Photographic Alterity

I am invariably guilty of collecting other people’s photographs. Indeed, this is a hobby enjoyed by many photographers I know. There’s something quite beautiful about it, I think. I’ve seen whole walls and staircases and corridors in homes decorated with photographs of people unknown.

A wedding photograph bought from a market in France back in 2011,
a few hundred metres from the church door pictured.

Simon Reynolds has written on this briefly today via an article by Amelia Tait in the Observer. In particular, Reynolds and Tait are thinking about the hobbyists who buy and develop found rolls of film that have lain dormant in drawers and storage facilities for however long. (Tait speaks, for instance, to Levi Bettwieser of The Rescued Film Project.)

It’s not a surprising thing to find on Reynolds’ blog. How much more retromanic can you get than gambling $10,000 on old photographs in an “archive fever”?

Bettwieser explains his drive to collect the unknown as follows: “Part of the reason I’m doing it is because I like the idea of being the first person to ever see these images; even the photographer has never seen them.”

But there’s something else at work here for me — an aesthetic attraction to alterity.

The satisfaction of being the first to see something is a strange desire to me. I’d rather be the last — and I’ll even settle for just being the latest. This subjective emphasis on the photographic encounter is otherwise wholly unimportant to me. The main thrill comes from seeing something radically out of context. The anxiety of the unanswerable question that haunted Roland Barthes instead becomes a perverse thrill — indeed, as it was for Barthes though he seemed reluctant to admit it.

Like an object found on the beach in a ghost story, the energy trapped in a photograph like a fly in amber is a special thing that is highly susceptible to romantic flights of the nostalgic subject and, as such, to find such things in the world of the vernacular image is far past the pale of cliche.

A photograph of a platypus which fell out of a book
I bought in a charity shop in Newport, Wales, in 2012.

I’m reminded instead of the best photobook I’ve had the pleasure of handling — and I’d love to own a copy one day though doubt I’ll ever be able to afford it: Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s 1977 work Evidence.

From Sultan’s website:

From 1975-1977, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel selected photographs from a multitude of images that previously existed solely within the boundaries of the industrial, scientific, governmental and other institutional sources from which they were mined.  The project, “Evidence”, was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was one of the first conceptual photographic works of the 1970’s to demonstrate that the meaning of a photograph is conditioned by the context and sequence in which it is seen.

The resulting collection exhibits a brilliant sensibility for the absurd and a keen awareness of the complexity that the single image possesses when viewed outside its original context. Some of the photographs are hilarious, others are perplexing, but it’s in their isolation from their original context that these images take on meanings that address the confluence of industry and corporate mischief, ingenuity and pseudo-science.  The book has been recognized as a precursor to subsequent postmodern strategies of photo practice.

Sultan and Mandel’s curatorial work of institutionalised photography finds itself adrift in a lack of qualified meaning that we more readily associate with the paranormal — and we should note that vernacular photographs have been a staple of kitsch horror movies for decades. (I’ve written on this before.)

In Evidence, every decontextualised photograph of a mundane experiment takes on the aura of a UFO crash site.

It’s an outsideness that resonates with Justin Barton’s recent blogpost on Exteriority: “A primacy of the faculty of perception — that is, of sustained attention in relation to the spheroambient outside that arrives continually into the world of a perceiving being.”; “In relation to modalities of expression, a primary focus on the world, as opposed to concepts and established forms of writing [or any other artform for that matter] (new concepts and new forms of writing will emerge, but precisely through the issues involved in creating them being secondary).”

Lenticular bin print that used to live in our kitchen…

I’d buy photographs like this if I could. Instead, I’ve just allowed such photographs to fall into my lap — some of which are embedded here. They’ve decorated many walls over the years but many of them have not been acquired for their agedness. (My girlfriend once brought home two large lenticular landscapes she found in a dumpster outside prestigious / pretentious art fair Paris Photo back in 2014. Those were much loved — for the story of finding them as much as their bizarre presence on our bathroom wall.)

But this kind of photograph is also easily produced. You can find them everywhere. One of the best places to do this — which is somewhat relevant to Reynolds’ other interests, if not exclusively retromanic — is on record covers.

Fred Frith’s Guitar Solos is the first to come to my mind (and I’ve been wanting to write an essay on it for years now). It was bought for its cover — perhaps my favourite record cover of all time — and further enchanted by the sounds that emanate from its grooves.

This sort of image that sidesteps documentation and instead finds itself immersed, whether by chance or on purpose, with an untimeliness. But I suppose that’s a harder and more abstract thing to write about… And less interesting to your average Observer reader, I suppose…

I’ll depart with a section from an old conversation between my old friend and mentor Jason Evans and Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet).

The pair have produced many a record over the last two decades that could quite easily fit into this category of aesthetic alterity.

Evans himself is a master producer of such images and an incredible connoisseur of visual weirdry.

Jason Evans: We are both so passionate about music artwork. You mentioned ECM and I get really excited by Hipgnosis. Why do you think that the history of music-industry artwork has been neglected? So many great pieces of music from great albums have an extraordinary visual-physical presence . . .

