A huge shout-out to Renan Porto who has translated my essay on Acid Communism into Portuguese ahead of a colloquium on Mark’s work to take place soon in Rio.
…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
—Suarez Miranda,Viajes devarones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658 
What Borges’s short text [“On Exactitude and Science”] recounts is the asymptotic nature of the model, its tendency to superimpose itself onto the real and to cover it over, without ever being able to complete this process, and at the cost of losing its very status as model and simply disappearing into a new reality, just as hopeless as the first, a new reality which once again calls for models in order to render it legible. This is why the map of the Empire at a 1:1 scale is abandoned, as it reinstates the real where the model was supposed to capture it, place it at a distance, and instrumentalise it. 
Few seem to have faith in patchwork as a model. That’s one of the most frequent critiques you’ll hear on Twitter.
But perhaps the problem here is the very thinking of patchwork as a model in the first place… Who says it is one? Is this assumption based on its reimagining of our present cartographies?
Those cartographies are complex and not just territorial. State and self must be re-imagined in tandem and first that requires a new perspective — one at 1:1 scale, in order to let the real back in.
 Jorges Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”
 Francois J. Bonnet, “The Order of Sounds: A Sonorous Archipelago”, tr. Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2016), 243.
Gaming is weird and seems to have only gotten weirder. It used to be my life as a kid with many a Saturday spent in Hull’s old Gamestation shop — a little goth cave off the high street, tiny, blackened walls, no windows, full of metal heads, games for every console in existence everywhere you looked, somehow smellier than the Games Workshop down the road but also always populated with Mums trying to understand their children’s obsession, looking mighty intimidated by the crowd of towering, burly regulars. I never thought I’d have such Proustian memories over that particular early 00s flavour of teen BO…
Gamestation got bought out by Game in 2007 and I don’t remember spending time in any other gaming shop so it’s safe to say that that’s about the time I stopped following gaming as an industry quite so religiously and got priced out of keeping up with all the new developments. To be honest, it didn’t even feel like an industry then. It had managed to avoid the cringeworthy, performative professionalism of a medium trying desperately to be taken seriously.
I think I bought an Xbox 360 around that time and the last game I bought for it was Skyrim… I have remained more or less in an out-of-date timewarp since that time, sticking by my Bethesda games, Half Life 2, my N64 and GameCube also getting the occasional outing, and not much else… So I’ve mostly been watching the weird controversies of the last few years from the sidelines, totally bemused by the hills that gaming culture has chosen to die on: its general defence of mental health politics coupled with a violent rejection of feminist input feeling like the central kernel of evermore convoluted displays of cognitive dissonance.
Not to hate on contemporary gaming culture too much. It’s extremely bone-headed reputation is not mirrored in the games it has to offer. It’s a weird, fucked-up but nonetheless beautiful subculture, if you’re looking in the right places.
Just like everything else, those who shout loudest are the ones everyone with sense wants to tie in a bag and throw in a river…
Anyway… I’ve evidently not been entirely disconnected. I’ve instead moved into a sort of child’s wide-eyed but broke engagement with the culture, having no money to spend on it and instead watching Let’s Play videos on YouTube and pushing my 2015 laptop to its absolute limits for the past few years. (Dying Light was the limit of what it could handle and the only new-ish game I’ve spent a lot of time with although now it weirdly triggers my anxiety, having perhaps spent too much time with it during one too many a depression.) A few months ago, however, my girlfriend’s brother lent me his Nintendo Switch with Breath of the Wild in it and that got me itching to catch up and see what I’ve been missing behind the headlines.
Because, subcultural fuckery aside, gaming is a fascinating medium and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, the current generation of console gaming has raised the quality in games to happily rival film and television — an opinion long held by fans but now with more than enough evidence to back it up, even if those who seemed to miss the initial boat in their teens or childhoods remain stuck in a mire of indifference.
I write about books, films, TV and music fairly frequently on this blog, folding observations around these mediums into all kinds of posts on the regular, and the only reason gaming has been omitted from this so far is down to my access to what’s new in games. Commenting on stuff via Let’s Plays alone feels like cheating. If I’m to write anything, it needs to come from my own player experiences.
That being said…
As recently tweeted, the office where I spend a few days a week here in London has entered a week-long summer shutdown — not sure what for but I’m not complaining. It’s a week off I’ve started strong, buying a battered second-hand PS4 for about as cheap as I’ve ever seen it with Fallout 4 secondhand and The Last Of Us Remastered — the former I failed to get to run on my laptop (I really love Bethesda RPGs for all their buggy flaws) and the latter is a game I’ve wanted to play ever since bingewatching a surprisingly affecting Let’s Play series of it when it first came out.
I’ve largely binge-played The Last Of Us so far this week. It’s a beautiful if relentless game that tells the story of one man’s journey through a post-ecozombie apocalypse where most of the population has become infected by cordyceps.
It’s an inspired idea. The spectacle of nature taking back the world from human civilisation is a common and now ubiquitous trope within zombie movies, but here this trope is folded back into an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style flora-infecting-fauna twist.
Wandering around the game’s beautifully rendered natural environments, there is a distinct unease that this beauty is both the result and cause of the world we’re currently existing in. Whether in the inner city or the outskirts, buildings and nature itself seem to — somewhat unnaturally — tower over you, far bigger than you would otherwise expect, with nature’s ruthless drive towards reclamation making even the man-made feel newly intimidating.
Fallout 4‘s version of post-apocalyptia is very different to this. Nothing seems out of reach. Rather than being in constant peril at the bottom of some new food chain, in Fallout 4 it seems that, instead, the playing field has been completely levelled — the most notable difference to existence being that everything is still there for the taking.
This is very much a part of the franchise’s parody of capitalism, to an extent, although here the sense of parody feels like it is waning somewhat… Or perhaps it has intensified… I’m on the fence.
Fallout 4 takes the franchise back to its beginnings. We begin in pre-apocalyptia, in an alternative universe where the USA has fully — even excessively — embraced nuclear technology, using it to rapidly advance technology in general and power absolutely everything from the automobile industry to the superhuman armour of the army’s foot soldiers. There is a Metal Gear-esque narrative here, but one that (again) places the nuclear on a level with the human rather than looming precariously above it. It is not just a gateway to technological monstrosities but rather remains accessible to the everyman, powering his desires.
The world of the game has, notably, not advanced aesthetically past the 1950s. When I say that literally everything is nuclear-powered, that seems to include a newly robust American Dream as well. Social consciousness runs on the power of the atom. It’s a marvellous demonstration and parody of the extent to which nothing is beyond the reach of capitalism, particularly a capitalism run on the fundamental but also radical power of nuclear fusion — an atomic capitalism, in every sense of the word.
