The Ethics of Exit

It’s always strange to see what corners of the internet this patchwork conversation can spread to. Recently, patchwork hit rock bottom, getting picked up in a really terrible thread by William Gillis, but it was a thread with an offshoot that ties into patchwork as it has been discussed on this blog explicitly. It also provides a nice way into talking about a major consideration for me that has nonetheless been underexplored in my blogged considerations so far: ethics.

[NB: The way WordPress embeds tweets is good until you want to embed a thread, so I’m going to blockquote tweets here for readability with numbered hyperlinks to the original tweets.]

Gillis began his thread with a dismissal of Moldbuggian patchwork — fair enough — and he then went on to address a bunch of the other tandem theories that Cave Twitter has pulled into patchwork’s orbit in recent months. He writes:

“patchwork” — what marxists who read nick land because of some memes say when they want to talk about “national anarchism” but pretend it’s not a deeply fascist idea [1]

“ummm panarchy tho, surely just treating the entire complex interconnected world like we’re kids discovering politics in the nationstates forums in 2002 and ‘agreeing to disagree’ will solve everything” [2]

Sorry folks, shit is far too complicated for “just break things apart into tribes” to actually replicate freedom in a meaningful sense, since connectivity & options are critical and must be evaluated globally, and tribal splintering has never solved conflict.

Ethics, not exit. [3]

There are a lot of things to disagree with here, the main one being the suggestion that “‘agreeing to disagree’ will solve everything” is anything like the argument being put forward more recently by anyone. This isn’t the suggested solution at all. In fact, I’d argue “agreeing to disagree” is largely what is expected of us in the here and now. “Let’s agree to disagree for the sake of ‘democracy’, for the sake of our consolidated sense of togetherness.” I’d argue it’s passively agreeing to disagree that has led to this normalisation of our present crises. Our sociopolitical landscape is defined by impotent disagreement. Tribal splintering has never solved conflict if only because attempts to do so trigger hostility from consolidated nation-states which view exit as inherently offensive following centuries of hard work (read: imperialism and colonialism). 

At this point in Gillis’ thread, AmbrosialArts jumps in:

This is actually the wrong message for queer teenagers in abusive homophobic households, who have no leverage in a situation to institute reform, but escape is lower cost and provides outstanding long term EV, so I’m not sure the facts on the ground support your position. [4]


“Ethics, not exit” is in no way a claim that escape is never a good strategy. It’s that “the right of exit” is not a replacement for an actual ethics. [5]


You’re using the translingual mind-crushing axiom phrasing, like “sonnō jōi”, and you have to be very careful what you code into those axioms, so maybe try again. [6]

Going on to write off the powerful and visible benefits of escape as “almost nothing” leaves me even less confident that you didn’t mean exactly what you said, and not what you think you said. [7]

If you want to appeal to people’s sense of empathy, to inspire them to care about what you’re saying, you have to be able to adjust scale focus a lot more than you do. Many are thinking through these premises in terms of individuals and the next 2-5 years, not globes and 1000[s]. [8]

I mean, you’re going to have to make some discussions about one or another, so maybe I should be less contentious, but it’s an incoherency in what you’re selling as a crystallized philosophy. “Social fragmentation is tactically useful but also endorsing its use is fascist” is…? [9]

I agree with this completely, particularly the third and fourth tweets here, and this is the crux of how an ethics of exit must function, for me, when speaking about patchwork.

Patchwork is, even for Moldbug, scalable and he likewise acknowledges that, practically speaking, it is better to start small. This is where, despite Moldbug’s own neoreactionary idealism, we see many more potential egresses for other groups: at scale. When considering individuals or, far more preferably, minoritarian communities, exit is often ethical.

The message of this blog has consistently been: other options are available. Solidarity without similarity. What the vision of patchwork explored on this blog emphasises is its inherent multiplicity and the example of a queer exit highlighted by AmbroisalArts is a perfect one. To socially exit into enclosed queer spaces is something that many people do for various reasons. Experiencing violence and abuse is one such reason; simply seeking a previously elusive sense of solidarity is another. It is also, we must acknowledge here, not a social isolationism. To enter a queer space is not to exit society at large. It is an attempt to find autonomy from within a larger structure. What if that larger structure, rather than being violently consolidatory and hostile to exits (of all kinds), was rather predicated on the possibilities of such fragmentations? The structure we’re apparently stuck with is so often “unjust” and all too often the intention of exit is separate from attempts to change that wider system. Activism is a large part of queer politics, for instance, but the central consideration is, generally speaking, survival. (But survival alone is, of course, not enough.)

