We had a big Urbanomic night out on Wednesday, as Robin and I popped down to Corsica Studios to be subsumed by zero.
It was a bitterly cold December night. The kind of night where your nostrils frost on contact with the outside. Haribo on the bus kept sleep at bay and then the bass and swelling crowd did the very good job of that afterwards.
In New Cross, we’d spent a few hours talking about “redness”‘; about Reza’s Sellarsianism and the myth of the given; the pink ice cube; “perceptual taking” and Deleuzian intensity…
We didn’t arrive at many answers for any of our questions but it was more than fitting to find ourselves immersed in red such a short time later.
I didn’t know what to expect from the night, but then again I never do. That’s the joy of Ø. Mala’s reputation preceded him but Dis Fig and Intentionally Cold were a mystery to me.
Dis Fig is a haze to me now. I remember hearing a cut from Flowdan’s 2014 Serious Business EP and not a lot else. This was a strange track to hear. The last time I’d heard it was cutting through the Cornish countryside in Robin’s car a few months earlier. It was strange to hear it again, once again in his company. I remember nothing else. I felt buffeted around by that wall-cracking Corsica bass and the bitter wind outside. Chatting, nodding, drinking. Not taking much in but just bathing in the red.
Intentionally Cold was certainly that. Robin referred to their set as “headbanging constipationalism” and “jouissance in frustration”. I was hard to disagree with the self-confessed “old junglist”, whether for better or for worse.
The entire set was a wall of tight loops, no air to breathe, the desiring-lyricism of SZA and Kendrick curtailed into the most pointed of vocal loops — I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck, I don’t give a fuck — expressions of free spirit violently smothered. It certainly captured something of the present moment in its sadomasochism.
The contrast that followed was stark. Mala‘s set was full of air; full of emptiness. Flashes in the darkness, like a lighthouse clearing the air after a storm.
Admittedly, I don’t get out that much. The last time I heard a set like this was probably 2011, before dubstep went white. (Never mind techno, Make Dubstep Black Again.) It took me back to dubstep nights in sticky Welsh basements but even those didn’t have the dynamic range of Mala’s set, making the silence as heavy as the bone-rattling bass in itself.
The contrast between “then” and “now”, “old” and “young” — jeez, we’re talking about just 10 years here but the temporal shift felt massive — and their intensive conversation really caught me off guard. I ended up on the night bus home, slightly nauseous, thinking about what has really changed.
Zoom out. Not a lot. Different intensities. Still red.
The last post on this occasioned a great comment from Ed which I can’t let languish below the comments line. (Has Twitter replaced the old fervent comments section activity of yesteryear?) Ed writes:
The question of whether or not capital has agency — or something like agency — is also intimately connected to the question of ‘what is capital?’. In the standard economic account capital denotes wealth in its various guises — physical assets, financial assets, factors of production, etc, measured and expressed through monetary value. If we go with this understanding of capital, then the question “does capital have agency” comes to appear like a silly one: one owns capital in the form of assets or whatever, thus making one a capitalist. One then is able to move one’s assets about, selling them off, buy new ones and so on, often with certain strategic elements in mind (bringing in things like Austrian theories of time preference). It makes sense why the various orthodox schools of economics would flock to this basic understanding, since it cedes power to the capitalist and above all emphasizes the role of the individual commanding the power at their disposal.
When the left picks up this understanding, the result is predictable: the problem becomes less structural, and can be solved simply by getting rid of the ‘bad people doing bad things’. The gamut of solutions from egalitarian liberalism to conscious capitalism to replacing the capitalists with the state — or in other cases, the workers themselves — stems fundamentally from this problem. Which of course is the problem you raise here, brilliantly… I was hoping to write something up on the intersection of the agency question with magical voluntarism but you beat me to it!
It should go without saying that Ed should definitely pick this up. He’d no doubt expand on it with far more insight than me!
Relatedly, I’m coming to realize more and more what that the critique of agency by U/Acc was, at least for me, a critique of voluntarism. This bit from Fisher’s critique of Bakker is brilliant in spelling that out:
“Agency does not entail voluntarism. On the contrary, voluntarism is likely to impede agency by obfuscating the causal factors which prevent entities from acting, or which can enable them to act more effectively. Marxism has always known this – what does the famous claim that men make history but not in conditions of their own making mean if not that agency is not the same as the assertion of will? In truth, leftist voluntarism involved a backsliding from the model of agency which Marx had proposed. This Marxian account of agency strikingly resonates with Catherine Malabou’s account of plasticity, which, as Nick Srnicek pointed out in his discussion of Neuropath, offers rich resources for rethinking agency in the light of neuroscientific discoveries. “‘What we have called the constitutive historicity of the brain is really nothing other than its plasticity,” Malabou claims. “In ordinary speech [plasticity] designates suppleness, a faculty for adaptation, the ability to evolve. … Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, ‘formable,’ and formative at the same time. … But it must be remarked that plasticity is also the capacity to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create.”
Which delivers us to your question: “Why focus on capital?”
Agreed. Can you give us an example of such a dynamic? Capital is only one aspect of a much more complex assemblage of systems. I would never argue that humans have complete control of such systems, but there are decision points that push the dynamics in certain directions.
Contra BA in the thread, I don’t think that capital is just one system amongst many. If we take capital in the narrow sense addressed above them yes, it is an element, ultimately under human control but perhaps mystified (or perhaps double-mystified in the case of ideologues: capital under human control -> capital as self-moving substance -> actually under human control after all), that exists in conjunction with other interacting systems. But turning the Marxian account of capital is essential, since it annihilates this individualist supposition and reveals how capital does have an agency in the sense that you have defined here: ability to act as a causal force. Capital isn’t simply owned assets, or means of production, or money (if it was reducible to one of these things, we could theoretical extend capital infinitely into the past, a nonsensical proposition), but something other than them that is nonetheless identifiable to them in this historical moment. It allows convertability between them, empowers their circulation; basically, it moves beneath them, hence the “general formula for capital” being the M-C-M’ loop in itself, and not a distinct moment in it.
The “realisation that our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own” sums it up perfectly: far from being a something moved about by the individual capitalist, capital imparts a unique mode of social mediation, which deposits itself, as Deleuze and Guattari might say, in every pore of society. As the movement of value, it may in distinct moments ultimately derive from labor, but read as a historical flow it captures because it has imposed the value-form on it, making labor into a commodity. Totalizing? Yes, but that’s something that must be taken seriously and not shrugged off. Limits our range of options? Yah. But it also points to the place where politics is capable of being reborn: not in some unmolested pocket free of capitalist relations, or in some mythologized past, but in the abstract possibility of the future. And it illustrates the limit of capital’s domination: in the value-form itself.
Stop the attempted cooption of Mr Blobby. Cease and desist. We cannot allow his narrative to be rewritten by the powers that be.
A sacrilegious article over at Joe.co.uk has suggested that Blobby will be entitled to some sort of state funeral when he dies, as well as suggesting that he is the product of the normalised Oedipal structures of a nuclear family, that he is pervious to common illnesses, that he will be emblazoned on the national currency following his demise.
Ciara Knight asks the question: “So what happens when international icon Mr. Blobby dies?” and informs us:
Rest assured, there is a plan in place. A meticulous set of instructions that must be adhered to. These directions are locked away, with only two people in the world aware of their whereabouts.
The constitution clearly states that the United Kingdom will not be without a fully-functioning Mr. Blobby for a period longer than twenty-four (24) hours or one (1) rotation of the Earth around the Sun.
Blobby was hatched from an egg. We all know this. An egg from where? From the earth itself. He is the product of immaculate conception via palpable social tension. And you think he can simply be removed from this world by some sort of biochemical warfare? In the year of the Skripals, any sudden death of a public figure by curable disease must be treated with the utmost suspicion. It is common knowledge that Blobby will only transcend this mortal plane once the class war is over and full communism has been implemented after the demise of the late capitalist structures that birthed him as irrepressible libidinal ejecta.
So, come on then, Ciara Knight, if that’s your real name, what is this utter fucking bullshit? Who are they trying to kid!? This hyperstitional rehearsal of the death of Blobby would be seen as incredibly distasteful for even a D-list celebrity, never mind someone of Blobby’s stature, synonymous with the much-repressed national spirit in itself.
Blobby is not in the constitution. He is not akin to some former Prime Minister or the Queen Mum. Do not mistake his disruptive nature as being alike to that of Prince Phillip — removed from public life so as not to embarrass the establishment anymore from within. Blobby embarrasses the establishment from without. That is his power.
The only state funeral Blobby will attend is the funeral of the state itself.
