was all colour and possibility and strange coincidences and collisions, whilst otherwise being a pretty poor and depressed student in grey and rainy south Wales.
I didn’t want to make a project that just documented someone else’s misery. I didn’t want to make photographs to sell anything. I didn’t just want to illustrate someone else’s view of the world that I’d found in a book. I wanted to have fun. But I was very serious about having fun. I wanted to celebrate and affirm my own joy, especially because I found that joy to be in quite short supply. And I remember [senior lecturers] Peter and Matt being very nice about it and I did really well as far as grades are concerned. But I remember feeling like I had failed to convince anyone else at USW that I was serious about what I was doing. From the outside it probably looked a bit too irreverent and unserious. But I was actually pretty militant about what I was doing. It was real discipline of affirmation. It was a commitment to another way of doing things that didn’t actually exist yet or wasn’t valued in any real way. And I think not being able to articulate that very well was partly why I became a writer. I wanted to have another way than just photography to express those feelings, that were very deep feelings to me, but often looked superficial. And I feel vindicated, in a lot of ways, because although I often feel like I’m a thousand miles away from doing photography, I can draw a straight line from that amorphous body of work to the work I’ve become known for working on in more recent years.
Most of that more recent work is related to the writing of Mark Fisher, who, as I say, was a lecturer at Goldsmiths when I was there in 2016, and who sadly passed away whilst I was still a student in January 2017. About a week after Mark died, he had a book come out called The Weird and the Eerie. It’s this really short book about ghost stories and horror films, H.P. Lovecraft and the Chronicles of Narnia, as well as weird 1970s BBC TV shows, and what Mark’s arguing in that book is that just about every good horror story or fantasy story is built on an encounter with something that is weird or eerie. The weird, he says, is something that doesn’t belong; something new that doesn’t really fit in its place. The eerie is instead a sort of failed absence, or even a failed presence. There’s nothing where there should be something or there’s something where there should be nothing. You can probably think of a million horror films with that sort of encounter in, like a weird object appearing out of nowhere, or someone completely disappearing without a trace. I always think about that bit in The Matrix where Neo sees the same cat cross a door twice and goes, “Woah, déjà vu”, and everyone freaks out, and Trinity says that déjà vu is usually a sign that “they” have changed something. It’s the sort of encounter, or lack thereof, that suggests things aren’t quite as they seem. That there’s maybe another world somewhere, lurking beneath the surface of this one, and it very occasionally makes itself known to us, but only if we’re sharp enough to notice.
What was important to point out for Mark was that these experiences aren’t limited to horror films. And they aren’t necessarily all scary either. The weird and the eerie can make us laugh. But they’re also feelings that can have a political significance as well.
This is a quote of Mark’s that my friends ended up stencilling to the wall by the library at Goldsmiths, in which he says that “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”
Mark’s main point of focus in all of his writing was, really, capitalism. It’s a global system that we are seemingly incapable of imagining any alternative to, and we’re actively told that this capitalist world is the best of all possible worlds, but the reality of late capitalism is sad robots and broken self-service checkouts, and it’s various kinds of infrastructure that fall apart when faced with the slightest inconvenience. And what’s interesting is, when we start paying attention to those moments of failure and embarrassment, those weird and eerie instances where capitalism is revealed to be a system full of holes, rather than this effective and convenient world-order, is that those holes reveal that other worlds are possible, and it’s up to us to not only drag them out but also actively create them. And so, in hindsight, when I look back at a lot of my silly pictures of weird shop fronts and bad road signs and ridiculous design choices, that’s what I spent all of my time photographing as a student. A sort of postmodern psychedelia. Moments and encounters when the world didn’t look like it was supposed to, but finding joy and possibility in that rather than dejection.
And over the years since, whilst having those kinds of encounters alone, walking around town, is very easy, the best way to make those encounters have a broader impact is to share them. To take that picture and send it a friend and engage in this kind of dialogue about the way things are and the way things could be. This is something we did in our second year – this was an open exhibition my housemate Sara Rejaie put on, across all the photography courses, and even some of the other art ones, I think. She asked anyone who wanted to, to send in a single A4 picture, and then she curated them in a big art space, seeing the various resonances and the similarities and differences that emerged. And it was wonderful thing to do, because it immediately put everyone in dialogue with one another. If I might be so bold, I’d say that this was a practice of consciousness raising.
Consciousness raising is a group political practice that was pioneered by the feminist movement in the 1960s and ‘70s. Women would basically get together and talk about their experiences. One women might say, my husband’s shit and I hate the fact I do all the housework and my life is so dull, and another woman would say, hey, my husband’s shit and I hate the fact that I do all the house and my life is so dull as well. And when this group of people realises that their personal problems aren’t personal but are shared, then suddenly we’re having a very different conversation. Not about our own individual circumstances but actually about broader structural issues, like patriarchy or white supremacy or classism, all of which fall under that general heading of capitalism.
