Following last year’s Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture afterparty, For K-Punk, we’ve been doing our best to make it something of a tradition.
The Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths has committed to organising an annual lecture that remembers, considers and builds upon the legacy of the late Mark Fisher. For many of us, his students and friends, wholly supportive of this idea, it was nonetheless important for us to remember Mark in a space outside the classroom and the lecture hall where his ideas continued to resonate so profoundly for us.
For K-Punk was born as an event that sought to engage with and further extend Mark’s ideas out into a world of sound, performance and another kind of togetherness.
Since writing my previous post on “Reweirding Arcadia” — about Paul Wright’s film Arcadia and how it traces a long trajectory of folk frivolity resistant subjective impositions, calling for a reweirding of the cultural and physical landscape — I’ve wondered how such a sentiment might translate over the pond, or to Australia, or to any of our newer nation-states which seem to have kept their sense of the weird more or less in tact.
The British weird is only somewhat culturally in tact. Our consciousness of such things has been buried. You have to really dig for it. The same cannot be said of America, for instance, with its folkloric weirdness and the tourist trade being inherently entwined. What is further admirable is the way this weirdness has mutated to match new sociocultural developments. Lynchian suburbia, UFOs, cryptozoology… Weird America is very much a part of its economic system, it seems, and therefore remains close to the surface. The ghosts of its patchwork weirdness are still there for all to see.
As an outsider, every aspect of American cultural life seems to be afflicted by this symbiotic relationship between mundanity and surreality. But, viewed from within, perhaps all this is is another mode of capture.
In thinking about this, I stumbled upon what is perhaps the best and most normalised example of a proper cultural reweirding; a weird turn so quickly canonised that I bet most wouldn’t think of it as a reweirding at all. It’s not Twin Peaks or Roswell. It’s when Bob Dylan went electric.
At home over Christmas, I spotted Greil Marcus’s book Invisible Republic sat neglected on a bookshelf in my childhood bedroom. I don’t remember when or why I bought it. I like Bob Dylan — and I like The Band even more — and Greil Marcus is undoubtedly one of the greatest music writers of all time — but I don’t remember a time when I might have been enthused enough by a combination of all three to read a whole book about them.
Nevertheless, it hummed at me.
Watching Arcadia, I was struck by the film’s repeated usage of the voice of Anne Briggs. Her back catalogue of often unaccompanied folk standards, recorded during Britain’s ’60s folk revival, is a veritable treasure trove of ghostly folk.
I’ve had this obsession with Briggs ever since I first heard Grouper’s 2013 FACT mix, made whilst she was doing a residency in Bristol. She begins with three of my all-time favourite weird folk songs, combining them into such a potent trajectory it feels like she just might open up a portal to another world.
Ivor Cutler → Jandek → Anne Briggs
Ever since this mix took over my life in 2013, Briggs’ 1971 self-titled album has become, distilled through repetitive listening, the most potent vector for entering a consciousness of a haunted and haunting Britain. And so, when I heard her voice floating amongst the soundtrack to Arcadia, which features her track “Lowlands”, I got major shivers.
Over Christmas, with Briggs now back on heavy rotation in my flat, I had wanted to write a post about this usage of voice on the film’s soundtrack, somehow connecting the folk revival scene made famous by the likes of Shirley Collins, Bert Jansch, Nick Drake and others, to the rave scene in the 1990s. The film implied it but I wanted to excavate it more. However, it felt like too much of a stretch.
Then, flicking through Marcus’s book in my childhood bedroom, I saw a chapter titled “The Old, Weird America” and my curiosity was peaked. Maybe there’s something in this, I thought, and so I picked it up and brought it home to London, reading it in its entirety in a single overnight sitting. I have been blown away by it.
Immediately I was struck by Marcus’s characterisation of Dylan’s electric period, referring to the albums Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde as “a single outburst” which ranks amongst “the most intense outbreaks of twentieth-century modernism; they join the whole Gothic-romantic traverse of American self-regard.” Marcus’s focus, however, is not on the albums of that period but rather those most mythological recordings: The Basement Tapes.
Following that most infamous of tours in which he officially “went electric”, during which he was effectively booed around the world for a year, Dylan was in a motorcycle accident and ended up taking a long break from public appearances, ending up just jamming with his backing band in a Woodstock basement throughout the summer of 1967.
They recorded their efforts, for whatever reason — audio note-taking perhaps — but never intended to release a sound from them.
Nevertheless, they got out. The heavily bootlegged tapes were — and somewhat remain — the stuff of legend and Marcus describes them as these ahistorical records of moment in which both Bob Dylan and America at large are on the brink of tearing themselves apart in their odd reflection of one another at the height of his folk fame.
Marcus frames this period in America’s and Dylan’s histories not as the rupturing shock of the new but as a wrestling match between a contemporary American moment and the romanticised vision of America’s self which was allowing it to disregard itself. As such, Marcus writes that the “music carried an aura of familiarity, of unwritten histories, and as deep a sense of self-recognition, the recognition of the self — the singer’s? the listener’s? — that was both historical and sui generis.”
