In my previous post, I tried to avoid getting too bogged down in people’s various problems with Jodi Dean’s edition of the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths last Friday. Not to diminish what those criticisms are and/or were, but rather because I think her overarching point was a really great one, even if the finer details were — inevitably — contentious.
But that’s not to say there can be no place for a broader discussion, as if this blog only deals in polite platitudes. So I wanted to separate this off into a different post.
Helpfully, the occasion of a comment received on “Comrades” which addresses some of the problems with that lecture and those that linger as a hangover, for some, from the reaction to Mark’s very controversial exit from political Twitter in 2013, provides a good basis to build on, setting out some criticisms and problems with those criticisms in themselves. The anon commenter “Sx” writes:
as someone who’s been deeply touched by mark’s writings and thought, i have to say i was really disapointed in jodi’s lecture.
it wasn’t that i didn’t want her to talk about ‘Exiting The Vampire Castle’ (although i do think it’s a piece of work that i’d happily see forgotten) but that rather than explore and complicate that space of tension between those on two opposing sides of the debate, jodi seamed to re-entrench a position that has (further) alienated so many people — this idea that people who are invested in so-called ‘identity’ politics (has she not heard of intersectionality which no, is not the same as liberalism) need to step in line and fight for some wider cause as though disparate groups of people have not and are not still, working together against different forms (both institutional/structural and personal) of abuse, oppression, whatever you want to call it.
and then to talk about Labour as the most progressive party in europe i mean it sounded more like something out of ‘Acid Corbynism’ than the potentialities i felt Mark was developing and opening in his ‘Acid Communism’ introduction.
I don’t want to re-hash some of the critiques of ‘Exiting The Vampire Castle’ but I will say that there were some really thoughtful responses written to that piece and I think that a whole bunch of people have been writing about, discussing, working through some of the ways in which a toxic environment on the left has splintered our ability to work together, find common cause, find accountability but also kindness in the ways we work through interpersonal conflict etc.
I think it’s really telling that (and here I risk being labeled an identitarian) so many of those who reacted negatively to Mark’s article were those people (queer and trans folk, POC etc) who have been alienated from party politics and yes, Communist organizing (at least in this country). I think Jodi didn’t help herself when during the Q&A, she dismissed one person’s (a woman of colour) question for being uninformed of black radical organizing in the US rather than opening up a space to acknowledge and discuss the reasons why so many people feel disconnected and disappointed with ‘radical politics’.
To me, it sounds very similar to this alt-right/Peterson discourse of liberal snowflakes obsessed with identity politics. I dare say that what Jodi Dean and Mark Fisher do share with many on the alt right is that they are white, heterosexual and involved (largely) in the academy. As I say, Mark’s work continues to deeply effect me but I don’t think ‘The Vampire Castle’ was anywhere near his best. There’s more I could talk about visa vi Jodi’s talk and the Q&A (I think it’s dangerous to imply that those critical of her or of ‘The Vampire Castle’ are simply occupying or embodying this very thing that is wrong the left rather than actually listening to people) but i’ll leave it at that for now. oh and i super enjoy your blog x
[whoops, didn’t mean to write (largely) involved in the academy as a shared trait with the alt right. also, wrong *with* the left typo erk]
First of all, I’d say thank you for your comment! I disagree with some points but I’m with you on others. I want to try and address each of them in turn.
The easiest one to address is the claim that Jodi said Labour was the most progressive party in Europe. She didn’t. She said it was the strongest or the most powerful, something like that. I can’t remember her exact words but I thought it was obvious she was referencing the fact that it is the leftist party with the largest membership in the EU. It has (or has had) a similar rise to international fame as Syriza before it and that’s a very interesting phenomenon whether it ends up counting for anything in the long run or not.
I don’t even know how it is possible to measure “progressivity”.
Speaking to your comment more broadly, however, Dean’s style and references and whatever else aside, I do think that she did well to (re)affirm the foundations that we’ve long had at our disposal but which have been diminished by mechanisms of capitalist capture — a task similar to that taken on by Mark in the development of his Acid Communism project — so I really don’t understand the complaint that she didn’t attempt to open up a space to acknowledge certain problems.
Dean spoke precisely of the kind of entrepreneurial politics which has defined much of leftist discourse since the 1990s, especially since the diminishing of a class consciousness that has been very explicit over the last ten to fifteen years.