What’s amazing about consciousness raising is that you can do it anywhere. I’d argue that the crits you have, for instance — discussing each other’s work and interests and approaches to things, even if in an academic setting — provide a similar sort of opportunity. I imagine when you all come together, if they’re anything like the crits we used to have, you’ve all got your individual projects, and the most mortifying thing in the world is when you realise that someone else might have a project that’s a bit similar to yours. But that’s not an opportunity to get competitive; that’s a chance for collaboration. And that’s something that gets a lot easier once you’re outside these walls, when all your peers aren’t working in the same medium or even in the arts at all.
And I think that’s probably the best thing you can affirm once you’re out in the world. Not your differences but the things that you share. And that can be quite a difficult thing to do. I was quite nervous about talking to you all today, as photography students, about my life that has moved me further and further away from photography. And you might think, what’s this guy who writes books about politics got to say to us about making it in art world or the fashion world or in journalism. But the funny thing is that when I talk to academics and philosophers for the first time about what they do, they always look at me slightly weird because I’ve had this other life where I wasn’t formally engaged with a more traditional academic discipline that they’ve basically spent their whole lives focussed on. They see me as a photographer who has someone overstepped his bounds. And when I talk to photographers these days, they see me as a photographer who’s lost his way. But I have found that engagement with other worlds gives me an edge that they don’t have. They can look at the world as philosophers or photographers. I can look at the world as a philosopher and as a photographer. And it’s precisely that mixed background that has got me talking to artists and fashion designers and journalists day in, day out. As well as mathematicians and physicists and city planners and political activists and musicians. And I’m not just talking to them because I want to document what they do. We’re talking because we’re all documenting our thoughts and ideas together, in our own ways, and then pooling the results.
When future historians come to retell the story of the pandemic, the image of the Queen sitting alone, masked and in mourning, will surely rank among the most poignant.
Whilst Prince Philip’s coffin was being loaded onto the back of his custom Land Rover, I was enjoying the sunshine, reading and pottering around the allotment. I recently picked up a new edition of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others for a project I’m working on and sat reading its opening pages, just as the news outlets began reiterating, over and over again, how tragic it was going to be to see the Queen sitting alone.
In those opening pages, Sontag reads Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, and her observations could not have felt more appropriate.
Woolf, asked by a man how “we” might stop war, challenges the assumed solidarity of this “we”. Men and women do not think about war in the same way, she argues. But when we look at photographs of the pain of others, of victims of war and violence, we all react the same. We all recoil and share that response, which rises up in us and leads us to make that same naive wish: “never again”.
But Sontag isn’t having it. As rousing as Woolf’s essay is, as a tandem work of pacifism and feminism, she doesn’t agree that everyone views photographs in the same way. In fact, that is a dangerous suggestion. The romantic notion that we all recoil synchronously from horror too often causes more harm than good. Because there’s nothing like a horrifying photograph to manufacture consent and enable more war, more atrocities, more injustice. So writes Sontag:
And photographs of the victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.
War was not waged in Windsor in memory of Prince Philip, even if the military presence may have given that impression. There was no violence or horror on display, but we were treated, once again, to rolling coverage of royal pain. Columnists and commentators all emphasised how the Queen is now relatable, suffering like we all have; how Princes Harry and William were seen together for the first time in ages, newly bonded in their grief. The death of Philip brought the royal family together, and the rest of the nation along with it.
It didn’t. It won’t. The Queen will be in pain, and I do feel sorry for her. I feel sorry for anyone who has lost a loved on in this pandemic, whether from the coronavirus or otherwise. But no amount of royal pain is going to float the royalist illusion of a national consensus.
CW: I want to talk about gender, specifically my gender and my feelings around it. I want to try and put into words a feeling that I’ve long denounced and tried to hide, but that feeling doesn’t really have a name for me. Not yet. I suspect it never will. My life has been defined, from without as much as from within, by a sense of indeterminacy. It’s never comfortably fit any label applied to it from the outside, and I’ve been denied any opportunity to define things on my own terms. I’ve tried to counter both of these things in all sorts of way. From now on, I’d like to affirm it.
I’m not sure what the best way to do that is. For now, I’d just like to tell you a story. Let it be known that this story features explicit references to sex, abuse, sexual abuse, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, mental ill-health, and various other things. Accordingly, this might not be a story that everyone wants to read or enjoys reading, and that’s okay.