Marcus later notes that, as you listen to these songs, recorded in a time warp, unintended for public consumption, they soon “begin to sound like a map; but if they are a map, what country, what lost mine, is it that they centre and fix?” For Marcus, what we hear are “certain bedrock strains of American cultural language … retrieved and reinvented.”
This sense of a time warp is both the result of the events of the year itself and the circumstances of their recording — transitory, shifting, violent. That is not to say that they are these things in themselves, however. They are the product of waiting out the storm overhead. The Basement Tapes, for many, were the sound of killing time. As Marcus continues:
Music made to kill time ended up dissolving it. As one listens, no date adheres to the basement tapes, made as the war in Vietnam, mass deaths in black riots in Newark and Detroit, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Summer of Love all insisted, in their different ways, on the year 1967 as Millennium or Apocalypse, or both. The year “America fell apart,” Newt Gingrich has said; “deserter’s songs,” a skeptic called the basement tapes in 1994, catching an echo of a few people holed up to wait out the end of the world.
But what Marcus hears on these tapes is a foreseen Dylan who would not emerge onto the public stage until the early 1990s. A Dylan returning to a mode of expression that was wholly unpopular so as to reweird his beloved folk tradition. In the 1990s, “Bob Dylan, then in his early fifties, suddenly recast what had come to seem an inexorably decaying public life with two albums of old blues and folk songs, Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong.” This moment is cast as an inversion; the moment Dylan went folk (again).
“It is almost inconceivable that this is the man who once broke rock — as a form, as a mode of experience — in half,” critic Howard Hampton had written of one of Dylan’s albums a few years before. “Now he’s the dutiful repairman. ‘Everything is broken,’ he sings, but promises the pieces can be put back together in his art as assuredly as they cannot be in the world. This is an inversion of what his work once meant, but it is also a continuation of the political world of the last twenty years. Society has structured itself around the suppression of the kinds of demands Dylan’s music once made, that it might make such speed unimaginable all over again.” But it seemed as if it were precisely an unimaginable form of speech — a once-common, now-unknown tongue — that Dylan had found, or was now proffering, in ancient songs.
Marcus paints the entirely of Dylan’s career as a meandering quest to keep folk weird, to keep life and art weird, restless and non-conforming — a quest uncommon to much of the folk revivals of that time, particularly the more classical, British attempts at instilling new life in folk oldies.
Where Dylan prevailed, much to the upset of his audiences, and just like when he went electric, and then back again, “his old-timey albums were bereft of any nostalgia.” For Marcus, his work is violently recursive. “If they were a look back they were a look that circled back, all the way round to where the singer and whoever might be listening now stood.”
Marcus’s book begins properly with an anecdote about Dylan’s fondness for a Sister Rosetta Tharpe song, “Strange Things Happening Every Day”. He recounts an anecdote from backstage at the Royal Albert Hall on Dylan’s tour of Britain in 1966 where he was actively protested by disgruntled fans who bought tickets only so that they could walk out on their former idol. Sister Rosetta must have been perpetually on Dylan’s mind those days.
Such strange things went unnoticed, however. Dylan’s fans didn’t want strange. They wanted tradition. They wanted to hear a man transduce what they saw as their own identity back to them as a pill that was easy to swallow. Instead, they were ready to riot.
Dylan’s backing band was likewise unstable at this time. Whilst Dylan weathered the storm of doubt and persevered through his audience’s anger, his band members came and went, less assuaged to their new direction and the threats they received for it. Assassinations, after all, were a frequent occurrence in 1960s America. JFK. Medgar Evans. Martin Luther King Jr. Andy Warhol. Malcolm X. It was also the decade when the “one-day mass murder” became common-place and began to increase exponentially every year afterwards. It’s not unreasonable that many of Dylan’s backing band members feared for their lives, not least because what Dylan was doing was tearing apart their sense of self before their very eyes.
But Dylan didn’t want to be a part of the folk revival any longer, at least not what it had become. The politics of the folk revival’s tandem revival of class consciousness had become deeply problematic in that decade of war and violence. That is not to say that it had not started well and well-meaning, with an internal ideology that was intrinsically aligned with the civil rights movement.
Marcus quotes Robert Cantwell who writes that the Folk Revival wanted to claim folk culture — “oral, immediate, traditional, idiomatic, communal, a culture of characters, of rights, obligations, and beliefs” — and place it in direct opposition to the new capitalist culture of the time: “a centrist, specialist, impersonal, technocratic culture, a culture of types, functions, jobs, and goals.” He also quotes Robert Shelton, who writes:
What the folk revivalists were saying, in effect, was: “There’s another way out of the dilemma of modern urban society that will teach us all about who we are. […] Long before the Kennedy Administration posited the slogan, “The New Frontier,” the folk revivalists were exploring their own new frontier, traveling to the country, in actuality or imagination, trying to find out if there was truly a more exciting life in America’s continuing past.