In my chat with Justin, I discussed this in a way that was ramshackle and all over the place. I attempted to critique what exactly we mean when we talk about survival in relation to patchwork. The survival of the individual may be the impetus for exit but once that exit has occurred, survival becomes a concern for the multiple, for the collective subject, for the community as a non-whole. In queer politics in particular, this is not an aggressive form of survival. It’s not inherently “imperial”. It’s not inherently predisposed to hostile takeover. The basis is generally “coexistence”.

This is something shared amongst exit politics across the board. Previously I published a post about a Twitter thread by Patri Friedman on the Netflix series Wild Wild Country, in which Friedman highlights that what so often leads to bloodshed following the foundation of an autonomous community — whether that is a cult or something else — is when that community is threatened by a consolidating outside force. We can see this dynamic playing out across the political spectrum.

Most explosively, we can find examples in the West occuring on the American Right. Recently I watched another Netflix documentary on the Oklahoma City bombing. The documentary focuses on the series of events that inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. These events all share the same catalyst: autonomous communities, based on various sociocultural ideals, that the United States government attempts to violently dissolve. The central catalyst for McVeigh was Waco, in which the excessive violence of the government arguably led to the deaths of 168 men, women and children. Whilst these groups — right-wing cults, admittedly — were founded on what they perceived to be the values of the American constitution, their destruction by the government inflamed tensions and led to acts of domestic terrorism.

Terrorism is never defensible but, whether domestic or foreign, surely we can acknowledge the role of American interventionism at home and abroad as being the tendency which triggers all of these instances. The violent rejection of exit, whether it is perceived by the hegemonic culture in question as an exit from governance or values, is a common thread.

We can see other examples elsewhere too. The violence that erupted following Catalonia’s attempt at a democratic exit was based on the same desire. Elsewhere, we can view China’s annexation of Tibet or Russia’s annexation of Crimea as similar attempts at consolidation of a historically separatist group. Whilst the foundational politics are different, the arguments for exit are the same: a rejection of state (and therefore self) consolidation. Your territory is not recognised. Your way of being is not recognised. Accept consolidation or die.

This is a tangent better left to another time but here we can see the inherently ethical concerns of exit and patchwork emerging. What I would like to discuss in this post specifically is my own philosophical basis for an ethical vision of patchwork. So, if you’ll allow me an excessive ramble, let me now go back to square one…

Last year, whilst I was a Goldsmiths postgrad, I did a course called “Curating & Ethics”, taught by Jean-Paul Martinon. Martinon has written a lot on Jean-Luc Nancy and the first essay I wrote as a postgrad emerged from his separate introductory class called “Time & History.”

In one class, we read a chapter from Giorgio Agamben’s The Highest Poverty. In the book, Agamben provides a Foucauldian analysis of monasticism, particular Franciscan monasticism before it was consolidated under the imposing influence of the wider Catholic Church. He traces many of the sociopolitical undercurrents present within these monastic communities and explores how they can be seen as antecedents for the radical anti-capitalist politics of the present day: the rejection of capitalist forms of ownership and communal responsibility beyond work.

Although I had not read about various theories of “exit” at the time, I asked a question in class along the lines of: “Can we read the exit of these monks from wider society as the formation of an intentional community?” In Agamben’s text, much is said of the way these communities organised themselves and lived their lives but little was said about how exactly they came into being. Martinon replied: “Perhaps — sounds like a good topic for an essay.” And so I wrote about it.

Later, alongside Kodwo Eshun’s class, I began reading Nick Land’s Thirst for Annihilation and an attempted synthesis of Agamben and Land led to a talk I gave later that year called “Monastic Vampirism” (which you can read here).

On the basis on this essay, I decided to take Martinon’s core module, “Curating & Ethics”. I had worked in art galleries for three years prior to coming to Goldsmiths and found honest and open discussions of ethics, particularly in orbit of documentary photography — which I worked with extensively as the dominant form of photography displayed in the gallery I worked in; a form of photography I actively and vocally hated — to be completely nonexistent. I thought, maybe I can continue these readings of ethical thinkers and find something that I can relate to my working life outside of studying. (Instead all it did was make me want to leave gallery work behind all together — something I haven’t quite managed yet: it’s hard to find other jobs in this day and age when all your work experience is tied up in one area…) Nevertheless, I got a lot out of this class and much of what I learnt here continues to inform discussions on this blog, albeit implicitly.