When I was a teenager, I faced daily homophobic abuse. Beginning at the end of primary school and continuing until my second year at university, not a day went by without incident. It was at its worst during secondary school. I’d get tripped up and punched in the stomach by passing assailants as I walked between classes. Left to wheeze on the floor, kids laughed at me, like I got what I deserved. I had rocks thrown at me, and was once sent home with a concussion after being clipped hard by a projectile at the base of my skull. Cars driven by older kids used to play chicken with me, swerving at the last moment, as I walked home from school along country roads. One time a big group of kids congregated outside my house and threw snowballs at my window, just to intimidate me as I sat in my room, which I rarely left. As I got older, it only got worse. Some of the boys used to shove their hands down my pants, trying to feel me up and penetrate me in the middle of woodworking class, or jab through my trousers with cold soldering irons, just to see if I “liked” it. Most days someone called me a “faggot”.
I would try and tell my parents I didn’t know why these things kept happening to me, on the days I came home and could not hide my feelings, but even they’d started asking if I was gay. My mum would make statements out of the blue like, “it’d be okay if you were gay, you know”. Once she said this in earshot of my dad, who said he’d kick me out the house if it were true. I confronted him about this years later and he claimed he was joking. It didn’t feel like it at that time, but I could sense the shame in his voice, knowing he had said the worst thing he could have said. I love my dad very much, and forgave him for this long ago, but it is nonetheless part of a pattern of responses and interjections that I sadly became all too used to. My sexuality was a source of speculation for my family and friends as much as it was for people I couldn’t have cared less about.
What was most baffling to me was that I had never actually questioned my sexuality. In fact, I’d had a pretty healthy string of girlfriends — certainly more than most boys my age. I was a confident explorer of my own desires, for a time. When I look back on my childhood and my teenage years, I feel like I was always “seeing” someone. But it didn’t matter. It was like everyone else saw something in me that I didn’t see, like I had a sign stuck on my back that I wasn’t aware of that said “future gay”. It warped my brain. Shame took over, and I began to wonder if everyone knew something I didn’t.
It wasn’t because I was somehow weak and easy to pick on. Though perhaps seen as “effeminate” against the social standards of the time, I was otherwise tall, broad-shouldered, and stocky. On multiple occasions, I was scouted by rugby coaches who didn’t know any better, seeing me as a potential hooker based on nothing more than my square frame. Unfortunately, there was nothing I hated more than rugby. I actually loved to figure skate — something I’ve written about previously. I didn’t tell many people about this, of course. I knew it wouldn’t help me. But it didn’t matter anyway. I was deemed too big for that sport by the girls I used to train with. I was made to feel so unwelcome that I dropped out just before I mastered my toe loop jumps.
If I’d put my mind to it, I could have probably played rugby and enjoyed it. It wasn’t the game I hated but the people I had to play it with. I hated team sports in general, precisely because they brought out the most pathetic displays of masculinity in my peers. It wasn’t long before the irony dawned on me. For someone who supposedly “liked” men, I couldn’t have wanted anything less to do with them. I had no drive to compete with them, which seemed to be all they really cared about. It was probably my utter rejection of their values that made me gay in their eyes. But that hatred pooled with my own adolescent hormones all the same. The rugby scouts planted an idea in my head. I began to wonder if learning to throw my weight around might help my cause.
I starting taking Judo classes, and I hated them too, but I got more confidence about fighting off the abuse. Soon enough, if someone came at me, I started giving back as good as I got. I punched a kid in the face who, unprovoked, tried to pour a drink over me on the bus. I hit him so hard that I nearly broke my hand. I hit someone else on the bus with my boot bag who made fun of my voice, studs clapping the top of his head. He didn’t see it coming and the outburst was effective. Admittedly, these were not techniques taught to me by my sensei. Regardless, fighting didn’t solve anything. The bully I punched back had multiple older and much bigger brothers who could come to his defense. I learnt the hard way that, just because they started it, it didn’t meant I could finish it. I quit Judo, succumbing to the knowledge that there was always someone else to kick me back down.
Over time, I became further alienated from people. I just wanted to be left alone. I struggled to make new friends or really connect with anyone, always feeling slightly on the outside of whatever was going on. I was depressed and looking for an outlet. Ironically, all the abuse had been counterproductive. It did more to make me experiment sexually than any desire I felt on my own accord. I didn’t know how I felt anymore. I’d been told who I was for so long, I just accepted it, passively. I’d been shoved in the closet so many times, I just decided to make myself at home there. I let myself be led by older and more openly curious boys. I didn’t like any of it, and found the feeling of adolescent stubble on my face distinctly nauseating, but I felt so alienated from myself that I couldn’t say for certain what I wanted anymore. I grew anxious about any expression of sexuality whatsoever. In the end, I even found heterosexual expressions of intimacy difficult. I repressed everything. No matter who I was with, I felt paranoid. I was constantly second-guessing my own feelings, as well as others’ feelings about me.
