Acid is everywhere at the moment, sloshing about in unexpected places – recent releases from Richard D. James’ AFX alias, alongside a spate of festival appearances, have brought his corrosive jams back into dance music’s collective consciousness; there has been a surge of acid attacks in London, with dozens of the disfigured becoming front-page news; the UK Left has taken up Mark Fisher’s “Acid Communism”, albeit adapting it at a recent Labour Party fringe event to become “Acid Corbynism”, which was just memetic enough to warrant a snooty Guardian overview. These three seemingly unconnected references demonstrate one thing: “Acid” is promiscuous, and that was no doubt part of the attraction when Fisher first put his latest provocative neologism to use.
You could argue that defining “acid” is as awkward as defining “communism”. There have been too many iterations of either word to pin them down with any certainty, but that hasn’t stopped Jeremy Gilbert’s recent attempts to bottle the combo of the two and declare co-authorship alongside Fisher (whilst exorcising Fisher’s nuance and personality) in a recent article on Red Pepper.
Gilbert writes that Acid Communism
was Mark’s term for a utopian sensibility shared by the political radicals and psychedelic experimentalists of the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. It rejected both the conformism and authoritarianism that characterised much of post-war society and the crass individualism of consumer culture. It sought to raise the consciousness of individuals and society as a whole, be that through the creative use of psychedelic chemicals, aesthetic experiments in music and other arts, new kinds of household arrangements, radical forms of therapy, social and political revolution, or all of the above.
He’s not wrong, of course, but compared to what Acid Communism was to potentially become in Fisher’s hands, Gilbert’s synopsis feels so one-dimensional as he insists on erasing the Gothic trajectory towards the Outside that Fisher has always aimed for.
More recently, in the New Statesman, Gilbert defines “Acid” through its psychedelic connotations of “the liberation of human consciousness from the norms of capitalist society [as] a desirable, achievable and pleasurable objective.” Desirable, yes. Achievable, yes… But pleasurable? Not always. Not essentially. Fisher’s AC was explicitly a journey beyond the pleasure principle.
On Gilbert’s blog, there is a much longer version of his Red Pepper text which goes into more detail with regards to the phrase’s conception and does give a good account of its fruition and influences. However, Gilbert also gives an account of his personal position in relation to Fisher and his Acid Communist legacy. I don’t intend to give a full account of the text here, not only because it is so long, but because it is difficult to get past the first fumbling section in which Gilbert stops just shy of accusing Fisher of plagiarism, whilst acknowledging in the next breath that “it would be totally against the spirit of those shared ideas and priorities to attribute ownership or authorship of any of these ideas to anybody”. Whilst Gilbert here admits to having complex feelings about the topic of Acid Communism – not to mention Fisher himself – he has nonetheless continued to write articles on Acid Communism / Corbynism which – in their truncated, more manageable form – avoid all discussion of his bias and manipulations of the concept. Whilst I’m sure Gilbert’s influence on Fisher’s thought is considerable, as he himself claims, I believe his repeated reduction of what Acid Communism was to become is a disservice to its now-unfulfilled potentials.
As someone recently said in a group chat I was privy to about the original article’s appearance in The Guardian:
I think what’s needed is the proliferation of carriers. More heteronyms – more signals are needed – not less.More mythemes. More mythos. More templexity.
The way Acid Corbynism is being presented is, in my opinion, doing the opposite – shrinking rather than proliferating concepts.
The main difficulty I have with this longer blogged text, however, is that it also has much the same rambling and infuriating tone as Gilbert’s “eulogy” for Fisher, again posted on his blog as a PDF, in which he says, at one point, that he “always had the impression that [Fisher’s] inability to care for himself physically was deeply linked with his weakening capacity to stave off the depression.” He goes on to write a rambling, bloated version of that ol’ chestnut: “Have you tried exercising more?”
Any expression of this point of view rings alarm bells for me, as it does for many online – so many it is near meme-worthy. It betrays a deeply naive and offensive understanding of depression and it is a surefire way of identifying that someone has no idea what they are talking about. As his articles are currently the only public writings on Fisher’s unfinished book Acid Communism, for them to gain traction despite his questionable position is a disappointing turn of events. Others who are better informed have rightfully chosen to leave Fisher’s legacy open for the time being and wait to see what emerges – Repeater Books have very recently announced that they will be releasing an anthology of unpublished and related texts sometime next year which I am very much looking forward to. However, Gilbert’s previously expressed ignorance remains key to unpicking his current reductions of Fisher’s late works.
The point that Gilbert misses is simply this: Do not underestimate the extent to which depression accelerates “letting yourself go” – or, put another way, do not underestimate how a lack of exercise fits into a wider self-afflicted slow violence towards the body of the depressed self.