Ethics was defined in the class as the “process of defining, systematizing, defending, and/or recommending concepts of right and wrong to an individual or society at large.” In the first lecture, we discussed the differences between meta-ethics: the nature of moral principles, “What is morality?, “What is goodness?”, “What is bad?”, “What is evil?”; normative ethics: what are the standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, “Which actions are right?”, “Which states of character are morally good?”; and applied ethics: the consideration of specific controversial issues, such as abortion, animal rights, environmental concerns, capital punishment, nuclear war, etc.

Ethics was understood, then, as a complex and inherently social form of thought, and we also acknowledged that these academic forms of ethics leave out a lot. “Love”, for instance, can be understood as an inherently ethical concept which cannot be boxed into a limited set of ethical principles.

For the sake of the course and its art world context, we limited ethics to a singular definition: “putting the other first.” The practice of curating, in all its forms, was likewis stripped back to its Latin etymological root in “cura” — meaning “to take care” — and so we explored how curators can care for their “other”, whether that be artworks or audiences.

The other/Other was here acknowledged as a potentially outdated linguistic signifier for that person that is immanently understood to be “not-me”, but it was adopted all the same for its usefulness for addressing social multiplicities.

The Other cannot be adequately understood as “you” in much the same way that to define “I” or “me” was an individualised subject is a slippery slope for other decisively unethical problematics. If ethics is social, then the “I” and the “other” must be considered as fundamentally abstract and multiplicitous forms. As Fisher wrote in The Weird and the Eerie: “The inside is a folding of the outside” and so multiplicities of “other” must likewise be considered against multiplicities of “self”.

This definition of the other was given further weight by Emmanuel Levinas. In Ethics & Infinity, Levinas writes that the other is “the destitute for whom I can do all and to whom I owe all”. “Destitute”, here, does not refer to the poor or those who have nothing. It is not an economic term. It does not refer to an indebtedness either but to a relation without exchange, without the necessity of return. Levinas is rather asking us to consider, radically, who is the “destitute” in our world. The most concrete and obvious example of this can be a parent and their child. It is the child who is destitute in their infancy and for whom the parent both owes all and can do all. It is a relationship defined by “love”, that slippery anethical affect. Scaled up to the social more generally, we can perhaps describe the other as that group that is underrepresented or less able to defend themselves against injustice.

But here, in considering this scaled-up example in particular, we come up against the politics of the Oedipal. At the level of geopolitics, to hastily make such a leap, how do we relate to those communities that grow out of those that are preexisting? How do we support the emergence of such communities whilst also, as a parent-state must surely do, allow those communities to metaphorically “fly the nest”. Productively speaking, families are defined by their multiplicity — something Deleuze and Guattari famously conceptualised in their discussions of “desiring-production” in Anti-Oedipus. It is possible, as so many of us know on a personal level, to “exit” the family without wanting to destroy or disregard where we came from. Imagined as a “desiring-machine”, breaks and ruptures of a whole are inherently seen as productive.

Patchwork, as I see it, is a system of desire in this way, allowing for the productive breaking down of territories and subjectivities, and within this process, inherently, there must be a consideration for the other.

But things are never so simple and attention must always be given to the complexities of such a process.

In Martinon’s class specifically, our circumstances meant that we could not exercise a “normative ethics” because, in our class, our precepts, principles and codes of ethics were likewise multiple, given our class’s diverse and international makeup. To cover every individual’s experience would be entirely unproductive and take up all of our time. Outside the class, there are also infinite other “destitutes”: describing an ethics for each would be an impossible task. For the sake of educational and social productivity, it was therefore necessary to limit our scope, our community, to certain general precepts.

This does not mean that these problematics just went away. Particularly at the level of class politics and given the inherent parochialism of the art world, it was a class I felt deeply frustrated with. At one point, I considered dropping out of it.

Instead, I stuck with it, but found myself taking a position that was largely critical of the course itself. Given these restrictions, what use is “ethics” at all, academically understood?

My decision not to “exit” the course could already be considered as an argument against exit in itself. However, in that moment, given the brevity of the course and the academic year as a whole, exit seemed pointless. I was more than capable of sticking it out for three months. Also, in trying to break down and poking holes in the course’s boundaries, I think I was able to make it far more productive — for myself, anyway. An ethics of exit here likewise falls apart at the first hurdle, as ethics becomes a practice of thought that is morally consolidatory. What is needed instead is perhaps similar to what Paul Mann, in his book Masocriticism, calls “anthetics”: “Not anethics against ethics, but in the expectation that ethics will not be able to contain its subject, because ethics is precisely an attempt to formalise the laws that exceed it.” 