After a while, it became a case of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.
When I was 16 or 17, I fell in love with my best friend. On the day I intended to ask her out, she told me she was gay and had started seeing someone. I was heartbroken but we stayed very close. This led to a whole new adventure for me. The secret friendship group she’d slowly been gathering around her became my secret friendship group too.
I was quickly introduced to Hull’s “gay scene”, my first memory of which was a night at Fuel, the main LGBT club in town. I went with my best friend and her new girlfriend, with a few others in tow. I didn’t know anyone yet and, at one point, I ended up on my own, hovering by the entrance to the bathrooms. The girls had gone in together, and later admitted they ended up having sex in there for a while. I stood waiting for them, not knowing what to do with myself, feeling a new kind of alienation. It was truly the worst time I ever had third-wheeling. But it wasn’t long before a group of queens gathered around me, towering in their platform boots and killer heels, all wearing the most magnificent drag. Larger than life, but immediately warm and friendly, they asked if I was okay, what my name was, what I was doing there. They asked if I was gay, straight, or bi. I reluctantly said I was straight, half-expecting them to leave when I made my confession, like I was an imposter who wasn’t worth their time. They didn’t care. They welcomed me into their fold for the night. I felt at home immediately. I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in my life.
I think we all felt like this, as young teens getting to know the Hull scene. We felt like bohemians on the edge of the world. With the Humber Bridge looming over town, we affirmed our city as the “San Francisco of the North”. Sod Manchester. Sod Canal Street. Theirs was a west coast arrogance to our east coast autonomy. Here was an “unfenced existence: facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” In typical Hull fashion, we saw ourselves as a movement unto ourselves. This, in turn, gave us a sense of confidence and defiance that positively affected everyone who was part of our group. We felt otherworldly, like we saw a bigger picture, if only because our limited numbers meant we were far more likely to befriend kids from other schools, or hang out with folk much older than we were. Whilst everyone else stayed in their school-day bubbles, we embraced the fact that there was a world waiting for us beyond the school gates that was far more accepting of who we happened to be. Eventually, this attitude permeated the atmosphere within school as well. As people became more out and proud, our diverse friendship group cross-pollinated with the groups we kept up at school. People gradually became more tolerant, and it was a really beautiful time in my life.
But the boys were still the same confused bunch. They continued to bully. What’s funny, actually, is that the nature of the bullying changed. Those same young men started acting more jealous than disparaging, fundamentally misunderstanding what it meant to have a close-knit group of girlfriends who were all gay. They were cynical but also oddly intimidated, as if they assumed I somehow had a front row seat to all of the sex these mysterious women were having, and they wanted nothing more than to be in my shoes. It was a classic teenage boy-fantasy that could not have been further from the truth. We all found it hilarious, and even played up to it, sharing photographs of everyone kissing each other on social media. In truth, I was content in friendships where desire was off the table. These gay women were in on the joke, and I felt safe there. There was trust, precisely because there was no teenage “will they, won’t they”. No judgement. No pressure.
This suited me more than the boys’ obsession with chasing tail. Behind the racy pictures taken in gay bars on a Saturday afternoon, the thought of sex still stressed me out. For a time, I even struggled to hold a girl’s hand with any sincerity. I felt pathetic, and I blamed those boys for it. They had triggered an abject repression in me, at the exact moment I finally felt free to do anything.
Admittedly, as I got older, things could occasionally get complicated. I came out of my shell but in an increasingly confusing environment. I had a couple of relationships with gay women that were experimental for the both of us, and they always ended in complicated tears. But I think whenever any intimacy did arise, it was because there was a shared sense of gender identity that resonated between us, rather than any sexual desire. I felt at home among these women who were far more comfortable identifying as femme or butch or something in between. But it was only the lesbians in my friendship group who understood that their own sense of femininity was a spectrum. I never gained any sense of this from the men I knew. Gay or straight, none of them were quite so understanding of different gender identities. (In fact, my experiences with gay men were as negative as those with straight men. The majority I met at that time, who still saw me as an unknown or indeterminate sexual quandary, were quite predatory. It was just one more reason to stay away from men altogether.)
I lost that friendship group when I went to university. It was oddly traumatic. I suddenly felt detached from these roots that I’d put down. I still seemed to gravitate towards lesbians — it is a running joke at this point that I always end up befriending gay women — but I never again felt immersed in a scene. In fact, my first girlfriend at university was a twin, whose sister came with her to study on the same course. Her sister was also gay, and had met her girlfriend at university as well. We all embarked on our first sexual relationships together and hung out all the time. In truth, the relationship was terrible and was never going to last. When it ended, I remember feeling like I missed my friendship with her sister more than our relationship. She was the last connection I felt I had to a transitory home. After that, I never felt like a member of a scene again. I felt more like a tourist.