The folk revival was hugely successful in providing people — but also primarily a burgeoning new leftism — with an retooled identity to carry forwards into a new world. It was patriotic but likewise revisionist. It wanted an America that stood by its own founding values, that stood by its declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It was the true music of “We the people…”
This is a familiar sentiment with many musics since this time. We might likewise note that A Tribe Called Quest, as a bastion of a “classic” and politicised hip hop, seized this sentiment for themselves very recently, in the age of Trump — making a comeback to fill a void they felt had been opened up with Trump’s election, a void that made an old voice worthy of renewal, but a voice that was nonetheless infused with a new and vibrant afrofuturist call for the new.
As Bob Dylan sang — like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, or any of hundreds of other folk singers, but more powerfully, and more nakedly — or as he was heard, he embodied a yearning for peace and home in the midst of noise and upheaval, and in the aesthetic reflection of that embodiment located both peace and home in the purity, the essential goodness, of each listener’s heart. It was this purity, this glimpse of a democratic oasis unsullied by commerce or greed, that in the late 1950s and early 1960s so many young people began to hear in the blues and ballads first recorded in the 1920s and 1930s, by people mostly from small towns and tiny settlements in the South, a strange and foreign place to most who were now listening — music that seemed the product of no ego but of the inherent genius of a people — the people — people one could embrace and, perhaps, become. It was the sound of another country — a country that, once glimpsed from afar, could be felt within oneself. That was the folk revival.
We might acknowledge that this was not just the folk revival but also the thriving world of jazz, taken to cosmic heights with the dawn of afrofuturism, but also the world of rave too. The music of a people that contains within it the atemporal echoes of a people to come.
Unfortunately, like all scenes and genres of its kind, this beating heart was stopped, arrested by the creeping fingers of commerce and false consciousness. The Folk Revival — or any other more explicit form of popular modernism — may not have begun this way but this is where it was inevitably led. For Marcus, what must be acknowledged here is the romanticised understanding of this music and how, for Dylan especially, it had begun to starve itself of oxygen. This equivalence of a sound and its people led to the sort of life = art philosophy that killed a young sociocultural movement. He writes:
The kind of life that equaled art was life defined by suffering, deprivation, poverty, and social exclusion. In folklore this was nothing new. “Thanks to folksong collectors’ preconceptions and judicious selectivity, artwork and life were found to be identical,” historian Georgina Boyes writes in The Imagined Village. “The ideological innocence which was the essence of the immemorial peasant was also a ‘natural’ characteristic of the Folk and their song.” A complete dissolution of art and life is present in such a point of view: the poor are art because they sing their lives without mediation and without reflection, without the false consciousness of capitalism and the false desires of advertising.
Marcus goes on to cite Ellen J. Stekert, who saw the New York City folk revival through which Dylan made his name as the direct descendent of the Communist folk music circles found in the city in the 1930s. However, for Stekert, the romantic equivalence of art and life that soon defined the revival was a “pitiful confusion”. She once wrote that it was “monstrous for urbanites to confuse poverty with art.” (This is, of course, something you’ll find in every city in the West these days, although it is a poverty that is generally only pursued by those who can afford it.) Marcus himself writes:
When art is confused with life, it is not merely art that is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people.
When Bob Dylan went electric, rupturing his now famous troubadour image, it was this — says Marcus — that he was turning away from and “in the most spectacular way.”
In September 1965, as the juror over his replacement of object with subject was growing, he tried, at a press conference in Austin, Texas, site of his first performances with the Hawks [later known as The Band], to explain. He argued, it seems, that in a profound sense his music was still folk music, though that was a term he would refuse soon enough: “Call it historical-traditional music.” Despite the phrase, it was as if he saw traditional music as being made less by history or circumstance than by particular people, for particular unknown reasons — reasons that find their analogue in haunts and spirits. One can hear him insisting that the song he had been writing and performing over the previous year were those in which events and philosophies with which one could identify had been replaced by allegories that could dissolve received identities.
This dissolution of identity which is such a common but also a much maligned affect of the lived experience of the American West, along with its persistent place within the American psyche, is precisely a function which drew me to write about Westworld last year. This is a form of cultural production that is so intensely American and yet also a form of cultural production that America seems to largely hate about itself. What is ridiculed as a “self-disregard” aboard, may be championed in another light at home, where this self-disregard, if channeled correctly, forms a foundation for a people-to-come.
The dumbest thing America ever did for itself was to think that it had gone from a people-to-come to a people arrived, throwing away their inherent becomings for the consolidation of the nation-states most of the population had moved away from.