I went on to think about and write on these considerations at length, and much of this thought would later inform the patchwork thinking that I’ve filled this blog with since I’ve graduated.

I was glad I stuck out the course because, in its final three weeks, Martinon dedicated the course to African philosophies. We began with Valentin Y Mudimbe.

Mudimbe is often considered to be one of the “first” African philosophers. Born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, he initially intended to become a priest. However, he went on to pursue a career in philosophy and prioritised transposing Africa’s various oral traditions into the written word, addressing the various problematics that this process engenders along the way. He attempted to formulate an “African” philosophy that contended with its inherent multiplicities as a fragmented continent consolidated into nation-states by centuries of Western colonialism.

Many African philosophers write, of course, usually in their own languages — limiting their reach. Mudimbe was a problematic pioneer due to his moving to America and his translating of African philosophy into English, whilst at the same time resisting the pressure to canonise this multiplicitous thought according to the consolidatory tendencies of Western philosophy. Is it possible — worthwhile, even — to write about metaphysics and ethics on the global stage without any reference to Greece? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? These are the inherently ethical questions that Mudimbe’s work asks both implicitly and explicitly.

In my chat with Justin, we ended up talking for a bit about the Black Radical Tradition and Black thought more generally. This continues to be thought that I am engaged with but cannot profess to be any kind of expert in, both at the level of study and lived experience. What I like about a lot of what I read in this context is the way it offers a new perspective on works that I am already familiar with. I’m a white Englishman. Set adrift in an ocean of thought that has emerged from lived experiences I can’t possibly relate to, I can’t help but try to grab onto the debris of Western philosophy as it floats on by. This is a bad approach, on the surface, but I like to think it also allows me to view more canonically Western thought from new perspectives.  

Fred Moten is the perfect example of this. I need to read more of his work but what I have read I often relate to the work of Maurice Blanchot. I am often reluctant to acknowledge this or try to address the work in this way, not wanting to erase the specificity of Black experience from Black philosophy, but I nevertheless find much in common here, albeit expressed via an entirely other philosophical tradition.

Justin and I focused primarily on the apparent contradictions to be found in thought such as this. Arguments for Black exit are viewed very differently to arguments for White (or otherwise Western) exit. The politics of Black Lives Matter were a central reference — the politics of group survival under conditions of an historically hostile but also explicitly contemporaneous state oppression. This is an understandable divergence given the power dynamics of Black and White experience. Just as there is no such thing as “reverse racism” — with racism, by definition, hinging on the affects of hegemonic “power” and privilege — Black philosophy, despite its similarities to certain subsections of Western philosophy, is speaking to a whole other incomparable experience and position within history. That is not the same as saying that white people cannot face racial discrimination or Black philosophy cannot commune with the Western canon, but the latter is far less weighted by the hegemony of historical violence and this violence cannot be ignored. 

The “exit” of Black thought from Western thought is, in much the same way, not subject to the same preconditions. Likewise, the inherent “exit” to be found in much queer thought, as an exit from hegemonic social structures, demands other stakes being considered.

So, with all this in mind, in what way does patchwork allow for a more productive practice of “putting the other first”?

In Blanchot’s The Avowable Community, he opens with a quotation from Georges Bataille — a quotation but also a central conceit: “The community of those who do not have a community.” In this book, he writes, he hopes to address “the communist exigency, the relations between that exigency and the possibility or impossibility of a community at a time when even the ability to understand community seems to have been lost (but isn’t community outside intelligibility?), and, finally, … the flaw in language such words as communism or community seem to contain, if we sense that they carry something completely other than what could be common to those who belong to a whole, a group, a council, a collective, even where they deny belonging to it, whatever form of that denial.”

Blanchot’s “community”, then, is one that tries to reestablish the centrality of its already inherent multiplicity. “Community” is something that always exists beyond its own boundaries. “Community”, today, is all too often understood as a specific configuration of select beings rather than as a transcendental concept.

I’ve written about this a lot before — specifically considering Blanchot and Jean-Luc Nancy, in “Reaching Beyond to the Other”, my first essay on the Vast Abrupt — but I have never explicitly expanded on his consideration of communism, which likewise came up in my chat with Justin. Communism, as understood by Blanchot, is precisely the overly-familiar (and, as a result, often misunderstood) political framing of what Bataille called a “community of those who do not have a community.” It is the political idea of a community caught up in its own impossibility.

The oft-derided retort to assertions that communism was a violent failure — that is, that Actually Existing Communism has never really been tried — all too often misses this necessary consideration. In truth, communism can’t be “tried”, certainly not as a state-sanctioned political regime. The failure of big-C “Communism” is always encoded in itself from the start because each attempt to instantiate it is paradoxical.