Kieran Hebden: I think it has been seen as solely a functional part of music culture. Some of the best sleeves that I own are for library records, and the person doing the sleeve would never have heard the music. They simply would have been commissioned. You know, “We need something! This record is called Industry 4, we need something that goes with that.” And they would make some bonkers painting, then put some crazy text on it and say, “Here you go!” And the record wasn’t even being made for commercial release. We look back at it now and think, “This is the best record sleeve I’ve ever seen. This is amazing music.” But it’s very, well, functional.

JE: The kind of photography I like was never intended as art. The kind of music and artwork you’re describing were never intended as art.

KH: But maybe in four hundred years someone will look at a Cornflakes box and think, “Oh my God, these people were mad!” [laughs] “This crazy, crazy thing. How beautiful is that?”

JE: That should be the case! I collect Japanese chewing-gum packaging because it’s a really bizarre visual manifestation of late capitalism and it has driven people to insane heights of aesthetic discourse in the same way that LSD did in the late 1960s.

KH: Record sleeves must be getting made for so many people in that purely functional way and I’m an enthusiastic record collector, so it appeals to me. I’m a big believer in the concept that time will tell. After ten years or so you can get some sense of whether something was any good or not, be it the music or the sleeve. We find these records from the 1960s and ’70s and think the sleeves are fantastic, but maybe at the time we would have thought absolutely nothing of them. At some point in time someone is going to find these things and they are going to be relevant and exciting and inspiring. One of the best things about having your NYLPT book out is seeing people getting excited by it. But the part that is even more exciting is the idea of some kid finding it on her grandmother’s shelf, you know—

JE: Yes, I do—

KH: —Seventy-five years from now, and it’s sitting next to an A-to-Z and a copy of Reader’s Digest. They’ll think, “Well, I’m going to sit on the toilet and read this one today. . . .” And then realize, “Whoa, this is amazing!”

Jason and I in Brighton in 2014, taken (and kept) by a stranger…
No idea where this polaroid is now…

There’s A Riot Goin’ On?

All day, whilst working from home, I thought I was hearing the aural tides of the latest protests against the tree-killing, gentrification-enabling, air-polluting Lewisham Council.

With the New Cross Road area being the most polluted in the city — and yet with the surrounding area becoming increasingly desirable year on year — the removal of trees and communal green spaces is a hotly contested issue for those living here. We need the oxygen production — and the shade — not a load of ugly yuppie new builds on every available patch of land.

Pushing back against this, Lewisham Council’s idea of getting past current issues of contention is to gentrify the fuck out of the area so they can rake in the taxes and maybe fix one problem with a worse one, making the area even more expensive and hostile to those currently struggling to live a life within its boundaries.

It wouldn’t be the first time things kicked off in Deptford and New Cross over all this but, much to my initial confusion and surprise, that’s not what was happening at all.

Heading outside to see these marathon protests who’d be hollering on and off for 10 hours, my girlfriend and I were surprised to discover a full film crew at the end of our road along with a few hundred extras dresses as old school bobbies.

We asked around. It turns out Steve McQueen was filming his new BBC anthology series, Small Axe. My guess is they were reenacting the Battle of Lewisham which began just a few hundred metres away.

As interesting as McQueen’s new project sounds, this felt like the most “London” experience I’ve ever had. A real neighbourhood struggling with air pollution, gentrification and social cleansing becomes backdrop for woke BBC drama.

Last year’s protests are this year’s reenactments.

If McQueen wants to give a platform to marginalised voices, he’d be better off coming back and shooting a documentary.

AUDINT at Tate Modern

Great evening at Tate Modern on Friday for the AUDINT Unsound:Undead book launch. Two hours of lectures, exorcisms, speculations, rituals, evocations and lamentations.

Shout out to that lad who showed up in a bootlegged Fanged Noumena t-shirt — a brave sartorial decision (and that’s saying something for a Tate Modern doo).

Foucault in the Desert of the Real

Several weeks later, after an evening of tequila sunrises, Scriabin sonatas, marijuana, and literary conversation, the three men leave for the desert at dawn. “We brought along a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon,” Wade tells his guest. “We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” […]

The trio’s destination, Zabriskie Point, was the very spot that had provided Michelangelo Antonioni with the setting and title of his 1970 hippie movie, which Pauline Kael panned as a “pathetic mess” in The New Yorker, assuming that the Italian was “baffled by America and it all got away from him.” If Antonioni was guilty of being an aging European intellectual belatedly drawn to the American counterculture’s image of youth in revolt, he wasn’t the only one. In November 1975, Foucault crossed paths with his colleagues Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari at Semiotext(e)’s “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University, the latter two having journeyed across the Atlantic to see for themselves: They met Allen Ginsberg backstage at Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac’s hometown, before flying to California, where they visited Patti Smith in Berkeley, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, and Henry Miller in Big Sur. At almost the same time, Jean Baudrillard embarked from San Diego on a theoretical road trip he later chronicled in 1986’s America, in whose deserts, both ecological and semiotic, he found a hyperreal “microcosm of the West,” and at Disneyland, saw “a parody of the world of the imagination.” In Death Valley, Baudrillard writes, “everything human is artificial.”

