The other week, at the final Acid Communism reading group session of the year — a reading group I’ve written about on the blog once or twice or thrice — we had our Christmas social. Rather than talk about a text, we drank beers and ate snacks and screened and discussed a film instead: Paul Wright’s psychedelic folk horror film essay Arcadia.
I hadn’t seen the film before but it had been mentioned a bunch of times by people in the sessions. It was introduced by Laura Grace Ford and Nina Power, who had already seen it half a dozen times between them, as a film that visualises so much of what Mark Fisher’s later work was talking about and I couldn’t quite believe how true that was.
We began our reading group a few months ago with Mark’s essay “Baroque Sunbursts” — undoubtedly one of his best — in which he discusses this ongoing thread of folk frivolity that extends outwards from the (now heavily romanticised) rituals of paganism and pre-modern communities — the influence of which has nonetheless survived the shift from feudalism into late 20th century capitalism — as a sort of diffuse signifier for a proletarian libidinal economy that capitalism has long tried to subdue and seems to have only gotten close to squashing in the last thirty years or so.
This frivolity continues today, too, to some extent, but what is worth noting, for Mark — and presumably filmmaker Paul Wright too — is that this disappearance is due to the targeted legislation of neoliberal government after neoliberal government, from Margaret Thatcher onwards (if not before). All have sought to subdue a desire for collective joy. Today, with even inner city rave culture under threat, as night clubs and common spaces disappear from our city centres never mind our depopulated countrysides, we seem to be the furthest from these desires and their psychogeographic groundings than ever before.
With all this in mind, what we’re presented with in Arcadia is a weird and eerie acid communist trip ’round the British isles, exploring folk traditions, folk horrors and the unbound energy which has long connected the peoples of these isles to our wildest places. Archive footage of nudists and Morris dancers and maypoles and the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling race and the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss festival were mixed and contrasted with the footage of kids huffing glue on bombed-out estates, the last ravers and fox hunts, each representing a top-down imposition on the spaces that working class communities have long called their homes — whether due to austerity, the bureaucratisation of culture or bourgeoisie expressions of spatial dominance; the free use of space combined subtly with its most violent impositions.
For Mark, rave was most important here: the last great British folk tradition rooted as much in a libidinal relationship to landscape as it was to soundscape, echoing the extant fairground energy of our countries’ various Celtic and Gaelic ancestors, channelling a Bataillean relationship to our energetic excesses which resist the gravity of capital.
Here’s Bataille on the festival:
For the sake of a real community, of a social fact that is given as a thing – of a common operation in view of a future time – the festival is limited: it is itself integrated as a link in the concatenation of useful works. As drunkenness, chaos, sexual orgy, that which it tends to be, it drowns everything in immanence in a sense; it then even exceeds the limits of the hybrid world of spirits, but its ritual movements slip into the world of immanence only through the mediation of spirits. To the spirits borne by the festival, to whom the sacrifice is offered, and to whose intimacy the victims are restored, an operative power is attributed in the same was it is attributed to things. In the end the festival itseld is viewed as an operation and its effectiveness is not questioned.
What Bataille is channelling here is not so occulted as we might expect, although this occulting is incredibly important for its affect on the imagination.
Contrary to this framing, in our group discussion after our screening, many were more explicit in their readings. Much was said about how this film addresses, quite frankly, many of the questions around land, blood and soil that the left are today so squeamish about going near. But these are conversations which must be reclaimed.
British blood and soil has nothing to do with the National Socialist blut und boden. This is no rejection of nomadism but its celebration. Nevertheless, a reclaiming of nomadic cultures — from travellers to ravers — must also account for a negative national history.
As the film announces on a title card, for us it is a case of “blood in the soil”. The worked land of the British isles has been a constant site of class war and labour for centuries. This isn’t a romanticised peasantry championed by the state — it’s an acknowledge of the customs and practices that have attempted to exist outside the state’s grasp for centuries.