When first reading Gilbert’s eulogy I was reminded of the lowest points of my own depression. Still living at home with my parents I would lie in bed for days. I remember my father coming home from work and scolding me on numerous occasions, saying: “Lying in bed and doing nothing for this long is probably one of the worst things you can do to your body.” At the time, this actually made continuing to stay in bed more attractive. Inactivity can be as self-destructive as more explicitly autoaggressive acts of violence.
Fisher acknowledged such processes on a number of occasions, referencing his own struggles with self-harm as well as exploring the reality of body horror through conversations and collaborations with the likes of Gazelle Twin.
And what better video is there to invoke here than Gazelle Twin’s Exorcise, exacerbating the kind of possessed, self-destructive but nonetheless collective activity that you usually see down your local spin class – socially-sanctioned self-abuse.
It’s a kind of pain, nothing brings relief from
Another example: the title of one 2015 mix posted on Fisher’s k-punk blog also speaks to this, borrowing its title from Magazine’s song Because You’re Frightened.
Look what fear’s done to my body
These processes are just as inherent to Acid Communism as they are to Fisher’s other Gothic writings. It must be acknowledged that AC is a political philosophy that has its own Eros and Thanatos. To acknowledge only one aspect, as Gilbert is want to do, is to emphasise only one side of the concept.
For instance, in his extended Red Pepper piece, Gilbert writes that
techniques of self-transformation like yoga, meditation, (or even psychedelics, in theory) might have some kind of radical potential if they are connected to a wider culture of questioning capitalist culture and organising politically against it. By the same token, of course, they can just as easily become banal distractions, ways of enabling individuals to cope with ever-intensifying levels of exploitation and alienation, without ever challenging the sources of those problems. These ‘technologies of the self’, to use Michel Foucault’s term, have no inherent political meaning. The question from a political perspective is if and how they can be used to raise political consciousness, challenging entrenched assumptions of capitalist culture, enabling people to overcome their individualism in order to create potent and creative collectivities.
Here, again, Gilbert’s summary is illuminating (to a point) but still feels like a reduction. Many other practices, engaged with within a similarly questioning culture, can offer similar potentials. The mental health discourses that Fisher engaged in, for instance, are just as applicable to Acid Communism as discussions of the counterculture. Psychedelics, for instance, do not hold the monopoly of mutating subjectivity: SSRIs hold similar potentials (more on this brilliant post from lēves another time).
In this way, Fisher always aimed to go far deeper beneath the capitalist self than weaponised yoga would ever allow. This is explicit in the unpublished introduction to Acid Communism, in which Fisher discusses Foucault’s desire to “get out of his face”, echoing the inherent body horror of Gazelle Twin’s defacialised persona. He writes:
Foucault, seldom comfortable in his own skin, was always looking for a way out of his own identity. He had memorably claimed that he wrote “in order not to have a face”, and his prodigious exercises in rogue scholarship and conceptual invention, the textual labyrinths he meticulously assembled from innumerable historical and philosophical sources, were one way out of the face. Another route was what he called the limit-experience, one version of which was his encounter with LSD. The limit-experience was paradoxical: it was an experience at and beyond the limits of ‘ordinary’ experience, an experience of what cannot ordinarily be experienced at all. The limit-experience offered a kind of metaphysical hack. The conditions which made ordinary experience possible could now be encountered, transformed and escaped – at least temporarily. Yet, by definition, the entity which underwent this could not be the ordinary subject of experience – it would instead be some anonymous X, a faceless being.
In this way, Fisher’s chosen “technologies of the self” were often cybernetic and Gothic, drawing on his earlier writings associated with the Ccru. Despite Gilbert’s framing of the concept’s development, there is a Acid Communist thread in Fisher’s writings that can be traced back as far as his PhD thesis, Flatline Constructs.
The above passage from Acid Communism picks up a more recent train of thought, however, from Fisher’s talk Practical Eliminativism: Getting Out of the Face, Again – a transcription of which can be found in Urbanomic’s Speculative Aesthetics volume – in which he takes the desubjectivising challenge of escaping capitalist realism and lays it at the door of aesthetics – also explored implicitly in The Weird and the Eerie – in explicit relation to the speculative challenge of Ray Brassier’s particular brand of nihilism. Fisher says – and I am editing a large swathe of text here to try and preserve the momentum of Fisher’s discussion, many facets of which are discussed at greater length in later essays –
…what is the value of the alienating power of the arts in modernism? It’s an experience that makes one question one’s own experience. And one way of putting that would be, then, that it is an experience which confronts one with the conditions of experience. […] The constitution of our subjectivity in everyday life is the product of various forms of engineering and manipulation; the reality in which we are invited to live is constructed by PR and corporations, is a form of libidinal informational engineering. […] To follow on from Robin’s point at the end of the previous discussion, we’ve seen massive behavioural mutations of the human population in the last decade. But they’re turning towards banal ends, such as Facebook, smartphones, etc. What you’re seeing are behavioural tics that have passed through a population, i.e. looking at a screen, digital twitch, etc. These behaviours were not in place ten to fifteen years ago; it was impossible for them to be in place. Now they are ubiquitous.