Even the game’s currency of used bottlecaps feels like a hilarious example of the way capitalism might smuggle its own longevity into its own suicidal detritus. Capital continues to run, albeit at limited capacity, on its own death drive.
This societal love of all things nuclear further defines the landscapes in which human influence continues to permeated far beyond the reaches of the human. In the game’s back story, China attacks and invades the USA, blasting most of the country with nuclear weapons and so, as with every game in the series, you begin your journey into post-apocalyptia in a numbered Vault, used to (nefariously) house future generations who emerge on a new world very much full of life but mutated beyond previous recognition.
Other plants and animals might have been “advanced” and made more dangerous by nuclear fallout but the position of humans within the world seems largely unchanged. There is little embarrassment about the ruinous effect of human civilisation on the world. Everything is taken in the stride of the American psyche which permeates all and so society seems to continue advancing undeterred by even the most violent of events. Infrastructure has broken down but the will of the individual, the true backbone of American society, is stronger than ever!
As such, these two games offer a fascinating contrast when played back to back. In The Last of Us, nature fights back and is our downfall, humiliating us, curtailing desires to their absolute minimum.
For example, children are central to the story of The Last of Us and when our protagonists — old man Joel and teen Ellie — meet another man and his ward, their relationship for the viewer is defined by the way that the boy in is care is not allowed to be the kid that he nonetheless inherently is. Ellie, on the other hand, the game’s young, female co-protagonist, is a symbol of hope and retains a child-like wonder and enthusiasm for all of life, as fascinated by this new Nature as she is by comic books and other remnants of pop culture found strewn throughout the landscape. Her new friend, Sam, however, also her age, when caught picking up a toy in a toy store, is told firmly to put it back. The number one rule of “taking stuff” in this universe is “take only what you need”.
This is reflected in the gameplay itself, where collectable items are completely lacking in variety. There are only five or six types, each used for crafting a specific tool or weapon. Ellie’s role as loveably rambunctious little gobshite is to be a new seed for desire, for the libidinal, for a paternal hope in the future. In other words, she is a new hope for the overturning of an endemic post-apocalyptic austerity, both emotional and material.
In this way, it feels like it is deeply inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a ubiquitous influence on pop cultural post-apocalyptia and one likewise cited by Fallout 3‘s dev team — an influence increasingly absent from the series as it has progressed. The inescapable Grey of Fallout 3, often derided as aesthetic mud but something I think worked brilliantly, is now far more vibrant with the neon glow of nuclear fallout.
In Fallout 4, in contrast to the austerity of The Last of Us, every piece of detritus can be picked up and utilised, no matter what it is. This is common to Bethesda games but seems to have been overhauled here. If it exists, it can go in your inventory. It can likewise all be used in crafting weapons and tools but the world is very much your own personal post-apocalyptic toy store. Take what you want and play,
What has interested me most about both of these examples — explicitly related to these dynamics, I think — is the (re)presentation of our own historic sense of ourselves as a species and as a civilisation, despite what we have done to the world we’re now inhabiting.
Halfway through The Last of Us, I find myself fighting hordes zombies and cannibalistic non-infected humans called “hunters”, running through a destroyed museum that is littered with mannequins, paintings and the unrecognisable detritus of a history now largely forgotten — or, at the very least, put out of mind as just another reminder of all that has been lost. The detail presented to the player here is scarce. It remains a beautiful and complex environment in terms of its textures but the signs of the old world are otherwise basic and distant. Pictures on the walls seem to be the most telling sign of what the building was previously used for, but beyond that they are simply wallpaper. History is ever-present but unimportant. Human (but also the specificity of American) culture is diluted, still traumatic.
Fallout 4, again in contrast, presents us with a museum as the first “outside” environment that we are able to explore. Having emerged from the vault and wandered around our desolated former home, the first quest takes you to the nearby town of Concord, surprisingly in tact after the bombs, all wooden frontages and dirt roads. We come across a battle between a group of raiders and a band of survivors who have holed themselves up in a museum and they are the first group of “settlers” you are given the opportunity to help.
Straight away, with this introductory quest, the franchise’s previous retro-futuristic aesthetic is injected with a huge dose of recursive frontierism (reminding me of my previous run of Westworld posts: here, here and here).
American history has always languished in the background of these games but previously as a similarly forgotten discipline and interest, now just a hobby for the concerned few. I’m reminded, in particular, of a quest in Fallout 3 in which you have to break into a museum, now home to a troop of mutants, in order to steal the Declaration of Independence for a jobbing historian. The indifference with which you pick up the document as a now largely unimportant object is funny but distinctly in contrast to the new wild west tone of Fallout 4. Here, this “Museum of Freedom”, complete with decrepit animatronic displays detailing a piecemeal and fractured vision of the American revolution, is transformed into a new Alamo for the 23rd century. This is less a civilisation built from the ashes and rather one which remains very much in touch with its past.
(This seems to be a twist the franchise is now going to run with, with Fallout 76 out in a couple of months, the marketing campaign of which has already played a lot with a theme of America’s tricentennial anniversary — 1776 to 2076.)
There is a somewhat twisted message here, explicitly connecting the threads of capitalist realism and nationalist realism, previously explored on this blog at length: the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of the United States. Bethesda makes great use of this future-proof nationalism to great comic effect but there is a sense that the joke might be lost on some within the fanbase…
As I keep playing, I suspect I’ll have much more to say so watch this space. In perusing the world of games now open to me, I’m likewise aware that post-apocalyptia dominates this market. (Horizon Zero Dawn is next on my to-play list.) The easiest thing to observe is that these post-apocalyptic RPGs and shooters are a symptom of contemporary unease and uncertainty but, as Fallout 4 comically demonstrates, there is nonetheless a belief that much will survive our seemingly inevitable demise. Each game seems to offer a different vision of just what those surviving elements may be and the nuances of those visions are far more interesting than making some analogy based on Trump terror.
To be continued…
I got a big fat juicy question on CuriousCat recently which I don’t think I could even dream of answering in the little box over there. It needed drafting elsewhere and so it might as well be a post.
Could you please explain the distinction between mechanism and vitalism? Why is it so important for Gothic Materialism as defined by Fisher in his PhD?
If you’re not familiar with Flatline Constructs: Gothic Materialism and Cybernetic Theory-Fiction — to give it its full title — and want an quick and dirty introduction, I wrote a 300-word intro for the Fisher-Function last year.
To quote myself in summary, Mark’s thesis
explores a radical plane of immanence — the Gothic flatline — on which the anthropocentric tendency to give agency to inanimate objects is subverted, so that everything — animate or inanimate — is seen as ‘dead’. Rather than privileging human agency over the agency of objects, Mark argues for their radical immanence within the emerging technosphere: the world of cybernetics. He asks, “what if we are as ‘dead’ as the machines”?