White America was captured by an unfortunate Robinson Crusoe logic — a logic derided by so many, from Marx to Deleuze. Most recently, however, I read a summary of this issue as articulated by Henri Bergson:
Vainly do we try to imagine an individual cut off from all social life. Even materially, Robinson Crusoe on his island remains in contact with other men, for the manufactured objects he saved from the wreck, and without which he could not get along, keep him within the bounds of civilisation, and consequently within those of society. But a moral contact is still more necessary to him, for he would be soon discouraged if he had nothing else to cope with his incessant difficulties except an individual strength of which he knows the limitations. He draws energy from the society to which he remans attached in spirit; he may not perceive it, still it is there, watching him: if the individual ego maintains alive and present the social ego, he will effect, even in isolation, what he would with the encouragement and even the suppose of the whole of society. Those whom circumstances condemn for a time to solitude, and who cannot find within themselves the resources of a deep inner life, know the penalty of “giving way,” that is to say of not stabilising the individual ego at the level prescribed by the social ego. They will therefore be careful to maintain the latter, so that it shall not relax for one moment its strictness towards the former. If necessary, they will seek for some material or artificial support for it. You remember Kipling’s Forest Officer, alone in his bungalow in the heart of the Indian rukh? He dresses every evening for dinner, so as to preserve his self-respect in isolation.
In Bergson’s diagnosis, we see the seed for Deleuze and Guattari’s later rebellion. But what is intriguing about the case of America, as Dylan himself drew attention to so controversially, is that it is not “civilisation” which the American clings to in times of isolation but what Leslie Fiedler has called the “Vanishing American” — the native, the Indian, the savage — that stereotype so oppressed by American history which every American nonetheless professes to have some ancestral genetic connection to. The wild, pre-consolidated American. This itself became a crutch for preserving American self-respect during their isolation within modernity.
I don’t think it is any coincidence, now considering this pivotal cultural moment in 1967, that Mark Fisher returned to this time for his unfinished book, Acid Communism. Indeed, he repeatedly quotes Herbert Marcuse and his book One-Dimensional Man, which was so inspirational for many within the counterculture. At one point he notes how “Marcuse worried about the popularisation of the avant-garde, not out of elitist anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture.”
Dylan’s fans were perhaps afflicted by an elitism. Electric guitars were the sound of pop. They lacked purity. But, for Dylan, this pop moment of technocultural advancement gave him visions of a new folk that was no less resistant. It may have articulated itself in the sonic language of pop — or, perhaps more accurately, pulp — but that was so it could reveal to the folk revival its own puritanical frog march into conservatism.
As Mark wrote:
The subduing of the counterculture has seemed to confirm the validity of the scepticism and hostility to the kind of position Marcuse was advancing. If “the counterculture led to neoliberalism”, better that the counterculture had not happened. In fact, the opposite argument is more convincing — that the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed.
In Marcus’s book, we can see this sentiment encapsulated in a microcosm. The year that Dylan went electric was a dreaming of a new folk future, repudiated by those supposedly on his side. History mocks them, but we should mourn the loss of such sonic challenges to our inner Crusoe’s.
It is in England’s island ecosystem alone that robins became tame garden birds prone to accompanying humans. This occurred when deforestation and the hunting to extinction of wild boar stripped them of their previous tendency, in their natural habitat, to follow boars, waiting for them to turn up the earth and excavate worms and grubs with their foraging. Instead they adapted to be around humans instead, particularly in gardens where humans fulfilled the same function ie turning over the earth for them.
In a striking presentiment of the affinity between pigs and humans revealed by the destiny of the robin, in Norse mythology the singular rooting function of the boar’s terminal snout disk allowed It to initiate mankind into agriculture — it provided the model for ploughing.
Why do I get a strong feeling that Robin identifies with robins?
What you mistake for companionship is mere avian opportunism in the face of capitalist deracination. You’re an ersatz boar.  And the robin vector is the index of boar’s anticipative status as protoplough. 
The second anniversary of Mark Fisher’s death is just around the corner and I’m finding myself thinking about it every day.
This time last year — and particularly because it was the first anniversary — this blog was a mess of mixed feelings. On the day itself, January 13th, everything felt empty and hollow and I couldn’t really put my finger on why.
It’s obvious to me now, with even more hindsight. 2018 is over and I can barely tell you what I did during most of it. I blogged a lot, obviously, but the records I have of my online activity don’t actually function all that well as a record of time in themselves. They’re a record of time spent in my own head at the expense of any real awareness of what was going on in my offline life. Those weeks and months are now a nondescript smear of time.
What was so traumatic about the year Mark died, in stark contrast to this, was that I’d already decided, long before anything had happened, to overly document the year 2017 for myself. I thought it was going to be a big year, but for the better rather than for worse.
When I was a young photography student, on the final year of my undergraduate degree in 2013, my housemate Sara made the most wonderful video documenting that year. One Second A Day videos were all the rage then but hers was the most beautiful by far, capturing so many lovely, colourful and incidental moments. I had another friend do one the next year and I felt like, eventually, it had to be my turn.
I first had a go in 2015. I got six months in and it was so much fun and it looked amazing (if I do say so myself). I was living at home but hated being there and so I was out every day looking for something to entertain myself with and I documented every excursion with a high-quality video camera. And then, one day, no doubt because I was working with an insane amount of data, my hard drive crashed, and I lost everything I’d been doing that year.