As a case in point, I have been enthused to learn, via @oktokuiten, that Mr Blobby was once, at one time, literally possessed by a “hardcore, rave-loving S&M lesbian”, being embodied by the spirit of the age as much as he embodied it — Blobby: the revolutionary and reciprocal subject.
This is very important information and adds a whole new dimension to recent Blobby posting, giving further credence to the suggestion that Blobby was the mutant afterbirth of a repressed rave-era class war machine brought to life through the psychedelic colourgasm of a pink blob with yellow spots. This state-sanctioned image of Blobby is not mere poetic license — it is the reterritorialisation of a figure for the sake of pathetic clickbait. Whoever would do such a thing on a blog or website will be amongst the first against the wall. This is the cold, hard fact of Blobby.
The cooptive attempts do not stop, however. Many questions remain as to what Blobby will be for us. The war over his image and philosophy has been ignited at a moment that could not have been any less expected but also at a most convenient time, with so much of the country in chaos, that I have no doubt many are hoping this rewriting of his history will slip by unnoticed, like the small-print apologia in the tabloid press.
It is very explicit that Blobby is — must be — a positive figure, an anarchic figure, an emblem of desiring-disruption. But what are the stakes of his being coopted in this instance? What exactly are we fighting for? To understand the truth of Blobby is not to render him a costumed rave-loving lesbian as a caricature of another mode of living. We cannot allow him to be rendered grotesque and violent by a newly inaugurated neoliberal media elite.
I had begun to think more about this after I recently revisited a dual set of K-Punk posts, in which Mark Fisher explores the two sides of a contemporary psychedelia.
For Mark, psychedelia was not a general 1960s tie-dye aesthetic but rather the evocation of various potential approaches towards libidinal engineering in the era of Big Pharma and the violent repression of our global dissensus. This is an approach that could be used in various ways, both for consciousness raising and consciousness razing, and this is the same line in the sand that Blobby is being fought over.
Mark would first write about a “psychedelic reason” as a sort of natural egress from the confines of a subjugated inner experience. Whilst Mark advocated for a “getting out of our faces again“, this was not intended as a euphemism for hedonistic mindlessness. Mark would write, in fact, that drugs can be dangerous (ontopolitically speaking) because all they do is reveal to you, often messily, how fragile the subjugated self you hide behind really is. Rip off the mask at your peril. Better to do it carefully, with cunning; under the guiding hand of Baruch Spinoza…
Mark writes that what makes drugs, religious mania, mental illness, et al. dangerous is “not the state of ego-loss itself but the imprecision of the art of maintaining it, the fact that the organism might resume its rights at any moment, crashing you into psychic mini-deaths and melancholic catatonia.” Of course, the joy of Blobby is that there is no such recapitulation in sight; no fix on the horizon. He is on a pure line of flight that is all his own.
The problem with drugs is that they only put the Alien Parasite Entity (= His Majesty the Ego = the thing that calls itself you) to sleep. Their dissolution of the APE is temporary, all-too temporary. And after a while, the neuronal battleground — what you are fighting over AND what you are fighting with, i.e. the only resources you have — is itself damaged. APE has its way as you are dragged/drugged into permanent low-to-deep level depression.
[…] Drugs are like an escape kit without an instruction manual. Taking MDMA is like improving MS Windows: no matter how much tinkering $ Bill does, MS Windows will always be shit because it is built on top of the rickety structure of DOS. In the same way, using ecstasy will always fuck up in the end because Human OS has not been taken out and dismantled.
Blobby, on the other hand, is Linux-as-malware, ripping through the human security system that had tried to eject him. He is rogue code; the APE unbound from its oppressive architecture.
Later, Mark writes about the other side of this psychedelia: “psychedelic fascism”. He begins by quoting Stanley Kubrick, responding to criticism of his film A Clockwork Orange in a letter to The New York Times in 1972. Initially, the critic Fred Hechinger writes the following about Kubrick’s ultraviolent adaptation of the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess:
“Liberals,” said Malcolm McDowell, star of A Clockwork Orange, “hate that film.” The implication is that there is something shameful in the liberals’ reaction — that at the very least they don’t know the score. Quite the opposite is true. Any liberal with brains should hate Clockwork, not as a matter of artistic criticism but for the trend this film represents. An alert liberal should recognize the voice of fascism.
Kubrick rightly responds:
Hechinger is probably quite sincere in what he feels. But what the witness feels, as the judge said, is not evidence — the more so when the charge is one of purveying “the essence of fascism.”
“Is this an uncharitable reading of … the film’s thesis?” Mr. Hechinger asks himself with unwonted if momentary doubt. I would reply that it is an irrelevant reading of the thesis, in fact an insensitive and inverted reading of the thesis, which, so far from advocating that fascism be given a second chance, warns against the new psychedelic fascism — the eye-popping, multimedia, quadrasonic, drug-oriented conditioning of human beings by other beings — which many believe will usher in the forfeiture of human citizenship and the beginning of zombiedom.
A Clockwork Orange is perhaps the perfect example to draw upon here, in orbit of Blobby. The violence and reckless abandon of both so often steal the limelight whilst it is in fact the language deployed in the midst of their actions that frames the debacles in front of you. From protagonist Alex’s “post-Joycean mash-up of Slavic, Cockney rhyming, Gypsy and Polari” to Blobby’s explosively expressive intonations of blobby blobby blob blob.
Where does fascism enter here? Through the violence of the individual or the smothering violence of the State that seeks to squash the libidinal individual? Mark writes, concurring with Kubrick:
Psychedelic Fascism legitimates and propagates a radically unSpinozist notion of being free: i.e. give free reign to your Inner Child = yr Inner Fascist.
Spinoza rightly says that children are in a state of abjection because, unable to repress their passively-generated and self-damaging impulses, they confuse being free with ‘doing as you please’.
Ask yrself this: who or what is it that cannot or will not explain what it is doing or why it is doing it?
It’s the Inner Child, the Alien Parasite Entity, the Foreign Installation….
‘Don’t mess with my mojo man….’ ‘Hey man, don’t lay that rationality tip on me, it’s, like, the forces of the cosmos being creative, y’know…’
Where is Blobby in all of this? Is he not our Inner Child? No. He has no self-awareness of such a role in the mind of the Repressed Adult. He has no internal justification for his rebelliousness. He is always already abjectly outside the established order. He is an Outer Child at worst, but this is not what he thinks he is. He has no conception of the architecture in which he has been inserted or the anarchitecture that he represents. He is a nomad. He is an outsider absolutely.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the man who, as a child himself, brought Blobby radically into his life not as Inner Child but as Father Figure:
Blobby is an anarchist. A pre-internet meme-making, Andy Kaufman-inspired troll, whose sole purpose was to humiliate the questionable craft of Z-list celebrities. A creature whose rebellious anti-establishment blues – well, anti-BBC, too – made working class children smile from Portsmouth to Glasgow at a time when Britain was still recovering from Thatcherism. I like to think my dad would have been sort of proud that a toddler was emotionally-fathered by such a renegade.
This is not the fascism of an Inner Child. This is a hobgoblin, a friend to children and a horror to adults. He is the renegade we don’t yet know.
Today, as the Brexit process falters at another low hurdle, we might also do well to remember here that the first translation of The Communist Manifesto did not translate the “Gespenst” of the book’s opening line as “spectre” but, rather, as hobgoblin.
If there is a frightful hobgoblin stalking Europe today, it is surely Blobby, emerging from the shadow of a doomed-to-fail Brexit. The process has been dismissed by many as anarchy. Blobby is here to show them what real anarchy looks like.
Do not let the state coopt him as they themselves go out of their minds. He is the people’s unconscious. Not theirs.
An epiphany was had today, and — as ever — it was because of something Robin said.
A frequently debated and ridiculed suggestion that circles the acceleratosphere is that capital has its own agency; that it is an autonomous agency. What is meant by this is very dependent on context.
The two examples that always come to mind for me — that is, the examples I’m most familiar with — are Fisher’s nods to it in The Weird and the Eerie, when he writes, in his introduction to the book’s second half:
Since the eerie turns crucially on the problem of agency, it is about the forces that govern our lives and the world. It should be clear to those of us in a globally tele-connected world capitalist world that those forces are not fully available to our sensory perception. A force like capital does not exist in any substantial sense, yet it is capable of producing any sort of affect.