What is key for Fisher here, and what he is hoping to exacerbate at every level, is the way that burgeoning technologies are usurping the human tendency towards anthropocentrism in understanding the nature of experience under capitalism.
To fully understand the time we’re in and its potentials, we have to stop using ourselves as some kind of gold standard of experience. “Human life” is not an adequate paradigm for understanding life-in-itself. Superficially understood, we can argue that by viewing human “life” as a sort of minority experience, in the grand scheme of agentic things, we can far more easily think this plane of immanence, this Gothic Flatline, and therefore challenge and update (read: utterly annihilate) contemporary subjectivity accordingly.
We are becoming more and more open to this suggestion now, due to its implications for contemporary science fact, but it has also long been a consideration for the preparatory prescience of science fiction and philosophy. Truth be told, it’s an argument that is centuries old, and what Fisher has provided us with here — along with Nick Land and the Ccru more generally — is this same argument with a necessarily cybernetic update.
Fisher’s questioning of whether we are all “as ‘dead’ as the machines” does sound very cybergothic but, really, it’s just Materialism 101 — the fundamental suggestion of which is that all of existence can be understood in its relation to “matter”. The consistent issue with materialism, however, is that we struggle to concretely define what “matter” even is, but it seems that, for Fisher, this quest for definition is to miss the point somewhat.
Fisher’s materialism is that of Spinoza’s “God, Nature”, of Nietzsche’s suggestion that “living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type”, of Deleuze’s “transcendental field” — each a way of thinking immanence and de-privileging the human subject in thought.
Mechanism and vitalism come into play here as two major splinterings within classical materialism. Vitalism is perhaps the better known of the two, regularly thrown about in orbit of Deleuze albeit becoming a somewhat empty word these days. Prior to Deleuze it has been more generally understood as a way of distinguishing life from death — philosophically, life is recognisable to us through a sort of will-to-power, a non-physical “life force”, a soul, a spirit, an intelligence, a consciousness, et al., which something that is dead fundamentally does not have. Each of these examples is vastly different to every other, of course, suggesting that this horizon is no longer so absolute, and bringing to mind a whole plethora of references and interpretations, which perhaps gives us an idea of just how broad vitalist thinking is. In the most general terms, perhaps you can argue that it is a question of biology, as yet philosophically unaccounted for. It is life understood as matter with “agency”.
Mechanism, on the other hand, can be understood more as a question of physics — as the suggestion that life is governed by Newtonian sensibilities of causality and motion; by quantifiable, physical processes.
Whilst Deleuze is so often discussed as a vitalist, in truth his position is more of a diagonal between the two positions, due to the ways that his vitalism includes talk of machines and assemblages, giving it a certain kind of mechanistic bent. In many ways, both of these terms become redundant in the face of his thinking. Deleuze’s thought is instead an immanentization of the two.
Fisher argues for this conflation throughout his thesis, introducing the problem right from the start within his thesis’s introduction. He writes:
Donna Haraway’s celebrated observation that “our machines are disturbingly lively, while we ourselves are frighteningly inert” has given this issue a certain currency in contemporary cyber-theory. But what is interesting about Haraway’s remark — its challenge to the oppositional thinking that sets up free will against determinism, vitalism against mechanism — has seldom been processed by a mode of theorizing which has tended to reproduce exactly the same oppositions. These theoretical failings, it will be argued here, arise from a resistance to pursuing cybernetics to its limits (a failure evinced as much by cyberneticists as by cultural theorists, it must be added). Unraveling the implications of cybernetics, it will be claimed, takes us out to the Gothic flatline. The Gothic flatline designates a zone of radical immanence. And to theorize this flatline demands a new approach, one committed to the theorization of immanence. This thesis calls that approach Gothic Materialism.
The conjoining of the Gothic with Materialism poses a challenge to the way that the Gothic has been thought. It is a deliberate attempt to disassociate the Gothic from everything supernatural, ethereal or otherwordly. The principal inspiration for this theorization comes from Wilhelm Worringer via Deleuze-Guattari. Both Worringer and Deleuze-Guattari identity the Gothic with “nonorganic life”, and whilst this is an equation we shall have cause to query, Gothic Materialism as it is presented here will be fundamentally concerned with a plane that cuts across the distinction between living and nonliving, animate and inanimate. It is this anorganic continuum, it will be maintained, that is the province of the Gothic.
This anorganic continuum is precisely the diagonal that cuts across mechanism and vitalism. As he writes later: “if everything can be explained mechanically, this entails less the triumph of mechanism as originally understood than the collapsing of the terms of the debate with vitalism.”
What makes this diagonal argument and the collapsing of mechanism into vitalism so necessary, for Fisher, via Deleuze and Guattari, is desire. Fisher writes:
For Deleuze-Guattari, what needs to be accounted for in both vitalism and mechanism — but what both have tended to leave out — is the immanence of desire to all assemblages. Unlike [Samuel] Butler, both mechanism and vitalism leave desire in an “extrinsic” relationship, either to machines in the case of mechanism, or to organisms in the case of vitalism. “This is even the point around which the usual polemic between vitalism and mechanism revolves: the machine’s ability to account for the workings of the organism, but its fundamental inability to account for its formations.” The organism’s functioning, that is to say, can be described merely mechanically, but mechanism cannot account for its own production, just as the existence of machines is — supposedly — dependent upon the “vitalistic” role of human beings. For Deleuze-Guattari, what mechanism and vitalism both posit is a different kind of unity or reification: mechanism posits a “structural unity” of machines, whereas vitalism posits an “individual and specific unity of the living.” Neither account for the multiplicity of relations into which machines and “the living” enter, and from which they are constituted; and in each case, desire is construed as something “secondary and indirect.”
Mark later frames this problematic in the form of that old surrealist brainteaser: “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” To back either mechanism or vitalism in the age of cybernetics is precisely to back the chicken or the egg and to miss the necessary paradoxical engine which keeps things moving.
As such, the answer to this problem for Fisher is clear, if no less mind-mangling: the circuit itself comes first. The (desiring-)production of chicken-as-egg-as-chicken-… is the perfect expression of immanence but there are nonetheless distinctions to be made here…
So why are mechanism and vitalism so important to Gothic Materialism? Because they constitute the very engine on which Mark’s thesis is built, but there remains a lot more left to be said here.
I’m sort of ending here at the point where things get really juicy. This is where the key to Fisher’s Deleuzian cybernetic materialism reveals itself, but I must confess that I am reluctant to go any further in answering this question because this is something that I’m actively researching at the moment and am still trying to properly grasp — hoping to entangle it with a few other things, very slowly, here and here — not in terms of Mark’s thought exclusively but rather trying to understand the continuously contemporary implications of Deleuze’s philosophy of difference.