Unfortunately, we are more used to seeing examples of these desires being smothered than of their successful expression, from the witch trials of the 17th century to the Battle of Orgreave to the ever-persistent tradition of fox-hunting in which horse-mounted class enemies violently lay claim to still somewhat feudal territories. (I was struck by Nina’s framing of many countryside parishes as still being feudal, with many Tory MPs, until very recently, if not still to this day, still acting as major landlords in their constituencies.)
In light of this, many a Guardian columnist has sought the rekindling of this relationship to our wildernesses through a sort of romanticised primitivism but in charting and recognising our histories we mustn’t claw for an illusionary past. Rewilding is nothing if it’s devoid of a tandem cultural consciousness raising that is built around collective activity on the commons. We don’t need our spaces “rewilding” but “reweirding“.
These libidinous spatial attractions are essential for us to realign ourselves with again and anew.
As ever, it’s worth turning to Mark himself, who writes in “Baroque Sunbursts”:
Rave’s ecstatic festivals revived the use of time and land which the bourgeoisie had forbidden and sought to bury. Yet, for all that it recalled those older festive rhythms, rave was evidently not some archaic revival. It was a spectre of post-capitalism more than of pre-capitalism. Rave culture grew out of the synthesis of new drugs, technology and music culture. MDMA and Akai-based electronic psychedelia generated a consciousness which saw no reason to accept that boring work was inevitable. The same technology that facilitated the waste and futility of capitalist domination could be used to eliminate drudgery, to give people a standard of living much greater than that of pre-capitalist peasantry, while freeing up even more time for leisure than those peasants could enjoy. As such rave culture was in tune with those unconscious drives, which as Marcuse put it, could not accept the ‘temporal dismemberment of pleasure… its distribution in small separate doses’. Why should rave ever end? Why should there be any miserable Monday mornings for anyone?
Raves also recalled the interstitial spaces — between commerce and festival — that provoked anxiety among the early bourgeoisie. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, as it struggled to impose its hegemony, the bourgeoise was very much exercised by the problematic status of the fair. It was the illegitimate ‘contamination’ of ‘pure’ commerce by carnival excess and collective festivity which troubled bourgeois writers and ideologues. The problem which they faced, however, was that commercial activity was always-already tainted with festive elements. There was no ‘pure’ commerce, free from collective energy. Such a commercial sphere would have to be produced, and this involved the subduing and ideological incorporation of the ‘marketplace’ as much as it entailed the domestication of the fair. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White pointed out in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, ‘the fair, like the marketplace, is neither pure nor outside. The fair is at the crossroads, situated in the intersection of economic and cultural forces, goods and travellers, commodities and commerce’.
The concept of ‘the economy’ as we now understand it had to be invented, and this required the stabilisation of the unsettling and unsettled figure of the fair. ‘As the bourgeoisie laboured to produce the economic as a separate domain, partitioned off from its intimate and manifold interconnectedness with the festive calendar, so they laboured conceptually to re-form the fair as either a rational, commercial, trading event or as a popular pleasure-ground.’ Such a division was necessary in order that the bourgeoisie could make a clean and definitive distinction between morally improving toil and decadent leisure — the refusal of ‘the temporal dismemberment of pleasure’. Hence, ‘although the bourgeois classes were frequently frightened by the threat of political subversion and moral license, they were perhaps more scandalised by the deep conceptual confusion by the fair’s mixing of work and pleasure, trade and play.’ The fair always carried traces of ‘the spectre of the world which could be free’, threatening to rob commerce of the association with toil and capital accumulation that the bourgeoisie was trying to impose. That is why ‘the carnival, the circus, the gypsy, the lumpenproletariat, play a symbolic role in bourgeois culture out of all proportion to their actual social importance.’
The carnival, the gypsy and the lumpenproletariat evoked forms of life — and forms of commerce — which were incompatible with the solitary labour of the lonely bourgeoise subject and the world it projected. That is why they could not be tolerated. If other forms of life were possible then- contrary to one of Mrs Thatcher’s most famous formulations — there were alternatives, after all.