I felt myself falling out of that sense of belonging in other ways too. Though the assumption that I was gay haunted me throughout my time at university, it started to dissipate as my body changed and I reached the end of puberty. Specifically, by the time I was 22, I was capable of growing facial hair. On the day it felt full enough to be an official “beard”, rather than a collection of prickly smudges, I noticed something happen. The abuse stopped. I rarely heard the word “faggot” anymore. I rarely heard second-hand whispers about my personal life.
It was around this time that I started a relationship that has continued to this day. There’s certainly nothing like a decade-long relationship with a woman to socially cement a newly perceived heterosexuality. But relationships had never stopped the rumours before. It was always a case of “yeah, he’s just not accepted himself yet”. But what’s more, the abuse even stopped from strangers and passersby. The assumptions and the constant prying from people I didn’t know ceased so abruptly that it left me dazed. To be honest, I liked it. I leaned into it. I put on weight and I started wearing more black. I embraced my inner goth for the first time to try and look more “masculine” and scary. Whereas the emo and scene kids I knew growing up were among those most comfortable with “non-binary gender identities” (though we didn’t possess that sort of language yet), goth felt harder and less flexible. It was to have one foot in with the scene kids but one foot in something else. The reason for this was simple: I didn’t want to invite discussion; for the first time in my life, I wanted to intimidate.
This makes me laugh, in hindsight. I was suddenly deemed to have reached a certain recognisable standard of masculinity and all I’d done, in my eyes, was let myself go. The state of men…
For a few years, this was all fine by me. It was nice to have a break from it all. It was nice to “pass”. But I didn’t feel like myself. My weight began to yoyo, and I began a struggle with bulimia, feeling torn about a body image that was increasingly “masculine” and all the more alien to me as a result. I grew my hair out but, even at my skinniest, I just looked like Jon Snow. A visible northern masculinity, which encased an increasingly invisible femininity, became an albatross around my neck. Outwardly, I displayed a certain pride in it as my mental health nonetheless deteriorated.
Things came full circle when I moved to London, aged 26. I was suddenly treated with another kind of suspicion. I started to naturally make friends with queer people from all sorts of backgrounds, but I found they were cynical about me in a way I wasn’t used to. My friends were, for the most part, younger than I was. They were experimenting in a way I wanted to but had a way of thinking and speaking about their own experiences that I’d never really acquired, and my attempts to do so were perhaps seen as appropriative rather than attempts to update my capacity for self-expression. With many having lived in London for some time already, they had been initiated into its queer spaces and they were understandably protective over them. I expected to be there for just one year, and so didn’t make too much of an effort to put down roots. (When I left London, four years later, I regretted this deeply.)
Although I never really spoke about my sexual preferences or my internal feelings in public, now that I at least looked the part — whatever that means — I felt even more distant from a certain sense of community that I’d once taken for granted. The assumption that I was questioning or undecided went away, and with that went a part of myself I didn’t realise I was quite so attached to. I understood why, of course, and so I didn’t push back against it. Still, I felt shunned. Despite spending the entirety of my formative teenage years feeling at home in queer spaces, I began to feel like another kind of outsider. The mask I’d put on, the outfit I’d chosen, the depression I’d embraced, all in a subconscious attempt to shield myself from further abuse, made me look like the sort of person I’d once have run a mile from. It came as no surprise that queer friends now looked on me with suspicion. Whereas I’d once been a mystery to straight friends, I had become a mystery to queer friends also. Caught in the middle, my body dysmorphia intensified.
I felt I had been turned into a social weathervane, all too eager to please, facing whichever way the assuming winds blew me. When I wasn’t straight enough, I found a home in queer spaces, but once I was no longer deemed queer enough, I accepted my fate as another kind of outcast. It has made me incredibly unhappy, all because I never considered the possibility to staking a claim — that is, until I felt like I had lost any claim to stake. I realised that my identity had been a concern for other people for so long that I’d relinquished all ownership of it. When the ball was suddenly in my court, I just looked at it, puzzled. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I arrived in London feeling like a blank slate, but rather than chalk up a sense of who I wanted to be, I fell into a mould constructed for me by others. I became whatever people thought I was, until I had no sense of myself anymore.
Over the years since, I’ve begun to understand that, if I want to affirm those experiences in my life, I need to start talking about them. My silence and my sense of detachment constitute a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I don’t shape those experiences into statements about myself and my experiences, claiming that subculture as my own, as the place where I once felt most at home and where I once felt like I belonged, then of course I will have no place within them. But given the assumptions made about me in the present, I started to feel like this would be too little too late. I have been an ally, a defender of queer subjectivities — vocally so on this blog over the years — but nothing more. I have stayed abreast of conversations around queer culture and politics, watching as the conversation changes around me, denying myself the opportunity to participate, seeing myself as a victim, lost to another time before the language of the present made affirmation and self-acceptance so wonderfully possible. As such, I have persistently denied myself a voice in the now.