The importance of this to Flatline Constructs is obvious, I think, if somewhat obfuscated by Mark’s cybernetic language. This is something revealed not so much in the text itself but in the title of the chapter in which mechanism and vitalism are primarily discussed. This third chapter is titled “Xerox and Xenogenesis”, and it seems like this is Fisher’s version of that old Deleuze joke, updated for Y2k.
Deleuze once said that he titled his PhD thesis Difference & Repetition because Being & Time was already taken. There is surely no better way of understanding the wordplay presented here in Flatline Constructs as pointing to a relationship between xerox as repetition as time and xenogenesis as difference as being, expanded outwards into Fisher’s Gothic Materialism.
Deleuze’s philosophy of difference, as presented in Difference & Repetition, is itself an expression of a kind of immanent materialism. This thought is then later found again in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, this time as an explicitly politicised philosophy of difference.
Mark condenses this thought wonderfully and dizzyingly in a polemically kpunk-esque and pointedly Landian essay which appeared in Warwick’s Pli journal:
With Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Freud, and all the other key breakouts from western philosophy, Marx advances a materialism based on two fundamental principles:
(1) There is only one type of stuff in the cosmos. Every kind of dualism and all appeals to the supersensible or the supernatural are illegitimate. The positing of such realms is a Master simulation, a way of both denying the Masters’ own constitution as material entities whilst also concealing their dependence upon a social system that is based upon structural inequality.
(2) There is only one practice. Since, for Marx, all activity is practice, the important distinction is between (i) materialist theoretical practice, which emerges from and is oriented towards action, and (ii) idealist theoretical practice, which, in the name of universality, objectivity or disinterested contemplation, disavows its own role in expressing — and thereby shoring up — the formations of power from which it emerges.
Power, economics, matter: all become shadows projected from/onto the gloomy interior of the Subject. On the other (Out)side — the unscreened Real, or matter-in-itself — everything is desire, everything is production, and all theory is practice, even when it functions as anti productive static which blocks, dams up, and drains intensity. Deleuze credits Nietzsche with being the one who introduces the question, ‘who is speaking?’ into ‘philosophy’ but Marx had already encouraged us to distrust all claims to transcendence and universality and ask instead what mode of power was speaking in their name. All ‘discourse’ is in some sense practical. Yes, even the apparently irrelevant noodlings of our latter day phenomenologists have a role to play in maintaining social order (if only by gumming up the machines with sickly babble).
Deleuze-Guattari’s ‘transcendental materialism’ is a fissile recombination of Marx and Kant, whose function is to provide the abstract engineering hyper-program for the dismantling of human security (= you, insofar as you are personal, identical, organismic). Gothic or transcendental materialism (= schizoanalysis = pop philosophy rhizomatics = stratoamlysis = pragmatics micropolitcs) deploys the Kantian critical machine to interrogate what remains uncritiqued in Marx (the reification of already-constituted actualities like ‘the social’) whilst using Marx to re-insert Kant’s subject into the hypermaterialist field of Kapital.
If that is hard to make sense of, don’t worry about it. For Fisher, then and now, I feel like this philosophy of difference continues to run in the background of his thought, albeit later rephrased and re-un-articulated again and again. It is, so concludes this essay, a way to “let the Outside in” and the implications of us remain poignant for us all.
I wrote in conclusion of my introduction to the thesis:
In his eulogy to Mark, Robin Mackay wondered “what remains after the physical body’s gone, when the singularity of a life can no longer rely on that frail support and needs other carriers”. With this in mind, what role does this Gothic Materialism play within the Fisher-Function? Rather than becoming immediately facetious, can Mark’s real death recalibrate the stakes of his conceptual deaths? Can death in this mode be collectively thought in a way that prepares us for — and helps us to move beyond — our present reality, not only of personal grief but of capitalist apocalypticism?
… and I feel like the potentials for answering these questions were always there. They weren’t activated by Mark’s death — that event simply made the desire for answers all the more furious. These questions continue to run throughout Mark’s work, smuggling the immanentisation of Deleuze-Guattari into his own pop philosophy rhizomatics. There’s a lot of work left to do…
Hopefully I’ll get round to contributing something more concrete and rigorous to this soon…
This morning, like every morning, I woke up and put the news on. As the screen flickers into life, I’m watching teenagers open A Level exam results live on television and talk about their futures.
Rather them than me.
It’s the same scene every year, although I was slightly taken aback that any awareness of it had passed me by. Today is a day that used to loom really large in the collective consciousness of everyone I knew, functioning as a seemingly innocuous reminder that this would soon be us and the fleeting fantasy of opening up shitty results on telly was a suffuse nightmare shared by many. That anxious awareness of Results Day continued for years afterwards too, punctured by ‘Nam-like flashbacks of hormonally exacerbated panic attacks.
I barely remember my results day now but it wasn’t a day I particularly enjoyed. I remember I got very drunk at the end of it. There might have been a live chicken involved in inebriated shenanigans. The emotional memory is that it was underwhelming but nonetheless fraught. There was quiet contentment and relief from most with tears of disappointment on either side of this, from the underachievers who saw this day coming with fair warning and overachievers who couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t get a clean sweep of A*s. The Oxbridge few would get their picture in the local paper.
My results were a bland sweep of mediocrity but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be out of college. I had more pressing personal concerns at the time than exam results. School felt like an obstacle for getting my life in order at that point but I did end up going to university all the same, under the pressure of an immanent trebling of fees, which meant that just about everyone else did too. Thankfully, the entry requirements for an arts degree were minimal, based more on a portfolio assessment than UCAS points.
I also remember I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I had floated the idea by my Mum that I could do an apprenticeship instead and just start working. I thought I was being sensible, considering the economic climate in 2009, peak recession, but it left my Mum in tears. In hindsight, that would have been a fucking awful decision to make. I could be living my life photographing babies and weddings in East Yorkshire. Bleak.
Thankfully, I fell in love with university. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have found out that I like to write too or that I had anything to say and I wouldn’t be spamming you all with posts twelve times a month.
A lot of others didn’t share that experience, rushed into decisions and down paths that weren’t right for them.
In light of this, what I’m struck by on the news this morning is just how diverse the paths being taken now are, as alternative qualifications and routes to employment proliferate. People seem happier today with their options. I disagree with university course fees and the miserable class dynamics within institutions on principle, but at least there’s a wealth of choice now where previously there was none.
Nonetheless, as is the case every year, there is a push for the dissolving of our “social apartheid” and the diversification and democratisation of that singular and hallowed path towards an induction into our national elite — or that’s how it is sold to so many anyway.
This morning it was David Lammy’s turn to send the obligatory tweet:
The brightest students do not only come from posh schools and rich families. So why are university access schemes making so little progress despite significant spending? This social apartheid is not good for society.https://t.co/pVPhqKLOG5
— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) August 15, 2018
But I’m really not convinced that this is something worth fighting for at all for anybody…
I know a couple of people who went to Oxbridge. I used to be quite resentful of them. They didn’t seem particularly smarter than anyone else. Just posh, disciplined and good at working the system with all its emphasis on time management and rote learning. “Critical thinking” classes for the bright and promising just seemed like a functional normie finishing school. (I’m evidently still bitter about my school days.)