It took me a while to get over that. When I think about it now, I still grieve for it, but the year I decided to try my luck living in London felt like the best opportunity to have another go at it.
When Mark died two weeks into the year, I just kept going with it. I didn’t really know what else to do. I hardly thought about it at the time. I’d already made my mind up, months before, that this was what I was going to do during this year that I’d risked so much on.
I’m still somewhat glad that I did that but I find it almost impossible to watch today. Or I did, but here I am running it through my mind as the anniversary of Mark’s death once again approaches.
As the video’s thumbnail — the lesser of numerous evils, I assure you — makes clear, it’s full of regretful facedoxxing and a lot more soppiness shared between myself and my girlfriend than I’d otherwise be comfortable with putting online, but this video is hugely important to me. At its core it is a document of a lot of solitude buffered by the support of some amazing people, and I think it’s apparent that that is reciprocal throughout. It was not an easy year for anyone who features in it.
What’s worth noting too is that, on the face of it, life goes on in this video but, because of it, I know what I did on every single day of 2017. Literally every day. And the memories are tough, because a lot of awful stuff happened on a lot of those days, and even when I’m in the middle of the Derbyshire countryside or at a rave for the third night in a row, I know I was thinking about Mark.
What I find so strange, in light of all that, is how quickly things unfolded, and this document only helps to accelerate the memories of what was in fact a time spent in the deepest grief sludge.
So much stuff, wholly unrelated to Mark’s death, happened in the days, weeks and months that followed. Life kept going at a tremendous speed, and it’s traumatic to see that represented like this. Unsurprisingly, you don’t really get a good sense of how it all felt here. Between the day Mark died and the day I started taking antidepressants because I really wasn’t coping on my own — January 13th to February 6th — it looks like life just carried on, and the truth is that, internally, it really didn’t. This video is a six minute rapid-fire sprint but, in my head, time had stopped completely.
I think that’s why I still torture myself with this video every year. It’s something of a harsh reminder that things aren’t necessarily how they feel.
One more year on and life is completely different again in 2019 but 2017 and Mark himself continue to cast a very long shadow over everything. I’m one year into living in my little Deptford flat with my girlfriend, still round the corner from Goldsmiths.
In the coming weeks, much more is scheduled to happen to honour Mark’s memory, and I’ll be sharing info and thoughts on it all, but for today, here’s a reminiscence of a different kind.
I turned 27 over the holidays. The day after Christmas. (Insert annual quip about being born the same say as the dissolution of the Soviet Union.)
I’m not really a fan of my birthday. Complicated feelings about it as an adopted kid. More a day of diffuse grief than elation.
Anyway, when not comatose on some form of furniture, Christmas and my birthday are times for walking. Here are some pictures from our picturesque and somewhat melancholy traipses through the Yorkshire and Derbyshire hills.
New Years’ Resolution: more photos on Xenogothic in 2019.
More comments-worthy-of-posts from Ed Berger at the end of last year, this time on my post “Reweirding Arcadia“. A lot has spun out from that post over the Christmas period so expect more offshoots soon.
Drawing attention to the previous discussion on “folk frivolity” and the festival as a “diffuse signifier” for a hidden “proletarian libidinal economy”, Ed added:
I’m wondering how this works with the libidinal economy of Lyotard that Mark cherished so much, the one in which the organic body falls away and the possibilities are primed for the “new Earth for a ‘people that do not yet exist’”, to quote the classic Telecommunism post on K-punk.
Should we read a tension into these two libidinal economies, or did Mark regard the thing identified by Lyotard — ‘they loved their dissolution’ — as something continuous with this tendency that expressed itself in proto-proletarian (and later proletarian) folk frivolity’?
The latter seems to me like a very provocative suggestion, given the way you highlight the nomadic qualities of British ‘heritage’ (a posthumous striation?), and that it might cast these things are harbingers of what a post-capitalist world may look like, given that capital must suppress these things as much as they need them.
A short while later, Ed left a further comment:
Been thinking about this some more. It’s funny how Marx also, in the post-Das Kapital phase, near the end of his life, turned towards peasant and indigenous traditions and sources outside the traditional Western experience in pursuit of what communism might look like —
The poetic spirit, in fact, makes its presence felt more than once in these Notebooks. Auspiciously, in this compendium of ethnological evidence, Marx duly noted Morgan’s insistence on the historical importance of “imagination, that great faculty so largely contributing to the elevation of mankind.” From cover to cover of these Notebooks we see how Marx’s encounter with “primitive cultures” stimulated his own imagination, and we begin to realize that there is much more here than Engels divulged.
On page after page Marx highlights passages wildly remote from what are usually regarded as the “standard themes” of his work. Thus we find him invoking the bell-shaped houses of the coastal tribes of Venezuela; the manufacture of Iroquois belts “using fine twine made of filaments of elm and basswood bark,” “the Peruvian legend of Manco Capac and Mama Oello, children of the sun”; burial customs of the Tuscarora; the Shawnee belief in metempsychosis; “unwritten literature of myths, legends and traditions”; the “incipient sciences” of the village Indians of the Southwest; the Popul Vuh, sacred book of the ancient Quiche Maya; the use of porcupine quills in ornamentation; Indian games and “dancing (as a) form of worship.”