It appears that Foucault drew different conclusions. Over several hours, he and his companions take in the Mojave vistas, drink chartreuse, listen to Stockhausen, and emit the aphoristic bits of pseudo-wisdom that hallucinogens are known for prompting: “Music is our theology,” “The sky has exploded and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth.” At one point, there is an argument over whether the car doors should stay open or closed. With “tears streaming from his eyes,” Foucault declares, “Tonight I have achieved a fresh perspective on myself. I now understand my sexuality. It all seems to start with my sister. We must go home again.”

I enjoyed this article in The Baffler on Foucault’s near-mythic excursion in Death Valley.

This exclamation in the desert is particularly interesting. Just as Mark noted in his Acid Communism intro, Foucault encounter with the Outside confirmed what he already knew and expressed in his previous philosophical excursions, allowing him to find the strange in the familiar.

We must all go back home again.

Boris: Prime Minister of a Vanishing Land

Boris Johnson is prime minister of Great Britain and what shocks me most is my lack of shock. I have no troubled desire to pinch myself.

There has been a big cloud of trepidation trailing Johnson’s bizarre rise to power in recent weeks. On the one hand, many have been anxious that Johnson is walking into the most complex problems of national and international relations since the Second World War. On the other hand, many have been anxious that Johnson is the most complex problem for national and international relations since the Second World War.

The fact is that — as with Trump across the Atlantic — Boris is just one more 21st century political paradox, both symptom and product of his time; a 21st century politician incapable of addressing any 21st century problems… Because he is one…

The ins and outs of Johnson’s well-documented incompetence have been incessantly autopsied in recent days. Most interesting to me was James Butler’s article for The New York Times in which he declared that Johnson’s “premiership could bring about the end of Britain itself.”

This seems less like a doomsday prediction and more like a commiserating nod to the inevitable — and it is a statement that has since been echoed frequently across the mainstream media in this country — I noticed half a dozen BBC correspondents echoing this line without even a grimace the other day — but it would be wrong to give Johnson all the credit.

After a ship has already hit an iceberg, it would be silly to declare a change in captain as responsible for any worsening of fortune.

Johnson, in this somewhat tired analogy, feels like little more than a bit of light relief. Many of the Conservative Party members who voted Johnson into the top job seem to agree that we’re sinking but, rather than do anything about it, like readying the lifeboats, they’ve instead resigned themselves to their fate and seem to think that at least the new captain has a slightly more entertaining bedside manner than his predecessors and critics.

It’s Trump without any expectation that he’ll make the country great again… Which is sort of refreshing?

Butler, in The New York Times, writes in detail about the national situation that Johnson is now tasked with “fixing”:

The state of the United Kingdom, a constitutional compact founded in 1922 and stretching back, in one form or another, for centuries, is severely strained. Though Brexit is primarily driven by English passions, two of the four territories in the Union — Northern Ireland and Scotland — voted to remain. Both present immediate problems for Mr. Johnson — and for the future of Britain.

In Scotland, rancor at the sense that the country’s vote counted for little and subsequent repeated bouts of parliamentary chaos have led to renewed calls for a second independence ballot. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, insists Scotland will hold one if Brexit takes place. One of the most adroit politicians in Britain, Ms. Sturgeon knows that despite widespread misgivings about Brexit, the majority needed for independence does not currently exist. But recent polling suggests a Johnson government might tilt the scales in her favor. An independent Scotland may be conjured out of the chicanery of Mr. Johnson’s rule.

In Northern Ireland, Mr. Johnson is beholden to the Democratic Unionist Party, a hard-line Northern Irish Protestant party on which he will depend for a majority in Parliament. That severely curtails his room for maneuver as he attempts, one way or the other, to take Britain out of the European Union. The D.U.P. will not countenance separation from the rest of the United Kingdom — hence why the so-called backstop, effectively an insurance plan to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbor, fatally scuttled Theresa May’s thrice-rejected deal. It is hard to see how Mr. Johnson can extricate himself from this problem, whose protraction may have a decisive effect on the country’s internal politics. Calls for a United Ireland, encouraged by demographic change and the waning of unionist sentiment, appear to be gathering more support.

The threat of the break-up of Britain has been a spectre many have sought to ignore since at least the 1970s… Indeed, since the EU itself became a seemingly intractable part of our international lives. Following Butler’s diagnosis, the patchwork predictions more or less write themselves. Johnson was an utterly hopeless bull-in-a-china-shop Foreign Secretary who left many a diplomatic headache in his wake. Undoubtedly his tenure in the UK’s highest office will likewise end with a few more fractures in the porcelain constitutions of many a modern nation-state.

With all of this doom-and-gloom floating around, it makes a post about Johnson’s “election” — if you can call it that — seem a bit superfluous. There’s little more to be said that hasn’t already been written down in countless op-eds around the world. And no one would be surprised to hear that Xenogothic is quite excited about the prospect of the UK’s consolidated power finally being broken down and better distributed. Heck, it feels like patchwork Britain is about to go mainstream!