Intersectionality, in this regard, is a useful concept but it has notably not assisted in alleviating or raising a common consciousness. We can point to pop cultural examples but within the academy and grad student lefty circles all it seems to have done is emboldened a new atomism (as individualism). I agree that “intersectionality” is not (neo)liberalism in theory but it is often deployed as (neo)liberalism in practice and that is largely because of the main undercurrent of Mark’s text and Jodi’s talk: the lack of a decent class politics.
I should say at this point that I’m not that aware of any good critiques of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” that talk about this. (The most vocal critics were the ones who gloated about Mark’s suicide in the aftermath of his death, of course, and who were largely devoid of any reputable class politics prior to that anyway. I’d be happy to be sent some others though.) The only critiques that I’ve read have completely missed the point about class consciousness being the basis for an anticapitalist politics (which has been ejected rather than positioned horizontality beside other struggles as intersectionality claims to do). So I think, broadly speaking, the critique at the heart of the article remains an important one to consider: these identitarian politics are precisely the result of — rather than a reaction to — capitalist realism, since they eject the central capitalist critique for the sake of vague ungrounded balloons of experience that bounce off each other without consequence.
That is not an outright dismissal of “identity politics” as such but they certainly aren’t put to productive use very often anymore. I think it’s good to take a political stance on your own sense of self and how you fit within a wider world — this is a large part of the (feminist) process of consciousness raising that Mark so frequently advocated for — but the frequency with which such thinking slips into egotism and navel-gazing is regretful. No one talks about that as a perpetual risk — the reduction of a minoritarian politics down to a minority of one. That’s not the case for everyone, of course, but that is frequently how these movements are presented and it is along these lines that things so often fall apart in leftist circles in my experience. I’d be happy to be proven wrong on that though.
I think this kind of reaction is inherently linked to the original reaction to “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It has always seemed to me like everyone who read Capitalist Realism with glee, thinking they were above its criticisms, had to suddenly confront the fact that maybe they were contributing to it as well. And the timeline here is important. Mark developed and wrote Capitalist Realism in the mid 2000s and eventually published it in 2009, before all the UK political drama of 2010, a moment of impotence from which so many of these “identity politics” discussions developed outwards from and which likewise echoed a very rapid shift in who was going to university and why.
I think the failure of those early 2010s experiences showed that this “reflective impotence” went far deeper and, whilst somewhat overly embittered, I think “Exiting the Vampire Castle” expresses a disappointment and frustration held by many other leftists — a disappointment in the fact that class politics, once a common ground on which to build political projects, has fallen by the wayside and the years that followed the publication of Capitalist Realism really didn’t help alleviate that issue.
Owen Jones addressed this himself just two years after Mark published Capitalist Realism with his book Chavs and I remember reading that book very clearly, allowing it to blow a small hole open in my own (class) consciousness and change how I saw myself amongst my peers during my second year at university. If I ever parroted its arguments, however, I’d be laughed at.
That’s an experience that has persisted for many years — continuing today even — and which Mark points out himself when he notes how rough a time Jones has had — and continues to have — despite being “the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”. Owen Jones’ book was (and still is) marvellous but whilst it seemed to single-handedly force the word “chav” to fall into disrepute amongst the middle classes, it didn’t seem to change people’s behaviours more generally. In fact, the primary goal that Jones said he had (in the updated preface for a later edition) was left largely unscathed. He writes that
the book wasn’t simply about the word [“chav”]. It aimed to challenge the myth that ‘we’re all middle class now’: that most of the old working class had been ‘aspirational’ and joined ‘Middle Britain’ (whatever that was), leaving behind a feckless, problematic rump. This was often racialized and described as the ‘white working class’. ‘Chavs’ was the term — encompassing a whole range of pejorative connotations — that best summed up this caricature.”
But in tackling the caricature, it seemed to only allow the middle classes to absorb the chav image as somehow respectable and cool now. And that’s a “class drag” fashion trend that Goldsmiths remains renowned for — which leads us to the elephant in the room that Jodi was perhaps completely unaware of:
It’s been said — by some who are within the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths, I might add — that the “VC” of “Vampire Castle” echoing the “VC” of the “Visual Cultures” department is not a coincidence.
It is partly this subtext within the original essay that led to a schism that has never closed within Goldsmiths itself but it is a schism that still needs addressing despite its sensitivity: for all its self-declared progressivisms, Goldsmiths’ class politics are severely lacking, whether that is in terms of management, lecturers or students. Because of this elephant in the room, the likes of Mark Fisher — working class intellectuals who write unfetishistically about their experiences, particularly how they continue to affect their working lives as lecturers — have been removed one by one from academia. (It has likewise been suggested that “Exiting the Vampire Castle” may had something to do with Mark not getting the promotion that left him so gutted in 2016.) As someone put it in a conversation had just last night, what Mark represented was a third path between “the dichotomy of Adornian academic miserablism and Goldsmiths identitarianism” and this is what is so striking about his absence from Goldsmiths today. There remain only a few who continue to carry that torch.