This post (and perhaps a few others to follow) will attempt to think about and address some of these points raised wonderfully by Ed, and it is also an excuse for me to finish transcribing Mark Fisher’s final lecture before his death, “Libidinal Marxism”, which offers a really great reading of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy in light of all of this.
What is apparent from this reading of Marx’s later notebooks — a reading which gives a new resonance to many of the cultural interventions intended to be enacted through the 1960s and ’70s by the likes of Marcuse and others — is of the increased importance of a pre-capitalism to a post-capitalism. However, whilst this may have been a starting point for Marx himself, picked up by many others, it is not quite so simple as this.
In his final Postcapitalist Desire lecture before his death, Mark would highlight Lyotard’s text precisely as a critique — or perhaps more nuanced reading — of this position. In fact, related to Marx’s interest in primitive societies, Mark would introduce Lyotard’s text as a counterargument to that which was put forwards by Jean Baudrillard in his book Symbolic Exchange and Death, for instance. Mark explains:
Baudrillard is a kind of primitivist. […] In some ways you could say Baudrillard is more of a Marxist than Lyotard because he retains the idea of a critique of equivalence — so the idea is that, with Marx, what happens in capitalism is that everything is made equivalent. This is what capital is, right? […] x physical thing here equals a virtual quantity of capital. This is what it is to inject things into a capitalist system — and Baudrillard opposes this to what he calls symbolic exchange.
Symbolic exchange — as Lyotard professes here — partly comes from Mauss’s theory of gift-exchange […] The idea of gift exchange, which was a study of certain practices of so-called primitive societies — practices of potlatch […] Basically it’s a form of ritualistic gift-giving often with a latent, or not so latent, aggression to it, where you escalate and escalate the gifts that are given, sometimes to the point where you burn down the whole village as a “top that!”
With gift-exchange there is no equivalent. There is no law of equivalence. If I give you something and you respond with something else, what is the metric that would make those things equivalent? There isn’t anything. This is what Baudrillard says. This is the logic of the gift. It has nothing to do with any kind of law of equivalence. This is then a part of primitive societies that can be completely contrasted with capitalism.
It’s funny to think of this now because the mundane experience of this economic imposition of equivalence such as this is fresh in my mind, having just returned from the annual whip around the relatives to do some seasonal gift-giving over Christmas.
My girlfriend is a stickler for wanting to match everyone’s Christmas gifts. To be given a gift without having given one in return is the worst seasonal embarrassment. But, furthermore, everything must be equivalent and simultaneous. It’s incredibly stressful. Prediction is key and, on occasional, mind-reading is a must.
What we find here in this psychic imposition of equivalence is the very seed of capitalist realism. If, as Mark suggests, the law of equivalence is essentially the governing law of capitalism, it is a law that goes all the way down, from interpersonal relations to the very nature of reality. No wonder the end of capitalism is seen as equivalent to the end of the world.
But what this focus on equivalence and non-equivalence misses out is the continuity of the flows that constitute these desires in themselves. Because, of course, we still give gifts and whilst the socially polite thing to do — in a lot of the West anyway — might be to equal a gift, it would be an overreach to say this has been captured completely. But what we see having happened is that this desire to give has nonetheless been infiltrated by capitalism’s restrictive logics. The logic of the gift has not been lost but it has been coopted on a large scale.
It must be noted that this cooption is not just a simple absorption, however. As Ed points out, capital is afflicted with the unfortunate necessity of having to suppress the very things that keep it alive. It treads a fine line, coopting the flows that constantly threaten to burst its barriers. It must play chicken with desire which both constitutes and threatens its very nature.
The main insight of this relationship as it is described by Lyotard — and gift-giving remains a good example of its appearances — is that, as Mark continues, in stark contrast with Baudrillard and the likes of Marcel Mauss:
Lyotard really wants to reject any attempt to find an outside to capitalism… Either everything is primitive or nothing is primitive. Either capitalism is itself primitive… There’s no subversive region. There is nothing beyond the purview of capital.
I think what is most important in Lyotard’s argument here, for Mark, and likewise what Arcadia does a good job of trying to poetically articulate, is that the relationship of this sort of symbolic economy to capitalism is continuous rather than (co)terminus.
These energetic flows have preceded capitalism, flowing within and through it, and they will likely continue after it as well. And we know this, at least subconsciously. We discussed this last time but also we represent it to ourselves everywhere and all the time also.
Just as Mark went on to write about the end of the world being easier to imagine than the end of capitalism — well, how many apocalypses have you witnessed on screen that end or are succeeded by a party? The anarchic energy of post-apocalyptic evil-doers is often intrinsically libidinal. To my mind, I’m thinking of the enormous rave in one of The Matrix sequels or the entirety of the Mad Max universe, itself Ballardian in nature as Simon Sellars has pointed out recently.