Beyond all that though, what made Tuesday 23rd July most interesting was that it coincided with a listening party for the official release of Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s On Vanishing Land, held at the Castle Cinema in Homerton, north London.

Having got the start time wrong and arriving far too early, I had the opportunity for a quick catch-up with Steve Goodman before the event began. He was quick to highlight the sad irony of it all — an already very familiar feeling at this point whenever there’s an event that Mark should be at but isn’t; should be writing about but can’t.

The Castle Cinema, Homerton

Specifically, Steve noted how a man Mark considered “his nemesis” was now the prime minister — a man who frequently appeared in Mark’s tirades against the present state of things; who Mark once said embodied a “form of faux bonhomie and cynical dismissal [that] is an extremely dangerous problem by which class power naturalises itself”; who Mark said epitomises the death of British satire, demonstrating how being the butt of the joke could become “a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.” It was yet another event during which we could only wonder what kind of electrifyingly irate K-Punk post we might have been treated to.

But On Vanishing Land was the perfect consolation prize, in many ways, not only as an eerie memorial to Mark’s strange relationship with this weird isle but also for its resonance with a disturbingly precarious vision of the United Kingdom that Johnson’s premiership was now exacerbating.

In particular, the audio-essay’s frequent echoes of M.R. James’ ghost story Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad! became almost humorous to me. A story about an eccentric old establishment don unearthing a dog-whistle on a ruinous Suffolk beach and being haunted by the eerie entity it summons?

How I wish Boris Johnson could be haunted by his dog-whistles…

Apt graffiti at Dalston Kingsway station on our way to Homerton

M.R. James’ conservatism was well-explored by Mark, particularly in The Weird and the Eerie. As much as he enjoyed his stories, he was always keen to note how afraid of the outside James was — contrary to another Fisher favourite, Joan Lindsey’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Mark would write James’ various “warnings to the curious” declare the outside to be a perilous place where the deep past is waiting for any opportunity to enact its revenge on the present.

Justin’s ethereal tones, which dominate On Vanishing Land, nonetheless betray a Jamesian anxiety. Looking out on the “nerve ganglion of capitalism” that unfurls into sea from the port at Felixstowe, the wandering pair sense that something out there that seems to have “gotten away with something.”

However, we should remember that “terrors are not all there is to the outside,” as Mark would also write in The Weird and the Eerie.

What has gotten away with something is, undoubtedly, capitalism itself — but that suggests that what haunts is related to what capitalism has failed to fully overcome. This was important, no doubt, to Mark because the terror felt by James, read today, is immediately engulfed by class conflict.

Similar in tone to Lovecraft’s racism, the horrors that emanate from James’ outsides feel feudal and nomadic — destratified curses unleashed by coastal erosion lie in wait, hoping to attach themselves parasitically to the well-to-do of modern society.

As such, so many of James’ stories reveal Cambridge toffs — like James himself — so rooted in the nation’s intellectual and political establishment — to be little more than fragile men of the bourgeoisie. It is a surprise that they ever make it outside their dorms without keeling over in fright.

By contrast, the English coastline becomes the relative wilderness that embodies lost worlds and incursions from the outside. The fishing industries of England’s coastal settlements become synonymous with bold travellers of the unknown, hard for James’ academic brain to fully compute.

(This is an accurate sentiment for many on the UK’s harsh east coast. Growing up in Hull, I was always fascinated by the perverse pride taken in a brutal industry that claimed countless lives. Like the miners elsewhere in Yorkshire, the tension of a community grounded in treacherous and terrifying labour creates a very special kind of subjectivity. This is something beautifully explored by Justin Barton in his 2015 book Hidden Valleys.)

This is not to say that James’ anxiety is singular and unexpected. In fact, it is an open acknowledgement of a shared Jamesian terror that gives On Vanishing Land such an air of a distinctly working class bravery before the shrouded face of unknown pasts and futures — each, notably, as ruinous as each other in the Suffolk mind.

Caught in between the two, a subtext emerges that perforates the eerie soundscape of On Vanishing Land which declares that we should not wait for our ghost ships to come in but rather row out and meet them.

This is likewise a sentiment worth holding onto this week as Boris Johnson drags a weight of uncertainty onto the nation-state’s future. It is a sentiment perhaps best expressed in Justin’s conclusion to his 2015 book, Hidden Valleys:

To travel into the unknown is a sober-joyful process of gaining energy by overcoming self-importance, and by eradicating all forms of self-indulgence — and it is a development of the ability to have effective, creative comradeship-alliances with other human beings. It is a process of perceiving — and dreaming — a way toward wider spaces of existence.

Beyond the ongoing disaster of ordinary reality is the second sphere of action.

On Vanishing Land arrived in the post yesterday and it’s a beautiful thing. Justin’s short essay in the gatefold is great. Go get it.

The New West of Westworld: Audio Versions

Shout out to the YouTube channel Dank Audio Stash that has decided to turn all of my blog posts on Westworld into text-to-speech audio-essay things. I know a lot of people like this stuff and I’m all for people doing things like this if it makes working through blog series more fun and accessible.