Now, though, I feel sorry for those people.
I knew a few people that ended up at Cambridge. One guy I knew because he was a singer in a local band. Deep baritone Ian Curtis / Paul Banks voice. He was good. To my surprise, since we’d gotten to know each other at grungy bars and house parties, he was actually really well off and he became the only friend I had who could drive and had his own car. He also had a similar taste in music to me and so we went on quite a few road trips: to London to see TV On The Radio in 2007; to Manchester to see LCD Soundsystem in 2008.
He was genuinely intelligent and had a critical mind beyond his years but last I heard he was working in finance and, whilst endlessly popular at Cambridge, he’d become infamous for having a massive cocaine addiction. So well-known was this habit it now seemed to define him. Everyone knew him by his cocaine-pun nickname. I haven’t seen him since 2009.
Another one of my best friends at school ended up going to Cambridge as well. She had always wanted to go down that path and checked all the usual boxes on the way there. High achiever, sports captain, head girl, etc., etc. She put a lot of pressure on herself to get there. She was also one of the ones to re-sit some of her exams. She got nothing less than an A the first time round but somehow still didn’t get in and rather than settle for elsewhere she deferred a year, stayed on at college and went for the full house of A*s whilst racking up an excessive amount of UCAS points by getting more A Levels in more subjects than anyone else.
We reconnected once I moved to London two years ago. We hadn’t really spoken for eight years but when I found out she lived around the corner, we started to hang out again and I went to a house warming party she was having in early 2017.
The party was full of Cambridge alumni.
It was a good night but I will never forget the amount of drama that kicked off after midnight, when people had perhaps had a bit too much to drink. By 4am, there were tears and deep conversations everywhere, in every room, and everyone had the same problem: without the tick-box ladder of our education system to doggedly climb, having reached the top and without anywhere else to go, many were left in anticlimactic despair. They all explicitly blamed Cambridge for their distress — chewed up, spat out and left with an extraordinary amount of neuroses from the years of pressure. And this were the posh lot! It was hard not to be cynical about their whinging, as they were still able to exist more comfortably than most, but for all their excessive privilege they were nonetheless listless and with catastrophically low self-esteem.
No one ever talks about this. The accusations of too much pressure seem to be on secondary schools, putting teens through the wringer of SATs, GSCEs and A Levels and forcing them to map their lives out by 16. No one ever mentions just how toxic these “Russell Group” universities seem to be. The suggestion is: get more ethnic minorities in there, more working class kids… They’re failing in making opportunities for these kids…
Are those opportunities we want kids to have? Is it worth levelling to playing field to make such a shitshow more accessible?
I’d like to take anyone even thinking about going to Oxbridge on a tour of that Cambridge alumni party and its sea of broken 20-somethings.
The suggestion that more people should be allowed to go to Oxbridge feels dangerous to me. I don’t think we need more kids with eating disorders and drug habits. Dilute their reputation instead. Dissolve rather than diversify. Save these aspirational kids a world of pain and mental illness. Most would no doubt be much happier elsewhere.
There was a moment at the end of last year (I think), when spitballing new content ideas in the caves, that I offered to write an essay for the Vast Abrupt defending Nickelback.
It was a hilarious discussion that followed — this being a suggestion perfectly cursed for some but way too cursed for others. (Sorry not sorry, Max Castle.)
The general argument — which, I must confess, I stand by — is that, like a number of pop rock albums of that era, Nickelback’s fifth album All the Right Reasons, best known for its much-memed single “Photograph”, is far more complex than most give it credit for.
Having long gotten over the insane overplay the song got at the time of its release, I think there’s a reasonable amount to like and be fascinated by here. The production values are top notch and, frankly, I think “Photograph” is a great pop song about middle-aged nostalgia. What I find most interesting, though, is the way that the quality of the song is only bolstered further by its contrast to the album its a part of.
The album is by no means a masterpiece — let’s not get ahead of ourselves — but I find that its biggest flaws do help to further raise its highs points in interesting ways — a dynamic unexplored by most due to the band’s overwrought reputation for being the epitome of “uncool”.
Consider the lamest songs on this album: the ones that seem to perform a kind of adolescent and overtly masculine sexuality — a trope common to rock music in general but previously never more unconvincing. There are a number of tracks along these lines to choose from. “Animals”, for instance, is not even the worst offender but, coming straight after “Photograph” on the album’s tracklist, its effect on the listener is a notably jarring one.
The track presents us with a distinctly adolescent pseudo-Ballardianism, glorifying that sexual association that All American Boys supposedly have between cars and girls, which is a familiar trope in itself but which, coming out of the mouth of a then-thirty-something man, is a little weirder than usual.
“Photograph”, in comparison, comes across as a brutally honest and heartfelt reflection on how distant the rest of the album’s hyperbolic emotional states really are. It’s a bright shard of truth in amongst an album of uncomfortable lies.
This tension is all over the album. Even the cover itself embodies a kind of escapist attitude that is unconvincingly definitive and the album’s title, All The Right Reasons, similarly reads as both a public display of self-confidence and a private self-deception.
Whilst its easy to see this album’s mess of emotions as a bad thing, easy to ridicule, for me it makes this record genuinely endearing in hindsight. It’s a mess that says a lot, perhaps inadvertently, about the disconnect between publicly glorified teenage memories and the bittersweet reality of the private process of remembering.
The effective contrast of “Photograph” to the rest of the album was, unfortunately, stripped away when it became a single, instead giving birth to an overplayed, oft-parodied monstrosity of the naughties’ post-grunge malaise, presented as an aural wet cloth of nostalgia and nothing more.
It’s hard to know where this lacklustre self-awareness came from in rock at that time. Kurt Cobain died in 1994 at the height of his fame, likewise signalling the popping of the grunge bubble, but Nirvana’s stylistic debris could be seen floating downstream for decades afterwords. This is particularly tragic and ironic considering just how woefully post-grunge rock scenes failed to deal with their own suffocating masculinity, the chorus of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” echoing depressively ad nauseam. Rock music’s biggest successes have failed to attend to the legacy of Cobain’s explicit penchant for feminist self-criticism.
For me, All the Right Reasons is a fascinating piece of shrapnel jettisoned from the cultural car crash, revealing something about the naughties’ psyche most remain too embarrassed to attend to.
I’ve been reminded of this today thanks to a similar if even more cursed take on Twitter which I’d like to share with you all now too: on the emotive dynamics of Limp Bizkit’s “final” album Results May Vary.