What’s most apparent are the continued casualties. I know of someone who was signed off sick with depression after being attacked and harassed for daring to talk about a UK-specific working class experience in a public lecture programme last year. This rang so true with one of Mark’s primary warnings in his essay:
The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.
Likewise amongst students, to be from a working class background — particularly at a postgraduate level — is a rarity.
During the strikes of 2018, there was a strong and vocal group of undergrad students who were evidently devoid of any sense of solidarity with workers and that seems to be because working class people remain a minority within that institution.
I know from my own experience that I was regularly the only person from such a background in most of my classes and it had a major impact on many discussions had — the worst being when reading Mark’s text “Good For Nothing” in the aftermath of his death and having that text dismissed by one lecturer due to the fact that, apparently, “rich people get sad too”. To be the only student to object to that erasure of class consciousness, mere days after his death, became just one more way in which Mark’s apparently best-forgotten essay continued to resonate with daily experiences.
Yeah, maybe Mark was a white cishet man but Mark was a very valuable voice precisely for his working class background and his understanding and articulation of that experience. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he could sniff out that “bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation” of historic struggles very quickly. In fact, I think most can who are from such backgrounds, because the comradeship in the working class cities that I grew up in — which crossed gendered and racialised lines effortlessly because we all shared a broader socioeconomic struggle — is a world away from what I’ve discovered to be the norm here in London, and particularly in a place like Goldsmiths.
I do appreciate your point that many of those who took issue with Mark’s post were POC or queer, of course, but this chimes in with a further elephant in the room. Many people from such demographics that I know, who are additionally working class, have had no problem with Mark’s essay. Those I know who have don’t seem to share in the experience that the article is so focussed on. And so the acknowledgement that certain minoritarian political positions can nonetheless remain bourgeois in this century is an important one to emphasise here, which Jodi likewise did in her lecture. Identity politics, deployed by these people, too often lead to inverted “struggle sessions” where the working class is routinely humiliated by the bourgeoisie who has discovered their place on some great Venn diagram of suffering and chosen to misuse and abuse it, undermining the very politics they claim to represent through their blind self-interest.
None of these other identities are magically allied with class struggles and being told that is not a bad thing. It is, unfortunately, very necessary. To liken this to a Jordan Peterson “get over it, snowflakes” is incredibly ignorant. That isn’t remotely the message being expressed (quite clearly, I think), which is: stop conveniently “dis-articulating” class experiences from your newfound academy-shaped subjectivity. Mark says this himself explicitly, even addressing your concerns about his own identitarian position(s):
The privilege I certainly enjoy as a white male consists in part in my not being aware of my ethnicity and my gender, and it is a sobering and revelatory experience to occasionally be made aware of these blind-spots. But, rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.
[…] The task, as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and race — but the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.
Being made aware of our blindspots is a major part of any consciousness raising exercise, and it can likewise be a traumatic one. Goldsmiths — and many who orbit it — could do well to recognise their own class blindspots, because they are as gaping to everyone else as my own white privilege was, for example, before I moved to south east London. However, the suggestion seems to be that doing this is a violence in itself and any discussion that bourgeois minoritarians might have further unruptured blind spots is taken with the utmost offence.
Further to this point about listening to people, it becomes strange that so many of the more patronising and cynical questions asked last Friday were asked by people who evidently hadn’t read Mark or even listened to Jodi’s talk. Some questions were truly bizarre and pointless. This was the worst result of Mark’s original essay, which seemed to largely demonstrate that everyone was apparently guilty of the same thing and complained about not being listened to. It was Spiderman meme territory.
To your point about her dismissal of a black woman’s point: that point was factually incorrect. I may need to listen back to the recording but the question seemed to be “Why haven’t POC been involved in these movements?” And the answer given was: “But they have?” Maybe Dean was in a defensive flow by that point in the evening but she did well to address a lot of other historical inaccuracies that were fired at her as critiques from the crowd. (I only know about that Black communist history myself because a friend of mine wrote her dissertation on the Harlem Renaissance and Communist Russia’s financial and cultural support the various movements that grew out of that moment in the Black Radical Tradition.) Are you suggesting the question-asker would have known this if she wasn’t so disillusioned by party politics? I don’t see why that should be placed at Jodi’s feet.