It’s a really nice thing to see and does warm my heart a bit. It feels a little bit like being translated or something and I appreciate the time taken by DAS to make and upload these. (Evidently a sensitive fellow if I’m being humbled by text-to-speech.)

Below you’ll find Mark’s essay on Westworld — also text-to-speeched — and then my four-parter from last year that jumped off from Mark’s essay and my love for the season so far. I also still like this series a lot and I recently did a major rework of a large chunk of the series, transforming it into a chapter for my forthcoming Egress book. (More on that soon.)

If you’d like to hear more essays in this format, Justin Murphy gifted me something similar at the start of this year: a Xenogothic “audio reader” of sorts. You can check that out here.

Like Snares in the Rain

Rutger Hauer passed away yesterday. He was 75.

Perhaps best known for playing Roy Batty in Blade Runner, @frozenreeds chose to pay tribute on Twitter by posting a few jungle tunes that sampled some of his many iconic lines from the film.

It’s quite spooky, now thinking about that final scene and its sentiment, that Hauer would end up dying in the year that Blade Runner was set.

Anyway, I thought Frozen Reeds idea was an excellent one so I thought I’d pinch it wholesale and add a couple more of my own favourite Batty-sampling tunes here too.

There are so many to choose from, it’s a bit ridiculous. I’m surprised the Blade Runner soundtrack isn’t as synonymous with jungle as the amen break is. Maybe it is if you talk to the right ‘heads. Or Zomby.

RIP Rutger. It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker.

A Note on Twitter and the Academic Job Market

Sometimes, when skirting the edges of hellthreads on Twitter, I wonder about the hyperactivity and extreme online-ness of some of our better known para-academics and marginal online activists.

You know the type — the sort best known for having a commie (read: edgelord) podcast and a twitter account littered with aggressively bad takes that take no prisoners.

I feel like the irony that no one ever mentions is that all these overly aggressive young Marxists aren’t that way because they really care about the class struggle — despite what they might say, over and over and over again. Instead, it seems to me that they’ve been made that way by spending too long under the Damoclean sword of the US academia job market.

One of my guiltiest pleasures as a postgraduate student in London was witnessing many an evil-eyed (not-so-)young American go through something of a culture shock upon landing in the more relaxed environs of a UK university.

With course fees so much cheaper here than there — which is really saying something… WTF, America? — many initially arrive with a few years of college under their belt and immediately go hard in class trying to carve out a space for themselves; making themselves known and seen.

Every year, without fail, someone would cause a scene by doing this and there would always be a moment where everyone else in the room, from all over the rest of world, would look over at them with a face that said: “Jeez… Chill out, dude. Let’s get to know each other before we start measuring dicks. Who you trying to impress?”

Loitering around the halls of Goldsmiths long past my own graduation — gotta keep feeding the @_geopoetics bot somehow… — I’ve seen a few years worth of students go through this, with there always being one or two students who end up dropping or changing modules after having had a silent sand thrown on their aggressive approach to studenteering, disappearing as soon as they realise that they’ve come on too strong too soon.

And they are almost always North Americans…

For the first year or two of seeing this sort of thing happen repeatedly, I always wondered what was so specific about Americans that made the transition from US to UK academia so jarring for them.

I eventually asked someone about it — a lecturer originally from the US themselves — what is it was about this brand of American student that makes them so counterproductively intense during the first week of term?

Without a second’s thought, they replied: “It’s the academic job market.”

In the US, the job market for academics is so cut throat, they said, that being an asshole becomes an essential aspect of any (even half-hearted) careerism.

Adding insult to injury, this careerism is intensified by a person’s lack of awareness regarding the way it undermines the collective pedagogic practices they otherwise pay lip service to. Thankfully, it’s the sort of attitude that suffocates when no one is willing to give oxygen to it.

I wish I could say the same about its prevalence on Twitter…

Just say no to the Camile Paglia brand of self-undermining capitalistic radicalism.

Our Shared Displacements: On Trans* and Post-Adoption Experiences

It’s become something of a joke on Twitter and elsewhere that so many people think I’m trans. In some instances, people seem to wholesale confuse me for @NyxLandUnlife — I’ve got no idea why. In others, it seems to be an assumption made simply by proxy. Many people do identity as trans* around these parts and so what are the chances that I would as well?

To be clear, I don’t mind people asking or assuming this. When someone did so on CuriousCat a few weeks back, my response to the question there still stands:

No. I’m just a cishet white boy who never fit in with his peers. Much to the shock of everyone I know, I’ve never questioned myself in that way at all. I had a tragic couple of years as a teenager where I kept inadvertently falling in love with lesbians. Like, it was comical. One after the other. Heartbroken again and again. But it was cool and my friendship groups have always been majority queer ever since. I generally don’t play that well with boys. Gay and trans girls always naturally end up being my closest friends.

tl;dr — no but I’ll die for my sisters.

As steadfast in this support as I claim to be, that’s not to say I haven’t questioned why. What is it about me that gravitates towards queerness without being queer? It’s not for the sake of being “on trend” and I never want to step on toes and take up space in some place that’s not made for me… But still, what is this sense of belonging with those who historically do not belong?