The debate continues…
There’s no denying that Ash Sarkar declaring she was a Literal Communist on Good Morning Britain was one of the more surprising televisual events of 2018, but I think “Liz from Leeds'” concise and combative declaration of solidarity with her on the typically hellish chat show The Wright Stuff might have been even better.
It’s interesting to (continue to) see communism be discussed on the TV like this — by which I mean, discussed at all. At the moment, however, I’m intrigued by the quantity of debate rather than quality… You can see the full segment on The Wright Stuff here if you can stomach five people talking about something they obviously have no idea about (despite Sarkar’s vague efforts to inform — I’m afraid to say that the novelty of dropping references to the Grundrisse on national telly is wearing off when the expositions accompany them are obscure and lacklustre with little hope of penetrating the surrounding deaf ears).
“Liz from Leeds” definition of communism is a good one, however, and it is one that I think resonates somewhat with the ontosocial definition offered up in previous posts.
She begins somewhat generically (no prizes for any “we (want to) live in a society” jokes):
Communism is a human society. It’s where we take care of each other. We’re not divided by racism, misogyny, homophobia, the profit motive no longer rules over us, and we actually establish production on the basis of human need. It’s very, very simple…
This is a fairly standard and vague definition of communism, hinging on social equality and acquiring the means of production. It’s short, sharp and — to be honest — innocuous, failing to stick its broader provocations to the state and to politics as we know them. Trying to debate communism without this other stuff seems pointless to me, because it always ends up looking like this, but “Liz from Leeds” at least highlights what is central to a lot of communist thinking in recent decades that I’ve already expressed an interest in on the blog: a “community” that gives itself as a goal, etc.
At this point, Carole Malone mindlessly asks where in the world today communism is actually working (which is precisely why the radical nature of imagined communism needs bringing out into the open — to just stop that dumb line of questioning in its tracks as an irrelevancy) but “Liz from Leeds” complete lack of time for her is beautiful. (I think “Liz from Leeds” is referring, in her short sharp dismissal of Malone, to this really bizarre clip from Sky News in which she comes across like a tone-deaf Tyneside Bill O’Reilly and displays a remarkable propensity for reactionary cluelessness.)
Liz gives Malone the usual condensed history lesson on how real communism does not and has never existed — never mind been tried — anywhere in the world and she then lobs a final challenge into the panel’s midst before being cut off for a conveniently timed ad break. She says:
You can’t vote communism in. You build communism through our collective human struggles…
Unfortunately, the end of her sentence is spoken over by the host but the audible point is the key one.
For now, however, let’s stick a momentary pin in this…
I think it might be interesting to contrast this video with another one, with another recent guest on The Wright Stuff… Someone I’d be otherwise reluctant to bring into the fray but someone who, I must admit, I think makes a good point, even if it is subsequently badly applied… And an opportunity to twist one of his opinions towards supporting a vision of communism is actually quite delicious… So let’s talk about Jordan Peterson.
I used to know of a guy online called Roger. He used to be a regular on a music forum I frequented in my teens and he was the resident expert on experimental and out-of-this-world musics. I remember his avatar was a photo of Christian Vander, on stage with Magma, a disturbing grimace across his face as if channelling Saturn Devouring His Son. He was particularly interested in experimental musics from Japan. He introduced many of us to Japanese noise outfit The Gerogerigegege and he remains my key to spelling their name.
For better and for worse, I was most receptive to the band’s gross-out antics as a 15 year old and they served as a gateway to a world of Japanese noise and ambient that I might not have otherwise explored. The hilarity and relentless energy of Tokyo Anal Dynamite overjoyed whilst albums like Hell Driver and Endless Humiliation kept me up at night.
Alongside its music scenes, Japan has also fascinated me for its experimental photography and I can’t help but view both mediums on similar terms.
Daisuke Yokota is one such photographer that I have been following with some interest since I came across his work in 2013. Around this time, I read a description of his work that was surprisingly musical:
Creating a haunting imagery by the recourse of layers and manipulation (photocopy, photoshop and re-photographing), Daisuke Yokota plays with effects borrowed from music such as delay, reverb, and echo to challenge the photographic representation of duration and the sensation of time.
This way of working is well-trodden ground — although Yokota’s results are particularly pleasing — but what intrigued me most was the conscious alignment of his work with music rather than with fellow countrymen, Daido Moriyama most famously pioneering a similar sort of “style”. His practice is essentially dub photography and, just like the reggae-rooted musical genre, it is a dissection and warping of the quasi-temporal nature of photography; of experimentation, remixing and reshaping.
In Ocean of Sound, David Toop describes dub as follows:
When you double, or dub, you replicate, reinvent, make one of many versions. There is no such thing as an original mix, since music stored on multi-track tape, floppy disk or hard disk, is just a collection of bits. The composition has been decomposed, already, by technology. Dubbing, at its very best, takes each bit and imbues it with new life, turning rational order of musical sequences into an ocean of sensation.
Similar ideas and techniques to these have existed photographically since the medium’s inception. In this way, to call something “dub photography” is to simply rename something always already inherent to photography. The ubiquity of Photoshop has now made these ideas wholly inseparable from the medium and the overabundance of glitch projects that tamper with the coding that constitutes JPEGs feels like a continuation of this productively destructive tradition of impurity. It is perhaps because of this seamless absorption into the digital medium, these analogue dubbing processes are now increasingly used for play, without acknowledging the similar ubiquity of their precedents.
Previously I have written on the inherent anxiety of a medium like photography and the visual spectacle of dubbing is a case in point. Take, for example, this scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up — perhaps the most famous example of photographic dubbing on screen — which at first feels anxious as Thomas, a fashion photographer, examines, dubs and blows up his photographs, believing to have unwittingly foiled an attempted murder during a photo shoot, attempting to somehow dub his own memory and perception along with that of the camera, hoping to find some new perspective beyond the spatiotemporal rigidity of the phenomenological eye and the virtuality of its negative.
He is certain that he has captured something in the background of a series of photographs taken in a London park, he just — somewhat ironically — cannot see it yet. Despite Thomas’s rushed, fervent, even panicked looking, the process of producing these dub images is aesthetically enchanting in a way similar to Yokota’s. Let us not forget that Thomas’s comment, on ringing up a friend, is that these pregnant and violent images are “fantastic”, cherishing the interpersonal and material violence of the process.
Watching the scene itself — the unfolding process of developing, dubbing, printing, blowing up — is beautiful. It demonstrates an intensity of looking that, despite the end goal, imbues the thrill of photography’s material processes with a paranormality that is often only associated with the final image but which will be recognisable to anyone who has seen a photograph appear out of thin air in a red-lit dark room.
Every time I watch this scene, I want to explore the possibilities hidden within my own archive of photographic negatives and find the beautiful violence within.