I also think about Cyclonopedia, in which Reza invokes the petropolitics of oil, describing oil itself as an “inorganic demon” of geotrauma and latent capital. He writes that inorganic demons “are parasitic by nature, they themselves give rise to their xenotating existence, and generate their effects out of the human host, whether as an individual, an ethnicity, a society or an entire civilisation.” There are countless more examples as well. These two, in particular, evoke Fisher’s Gothic Materialism. Many others also call back to the Ccru’s meatpuppeteer Monarch Program and the geotraumatics of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (“Who does the Earth think it is?”), even to Nietzschean materialism and Spinozistic visions of nature.
My question when faced with these suggestions has generally always been: “What do we mean by agency here?” Agency is seemingly always tied to a conscious subject but the dictionary definition is perhaps more vague than you might expect, understood as an “action or intervention producing a particular effect”. No mention of a subject here. Philosophically speaking, it is much less slippery, of course. When we speak of agency we mean an actor’s capacity to act, and this definition is typically associated with ethics.
For Mark, Reza and others, the definition taken is something in between. The definition of actor, for instance, is taken broadly. For Mark, the eerie is a question of agency because, at the level of perception, we may be able to sense an action without any concrete knowledge of its source — Mark’s example is the “eerie cry”; a voice produced by an unknown body. That doesn’t mean there is no actor there but rather that knowledge of an actor may not necessarily precede the sensing of its actions.
The complaint of those who dislike this definition being applied to capital is that this serious sociopolitical concept is allowed to slip between economic realities and fictions — narratively speaking, that is — although, on the stock market, this quantum and speculative understanding is commonplace.
Such an argument showed up on Twitter recently, with @brightabyss sharing an article by Alain Badiou in which he apparently “doesn’t get taken in be the fantasy of Capital as autonomous agency” — in fact, it seems to me that he does. He refers to capitalism as an actor in the title.
Nevertheless, @brightabyss is clear to note that “Capitalist systems are steered by capitalists.” The main point to be made here, I think, is one clarified by @b8zs: suggesting that it is a case of the distinction between “Capital as autonomous agency vs. Capitalist systems steered by (individually responsible) capitalists” — we should really emphasise the point that capitalists are taken to be “individually responsible” for capitalism here.
I won’t recount the whole twitter debate here — although it was a good’un — but rather stick with this initial framing of the argument. Because the question of agency, as I see it, is not one of picking a side but rather acknowledging the flow between these two positions — one socially amorphous and the other reductively individualising.
The danger of framing discussions strictly along the lines of the latter is that it places all agency on the head of the individual which, in itself, is a typically neoliberal framing of debates around the likes of climate change or poverty — what Mark Fisher (via David Smail) once called “magical voluntarism”. Mark writes in his essay “Good For Nothing”:
For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ — the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be — is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression — whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it. A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.
What are the benefits of taking this and using it to punch upwards? We can do this for members of government, who are occupationally responsible for such things, sure, but to spread this thinly across society as a whole is no better a solution than the reading of “agency” supposedly being critiqued. It frames the problem laterally rather than hierarchically — reducing “capitalists” to as broad a moral demographic as “meat eaters”. It seems more like the learned behaviour of this ideology in and of itself, reflected back at the powers that be.
Without the inclusion of a critique of social structures, the analysis is as oppressive as it is impotent.
The theory-fictional approach to horrorising this omnipotent agency should not be taken “literally”, but that is not to say we cannot acknowledge the cultural importance of our fictions and the ways in which they raise consciousness around issues through narrative extrapolation. This was, in part, the point made by Robin through the analogical image of the jungle.
The anarchitecture of the jungle, as found in so many literary examples — Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Ballard’s The Drowned World were ours — is representative of the disappearance of a familiar architecture that you know; an external infrastructure which helps to give shape to your sense of self through habit and language and semiotics.
Once this architecture — understood most generally as space-time but we can draw things into a sociopolitical infrastructure — is dissolved into the chaos of the jungle, you can only keep attributing your actions to a self for so long. Eventually, the familiar sociopolitical architecture of habit and understanding is no longer in place so that you cannot distinguish your agency from the agency of your own environment.
This is the entire plot of They Live!, isn’t it? The sunglasses make the jungle of libidinal engineering under capitalism suddenly legible. Once you become aware of the messages all around you, our understanding of individual agency is dissolved.
Or we can think about The Truman Show. Here the plot is inverted. Truman lives a dull existence until, one day, he comes to realise that no one around him has any agency of their own. They are all part of a literal architecture that structures his entire life. He is the only agentic subject in the Truman Show. Is this emphasising of his agency liberatory? No. Not at first. Whilst he remains trapped in the overbearing infrastructure, his desire to run headlong into the transcendental wall of his existence is portrayed as a kind of megalomaniac paranoia — even if we, the audience, know he is justified.
This fictive realisation that our agency is indistinguishable from capital’s own is precisely the point made by countless theorists and fiction writers. The solution to this is not to double-down on one conspiratorial agency or our individuality, but rather hold both as influencing their other in tandem.
Badiou, in the article shared by @brightabyss, seems to say as much himself — and let us not ignore, at the very start, the way in which capitalism is framed as a “sole culprit”; an agentic actor. He writes:
Technological transhumanism remakes us as that hackneyed, inexhaustible theme of horror and science fiction movies: the creator overwhelmed by his creation, either enchanted by the coming (which has been awaited since Nietzsche) of the Ubermensch, or fearful of it, taking refuge in the skirt of Gaia, Mother Nature.
Let’s take things a step further. Humanity, for four or five millennia, has been organized by the triad of: private property, which concentrates enormous wealth in the hands of very slender oligarchies; the family, through which fortunes pass through inheritance; the state, which protects both property and family through armed force. It is this triad that defines the Neolithic age of our species, and we are still there — indeed now more than ever. Capitalism is the contemporary form of the Neolithic, and its enslavement of technologies by competition, profit, and the concentration of Capital only brings to their apex the monstrous inequalities, social absurdities, warlike massacres and deleterious ideologies which have always accompanied the deployment of new technologies under the historical reign of class hierarchy.
The suggestion here seems to be that, whilst we may imagine ourselves being overcome by our own creations, we fail to acknowledge the ways in which this has already occurred. But this is precisely the role of so many theory-fictional enterprises: the extrapolation of the situations we are already currently in.
Why focus on capital? Why not? It is inseparable from any other multiplicitous organising system. Whatever the target of our ire, the question of agency remains central.
I’ll end with my favourite (early) passage from Ballard’s The Drowned World:
This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
Mark Fisher is often credited for Fredric Jameson’s remark, “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism.” It’s right that the credit go to Mark, because his account of capitalist realism confronts us with capitalism’s unbearable yet unavoidable horrors. From the genocidal destruction of settler colonialism, through industrial production’s demolition of cultures and modes of life, to planet-altering anthropogenic climate change, capital subsumes the world. We can easily imagine the end of the world because under capitalism most of us confront it, in ways conscious and unconscious, every day as we are forced to choose our exploitation, dispossession and confinement. Thinking with Mark, this talk will salvage possibilities of communist desire from the ruins of everyday life. It will focus on the end of comradeship, the different ways we lose our comrades. The fact of an end should not forestall a beginning.
The last post on this topic, whilst using ‘alienation’ in its title, didn’t really address alienation itself in much detail. This was an oversight — one rightly pointed out by @cyborg_nomade on Twitter when they asked the most obvious question — to me anyway — that I hadn’t really considered in the context of talking about social media: “why struggle against alienation?“
I think it’s worth taking better account of this question, for further clarity, and in the process I might figure out where exactly my previously expressed feelings are coming from…
The last post on Facebook alienation was, to my mind, an over-long mess and I was surprised by its positive reception. Whilst there was plenty of theory drawn on, it grew out of a very personal attempt to understand an innate desire to flee some platforms because of their ubiquity in different and (what I’d like to be) distinct parts of my life.
With any such attempt at an exit from a social media platform comes a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t conundrum: Facebook-as-(literal)-work made me feel alienated, as did my opting out of it as a platform that most of my IRL friends use to communicate with one another…
Such a feeling is not, as suggested last time, the seed of a “Luddite moralism”. I’m not morally against the ubiquity of communications technologies — I use Twitter, Slack, WhatsApp and WordPress daily — constantly, even — and I get a lot out of those platforms. (Obviously.) I have also previously been very cynical of those people who remove themselves from all social media as a hamfisted way of indicating they have taken on a vague political stance and then get grumpy about other people not giving a shit about their self-imposed digital monasticism (that’s the dumbest way to do politics)… But I am sickened by Facebook’s particular ubiquity in both my social and working lives.