More recently, I’ve started wondering: Do things have to stay this way?
I must admit that a major catalyst for finishing this post/statement/story, which has been percolating in my drafts for some years in various forms, has been reading Adam Zmith’s forthcoming book Deep Sniff for Repeater Books. A magnificent history of queer futurities, constructed around those shapeshifting substances, the alkyl nitrites, Zmith’s recurring use of the term QUILTBAG, which I’d never heard before, brought up all kinds of emotions and memories for me.
Having consumed all sort of queer culture over the years, I’d always found echoes of my own experiences in these many representations of queer life but I had never read something that I felt carved out a place for me. Zmith’s book changed that, with the simple fact that he included those who are “questioning” in his queer taxonomy. “Questioning” was once a cage I felt forced into, then later forced out of. Though a source of trauma, it still felt like a home, and my relationship to that questioning self has never been resolved, nor has it had the opportunity to resolve itself. To be indirectly given permission to reaffirm my identity as “questioning”, of my gender if not my sexuality, has made Zmith’s book the most affirmative thing I’ve read in years. I saw a lot of myself in it, if not as a gay man, then at least as a once proud member of the QUILTBAG.
That being said, things are hardly any less complex than they once were when I was a teenager. Whilst vocabularies have changed and confidence has grown, who can claim ownership of certain words remains a hugely contentious topic. Alex V Green’s recent essay for The Outline on the word “queer”, for instance, is both a comforting read and an encapsulation of all the anxieties I have about publishing this essay.
Green begins with a summary of the 90s discourse around the word “normal” — “who that category contains, who it excludes, and the kind of coercive mechanisms that make such a category possible.” I remember feeling the legacy of these discussions in the 2000s; it is far easier to position yourself outside of something like “normality” than it is to position yourself inside of something else. The choice had already been made for me that I was not “normal”, but now the discussion has been inverted. I reckon I’m still as “not-normal” as I’ve ever been, but does that make me “queer”?
Truth be told, I feel no more comfortable with labels now than I did when I was a teenager. I’ve abstained from making any claims one way or another because I have never felt ready to say, definitively, what I am. But maybe I don’t have to decide before carving out a space for myself. Maybe this long-held feeling of in-betweenness is valid in itself. I did once experiment with this in private. Around 2014, I began identifying as “queer” or “genderqueer” — at least to my girlfriend. I had read John Stoltenberg’s book Refusing to be a Man, which she had acquired from a charity shop or maybe from a friend, and on completing it I like it had given form, for the first time, to some sort of deep truth newly legible to me. I remember that, after reading it, I tried to explain how revelatory it had been for me. I told her I had always felt “genderqueer”, or that I was at least “politically genderqueer”, whatever that means. I think this was my way of saying, please, don’t worry, I love you, please stop worrying about whether what everyone used to say is going to come true one day, I love you and I’m not going to leave you, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a space for queerness in my life and in my politics.
I first spoke to my partner about this when she was invited to write an essay for a blog many years ago, about when she first came to self-identify as a feminist, at a time when it was an oddly taboo word in popular discourses. (Seriously, it blows my mind how much has changed, in terms of our popular political language, in the first few decades of this strange century.) We talked about it and wrote up our stories together — with hers being the only one to be submitted, of course. So that she could more comfortably share an intimate journey with the world at large, we first exchanged intimate experiences with each other at home. It felt like a bonding moment, sharing our own perspectives on something that was important to us both, albeit for different reasons, bouncing off each other’s experiences so that we could better clarify our own.
I wrote about how my sense of feminism wasn’t taught to me by women in any generic sense. I didn’t feel like the sort of cliched man whose life had been shaped by strong women; the only female role model I had was my mother and we didn’t get on at all. My feminism was, instead, always queer and trans, informed by my peers, whose politics and personalities aligned far better with who I felt I was. Not as a “woman” in a patriarchal world, but as something else in another kind of space. This is to say that the feminism I grew up on wasn’t about making it in a man’s world, as was the proto-girlboss vibe of the 1990s and 2000s. It was about being cast out from under the masculine order of things, and finding power in that outsideness. It wasn’t striving against patriarchy so much as it was recognising and affirming that you were already part of another world that was constituted by a different set of relations and where a different set of rules applied. In hindsight, I don’t think I was anywhere near this articulate in talking to my partner. I’m not even sure I’m being that articulate now. But she understood the point, which was that I felt a queer feminism had fundamentally given form to my identity. It clarified something in how I felt about myself. That’s why I felt comfortable calling myself a feminist.