I had a conversation with @PartyPrat about this a few weeks ago whilst I was in the midst of writing my essay, “The Primal Wound.” We’d been talking quite generally and at some point I went on some rant about sleeping badly — if Prat and I ever get the chance to talk in real time, chances are one of us is up far too late — and ended up sharing an earlier draft of that essay.

I found it surprising at first that Prat found it so relatable but, in truth, it also made a lot of sense. That essay is, essentially, about how we might rethink — map anew — our displacements. Borrowing from Deleuze, the impetus of self-exploration is less on “finding the origin” of one’s self and instead better appreciating the very nature of becoming; of becoming-another.

As superficial and self-helpy as this might sound, we should note that when life is constantly being passed through the various expectations of society’s amorphous institutions, this cognitive nomadology is far easier championed than enacted.

But queerness so often finds itself having to approach and enact such manoeuvres, often without thinking. The very nature of being (or rather, becoming) transgender is perhaps the most explicit example. How could you possibly map the displacement of gender transition? How do you think such an ontological shift in a way that is not beholden to a “dead” origin; a “dead name”?

When we think about Nyx’s G/Acc Blackpaper, perhaps it is this sensation that is being attuned to.

If Accelerationism is the embrace of that which “capitalism cannot but obstruct”, of capitalism’s own unruly desiring-production which flies off the handle despite its own attempts to contain itself, of our being-moved as opposed to our naive belief in our own self-moving, we might be so bold as to argue that — affectively speaking — Accelerationism is fundamentally the affirmation of such a displacement.

It is here that the “accelerate collapse” school of 4chan Acc finds itself failing to understand Accelerationism’s most basic observations. They are far too concerned with the original system being antagonised rather than attuning themselves to the flows passing through it. “Smash the ground of existence” becomes “bury your head in the sand”, in the shifting grounds beneath your feet.

It is in this sense that I think there must always be an ethics of accelerationism in play somewhere — even in U/Acc’s anti-praxis mode, which nonetheless contains the call to “make ourselves worthy of the process” that I’ve written about previously.

In considering how best to respond to such displacements as these, queerness isn’t a bad place to start. This is something I’ve also discussed here on the blog previously — specifically in “Ethics of Exit” — but I have something else more polished brewing which emphasises the temporal aspects of this over the spatial. So, for now, watch this space for that…

Anyway, I’m writing all this because, in thinking more critically about the similarities between trans* and post-adoptive experiences in the aftermath of “The Primal Wound” finally making its way online, I found a lot more overlap than I had originally bargained for.

Take this study published in the journal Transgender Health:

Programs providing medical care for transgender adolescents have seen a dramatic rise in volume in the past few years, with many more children and adolescents presenting with gender dysphoria. As more patients present for medical care, important trends that can inform our understanding of gender dysphoria are beginning to emerge. We have noted a greater than expected prevalence of adopted children who present with gender dysphoria at our pediatric hospital-based multidisciplinary gender program…

Or this study from Human Rights Campaign which reports that “8.2 percent of the 184 young people seen in the [Boston Children’s Hospital’s Gender Management Service] clinic between 2007 and 2015 were raised in adoptive families [whilst] only 2.3 percent of children living in Massachusetts were adopted.”

In “The Primal Wound”, I quoted Nancy Newton Verrier who writes in her book that many adopted children experience “a feeling of incompleteness or lack of wholeness … not in the genealogical sense of being cut off from one’s roots, but in a felt sense of bodily incompleteness.” In hindsight, it is maybe in this sense that we have more in common than first appearances suggest, and, as such, the anti-Oedipal fission of U/Acc and G/Acc is surely not as surprising as so many seem to think it.

Bodies Without Organs: Deleuze’s Transcendental Materialism, its Legacy and its Antecedents

Yesterday’s post — an introduction I wrote for the XG Discord to the “Image of Thought” chapter of Deleuze’s Difference & Repetitionreceived a comment from Joseph Ratliff, the answer to which became far too long to leave below the comment line. I hope Joseph doesn’t mind me responding to him a bit more publicly.

Joseph asked whether we can say that Deleuze gives a certain “agency” to thought as a way to remove “the organs” of human thinking.

The short answer, I think, is “no” but this is also one of my favourite questions around Deleuze’s thought so I thought instead of something that I’d give a long answer, connecting the infamously misunderstood concept of the “body without organs” to a transcendental materialism that places Deleuze at the end of a controversial philosophical lineage most readily associated with the likes of Nietzsche and Bataille.

Nietzsche was a particularly interesting materialist for Deleuze because it was he who set the groundwork for affirming not only the freedom afforded by materialism but also its restrictions.

Much has been made of this part of Nietzsche’s thought but it is particularly interesting to consider from a biographical perspective.

Sue Prideaux’s recent Nietzsche biography I Am Dynamite! is exceptional on this. She begins, very early on, with a brief account of the life of Nietzsche’s father, his career as a pastor and his various health troubles, particularly in relation to the rest of his family.