The practical question, and it’s a schizoanalytic one, is whether that is only possible on the basis of faciality. You’ve got a kind of deterritorializing mutation here where, although the behaviours are quite banal, they are nevertheless radical in terms of the addictions and compulsions that are involved. Obviously people don’t undertake them on the grounds that they are participating in this kind of mutational vector. They undertake them on the grounds of folk psychology. The brain and fingers can become this kind of libidinal assemblage only because the mind is distracted by this pull of folk psychology. Folk psychology is a practical kind of cultural proposition in which we live, and I think one of the deep sadnesses, one of the miseries of the twenty-first century, is the return of folk psychology and the depletion of the resources of the depersonalization that culture once offered.
Is this folk psychology not what Gilbert himself is currently proliferating in Fisher’s name? It seems that, for Fisher, it is precisely these social mutations that we know aren’t good for us but that we do anyway – social media paranoia is paradoxically as ubiquitous as its usage – that offer us new potentials. Fisher explored this explicitly in Flatline Constructs, asking – in relation to David Cronenberg’s body horror classic Videodrome – “What […] if the body could not be only triggered, but actually mutated, by TV and video-signal?”, noting Cronenberg’s desire to accelerate and weaponise the video nasty moral panic occurring at the time: what if these so-called video nasties really did erode moral subjectivity?
Fisher continues in Practical Eliminativism:
Whether it’s reality tv or social networks, people have been captured/captivated by their own reflections. It’s all done with mirrors. The various attacks on the subject in theory have done nothing to resist the super-personalization of contemporary culture. Identitarianism rules. Queer theory might reign in the academy, but it has done nothing to halt the depressing return of gender normativity in popular culture and everyday life. Elements of ‘leftist’ politics not only collude in, but actively organise this rampant identitarianism, corralling groups into ’communities’ defined according to the categories of power: a Foucauldian dystopia.
So instead of this thing about dancing and games, that Robin talked about, instead of that, increasingly cultural time is taken up with forms which, at the psychological level, mirror people back to themselves in the most banal possible kind of manifest image. The question now is whether a certain kind of defacialization can be recovered—whether a practical, not merely theoretical, eliminativist project can be resumed, and whether we can start getting out of our faces again.
Xenogoth has already expressed an interest in alternative Gothic subjectivities and attempts at getting out of the face again, and this will be explored again in future posts – expect a more detailed look at Aphex Twin next – but to elaborate on a contention from the start of this post:
Acid is not simply a synonym for psychedelia and, even if it were, the psychedelic socialism of Acid Corbynism is surely an oxymoron? Acid’s fundamental characteristic, in all of its iterations, is that it is corrosive – corrosive to subjectivity and perception, as LSD, but also corrosive to politics and culture, dissolving capitalism in their own juices.
Whilst Fisher, as Gilbert suggests, may have had no interest in psychedelics, it is perhaps more accurate to say that it was not, for him, a romanticised psychotropic substance. Taking acid is never a purely utopian experience – it is a challenge to experience in itself. It can be as horrific as it can be transcendental. It is, in line with Fisher’s prior writings (but particularly his most recent book The Weird and the Eerie), a temporary exit – an “egress” – to the Outside.
The above cartoon demonstrates this well (whilst also setting the scene for the next planned post on this topic). It has recently been doing the rounds in the UK music press as a novel piece of paraphernalia exemplifying Acid House’s pop cultural peak as a moral panic. However, Acid is not so deceptive as The Sun (who else?) wants to suggest. Acid is always, inevitably, both panels – each folded within the other. Not as a narrative inevitability but a kind of subjective Schrodinger’s cat. Acid is both doorway and portal; good trip and bad.
Egress is Acid.
Acid is egress.
To be continued…
UPDATE: To anyone interested, a better account of what Fisher was aiming for with Acid Communism can already be found in his last few essays, which show the concept taking shape within the familiar trajectory of his own thought. Egress remains a fantastic (if still unfinished) resource for exploring these lesser known works.