The problem, perhaps, is that I never said that out loud to anyone else. I’ve tried to have this conversation before, but it feels like one of the hardest things for me to do. In private, I still squirm when invited to talk about the politics of sex and gender and about my own personal experiences. Nevertheless, I have often made passionate defenses of queer experience on this blog, against rampant TERF dogma or the mutant liberalism of certain posthuman philosophies, whilst at the same time trying to avoid sending out any signals that I might have a personal investment in the debate. But I want that to change. I want to be able to talk more openly about the kind of person I am, the kind of experiences I’ve had, and how they’ve shaped who I am today.
An important question remains: how?
This post, in itself, is a terrifying thing to write. It feels like an intrusion on a vocabulary that others have a far more convincing claim to, as well as an invitation for derision from certain corners of the blogosphere that I have gradually been trying to extricate myself from. But Green’s essay once again explores how “queer” is an innately political term in the present, and less something for a card-carrying contingent to police in others, as if replicating the kind of boundary policing that once defined our exclusion from a heteronormative society. They write, for instance, how the apparent tension between spaces that are “gay” and spaces that are “queer:
In November, a (now-deleted) tweet demanding “More queer bars, less gay bars” invaded my timeline. The framing felt strange: gay and queer are, functionally, synonyms. But I knew what the tweet meant in drawing that seemingly arbitrary distinction … It immediately reminded me of an i-D article from August, which proudly proclaimed “the gay bar is dead,” pinning its cause of death on the rise of “the queer space.”
Queer spaces, Green explains, are “spaces of intentionality and community, where people felt the freedom to come together, away from the stigmatizing and normative gaze of straight, cisgender, white, and male society.” It is a definition of queer that resonates profoundly with my own, that I have clung onto in private for so many years, not knowing whether it was an appropriate way in which to use it. As Green continues, in queer spaces “people experimented with aesthetics, music, experiences, and connections that made them feel at home. On the street, they were outsiders; once through the doors, they were part of a community.”
I have missed this terribly under lockdown. Recently reading Paul B. Preciado’s book An Apartment on Uranus has only made this harder. The isolation of quarantine has no doubt enforced the queer space as an imagined idyll in my imagination. But what about a queer home? If I have a queer inner life, it is hardly replicated in the objects outside of myself, never mind in my own dress sense or mannerisms. An apartment on Uranus sounds like a blissful place to be by comparison. I wonder, increasingly, what it might be like to construct one; to have some sense of agency over my own four walls. But a sense of agency over my “self” is a more pressing starting point, and that is, in some ways, what this blog is for.
As a first step, this post feels enormous, but there is so much more that I would like to do. What does that “more” look like? I’m not sure yet. Despite how it may sound, I don’t think of this post as a “coming out”. I feel like who I am is obvious to those who know me, even if that’s limited to “Matt’s a bit camp”. To others, this might seem out of the blue. It feels a little out of the blue for me too. Why have I let this conversation lie still for so many years? Why have I never said anything out loud before now? I think because I knew how it would look, in our cynical age, for a big burly beardy man in a long-term heterosexual relationship to stake a claim on queerness without also being into leather or makeup or otherwise signalling outwardly how I feel internally. But the more long-term truth is that I’ve long been denied any opportunity for self-acceptance and self-expression. It has to start somewhere, and that is surely in knowing how to talk about yourself.
Knowing my audience, I anticipate some of my more casual and annoying readers will decry this post as an indulgent slip into identity politics. It is with them in mind that I will be abstaining from making any public changes to my pronouns anytime soon. I am not yet prepared to weather the social media cynicism that often brings from certain quarters. But there is a lesson for those people here too. For all the slips into “I”, this is not intended to solely be a discussion of the politics of identity as a form of individual affirmation. Self-acceptance is the desired by-product, yes, the personal significance of this post is overwritten, in my mind, by a far more forceful expression of solidarity, which I used to have and have since been denied, precisely because of who I appear to be. As such, it is the negative, individualising side of identity politics that I has been forced upon me for too long — an enforced individualism, wherein one must represent one thing only, held apart from both an internal multiplicity and indeterminacy, and an external solidarity. The impact of this on my personal life has been as sexual as it has been political. No longer. I am who I am, but who I am is one of you.