Friedrich Nietzsche was famously a very sickly man but he was also from a very sickly family, on both his mother’s and his father’s side. His genes undoubtedly doomed him from the start.

Each member of the Nietzsche family going back generations seemed to be affected by disorders both mental and physical, and Nietzsche’s father was no exception. He is worth focussing on in particular for the affect bearing witness to his father’s demise probably had on the young philosopher.

Prideaux describes Karl Ludwig Nietzsche as a pastor who was “both pious and patriotic” but also as a man who “was not free from the nervous disorders that affected his mother and half-sisters.”

He would shut himself up in his study for hours, refusing to eat, drink or talk. More alarmingly, he was given to mysterious attacks, when his speech would abruptly cease mid-sentence and he would stare into space. […] The mysterious paroxysms were diagnosed as ‘softening of the brain’ and for months he was prey to prostration, agonising headaches and fits of vomiting, his eyesight deteriorating drastically into semi-blindness. […] Karl Ludwig’s sufferings grew worse, he lost the power of speech, and finally his eyesight deteriorated into total blindness. On 30 July 1849, he died, aged only thirty-five. […]

The cause of Pastor Nietzsche’s decline into death has been extensively investigated. Whether the pastor died insane is a question of considerable importance to posterity because Nietzsche himself suffered from symptoms similar to his father’s, before he suddenly and dramatically went mad in 1888, when he was forty-four years old, remaining insane until his death in 1900. The considerable literature on the subject continues but the first book, Über das Pathologische bei Nietzsche, was published in 1902, just two years after Nietzsche’s death. Its author, Dr Paul Julius Möbius, was a distinguished pioneering neurologist who had been specialising in hereditary nervous diseases from the 1870s onwards. Möbius was named by Freud as one of the fathers of psychotherapy and, importantly, he worked directly from Pastor Nietzsche’s post-mortem report which revealed Gehirnerweichung, softening of the brain, a term commonly used in the nineteenth century for a variety of degenerative brain diseases.

The modern interpretation includes general degeneration, a brain tumour, tuberculoma of the brain or even slow bleeding into the brain caused by some head injury. Unlike his father, no post-mortem was performed on Nietzsche and so it was impossible for Möbius or any later investigators to produce anything like a post-mortem comparison of the two brains, but Möbius, looking wider, revealed a tendency to mental problems on the maternal side of the family. One uncle committed suicide, apparently preferring death to being shut up in the Irrenhaus, the lunatic asylum. On the paternal side, a number of Nietzsche’s grandmother Erdmuthe’s siblings were described as ‘mentally abnormal’. One committed suicide and two others developed some sort of mental illness, one requiring psychiatric care.

This information is important not only because it fundamentally refutes one of the most persistent myths about Nietzsche’s life — that he went mad following the contraction of sexually-transmitted syphilis — although he may have had a habit for visiting brothels, it wasn’t the death of him — but it also gives further context to much of Nietzsche’s philosophy, specifically his materialism and infatuation with the concept of fate.

Prideaux gives a thorough account of this also. She notes how Nietzsche was influenced in tandem by the thought of Spinoza but also the scientific advances of his time. She writes that Nietzsche “read Robert Mayer’s Mechanics of Heat, Boscovich’s theory of non-material atoms, and Force and Matter (1855) by the materialist medical doctor Ludwig Büchner, whose bestselling book spread the gospel that ‘researches and discoveries of modern times can no longer allow us to doubt that man, with all he has and possesses, be it mental or corporeal, is a natural product like all other organic beings’.” Nietzsche also read F. A. Lange’s History of Materialism which, she writes, “asserted that man was only a special case of universal physiology, and thought was only a special chain in the physical processes of life.”

Prideaux continues by noting the explicit instances that the newly materialist thought of the day was influencing Nietzsche’s philosophy. The philosopher was very open about this, writing in his autobiography, Ecce Homo, that he was

in thrall to a burning and exclusive fascination with physiology, medicine and natural science. This is what he set out to explore in [his 1881 book] Daybreak: the idea that man is merely a bodily organism whose spiritual, moral and religious beliefs and values can be explained by the physiological and medical. Greater interest at that time was growing in the idea that man might control the future by controlling his own evolutionary development through diet. It is an attitude famously summed up by the philosopher and anthropologist Feuerbach, who had died only a few years earlier: ‘If you want to improve the people, give them better food instead of declamations against sin. Man is what he eats.’

The broader importance of this for Nietzsche’s thought is that he would not only become fascinated by the potentials of materialist “self-overcoming” but also the necessity of a certain amor fati. Man may be what he eats, but Nietzsche would also stress the importance of “becoming what you are, once you know what that is.” And the importance of this for Nietzsche was undoubtedly fuelled by the trauma of not only his father’s and broader family’s sickly demises but also his own perpetual sickliness.

Once we understand the innate sense in which Nietzsche lived with and amongst a knowledge of his own pain, suffering and mortality, we understand the importance of his thought for himself — the importance of not only affirming your limitations but also overcoming them in whatever way you can. For Nietzsche, that was perhaps more philosophical than physical.