Using these photographic techniques for reasons other than their “original” and practical purposes is something deeply rooted in many experimental musics, so when I read that Yokota counts Aphex Twin as one of his primary influences, I was not surprised.
Aphex Twin AKA Richard D. James is perhaps the most obvious modern figurehead for the creative abuse of modernist music technologies. His various and infamous antics — DJing with sandpaper comes to mind — are far more applicable and contemporaneous to Yokota’s wider practice and performances than, say, those of dub pioneer King Tubby.
To define dub by its use of the studio as an instrument is not where these practices are at their most interesting. For Yokota, Aphex Twin is a much better and more interesting fit when RDJ is understood, primarily, as a DJ.
As John Doran notes, writing a storming lead review of the 2015 AFX EP Orphaned Deejay Selek 2006-2008 for The Quietus:
When thinking about Aphex Twin and progress, we should ideally look at it from several perspectives. If we’re considering Richard D. James then we need to take an inclusive look at his entire cultural output in different time frames. [I]s it reasonable to assume that his bleeding edge instincts should necessarily be satisfied in the studio? I’d say a lot of this pioneering spirit is pushed into his DJ sets — in terms of visuals and sound engineering as well as the actual process of mixing. I see him primarily as a DJ — he’s consistently been in my top five for the last 20 years — and many others do as well.
There is a sense that, in watching an Aphex Twin DJ set, you are watching him manically distil his otherwise rigorous studio practice down into a one-hour flash of mobile intensity. I can’t remember where I remember hearing this — and with Aphex it surely doesn’t matter — but I am sure he once claimed to mix down tracks whilst DJing in order to play them out immediately, flattening the perceived gap between producer and DJ.
Daisuke Yokota’s approach to performance feels very similar. If to DJ for Aphex is to somehow present the mania of the studio live, Yokota is likewise well-known for his book and print-making performances in which he demonstrates the energy of creating his objects in front of a live audience.
One such performance, in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, noddied to the Aphex influence explicitly with the name “Effect Twin”, with Yokota and fellow photographer Hiroshi Takisawa performing a b2b set of photographic dubbery.
Much of what Yokota achieves with his practice, whilst it is rooted in what many would refer to as an analogue “discipline”, is the explicit result of doing things wrong and his boundless approach to experimentation means that damage and obscurity are the foundation on which he builds upon, intervening and honing that which is technically “ruined”. His is a kind of Raku photography that does not avoid the further productive and destructive potentials of digital media and technology. Elsewhere, he regularly exposes photographic film, prior to its machinic manipulation, with boiling water, fire and acid.
Both Aphex and Yokota have “acid” in common — and it is a word that has featured on this blog and elsewhere many times for its restlessly revolutionary connotations. In countless contexts, it infers a kind of xenobody horror. Acid desolves all materials — flesh and object. This is how Yokota’s images feel too. His is a world viewed through acid-damaged cameras and, by extension, eyes, clinically blinded by radioactive waste. Echoing a lineage of so much culture reacting directly and indirectly to a changed world in the aftermath of twentieth-century Holocausts; of Fat Man and Little Boy. They give the illusion of allowing us to see an alien and alternate world previously unseen, like nuclear explosions captured by rapatronic cameras.
With Yokota’s visuals, the advice remains the same as that offered by Simon Reynolds when exposed to AFX Acid. Reynolds says of “Isoprophlex”:
James was no slouch when it came to industrial-strength hardcore. The chemical-formula title and astringent sound of Isoprophlex suggests a nasty corrosive fluid, the kind whose container carries warnings like ‘avoid inhalation’ and ‘irrigate the eye area immediately, then seek medical help.’
With Aphex, the advice should perhaps be “irrigate your ears”, with Yokota the advice remains the same. If you get to close, be prepared to seek medical attention.
A version of this post originally appeared on an old blog in around 2015. The end of this post later grew into “Aphex Acid“.
We have been told recently that there is a crisis in masculinity in America, and that we should be worried about it. We have been subjected to ideologues using this “crisis” as impetus to consider radically regressive ideas about sexuality. We can counteract this fearmongering by remembering the misogyny of the [literary] canon, which reveals to us that we have always worried about male sexual frustration more than we need to (or at least, more than we worry about more widely devastating social issues). We have always treated the alienation of men as if it deserved thousands of pages of analysis, perhaps because we feared it had the power to endanger us all.
The Guardian recently reposted an essay by Erin Spampinato, asking the question: “How does the literary canon reinforce the logic of the incel?”
In her essay, after charting the now-familiar rise to prominence of the “incel” “movement” on- and offline, Spampinato wonders if it is less underground internet cultures that have nurtured its principles and more the Great American Novel that has given these alienated young men such odd ideas about sexual entitlement. She writes that incels “aren’t monsters of cruel internet culture — they are the product of the American literary canon that has long glorified male sexual frustration”; the product of the Great American Novel, that nationalised canonical signifier, which “treats the topic of male sexual frustration as if it is of prime importance to us all.”
In reading this historical overview of so-called “involuntary celibacy”, I can’t help but feel like Spampinato is overseeing Western misogyny more generally, albeit topically narrowed to address the recent “incel” explosion. Her observations will already be familiar to most — old-fashioned misogyny and “involuntary celibacy” are, of course, closely linked and share many of the same dissonant contradictions, which she highlights here explicitly — but there are nuances here which can perhaps tell us more about American literature, and certain subsections of the American psyche today more generally, than Spampinato’s overview immediately allows.
The primary frustration for Spampinato is that she is fed up of being force-fed this kind of literature, at the expense of all else that is written within the country and about its society. Her central recommendation is that men broaden their horizons when it comes to their reading habits — suggesting that women’s lives may in fact depend on it — and whilst that is almost certainly a legitimate concern, there is, at the same time, that suggests the “incel movement” is a symptom of modernist man finally being well on the way out.
In reading Spampinato’s essay, I am reminded — once again — of Leslie Fielder’s Love and Death in the American Novel, a book I really haven’t been able to stop going on about in recent months, with it having galvanised a newly ferocious appetite for the “classics” of American fiction that I have previously had no (studious) contact with.
This does not detract from Spampinato’s criticism of over saturation, of course. Male sexual frustration is given all kinds of precedence in the anglo-American literary canon, but what lies beneath this?
At one point, Spampinato links to another article by Rebecca Solnit — “80 Books No Woman Should Read” — written in response to an Esquire article of what it considers to be the 80 best books that everyone should read. Here, the various books are presented to the reader through a woefully performative masculine brevity. (#1 is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: “Because he showed us just how long the road could be.” It’s like a coffee house spoken word bro’s personality turned into a listicle. It makes me want to retch.) Solnit writes:
Scanning the list, which is full of all the manliest books ever, lots of war books, only one book by an out gay man, I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness. I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way, though happily many men have more graceful, empathic ways of being in the world.