This is what interests me about Mark Fisher’s Acid Communism, which has languished in the background of this blog as I’ve been waiting seven months for my distillation of this idea to become publicly available. My essay for Krisis, which you can read here, sums this up well, I think. (Apologies for yet another external link — another reason why, as I mentioned to Justin, I’m trying to put this all into a book (and, possibly, PhD), providing a paradoxically consolidated statement of what I call “patchwork”.)

The “Acid” qualifier of Mark’s unfinished theory, I wrote, “is [postcapitalist] desire, as corrosive and denaturalising multiplicity, flowing through the multiplicities of communism itself to create alinguistic feedback loops; an ideological accelerator through which the new and previously unknown might be found in the politics we mistakenly think we already know, reinstantiating a politics to come.”

Acid Communism, then, is, for me, one way of reinserting this sense of “other” — ethically understood in abstract — back into, so as to interrupt, the fatalistic politics of consolidation that define so much of society.

To return to Blanchot:

Communism, by saying that equality is its foundation and that there can be no community until the needs of all men are equally fulfilled (this in itself but a minimal requirement), presupposes not a perfect society but the principle of a transparent humanity essentially produced by itself alone, an “immanent” humanity (says Jean-Luc Nancy). This immanence of man to man also points to man as the absolutely immanent being because he is or has to become such that he might entirely be a work, his work, and, in the end, the work of everything. As Herder says, there is nothing that must not be fashioned by him, from humanity to nature (and all the way to God). Nothing is left out, in the final analysis. Here lies the seemingly healthy origin of the sickest totalitarianism.

Here lies, also, the central problem of communism as it was and still is understood: it is a communism that, all too often, homogenises. Communism — the desired Actually Existing Communism — is predicated on difference and an active working with difference. Equality, whilst remaining a lovely ideal, is surely an impossibility thanks to history — all political history, not just the history of communism. The politics of all modern “communities”, whether that is viewed as Black Lives Matter or a community far less consolidated but nonetheless historically existent, is not predicated on a desire for equality but a desire for the acceptance of difference. How can we think acceptance in a way that is not consolidatory?

Take, as another example, the present politics of Pride. Here we see the politics of homosexuality largely “accepted” by a wider society, in such a way that it is superficially consolidated into presently existing and hegemonic social structures of capitalism and neoliberalism. This is so prevalent it even has a name. “Homonationalism”, writes Don Kulick, is precisely the “understanding and enactment of homosexual acts, identities, and relationships that incorporates them as not only compatible with but even exemplary of neoliberal democratic ethics and citizenships.” Homonationalism is one such result of today’s short-sighted politics of equality.

So what are we supposed to do when we demand irreducible difference? Blanchot: “if the relation of man with man ceases to be that of the Same with the Same, but rather introduces the Other as irreducible and — given the equality between them — always in a situation of dissymmetry in relation to the one looking at that Other, then a completely different relationship imposes itself and imposes another form of society which one would hardly dare call a ‘community.’”

This is precisely how I understand what Mark called for in Capitalist Realism: the “collective subject”.

At this point, I could easily end up working my way through the entirely of Blanchot’s text, writing into infinity, and so, perhaps prematurely, although his post is getting very long, I’ll start to wrap up. I will simply say here that if you want to grasp the ethical basis of patchwork as I see it — that is, as a system for the production of immanent difference — start with Blanchot’s text. For Blanchot himself, the thought of Georges Bataille is central to his understanding of “community” too: Bataille who “forced him[self] to be unceasingly an other while remaining himself and to develop other exigencies which resisted becoming united”.

To take patchwork seriously, as a system, beyond Moldbug, necessitates being a part of a community without community; necessitates consenting “not to be a single being”, as Moten would have itnecessitates the instantiation of a collective subject.

Patchwork, as a system, requires a right of exit that goes all the way down. It is a radical rejection of the consolidatory tendencies that cause so much trauma, not just geopolitically but also subjectivity.

A tweet recently retweeted:

Real talk: the primordially whole female body is to TERFs what the primordially whole nation and its people is to fascists… A mythological fantasy that serves to displace all sorts of anxieties. [10]

The nation-state and the individual self are, via patchwork, likewise understood as mythological fantasies that we have nonetheless pursued at all costs. Embrace the anxiety of not being a single being, of not being a single subject, and fragment accordingly. And then, worry not: putting the other first, both internally and externally, is always already an(-)ethics.


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