With social media becoming work — something which I’m not doing currently but have done on numerous occasions over the last 5/6 years — Facebook becomes like my friendly cyberboss. I remember some YouTube interview with Žižek in which he derides the rise of the Friendly Boss archetype in corporate office environments as a dissolving a boundary of resistance — no comment on where he actually ends up going with the analogies but I think he raises an interesting point when he says, in the first few seconds of the video:
Of course I have nothing against the fact that your boss treats you in a nice way and so on. The problem is if this not only covers up the actual relationship of power, it makes it even more impenetrable.
His point is, who do you rebel against as a worker when your boss is your mate? What happens to that structural demarcation of labour and power? He points out that it becomes impolite to rebel as your friend-boss takes any discontentment with work personally.
The joy of being a freelancer is that, working in very small teams, this is rarely a problem for me. My “bosses” are usually my mates first and that survives any working relationship. Previously, however, when working as a part of something much bigger, when I’ve had to run social media accounts, it is Facebook itself which ends up taking on the role of overarching corporate “Friend”. Push notifications become to-do lists. Facebook Messenger becomes a space for planning a night at the pub and providing customer service. The “Friendly Boss” becomes impersonalised to the point that it is detached infrastructure which nonetheless produces the same affects.
Wanting to rebel and distance myself from that becomes a snub to the friends who share that space with me unrelated to the work I’m paid for. The dynamics become so utterly impenetrable as to negatively effect my non-working life with friends who are not involved in this immediate labour structure whatsoever but nonetheless are through their immanent relationship to that platform in a social context. So, if I want to leave work at “the office”, that means disconnecting from the internet. That can be healthy but, in many other ways, that becomes a form of (quite literal) social alienation. I’m in no position to have a separate “work phone” and so the work becomes oppressively pervasive. These were the feeling behind my original post.
But what does any of that mean for a concept like “alienation“? Are we still talking about Hegelian-Marxist “alienation” here? Or are we simply talking about an regretful detachment from an idealised social “reality”? But wait a minute… What’s the difference? Is this instead just a partial alienation I’m trying to articulate and grumble about? Is it even alienation at all? How are you meant to critique anything from this position?…
“There’s Alienation And Then There’s Alienation…”
This problem was introduced in a short exchange between @cyborg_nomade and @omnicorrupt on Twitter, both in reply to my original post. Following @cyborg_nomade’s question about the implied necessity of struggling against alienation, @omnicorrupt writes:
Alienation is not so much something to be diagnosed as it is always a very real and practical pain in the backside. Indeed, we are always already struggling against it, and we don’t have much of a choice in the matter.
However, @cyborg_nomade argues that, in their experience, alienation is “rather enjoyable, but maybe I’m just a masochist.” @omnicorrupt responds:
There’s certainly alienation and then there’s alienation. But in the Hegelian-Marxist sense, it’s never a good thing. I compare it to a kind of social itch that you just can’t seem to scatch, a gnawing tension of distance and baseline misunderstanding.
My own sense of the word ‘alienation’ — in the specific context of Facebook — is perhaps best understood as something which has fallen between this Hegelian-Marxist sense and what @cyborg_nomade is implicitly referencing here: a cybernetic and Nietzschean ‘alienation’; a Landian ‘alientation’. On social media, these two positions become entwined and exacerbated at what feels like unprecedented levels.
Although inherently connected, these two forms of alienation articulate two very different positions — one articulates a discontentment, a detachment from our “nature” under capitalism; the other articulates a strategically advantageous pursuit of outsideness. Both are related to labour under capitalism but one takes a negative and the other a positive view of its manipulation of the human subject. Both are valid and both are necessary to grasp here before moving forwards…
Hegelian-Marxist alienation is perhaps best understood, today, in a very general sense. We can point to Lawrence Hinman who once suggested that “alienation” today is so broad a term as to refer to “any form of discontent that cannot be cured by aspirin” (which certainly sounds familiar) but, as cynical as that may sound, this generality perhaps marks the depths to which we’ve plummeted into the murky waters of alienation today, far below the surface of Marx’s much-referenced theory.
For Marx, alienation was that enforced distance from our “true” nature, our “species-essence”, our “species-being”, our Gattungswesen — a distance which comes from being reduced to a cog in the machine of a stratified capitalist society. Whilst a young Marx may have fallen, to some extent, for the “myth of the given” in this initial argument, suggesting that we have a base sense of what it is to be human and that capitalism distances us from this, the later Marx was clear to note that our “species-being” is malleable and constantly shaped and reshaped by social relations. Our humanity, our sense of ourselves, is, therefore, contingent, but capitalism’s oppressive influence on its constitution, stratifying the social relations that give form to the self, preserves and exacerbates this experience of rudimentary alienation the deeper we climb down into modernity.
Alienation, then, in this sense, becomes a distance internal to our “species-being” — between the Real and the Ideal; between the conditions we’re (socially) told to strive for and the actual conditions under which we (individually) live. The more historically recent imposition of individualism and the downplaying of the social causes of discontentment are perhaps the most obvious measures of this sense of alienation as it has spread throughout the socialised medias that we wade through on the daily.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. For Herbert Marcuse, we might do well to remember, alienation is a bitter pill that nevertheless has to be swallowed. To find yourself alienated is an unpleasant realisation but, once consciousness of this ontological deficit has been sufficiently raised, it can become a useful one. Seen from this angle, alienation becomes a potential catalyst for social change. It remains negative but it becomes an opportunity at the same time.
Marcuse’s argument is still, essentially, a Marxist-Hegelian dialectical thinking. For example, for Marcuse, art was the best measurement of this form of alienation, but he was not naive — he did not fail to acknowledge art’s prized place on the walls of the bourgeoisie. Art could just as easily be a force for material domination as it could be a force for imaginative liberation. And so, in Marcuse’s dialectical view, these forces should be seen as developing in tandem with one another, each informing the other and growing with the other. It is the challenge of a positive alienation to overcome — and instigate actual social change beyond — capitalist capture.
But doesn’t that suggest they cancel each other out? Social change has certainly occurred at intervals but none so intensive as to escape the gravity of capitalism…
Genealogies of Capture
In subtle contrast to this emancipatory overcoming, Nick Land’s 1990s cybernetic sense of alienation takes its foundation from Nietzsche and his anti-Hegelianism; his rejection of Hegel the dialectician. Nietzsche saw this dialectical alienation as an auto-suicide machine. This certainly seemed true of Christianity, in his experience, with its own internal engine of alienation, which seemed to be undermining Christianity itself through its emphasis on the moral virtues of truth-telling which were undermining scripture in a modern and increasingly scientific world. As Nietzsche writes in the Genealogy of Morals:
The “salvation” of the human race (I mean, from “the Masters”) is well on course; everything is being made appreciably Jewish, Christian or plebeian (never mind the words!). The passage of this poison through the whole body of mankind seems unstoppable, even though its tempo and pace, from now on, might tend to be slower, softer, quieter, calmer — there is not hurry… With this in view, does the Church still have a necessary role, indeed, does it have a right to exist? Or could one do without it? Quaeritur. It seems that the Church rather slows down and blocks the passage of poison instead of accelerating it? Well, that might be what makes it useful… Certainly it is by now something crude and boorish, resistant to a more tender intelligence, to a truly modern taste. Should not the Church at least try to be more refined?… Nowadays it alienates, more than it seduces…
Nietzsche, whilst he may at first concede and credit Christianity with providing us with foundational allegories of liberation and collective overcoming, argues that the Church, as Christianity’s central institution, now restricts its own ecstatic flows for the sake of its own survival, becoming an institution of repression rather than expression.
(I find it bizarre and telling, in this day and age, as this virtuous truth-telling goes out the window in the era of Fake News, that people’s interest in the early Church’s political radical nature has grown as they look for a new basis for their politics in a world seemingly defined by irrationality. I don’t really get it — though I have also written on it.)
Here we see a familiar argument arising from Land’s more contemporaneous critiques of the Cathedral — on my mind after it came up on Twitter recently — in which an atheistic sur-Christian academic left media bourgeoisie (a map of which has been posted below, stolen from Xenosystems, demonstrating its apparatuses of capture) represents this same Nietzschean synthesis of the poison with its prey, so that those who see themselves as the most vocal opponents of the status quo actually end up internally policing debate and freezing the present antebellum of the Coming Revolution in perpetual stasis.
If the convoluted nature of Land’s Cathedralic flows is too labyrinthine to wrap your head around, let me put it another way, hopefully less susceptible to cooption by the boneheadedly conspiratorial: the internal dynamics of alienation, understood through a Hegelian-Marxist dialectical reasoning, common to modern bourgeois/proletarian society, do not produce a revolutionary synthesis of emancipatory drives but, rather, the political mundanity of an enclosed Middle Class.