But still I struggle to marry up the criticisms wholly with the reality. Whilst the whole atmosphere around these books and their canonical reputation is intolerable, there is surely more to many of the books themselves.
Many are books, most notably, about men trying and failing to be men. Mass murder seems less an extreme expression of “the job” done well and more the result of a buckling under its weight. These books, to me — as a recent and quite possibly naive reader — demonstrate a sort of protective romanticisation and dramatisation of men’s historic inability to be themselves. These are undoubtedly violent books about frustrated and troubled characters, but rather than offering men with an example to follow, surely what they demonstrate is masculinity at the edge of itself — or, indeed, at the edge of something else.
Take McCarthy’s The Road as a prime example; as a book about fatherhood at the end of the world. Surely it is no coincidence that these two topics are tackled together.
Or, perhaps, to sidestep into the cinematic, Howard Beale in Network. Is he not the epitome of the modern American man? He isn’t just a newsreader. He’s a man despairing at his situation. A man who despairs within his patriarchal role as information-giver and his actual impotence in the face of it.
Fiedler’s argument is even more specific than this in Love and Death in the American Novel and, in contrast to Spampinato’s argument, contends less with the general sociohistorical misogyny of Anglo-American culture and more with the entangled homoeroticism and impotency that defines, for him, all classical literary representations of American masculinity.
Classic American fiction, Fiedler writes, is less misogynistic through its sense of entitlement to the female body and more through its avoidance of women altogether, instead turning “from society to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing.” Fiedler continues: “the typical male of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat — anywhere to avoid ‘civilisation,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility.”
Fiedler even goes so far as to declare that “there is no real sexuality in American life and therefore there cannot very well be any in American art.”
Of course, so many of these writers, like today’s incels, have long engaged in similar feats of mental gymnastics to account for their own misogyny and sociosexual impotency. Fiedler highlights, for instance, how Mark Twain, in 1601, “contrasts the vigor of Elizabethan Englishwomen with their American descendants; contrasting the sexual utopia of precolonial England with a fallen America where the men copulate ‘but once in seven yeeres'”.
As with Spampinato’s view of today’s incels, this sexual frustration seems borne of ineptitude rather than a distinct lack of flirtatious opportunities with the opposite sex. However, unlike Spampinato, it is this which Fiedler takes to be the primary focus of the American novel. It’s sexual context is perhaps a left-over tradition from the modern European novel as it has defined itself since its conception. Whilst it nonetheless relates to sexual conquest explicitly, let us not limit the symbolism of impotence to this alone. It becomes, instead, a national trait in all circumstances.
The first modern novel, so says Fiedler and countless others, is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a classic story that concerns itself with seduction more than anything else. The tribulations of seduction are also, notably, what seem to end up killing everyone in the story.
This central engine, arguably ever-present but exaggerated in modern literature is, in the most general sense, what Fiedler would suggest is the primary concern of an American literature in his most famous essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” — not love or seduction as such, but an abstracted, at first at least, interpersonal responsibility and failure to uphold it.
This presents the American psyche with a potent challenge, one which has tended towards conservatism ever since the time of the frontier: “the white American must make a choice between coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy or formu- lating radically new ideologies.”
What is the “incel”, in this respect? Is it a radically new ideology in the face of an institutionalised impotence? A new accounting for that central condition of the American psyche? No — it’s certainly not new, Spampinato and Fiedler both make that abundantly clear. Is it, then, instead, another generation’s way of coming to terms with institutionalized discrepancy, here interpreted to refer to the blanket misogyny of Western society more generally, as a deeply institutionalized discrepancy between the sexes?
Fiedler notes, already, that queerness and blackness have, for many decades, been the tandem discrepancies to be processed by the white American man. These remain potent points of contention and each has been a central concern for mass shooters in recent years too but now, relative to previous moments in the recent history of American gun violence, it is misogyny that seems to be provoking the most violent ire.
Indeed, considering the hype surrounding the homoeroticism of Bronze Age Pervert, it seems that queerness at least has been absorbed into the male psyche. (Mike Crumplar did well to highlight this strange turn in his review of Bronze Age Mindset.) Blackness still has a long ways to go but, surely, given the continual shifting of demographics, it is only a matter of time. Misogyny, on the other hand, shows no signs of abating.
In the theorising of the “incel” mindset in such a way that seems to bottle this condition, long said by the likes of Fiedler to be a foundation of the American male psyche, we nonetheless see a distinct lack of self-awareness in these online groups. Spampinato suggests that part of the problem may lie in how these books are taught — as well as broadening their horizons, if America were more honest about the way it has long represented itself, it may stop kidding itself.
Because the truth is, if it has always been hard to be a man, it is only getting harder, and the irony of how much effort is being put into retaining misogyny by some groups is astounding and — surely — unsustainable.
As Uri tweeted recently:
Edit: A note on the title:
And I didn’t think about changing it before posting…
Note to self: pick titles after you’ve written things, not before.
I’ve got a couple of longer posts in the oven at the moment so apologies for the recent inactivity. I spotted an opportunity for a quick post, however, on J.G. Ballard and Accelerationism following an exchange with Simon “Ballardian” Sellars on Twitter the other day.
Or, at least, it was intended to be a quick post before it became a meandering — but nonetheless interesting — hellthread… Someone has already asked for a TL;DR and this is not one of those… But at least this might make it easier to follow one of the most interesting Twitter conversations to take place recently. I think it is well worth preserving in blogged form.
A note on housekeeping: long tweet threads and conversations will be copied and pasted as quotes here with bracketed numbers linking to original tweets. This is just for cosmetic purposes because the blogosphere and long Twitter threads are wholly incompatible.
I’ve been intending to write something on the blog about Simon Sellars’ new book, Applied Ballardianism, for months now — I read a review copy back in February — but it is a difficult book to approach and do justice second-hand. I have a draft post somewhere focusing on the micro-nations that feature towards the end of the book. I wanted to use their appearances to talk about Ballard and patchwork and the joint dissolution of self and state that I think is exemplified by the protagonist’s (“Sellars'”) tandem adventures into the world and into his own mind as a jobbing travel writer. I’ll finish it eventually…
Simon recently pointed out on Twitter that there is a new “special issue” of Humanities, a peer-reviewed journal from MDPI, in the works. The title of the special issue is “J. G. Ballard and the Sciences” and it is anticipated to feature an essay on Ballard and Accelerationism that name-drops Simon’s book explicitly. Simon tweeted:
The alignment of Simon’s book with an academic project is one he already foresaw and preemptively lampooned — the book’s title in itself is a joke at the expense of his impossible attempt to live an otherwise academic Ballardianism. To align this with an explicitly left-wing project seems to be missing the point even further, but it seems disingenuous to tar Ballard with that brush more generally as well.