Even as I write this, old habits die hard. I’m left feeling deferential. I am one of you… if you’ll have me, is how I am left wanting to end that sentence. I’m queer now, if it pleases thee. Call me genderqueer now, if you like? Such is the tension within any self-declaration of solidarity. But why is self-declaration important? Because I don’t think most people realise how suffocating their assumptions can be. It takes a great deal of courage to correct them. That is a courage I have always lacked. I have never taken the opportunity to define myself because it has always been denied me, and I have always smothered the desire to speak up for myself for fear of failing to meet other people’s expectations of who or what I should be. But from now on I’d like to feel able to talk about myself in terms that feel appropriate to me rather than anyone else. I’m fed up of pandering to those who would attack my own attempts at self-acceptance.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this, and just as long to write it all down, but I have been inspired by so many lovely trans and non-binary people I’ve met over the years, who have shown a strength of will and self-knowledge that I have always been slightly jealous of, and who have perhaps sensed a certain affinity already. I know some have claimed me, tongue in cheek, as an “honorary tran” and I’ve had some difficult and confused conversations with some of you about this before already. Thank you for your patience. I feel like you, more than anyone else, will understand. For those that don’t, I don’t know how else to express it. I don’t know how to insist upon my inner experience. I’ve had a hard enough time in my life making the case for this with depression, which remains an enigma to those closest to me, who don’t understand the inner workings of a mind that habitually recoils from life, family and friendships, preferring instead to quietly self-destruct. But this doesn’t feel like an illness or being broken. It feels like breaking a set of restrictions that have negatively impacted my life for as long as I can remember. It is an expression of what makes me happy rather than an expression of my capacity for misery. Understanding the latter has taken precedence for a long time. I’d like to make space for the other side of the coin.
So I think it is about time that I make a claim; that I affirm my experiences and where I’ve come from and what I’ve learned about the world and about myself in the process. I want to affirm my upbringing as an early enigma, used as a punching bag even by those kids who would later come out as gay or trans themselves. I want to show some love and appreciate to that kid who was already disenfranchised and afraid when it became acceptable for others to express themselves in other ways. I want to accept that effeminate child and the awkward teenager he became and the strange lopsided man he turned into. I want to call him queer now, and step back into his shoes. I’ve spent too long out of them.
Ever the worrier, images of eye rolls and scoffs intrude as I continue to write what feels like a truth. But the other truth is this: it is a lot harder for men to stake a claim on a kind of queer gender without breaking other aesthetic conventions. That is true even within gay communities themselves, where a kind of homomasculinity reinforces patriarchy in microcosm. But I think, for me personally, I have to start somewhere. I have previously made no claim to queerness because I didn’t think anyone else would think I was queer enough to qualify. But the conversation was limited. The terrain was one-dimensional. Debates around my queerness, always instigated by others, had always been with regards to my sexuality. That remains a complicated and private topic for me, no doubt because it is an aspect of my personality I’ve long been denied any ownership of. But the real issue has always been gender. I knew in myself that the disconnect was between my gender and my sexuality, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the opportunity to explore that in a way that I was comfortable with. So I locked it all away. I recoiled from the idea of wearing my heart on my sleeve. I no longer felt comfortable expressing myself outwardly. I wore nothing but black in an attempt to at least make my voided sense of self look chic. Thank god I started writing. These days it’s all I have. I think now’s about time I wrote this down and said it publicly, to finally try and perforate the divide between who I am within and who I am socially and sexually — two worlds that have long been kept firmly apart, with deeply damaging results.
The strange thing is that, in writing all of this down, I thought I’d feel different. It is telling that I don’t. Saying this out loud means the world though. It feels defiant. It feels like claiming ownership over a part of my life that has always belonged to other people. In fact, lots of my life feels like it belongs to other people. Such is life as an adoptee — feeling like a patchwork person with two names. Knowing I am Matt Colquhoun to many but, to another group of people, I am Lewis D—-, is enough to mess with your head as it is, and maybe that’s part of this strange feeling too. But surely, in the realm of heteronormative family dynamics, adoption constitutes a queer relation in its own way. Regardless, it nonetheless remains true that all the conflicts in my life until my twenties were oddly gendered. I think I’d like to acknowledge myself as oddly gendered now too, thanks.
I don’t know what that looks like yet. I don’t know if it looks like anything. This isn’t a post to declare a change of name or of pronouns or anything else (although I may start signalling “he/they” when the opportunity arises). This is a post written to tell a story that I’ve often been made to feel ashamed of, by straight friends and queer friends alike, all because I don’t look the part. The problem is that I’ve never looked the part, no matter what that part is. The name of this blog, of course, was just another joke about not looking the part. As a teenager, I used to use the pseudonym “pseudochild” online — an expression of this same sentiment, I think, cloaked under a collection of other mid-pubescent changes. (The unintended resonance this pseudonym has with “xenogothic” is something I have thought about often.) But these names are as much a claim of identity as they are an attempt to circumvent it altogether. Because even if I don’t look the part, I feel the part and always have. Embracing a feeling over an outward appearance was a founding gesture of a newly authentic life online, and affirming being a bad goth has been life-affirming more broadly too. I think it’s about time I finally embrace being a bad queer as well.