This is something captured in Lyotard’s most famous extract from Libidinal Economy. Lyotard writes:
But, you will say, it gives rise to power and domination, to exploitation and even extermination. Quite true; but also to masochism; but the strange bodily arrangement of the skilled worker with his job and his machine, which is so often reminiscent of the dispositif of hysteria, can also produce the extermination of a population: look at the English proletariat, at what capital, that is to say their labour, has done to their body. You will tell me, however that it was that or die. But it is always that or die, this is the law of libidinal economy, no, not the law: this is its provisional, very provisional, definition in the form of the cry, of intensities of desire; ‘that or die’, i.e. that and dying from it, death always in it, as its internal bark, its thin nut’s skin, not yet as its price, on the contrary as that which renders it unpayable. And perhaps you believe that ‘that or die’ is an alternative?! And that if they choose that, if they become the slave of the machine, the machine of the machine, fucker fucked by it, eight hours, twelve hours, a day, year after year, it is because they are forced into it, constrained, because they cling to life? Death is not an alternative to it, it is a part of it, it attests to the fact there is jouissance in it, the English unemployed did not become workers to survive, they — hang on tight and spit on me — enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in the morning and evening.
What is key about this passage is the nihilism that Lyotard attaches to the proletariat — their thirst for annihilation — which is perhaps to suggest that their masochistic self-abuse, which itself functions as lubricant for the gears in the machine of the industrialised State, is a sort of imposed bait-and-switch for the virile masochism of the folk festival.
Just as Bataille highlights sacrifice as the pinnacle of the festival, what is this industrialised labour but also a form of self-sacrifice, one that is likewise continuous and notably not coterminus? No instance comes to mind of Bataille equating sacrifice with an “end”, as such. It is a libidinal peak, a frivolous limit, but not one that cannot be crossed or transformed into something new. Indeed, he argues that that is precisely what has occurred. It is Bataille’s argument across his oeuvre that we, as a civilisation, exceeded the desire to sacrifice women and children to our godheads. In the end, we had to sacrifice God itself.
Where Lyotard’s passage becomes so controversial, in light of all this, is that this sacrificial nature is ascribed to the working classes far more explicitly than in Bataille’s various writings. Many have read Lyotard’s book as romanticising or championing the very nature of oppression, sublimating the trauma into self-abused, but read via Bataille we instead see nothing but an expression of a revolutionary spirit resisting its containment in the only way it knows how.
Mark frames the problematic in his lecture as follows:
Is it the case simply that capitalism is imposed on the peasant body as something wholly unpleasant or is it something which engenders its own desire? Or, as [Lyotard] puts it here, forms of endurance? And he wants to say: no, it does! There are these forms of endurance intrinsic to capitalism. The proletariat, then, does not simply — the proletariat is not the same as the peasantry here. The proletariat — the industrial proletariat — is something produced in this enjoyment — in this enjoyment of the dissolution of the old world.
So what’s next? Capital itself? What does that even mean? The dissolution of the law of equivalence?
That would be Baudrillard’s view perhaps. For Lyotard, what is important to note is that this is not the end of the flows of dissolution in themselves. Capitalism did not come from nowhere. It finds its source in these flows and our desires but the end of capitalism is not the end of what gave birth to it.
Such is the U/ACC view of acceleration. These energies are currently in a state of capture but they are continuous.
This capture has transformed the peasantry into the proletariat. So what is the next? Who are the people-to-come?
Having finished work for the day in central London and heading back south east, I had a very strange encounter.
I turned a corner near Trafalgar Square and heard what sounded like a load of incoherent football chanting which, very gradually, transformed into the all too recognisable: “What do we want? Brexit! When do we want it? Now!”
The group was walking down the middle of the road. No banners. Just a Union Jack (and a Welsh flag) towards the back. They were all wearing their “gilet jaune“, although they looked more like a local primary school out for a walk than their riotous French cousins. I said as much on Twitter shortly afterwards.
I ran ahead of them before bumping into another protest. At first I assumed it was a pro-EU one and wondered if they’d have a punch-up but it turned out to be a much, much smaller (and much more heavily policed) protest about the Central African nation of Cameroon — specifically, a march against the country’s continued membership of the Commonwealth. Just 30 or 40 people, flanked by police on all sides, about to meet the pro-Brexit protest head on.
Cameroon, formerly split into the French-speaking South and the English-speaking North, gained independence from France in 1960 and merged shortly thereafter. However, the country has been ruled by President Paul Biya since 1982.
Late last year, following a general election in which Biya won his seventh term as President, violence broke out as the English-speaking north of the country decided it had had enough with his soft dictatorship and decided to seek secession from the South, where there had been suspected mass killings by the government and secessionists.
I didn’t expect any fighting between the two groups — although I suppose the police did? At worst, I wondered if the pro-Brexit bunch would assume it was a counter-protest and kick off just for the sake of it, but that didn’t happen…
Instead, they celebrated together.