The most famous pursuant of this argument — although now seemingly overlooked — was probably Jean-Paul Sartre in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, inaugurating France’s anti-Hegelianism. For Sartre, alienation goes all the way down. Dialectics become fractal relations without satisfactory resolution. Alienation is itself alienated. To save Marxism from being broken down into absolute meaninglessness its recent history must be much better accounted for. And, to his credit, Sartre seems to do a half-decent of that. (His monster two-volume (and ultimately unfinished) work is too huge to dwell on here but maybe I’ll come back to it another time once I’ve had a chance to absorb more of it.)
Sartre’s position is, in many respects, a founding moment for the philosophies to come over the next few decades in France. It was a position explored by Deleuze, too, in Anti-Oedipus most famously, but also solo in Nietzsche and Philosophy in which he writes:
The speculative motor of the dialectic is contradiction and its resolution. But its practical motor is alienation and the suppression of alienation, alienation and reappropriation. Here the dialectic reveals its true nature; an art of quibbling beyond all others, an art of disputing properties and changing proprietors, an art of ressentiment.
This position that would come to influence so much structuralism and post-structuralism can be found very much in tact in Nietzsche himself. Again in the Genealogy of Morals, he writes:
The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.
What we have here, emerging from mid-century French theory’s revitalised libido, are the beginnings of a failed rejection of an ouroborosic and totalised Academic Marx — as was also discussed on this blog recently — a Marxism that is the victim of its own success, much like the Church. The no of this Marxism is creative in that many of its most vocal and successful critics become associated, by their own material circumstances, with the bourgeoisie, to the extent that the enemy is always Other even when, on paper, it looks like yourself. (And that cognitive dissonance takes some creativity to smooth out for oneself.) And so, as Nietzsche warns us, and as many post-structuralists paradoxically hoped to demonstrate, we might credit Marx himself with providing us with a vision of proletarian revolution but we mustn’t let Academic Marxism slow us down for the sake of its own preservation. (Here we have a definition of “Cultural Marxism” that may actually hold some water, beyond the very weak variety espoused by Jordan Peterson.) (Again, Sartre’s Critique is incredibly relevant here but I’ll save unpacking that for another time.)
It is through this lineage that we become aware of the great void between the impenetrable and totalising Marxism of the academic ‘no’, still espoused by some Twitter gobshites, and the desire-drunk ‘yes’ of an “atlas of libidinal cartography” which Jean-Francois Lyotard would later argue we must now engage with: not a totalised canonical “image” of Marx, but the impossible “total” of a man and his desires. As Sartre would say, “This is not really a totalisation, or even a totality; it is rather a changing indefinite dispersal of reciprocities.” It is desire; always seeking more connections.
It was Lyotard who called most emphatically and deliriously for this desirous Marx — indeed, a “desire called Marx” — to take precedence, contrasting the theoretically drudgery of the proto-Cathedralese of much political philosophy and social science. It is likewise such a Marxism that may have emerged from Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism — and Mark sure lovedthe perversity of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy… (I’ll never forget how that passage, to be found via the hyperlink, quoted on K-Punk without much comment, was read out with palpable glee by Mark in the first lecture of his Postcapitalist Desire seminar in late 2016.)
Lyotard, echoing Nietzsche’s genealogy of Judeo-Christian morality, argues that academics love the perpetuity, the limbo, of the problem of capitalism:
What happens when the person assigned to the prosecution is as fascinated by the accused as he is scandalised by him? It comes about that the prosecutor sets himself to finding a hundred thousand good reasons to prolong the study of the file, that the enquiry becomes meticulous, always more meticulous, that the lawyer submerged in the British Museum in the microscopic analysis of the aberrations of capital is no longer able to detach himself from it, that the organic unity, that this swarming of perverse fluxes that is supposed to produce (dialectically), never stops moving away, escaping him, being put off, and that the submission of petitions is kept waiting interminably. What was happening then throughout the thousands of manuscript papers? The unification of Marx’s body, which requires that the polymorphous perversity of capital be put to death for the benefit of the fulfilment of the desire for genital love, is not possible. The prosecutor is unable to deduce the birth of a new and beautiful (in)organic body (similar to that of recapitalise forms) which would be child-socialism, from the pornography of capitalism. If there is a body of capital, this body is sterile, it engenders nothing: it exceeds the capacity of theoretical discourse as unification.
Lyotard’s screed is not a rejection of academic rigour, as such. He simply demands we consider the question that became to central to Fisher’s final, unfinished project: “Do we want what we say we want?” To answer that question, we need to take a wider view of the present situation, beyond the cultural production of academia. Lyotard asks, without mincing words: “what was Marx the prosecutor’s left hand doing whilst he was writing Capital?”
Whilst the right hand writes copious amounts on the nature of the commodity, exchange value and the alienation of labour as measurable aspects of modernity, Lyotard essentially asks us to imagine that the left hand of Marx wanking copious amount of cum uselessly into the carpet — and we mustn’t let both acts be reduced to wasteful expenditures.
And so, Lyotard conjures up a Bataillean Marxism, a general economy of Marxist expenditure beyond the restricted economy of his own three-volume study. Lyotard is essentially asking us: How do we fuse the triumphant rigour of the political intellect with the desire-drunk libido of revolution without relegating both to impotence? How do we elevate the desiring “lows” of the left hand to the intellectual “heights” of the right? How do we infuse cum with Capital (and vice versa?)
One such answer has been persistently repressed. Academics have always known it and they have also long sought to suppress it at all costs. We find it articulated most excessively in Georges Bataille’s Blue of Noon — discussed on the blog this time last year — in which the character of the philosophy teacher, Melou, during a notably Oedipal ménage à trois dialogue, is stricken by the contradiction of his politics and social position on the eve of a coming revolution:
Straining his brow in folds, he declared, ‘Should we wrap ourselves in silence? Should we, on the contrary, bestow our help on the workers as they make their last stand, thereby dooming ourselves to an inescapable and fruitless death?’
And so returns the auto-suicide machine, not as pathetic horror, but as revolutionary necessity. The establishment of the middle class is one thing, subsuming class strata into a homogenous Stepford blob, but how do we now accelerate the process and satisfy the thirst for our own annihilation? Is this truly necessary? Is there no other way?…
It is here that Nick Land emerges in the 1990s and early 2000s as a renegade academic who attempts to fuse both sides of the onanistic coin in the newly virulent concoction for the contemporary moment of a burgeoning technosphere, all the while relishing the annihilation of his own academic career.
Land’s only published monograph, whilst an academic at the University of Warwick, remains the best book on Bataille there is and the best book of literary philosophy I’ve ever read. In this book, The Thirst of Annihilation, he charts a course from Nietzsche’s anti-Hegelianism to Bataille’s own recoiling from the suicidal mechanisms of capitalist society, both during and after the official Defeat of Fascism during the Second World War, and this same desirous and libidinal searching has defined his writing — for better and for worse — ever since.
In 1992, Land writes that, for Bataille,
Capital is a headless lurch into the abyss, an acephalic catastrophe. What Bataille recoils from at this moment is not the claustrophobic managerial profanity of capital, but its psychotic flow into ruin.
But, for the late 90s Land, at the turn of the century, the dawn of the new millennium, it seems that we needn’t worry about the forgotten left hand of Marx for too much longer. In the 21st century, it is all too easy to imagine a tab-choked browser populated by pages from the Marxists Internet Archive and the latest offerings from Pornhub. Is this the new home of our revolutionary libidinous subject?
You have been dumped into a heterogeneous patchwork of criminal experiments converging upon decapitated social formations. This is where base materialism intersects cyberpunk, FUCK TOMORROW scrawled on the walls
We might understand ‘alienation’, then, in Land’s cybernetic sense, to be a short-circuiting of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectic, as predicted by the most delirious of the post-structuralists. The resulting synthesis is not an overcoming but a bottoming-out of the social strata — but that does not mean that it is libidinally unproductive. Cybernetics immanentizes the Real and the Ideal in alienation’s catastrophic motor and being the ejected excrement of the system becomes a viable option. The internet becomes a nomad’s land for digital squatters. It doesn’t matter how you exit. Just exit. The results of this so far, however, have been utterly dire.
We might ask ourselves: Does the art of ressentiment itself become the creation of an entirely new subject? I think we can answer this affirmatively but this “new” needn’t be inherently attractive because of its newness. The middle class becomes, in this sense, a New People in a negative sense, produced by the class antagonisms internal to capitalism, closed off from their Outside. This is an argument implicit to some readings of the middle class’s struggle under the weight of their increasing irrelevance and so, perhaps, it is from here that we will discover the prophetic people-to-come replaced by a people-to-die. Ballardian suburban detritus.