(This is likewise similar to the question asked about rehabilitating rapists in communist parties — a disingenuous question asked by someone I don’t know but how was nonetheless accompanying one of the most insufferable bourgeois arseholes to regularly grace Goldsmiths’ events, who regularly thinks people are mysogynistic or racist simply because they think she’s a posh arsehole. It was a deeply unfair and antagonistic question which it would be impossible to do justice in such a forum. Dean nonetheless dodged it, as best she could, deciding to briefly address another historical example of Communist party forgiveness in the USA, but I’m not sure how she could come out of such a question unscathed. What struck me was that whilst many progressives might look to a prison system like Norway’s, for instance, with envy and admiration, the suggestion that we might take that approach socially rather than just allowing it to be implemented as part of state infrastructure, is seen as an abomination and makes Dean some kind of rape apologist. So let’s be clear: the audience that night was infrequently a fucking piece of work — if nonetheless very stereotypically Goldsmithsy.)
I still don’t understand the critique that she didn’t open up this space for discussing and addressing why people are disillusioned with radical politics. She did for me, in her talk and over the course of a marathon Q&A session the likes of which I’ve never seen or otherwise wilfully sat through. Discussing precisely the ways that neoliberal and bourgeois subjectivities have imperceptibly overwritten the foundations of our common politics is addressing the question of why so many are disillusioned. The only thing I wish she’d highlighted more was how complicit Goldsmiths itself is within that. That was noticeably missing but then how was she to know?
It’s worth emphasising further still that this was likewise to be the project of Acid Communism. Mark wanted to trace this problem of the dominance of bourgeois subjectivities back to the 1970s when governments all over the world felt threatened by the construction of various intersectional movements and discourses — “What if the working class became hippies?” being one of Mark’s central questions. And this surprised a lot of people because Mark hated hippies. Like many punks and postpunks, perhaps he saw their anti-work ethic as the somewhat attainable dream of a lackadaisical bourgeois class who had just rediscovered nature. And that’s still true today — hippie kids in class drag appropriating the knowledges of other cultures to liven up their otherwise normie and comfortable existences — but Mark decided to put his cynicism to one side and ask: “Well, what if this had gone differently and these various sides had been able to build something new together?”
This questions aren’t dissimilar to those asked in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, they’re simply less offensive, perhaps, when jettisoned back to their 20th century roots. But answering those questions and following Mark’s own trajectory tells us a lot about the politics we currently have and it shouldn’t be controversial to say they’re not all that good or pretty.
That’s not to say they haven’t improved more recently, but from what? Pre-Corbyn, leftist politics had almost become a luxury that those they were intended to help could not afford. Corbyn is interesting because he has signalled a sea change. Before Corbyn, the only leftist party many people had time for was the Green Party, and they were rife with posh cunts.
You’re right that people are fighting against other forms of abuse and injustice in other areas, and that’s great, but to suggest that that is somehow separate from class struggle is odd to me. Nevertheless, that’s how so many see it, and — personally — I think that’s dumb.
To end on a more positive and agreeable note, I will add that I do agree with you on the issues of party politics. That has often turned me off too and it’s not something I get about Mark or Jodi’s positions. I feel like this is a point that could have done with a lot more exploration, and it is a topic I’ve discussed in relation to Jodi’s work on this blog before, but none of the insight discussed here was present in her talk. Mark was obviously involved in party politics and that’s also how he met the likes of Jeremy Gilbert and Plan C. Those who he worked with have generally turned me off in this regard. Lots of egotism which I’m surprised Mark managed to stomach. But I get the impression that maybe Mark thought it was better to be on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in, until he realised that those on the inside somehow saw themselves as outsiders pissing in anyway, regardless of their material conditions.
Also, I’m glad you enjoy the blog and I do hope this doesn’t change that.
Thanks for reading.
Update: On the final point about party politics, Ed Berger adds in the comments below:
With regards to the very last point on Mark’s engagement with the party, both theoretical and in practice — knowing that he was engaging with Autonomist thought during the period he was developing acid communism (and given his rejection of bureaucracy, so often associated with the party-form itself), is it possible that his relation to the party can be viewed through those lenses? In pieces like Negri’s ‘Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage’, the party gets mutated, detached from bureaucracy and the state, pushed back into the ferment of working class organization and exists, at times, as that which is attacked by the working class out of necessity. He speaks of the party as “dead labour”, the “negation of the refusal of work”, whose historical legacy “looms over us like a nightmare.” But there’s a different party he perceives the outline of, one that makes possible the refusal of work and is subordinated to the process of proletarian self-valorization, as opposed to the reversal that the historical form has carried out.