The Cameroon protesters, it seemed to me, were mostly protesting the British government’s lack of action over the state of the country in recent months, despite its membership of the Commonwealth supposedly entitling those more loyal to the UK with certain privileges and protections, but it still surprised me was that, when these two groups met, pro-Brexit coming down from the north and the Cameroon secessionists from the south, they greeted each other like champions and allies.
Apparently any exiter is a friend to a Brexiter? Or maybe what they share is nothing more than a discontent about UK government inaction and ineptitude? Either way, it was a very weird display considering these two issues are, on the face of things, completely different.
My cynicism on the timeline ended up attracting the attention of persistent Reply Guy, @UnconsciousAby, and then, later, @maidngflgh. It turns out this cynicism about Brexiteers makes me a hypocrite, what with my Twitter bio having always been “looking for an exit” and having made my name online writing about unconditional acceleration, patchwork and secessionism.
Of course, I’m assuming that both of these people are based in the US. I invite anyone to spend any time over here in the midst of the Brexit clusterfuck and to tell me it’s all going swimmingly, whatever your politics are. I’m sure the reason this lot were protesting in the first place was that they’re not happy with the way Brexit is going either. Who is?
But the point had been made and I think it’s an interesting one to explore: doesn’t unconditional accelerationism mean unconditional (Br)exit?
To quote myself again from the timeline: “‘Brexit’ has been pursued with all the intelligence of an ingrown toe nail.” It’s a retreat up our own arse. It’s not an “exit” in any attractive sense whatsoever. There’s no secessionism happening here. Not like in Cameroon.
Cameroon is an interesting example to stick with here and, on further consideration, only makes the display of joy more bizarre. The questioning of the Commonwealth relationship that was expressed on their austere placards was telling. “We want to secede. If you won’t let us or help us, we’re going to try and leave your club.” This is not the same logic as Brexit. Brexit’s pathetically British logic is, “Well, I don’t want to leave the area so I’ll just revoke my membership of the village green preservation society instead.”
@UnconsciousAby’s persistent line of attack was to ridicule an accelerationist position held alongside an anti-Brexit position, as if to think Brexit is shit is the same as wanting to stay a part of a “neoliberal institution” such as the EU; as if being critical of the situation at home is the same as aligning yourself with the EU officials abroad in Brussels.
That would certainly be hypocritical but that’s evidently not my position. What is always ignored by so many people who wave the Brexit card in front of your face if you align yourself with any kind of radical politics is that they have absolutely no understanding of what we are supposedly exiting out into. It’s not an Outside, that’s for sure.
The EU is absolutely a neoliberal institution but so is the United Kingdom. Brexit is nothing more than a weakening of neoliberalism abroad for the sake of a neoliberalism at home. If you think that’s a worthy basis for any radical politics of exit, you’re a moron.
For more on this, you can consider how Brexit is wholly antithetical to U/Acc, as I’ve previously written about it — at present it is a complete failure to make ourselves worthy of the process.
You can likewise read up on Novara Media’s tentatively explored position of “lexit” — abandoned prior to the referendum following a backlash but now finding traction in their network again.
The best text on all this for my money, however, which I’ve been trying to finish a post on for almost 9 months, is Tom Nairn’s incredible book The Break-Up of Britain.
Clocking in at 17 minutes, the reader is a strangely listenable — I imagine, the experience of hearing a robolady read my writing back to me is a bit too surreal for my own pleasure — text-to-speech “audiobook” of some of what I got up to in 2018.
Here’s what Justin had to say:
Hey dude, I made you a Christmas present. Amazon Polly is the best text-to-speech algo out right now, and it’s getting really close to human quality…
Not quite there, but probably noticeably better than the last time you heard some automated speech, and despite its imperfections it is quite listenable I think…
So I spent way too much time figuring out a workable script to turn large texts into “audiobooks” with pauses between sentences and longer pauses between paragraphs and I did finally figure it out…
So I churned out some “audiobooks” for internet writer friends….
Following the Guardian’s call for an acid freudianism, we start the year proper with another woefully amnesiac call to revolutionary arms that betrays an insufficient engagement with the last 100 years of philosophical and political thought.
Over at Commune Mag, you can read “Life Finds a Way“, a manifesto for a Vitalist International. We’ve really got to stop cherry-picking vague concepts for political manifestos.
A number of others have already challenged the manifesto’s message on Twitter. What’s funny to me is that this sort of “radiant vitalism” just reminds me of John Carpenter’s The Thing, specifically that famous scene in which the crew test their blood for contamination from an alien vitalism:
The manifesto’s authors write:
Vitalism is radiant intuition. The coordination of the human body with bodies of thought, bodies of water, with bodies of buffalo charging at police, of life forms with art forms. This is our calling.
It is The Thing at worse (or maybe that’s at best). At best (or maybe that’s at worst), it’s little more than the vitalist equivalent of that Pepsi advert.
On a related note: here is an old post on vitalism and mechanism as they appear in Mark Fisher’s PhD thesis, Flatline Constructs.