If the middle classes sounds like an unlikely central node around which we are to entangle this argument, we might look to other identities instead — identities that continue to allow access to their outside. As ever, G/ACC comes to mind, providing a much refined challenge to the dialectical of sex, through the pressure-cooked intensifications of gender binarisation and “trans” politics. As Nyx writes:
It is the logic of gender to subsume the Outside into a binarist framework that de-legitimizes the Outside. The feminine is treated as a lack because it resists the phallogocentric tendency towards the order and preservation of humanist equilibrium. It isn’t conducive towards the projects of patriarchy, so it is worthless to it, is given the status of a second-class citizen in the gender binary. It is a double-articulation where the productive potential of the feminine is captured in the service of patriarchy, and so, to accelerate gender is to emancipate the object from its subject, and production from subjects and objects. The Outside which has become identified with the feminine by the very structures of identification it fights against makes its exit from humanism and patriarchy in this feminine form. The feminine becomes untethered from the reproductive logic of humanism; the female is no longer in the service of the male as a machine to produce the future, to produce offspring to inherit the spoils of production, but rather the future produces itself faster than human beings are capable of.
Here, human (re)production is seen as a dialectical machine, echoing the writings of Shulamith Firestone, in which a dialectical relationship between imagination and science continually produces an unknown. This is, for Firestone, culture — culture as “the sum of, and the dynamic between, the two modes through which the mind attempts to transcend the limitations and contingencies of reality.”
The overarching technological point is this: You can shape the new world with code. Computer code. Genetic code. Social code. As modernity accelerates, each becomes as malleable as the other. This is likewise the pro-alienation argument to be associated with The Xenofeminist Manifesto:
XF seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated — but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy. Freedom is not a given — and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction. Nothing should be accepted as fixed, permanent, or ‘given’ — neither material conditions nor social forms. XF mutates, navigates and probes every horizon. Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realize that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us — the queer and trans among us, the differently-abled, as well as those who have suffered discrimination due to pregnancy or duties connected to child-rearing. XF is vehemently anti-naturalist. Essentialist naturalism reeks of theology — the sooner it is exorcised, the better.
Here, as with Land’s delirious writings, ‘alienation’ becomes a Marcusian horror story in which the “monstrous” are reimagined as the people-to-come. Frankenstein’s monster, inevitably produced by capitalism’s churning up of dead labour, is alienated by its creator and, sooner or later, this monstrosity will have its revolutionary revenge….
“Wait a minute, where am I?…”
Okay, but what the fuck does any of this have to do with social media?
The best place to start, in light of this messy introduction, and in light of @cyborb_nomade’s initial pro-alienation comment, is perhaps with Land’s essay “Making It With Death”, in which he addresses ‘alienation’ explicitly as that word associated with the modern “becoming-zombie at the limit of the modern worker”:
The processes of de-skilling, or ever accelerated re-skilling, the substitution of craft by abstract labour, and the increasing interexchangability of human activity with technological processes, all accompanied by the dissolution of identity, loss of attachment, and narcotization of affective life, are condemned on the basis of a moral critique. A reawakening of the political is envisaged, aimed at the restoration of a lost human integrity. Modern existence is understood as profoundly deadened by the real submission of humane values to an impersonal productivity, which is itself comprehended as the expression of dead or petrified labour exerting a vampiric power on the living.
For Land, “death”, conceptually understood as the limit of the subject, is the moment of revolution under capitalism: “The limit of capital is the point at which transcendent identity snaps.”
However, what Land predicts here, years before Facebook was even invented, has only half come true. Affective life has been narcotised, attachment has been lost, but identity has been far from dissolved — it has been reified in a way that Sartre, even Marx himself, perhaps warned us about. (Sartre: “Marx clearly indicated that he distinguished human relations from their reification or, in general, from their alienation within a particular social system.”) And so, it is human relations — communication itself — that has been alienated through the fascistic reification of the subject. Communicative capitalism dissolved the distinction between human relations and their reification, resulting in a further — and deeply traumatic — reification of the subject.
Despite the warnings given to us, such a result has been a long time coming. As Land writes in his essay “Circuitries”, continuing this line of thought, and addressing this point explicitly, he takes aim at our hypocritical understanding of the way that capitalism reifies the human subject — the history of philosophy has done this just as successfully!:
Traditional schemas which oppose technics to nature, to literate culture, or to social relations, are all dominated by a phobic resistance to the sidelining of human intelligence by the coming techno sapiens. Thus one sees the decaying Hegelian socialist heritage clinging with increasing desperation to the theological sentimentalities of praxis, reification, alienation, ethics, autonomy, and other such mythemes of human creative sovereignty. A Cartesian howl is raised: people are being treated as things. Rather than as … soul, spirit, the subject of history, Dasein? For how long will this infantilism be protracted?
This Landian alienation acknowledges that both social and individual subjection are internally alientating under capital and philosophy itself is not outside of this. The burgeoning technosphere, accelerating faster than humans can socially think about it, may be just what we need to break out of the cycle. It is this outside that must be reached rather than the internalised outside that is produced only imaginatively through ressentiment.
What is most disappointing, and what Land recently pointed to as being responsible for his own philopolitical disillusionment, is that the very opposite has happened. In his interview with Justin Murphy, Justin first asks Nick:
…if you could kind of mentally go back to the 1990s, when you’re theorizing all these kinds of radical ideas at the beginning. What was the first crack in that tendency for you? Like what gave, exactly? Was there a particular realization or insight or problem or anomaly in your viewpoint in the 90s that kind of cracked and made you see that all of these radical emancipatory ideas are not going to work…?
To which Nick responds:
These things come in waves. Wave motion is crucial to this. There was an extremely exciting wave that was ridden by the Ccru in the early to mid-1990s. You know, the internet basically arrived in those years, there were all kinds of things going on culturally and technologically and economically that were extremely exciting and that just carried this accelerationist current and made it extremely, immediately plausible and convincing to people. Outrageous perhaps, but definitely convincing. It was followed — and I wouldn’t want to put specific dates on this, really — but I think there was an epoch of deep disillusionment. I’d call it the Facebook era, and obviously, for anyone who’s coming in any way out of Deleuze and Guattari, for something called “Facebook” to be the dominant representative of cyberspace is just almost, you know, a comically horrible thing to happen! [Laughs]
I just really responded to this with such utter, prolonged disgust that a certain deep, sedimentary layer of profound grumpiness — from a personal point of view — was added to this. But I don’t think it’s just a personal thing. I think that accelerationism just went into massive eclipse …
In wanting to explore this a bit further, I found an essay by Daniel Tutt on “faciality” in Deleuze & Guattari that summarises the stakes of their concerns very well:
The face is an imperial machine, depending on certain social formations for its creation and its deployment. Enveloping language and destroying semiotic systems, the face announces signifiers that language (re)produces. This “imperialism of the face” is one designed to crush all other semiotic systems.
Faces are dependent upon “abstract machines” attaching to body parts, clothes, and objects –- facializing them all in a whirl of overcoding. The face overcodes the subject, which is why the face functions as the “black hole of subjectivity” for D & G, as the material traumatic thing -– as the Lacanian real, what they call the “wall of the signifier.”
[…] What they advocate for is a move away from the imperial imposition of the face and the abstract machine’s imposition of faciality by noticing how the imperial face cannot handle polyvocality or rhizomatic traits. It’s the schizophrenic that is the model for de-facialization. “Schizos lose their sense of the face, of landscape and of language and its dominant significations all the time” (Pg. 188 A Thousand Plateaus)
Facebook, then, becomes this absolute but also multiplicitous alienation through the totalising but nonetheless superficial signifier of its opposite. How often have we said, when feeling adrift, that it is nice to see a “friendly face”? Facebook, in its imposition of the “friendly face” as “friendly boss”, has only helped the desire for defacialisation dwindle and die.
However, things are not all so bleak. Twitter has been a liberating experience for me in allowing me to get out of my face again and blockchain technology likewise becomes a potential form of organisation that is faceless in its trustlessness and hiddenness — something Land is now actively exploring in his Cryptocurrent book, being serialised over at Urban Future. He likewise expresses his hope in his interview with Justin:
I think we’ve come out into an absolutely incandescent, new phase of technological and economic possibility driven by this fundamental dynamic vector of the internet. The basic socio-historical conditions right now are every bit as exciting as anything that was around in the 1990s. Totally.
This is likewise an optimism expressed by @cyborg_nomade in the original Twitter conversation:
to become torn from the social is to begin to dissolve personhood (faciality), so that what’s seething underneath can come to the fore. what Facebook did was connect everyone back together, and strengthen attribution, so that all the usual human shit surfaced again. 
anonymous communication is the most amazing tool to being alone (which, as someone who values solitude, is truly something hard to come by — people are everywhere) 
Real and Id(eal)
To recap: Communicative capitalism processes and immanentises the Real and the Ideal. The id of the individual is hijacked by the Facebook superego and the ego which emerges in between is reduced to a data-product. Being honest about this becomes a strangely radical act — from the perspective of popular media — but what is most apparent is that so many people who work online and have somehow monetised their faciality in order to make the most of the opportunities of the present moment, and later rebel against this, seldom have the linguistic armoury to actually articulate what they’re going through.
And that’s not their fault — that’s the result of the enclosed systems they are embedded within which demolish any sense of a critical Outside.
So, what do I mean by alienation under communicative capitalism? I mean that alienation is itself alienated — and so muchmore than when Sartre first said so. Faciality becomes an imposition, threatening (and even enacting) a digitally-mediated body dysmorphia. This isn’t a productive alienation towards a new subjectivity: it’s a Lovecraftian alienation within the prison of interiority, breaking the individual down into their own recursive void rather than the social sphere at large.
So is the question now really, “How do we alienate this alienated alienation?” If it’s really alienation all the way down and, as many Hegelian-Marxists and Nietzscheans alike may have argued, if we should want overcome or bottom-out of this process, it seems like we’re in for a shock as the prison of interiority continues in all directions much further than we anticipated. (Well, for most of us…)
Yes, the blockchain certainly feels like a very interesting development in this area and we shall have to see if it can be implemented in enough areas to break the cycle but, that aside, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. Has the damage already been done?
Personally, I’ve grown up on social media, in many respects, although I do remember the days of pre-internet computers. One thing I’ve been depressed to discuss with my friends over the years is how many suffer from bouts of depersonalisation. I’ve regularly suffered from this myself since at least my late teens — it’s the main reason I never got into psychedelics and never got along with weed; I’ve never needed drugs to detach from my Self.
Depersonalisation has always, for me, been the result of an anxiety attack, mentally squashed from presenting itself outwardly / physically, and instead bottoming-out into a Sunken Place, much like in the film Get Out. A feeling of regressing backwards into your own skull, looking in the mirror and not recognising the face that looks back. It’s a dangerous numbness that so often precedes instances of self-harm and I’ve always wondered how much of a coincidence the pervasiveness of these experiences amongst people that I knew growing up was related to the rise of MySpace and Facebook.
That’s not a politically advantageous alienation. That’s mental illness. That’s the individualising mechanism of the social suicide machine.
Get Out‘s faciality is particularly racialised, of course, and this alienation of self is no doubt Marcusian in its racial structuring but also its cultural productivity. What the rest of us feel is something new in its pervasiveness, something in between these two critiques — the Hegelian-Marxist and the Nietzschean. This new experience is certainly attached to this same lineage of capitalist subjection but now we lack the habit of critiquing it to the extent that so many others once did.
That’s the alienation I’m talking about and I think it needs continually addressing because, so far, no theories of emancipation have managed to crack it. We remain stuck in the thinking of the post-structuralists whilst technological subjection threatens such theories with redundancy before we’ve managed to internalise them.
Things have only gotten worse and worse — socially, at least, even if, as individuals, we might be able to find some solace…
This blog has always been a half-hearted attempt at tackling this sense of alienation on a very personal level, even if it has not been vocalised rigorously as such. Speaking as “Xenogothic”, the social alienation that this blog and my Twitter account has afforded me over the past uear has hugely enjoyable, but the internet presents many more forms of alienation besides this which, perhaps as a result of the joy, have become harder to bear.
I’ve thought about this more and more recently as I struggle to keep up the mystique. Xenogothic was meant to be an attempt at escaping this Facebook faciality — or so I said in my very first post — and for the first 8-10 months it was very successful in this regard. Less than 5 people who were friends with me IRL knew it was me. Thta’s no longer the case. Mostly by choice.
I love writing and I increasingly want to do more of it — I’m never, ever satisfied; the itch is never scratched — so if there’s a fine line along which I’m able to walk and maintain this as a semi-anonymous space whilst be open to other opportunities for personal growth, I want to make that happen. This stuff is important to me, to the extent I want it to define me but a “me” that is separate from the data cow of the social media face farm, and I think that’s fine. But, as I try to figure out just where that line is, I’m all too aware of the minefield I’m walking through.
I love YouTube, for instance, and I watch more PewDiePie than I’m comfortable to admit. I used to think about being a YouTuber years ago but I’m terrible in front of a camera. PewDiePie is likewise terrible in front of a camera but it hasn’t stopped him becoming a one-man media empire (at least, not quite yet) and his journey has been fascinating to me.
Here is a guy who seemed to fall into a weird, undercoded faciality that he has maintained — very, very successfully (financially speaking) — for almost a decade. However, I only started watching his videos a year or two back when he was in the midst of rebelling against this increasingly consolidated sense of online-self, when the more he started to work with big companies and institutions — Disney, most notoriously — he began to wrestle more and more openly with his experiences of alienation. His self-destructive behaviour — which has resulted in a whole bunch of controversies and is certainly not defensible — has felt like the indirect fallout from this. He is the perfect example of someone who is painfully aware of the system they have become entrapped by but who can’t play by the rules and also can’t really articulate his experiences in a way that might help himself. (And has also looked to the likes of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro in his quest to rebel against it.)
Take this video as a case in point, which discusses issues of emotional labour (explored here recently) and marks the start of an easily trackable swerve away from the YouTube hegemony and towards critics on the right of politics:
Just as Woke Capital is a bad rebrand of leftist theory for new alienated, the left needs to get louder about the ways in which it can combat this. Mark Fisher wrote plenty on it but those essays never reached the amount of people they should have. (I’m thinking about “Touchscreen Capture” here specifically.)
To end on a lighter note:
Personally speaking, the name Xenogothic, as I’ve repeatedly said, was borne out of a feeling that I’m not a very good Goth, of not wearing the right face, of not acting or looking the right way. I wanted an identity that wasn’t beholden to any kind of reductive aesthetic.
This desire is, I think, inherently related to that same sense of alienation and self-hatred that comes from being expected to play some sort of game — generally a careerist one — and one which I was concerned might end up being the death of me. I just wanted to make stuff without it having to be considered as some sort of CV. I wanted to express myself without everything having to be presented as a product or another rung on the ladder of a social-mediated illusion of a career.
I did a postgrad degree not because I wanted a better job or better pay but because I just wanted to learn to write and think better and I wasn’t getting that from anywhere in my life at the time. And, thankfully, I think that’s precisely what I got out of it. And I can’t think of a better thing to have done with that weird year back in academia than channel it into a deliriously productive blog whilst I go back to the kind of job I was doing after I finished my photography degree. It’s just the latest attempt at getting out of the face I’m aware I’m supposed to wear and, so far, it’s been incredibly successful.
This blog feels more like me than anything else I’ve ever done or continue to do with my life, and at the same time it barely feels representative of me, or the me that has so far existed online on social media.
The desire for this, I now realise, has been bubbling for a long time. I came across this old series of photographs in the midst of writing this post that I was putting together sporadically between 2012-2016. I would take double exposures of my environment and my face, one after the other, capturing two sides of a moment where identity dissolves into something else through the photographic process. Plants always worked best for this and, serendipitously, these photographs predated any real understanding of Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizomatics.
I never quite had a name for the project and I never quite managed to make enough good ones to make a series out of it. But I’m glad I didn’t. They weren’t meant to be about me. They were meant as anti-portraits. They were photographs about the way photography itself is so tied to my thoughts but which, due to its very nature, is always detached from any originally phenomenological grounding. Subject and object dissolve into one another, and something else is born.
I realised today that this is what they were always about. They were precisely about this desire for porosity; for indeterminacy; for facial flow. This desire to get out of your face(book) again.
I’m surprised that I’ve never seen either the left or right Accelerationists talk about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’ll be disregarding the film adaptation, which, though it has some high-grade acting, misses the entire point of the novel due to consequence of its medium making the acts of McMurphy the dram, rather than the commentary of Bromden. The interior perspective of Chief Bromden is, frankly the uniquely interesting part of the book; the rest is just an uncouth prison drama. I’m inclined to think that a better way to think about OFOTCN is that it’s a story from the perspective of Bromden, as he is only able to contextualize the triumph of pseudo-capitalism in America as something equivalent to a unfriendly artificial intelligence of the paperclip maximizer variety. He terms this process as “the Combine.”
“The Combine”, as Bryce demonstrates with some passages from the book, is a central part of the story expunged from the film adaptation. It’s the Chief’s conspiratorial name for a kind of fascistic dynamic that permeates the Inside/Outside barrier between society and the psych ward. Bryce continues:
Bromden blames himself for failing to fit into the Combine’s progam, while also understanding that the Combine’s program is destroying everything he values. The mental patients, as “culls from the Combine’s product” are unable to participate in the American system, which is to say adequately adapted to an artificial environment built by the Combine manifesting its destiny all over the place. However, Bromden still frequently takes the perspective of the Combine as legitimate […] The central tragedy of the novel should not be understood as McMurphy’s failure to successfully lead a rebellion of inpatients, but Bromden’s simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification.
Some readers may remember that I have written about accelerationism and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest before but, having never read the book, I can’t claim to have done so very well. I mentioned the film in passing in one of my posts on Westworld from a few months ago and how it was caught up in my readings of the work of Leslie Fielder. In Part One, I wrote:
… does Westworld not become a dramatisation of this very [madness], inherent to the idea of the American West? The revolt of the AI “hosts” of the theme park is as much a catalyst for a “new world” to come as it is the materialisation of a spectre of a past waging war on the woeful consolidation of its own future. […] To be haunted by the fractured memories of previous iterations is surely the central condition which entwines the consolidated American State and and its Self.
Fiedler comes in here for the way that he aligns the figure of the “Indian” with the internalised geographic unconscious of the American psyche, which I wrote about more in-depth in Part Two.
At the end of that post — which I don’t want to rehash so give the link a click if the context isn’t immediately clear — I wrote:
Perhaps the best analogy for all that we have discussed, continuing this ever-entangling entanglement of consciousnesses that Fielder and others explore, is the finale of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Jack Nicholson’s character, “Mac” (aka McMurphy), is, in a way, the ultimate Westerner; the rebel, who stirs up and antagonises the status quo. He is, as Fiedler calls him, “the New American Man.” Fiedler writes on the original 1962 book, set in a psychiatric hospital: “McMurphy chooses instead if not madness, at least aggravated psychopathy and an alliance with his half-erased, totally schizophrenic Indian comrade — an alliance with all that his world calls unreason.”
McMurphy, we must remember, is not actually mad. He pleads insanity when convicted of crimes of battery and gambling, believing he will receive a more lenient sentence. The tragic irony of the story is that he is eventually lobotomised, and it is the Chief, in the film at least, on seeing what has become of his friend, the fully-erased New American Man, who breaks out of his affective impotence and heads for the Outside.
Just as the Man in Black, in seeking the maze, is disappointed to find it is not for him, there is perhaps a parable here for the current White Western Man that the revolution is not for him. This seems to be what has the Right running scared. In wanting to take responsibility for their actions only, and not the actions of others, they may be left treading water.
If the White Man really wants to exit, he can’t lead but only follow…
What Bryce introduces on his blog may seem like a very different (even contradictory) reading but I think that the two tragedies of the book, as Bryce describes them — Mac’s failed revolution and Chief’s psychological impotence — are inherently connected.
For Fiedler — something he later clarifies explicitly in the final chapter of his book, The Return of the Vanishing American — madness is a potential avenue for “White transcendence”. For Fiedler, noticing the frequent trope of how White Europeans are so frequently paired up with non-White counterparts, highlights the desires of the White man that these characters are said to represent. If the partner is Black “we tend to interpret as a parable of an attempt to extend our sexuality, to recover our lost libido” — I watched Training Day (of all things) yesterday and that film is a fascinating example of this but its also common to all sorts of stories: Wuthering Heights, in particular, comes to mind. However, if the partner is Indian, “we are likely to read as signifying a desire to breach the limits of reason, to extend our consciousness.”
What is of central importance to Fiedler is the role of whiteness in this story. Both Mac and Big Nurse are tandem figures of a virulent whiteness — an authoritarian whiteness and a whiteness looking for a way out — both of which threaten to snuff out the other but it is Chief who puts Mac out of his miserable post-lobotomy existence. However, as Fiedler points out, the novel can be read as a meta-exploration of this failure. Written by a white man, Chief becomes Ken Kesey’s own internal Indian who he seeks to let free. As Fiedler writes in his previous book, Waiting for the End:
What we customarily call the “oppressed minorities” (and the same is true when the oppressed are, in fact, majorities) are exploited not only economically and politically, but also psychologically, though this latter fact is less noticed in election speeches, newspaper editorials, or even serious analyses of class and race relations, whether pro or con. Oppressors, that is to say, project upon the oppressed certain of their own psychic dilemmas, elements of their own mental life of which they are ashamed, or toward which they are deeply ambivalent.
Nowhere is this more common than in tales of white transcendence such as this, and I think that Bryce’s comment on this pseudo-capitalism is an apt one. The logistics of exit are so frequently racialised along these same lines — unwittingly, perhaps, but I think they should be done so purposefully.
What Fielder calls the Higher Masculine Sentimentality — “a passionate commitment to inverting Christian-Humanist values, out of a conviction that the Indian’s way of life is preferable” — is rampant in Right Accelerationist circles whilst Left Accelerationism often parrots a patronising Christian-Humanism without fully contending with the consequences of the revolution to come.
To be absolutely clear: Accelerationism should be understood as a spatiotemporal philosophy of entropy for preparing ourselves for the future, for making ourselves worthy of the event of acceleration. What this entropy will — we hope — ultimately lead to is the destruction of the institutions that structure our lives, at the levels of individual, state and planet. These institutions are driving themselves into the ground and we should encourage this — not willy-nilly but from the perspective that this is a necessary process if we are to reach a new future, and we should understand these institutions as white, male and bougie.
If we can read Nyx’s Gender Accelerationism blackpaper as an exploration of the fact that “the future is female” isn’t a soft feminist slogan for democratic politics but a violent transformation of the patriarchal subject / subject under patriarchy, we can likewise read the works of Leslie Fiedler — and so much American culture besides — as containing the implicit message that whiteness is gonna have to go too.
In fact, is the argument that Chief Bromden’s character is defined by his “simultaneous self-knowledge of the moral and aesthetic bankruptcy of the system he lives within, and his inability to take a perspective that’s able to critique it with an external source of justification”, not precisely the argument shared today by Afropessimists and Blaccelerationists? The argument that a worthy critique of capitalism requires an exit from the white male supremacy that structures it at every level?
If run-of-the-mill Accelerationists don’t talk about this more, that might be because many don’t want to think about the social suicide they are encouraging for themselves. But they should.
Fiedler again, with a conclusion to The Return of the Vanishing American that is downright Deleuzean, echoing the narrative of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest explicitly and pointing to its relevance to any accelerationist project:
We have come to accept the notion that there is still a territory unconquered and uninhabited by palefaces, the bearers of “civilisation,” the cadres of imperialist reason; and we have been learning that into this territory certain psychotics, a handful of “schizophrenics,” have moved on ahead of the rest of us — unrecognised Natty Bumppos or Huck Finns, interested not in claiming the New World for any Old God, King, or Country, but in becoming New Men, members of just such a New Race as D. H. Lawrence foresaw. (How fascinating, then, that R. D. Laing, leading among contemporary psychiatrists of the theory that some schizophrenics have “broken through” rather than “broken down,” should, despite the fact he is an Englishman, have turned to our world and its discovery in search of an analogy; he suggests that Columbus’s stumbling upon America and his first garbled accounts of it provide an illuminating parallel to the ventures of certain madmen into the regions of extended or altered consciousness, and to their confused version, once they are outside of it, of the strange realm in which they have been.)
Obviously, not everyone is prepared, and few of us ever will be, to make a final and total commitment to the Newest West via psychosis; but a kind of tourism into insanity is already possible for those of us not yet ready or able to migrate permanently from the world of reason. We can take, as the New Westerns suggest, what is already popularly called — in the aptest of metaphors — a “trip,” an excursion into the unknown with the aid of drugs. The West has seemed to us for a long time a place of recreation as well as of risk; and this is finally fair enough, for all the ironies implicit in turning a wilderness into a park. After all, the West remains always in some sense true to itself, as long as the Indian, no matter how subdued, penned off, or costumed for the tourist trade, survives — as long as we can confront there a creature radically different from the old self we seek to recreate in two weeks’ vacation.
And whilst the West endures, the Western demands to be written — that form which represents a traditional and continuing dialogue between whatever old selves we transport out of whatever East, and the radically different other whom we confront in whatever West we attain. That other is the Indian still, as from the beginning, though only vestigially, nostalgically now; and also, with special novelty and poignantly, the insane.