It is here that we can see the initial tensions in Deleuze’s “image of thought”. For Nietzsche, this was changing quite fundamentally in his time. Thought was taking on a newly populist and anti-Cartesian bent in that the observations that thought was influenced by (subjectively if not quite bodily) “outside” forces were being given form within scientific understanding.

But rather than this freeing up thought — although it seemed to for Nietzsche — it was rather the beginnings of a new dogmatic image of thought that we still know well today.

We should likewise note, at this point, that this experience of familial sickness and ill-health was one shared by Nietzsche’s greatest philosophical friend, Georges Bataille. In fact, Stuart Kendall’s brilliant biography of Bataille tellingly begins from this point. He starts the first chapter by writing:

In 1913, when Georges Bataille was about fifteen, his father went mad. Joseph-Aristide Bataille’s syphilis was simply running its course. Contracted long ago, perhaps before he had abandoned his medical studies, certainly before he moved the family from Billom, in the volcanic Puy-du-Dôme, where Georges was born in 1897, to Reims where they now lived. Joseph-Aristide had been blind since before Georges’ birth and paralysed for more than a decade. The unhappy conclusion of the disease was inevitable.

Confined to a chair, coursed by tabes, Joseph-Aristide lurched in agony. Decades later, Georges would remember his father’s ‘sunken eyes, his hungry bird’s long nose, his screams of pain, soundless peals of laughter’. And he would remember the degradation of the old man, despite his own attempts to help.

Kendall proceeds by quoting from Bataille’s first pseudonymous novel (as Lord Auch), The Story of the Eye, drawing on what seem to be some of its most autobiographical elements. Bataille writes:

What upset me more was seeing my father shit a great number of times… It was very hard for him to get out of bed (I would help him) and settle on a chamber pot, in his nightshirt and, usually, a cotton nightcap (he had a pointed grey beard, ill kempt, a large eagle nose, and immense hollow eyes staring into space). At times, the ‘lightning sharp pains’ would make him howl like a beast, sticking out his bent leg, which he futilely hugged in his arms.

Kendall continues:

We can imagine the boy aiding the invalid in his agonies. As a youth, Georges loved his father, but as an adult, he found his love unnatural: most young boys loved their mothers, he thought in terms testifying to his recent psychoanalysis. But Georges loved his father, at least early on, even in his father’s degradation.

There are, however, various other allusions throughout Bataille’s writings that seem to suggest his father may have been abusive to him. However, all of these allusions, Kendall notes, are too shrouded in the cloak of fiction for us to draw any real conclusions. What is self-evident is that Bataille’s relationship with his father was deep, fraught and complicated, painting a far more difficult and violently honest picture of the terms of living with an invalid parent than Nietzsche ever did, but nonetheless vicariously illuminating the experiences of both philosophers.

For both thinkers, the experience of seeing parental men of God fall into madness must have been traumatically informative.

Kendall continues with an anecdote that firmly grounds Georges Bataille’s entire life and philosophy — his founding ordeal. This was during the spring of 1913 when Bataille’s father “lost his mind.” Kendall writes:

Georges’ older brother Martial had already moved out of the family home, so Marie-Antoinette bataille, Georges’ mother, sent him to fetch a doctor. He returned quickly. The doctor undoubtedly did what little he could for the raving patient, but Georges’ father was beyond help. When the physician stepped into the next room, Joseph-Aristide shouted after him, ‘Doctor, let me know when you’re done fucking my wife!’

The inexplicable statement seared the son. Years later Georges wrote: ‘For me, that utterance, which in a split second annihilated the demoralizing effects of a strict upbringing, left me with something like a steady obligation, unconscious and unwilled: the necessity of finding an equivalent to that sentence in any situation I happen to be in.’ The statement carries the contagious taint of Bataille’s entire thought and style: it contrasts a split second and a steady and lasting obligation; an unconscious, unwilled or chance event and a necessity and, most importantly, it functions by means of extreme reversals of logic and perspective (what is demoralizing about a strict upbringing?). Everything follows from here.

Joseph-Aristide’s mad accusation ripped the mask off Georges’ youth, off propriety, off his parents’ and doctor’s faces; the respected, beloved faces of order and authority. The odious utterance opened a world of infinite freedom. Forever after, Bataille’s obligation, his necessity, would be to find an equivalent of that phrase in every situation throughout his life: not only in every story and erotic encounter but in every action, every experience, every word, every thought. That which previously has been held on high would be brought low, that which was low would be raised on high. This slippage would characterize every experience. He would submit all of life to a similar trespass, debasement and inversion: an endless irregularity, ceaseless turning and overturning; an endless repetition of the rule of lawlessness.

This is recognisably the very foundation of Bataille’s “base materialism” and here we can see the tension of Nietzsche’s own work struck in even more explicit relief. Becoming what you are, and knowing what that is, as Nietzsche put it, becomes for Bataille an encounter with (and indeed, the very embodiment of) an all too human horror.

This horror, however, is a “truth” — and to affirm it is a challenge necessary for us to undertake, precisely because it ruptures the moralism and restrictions of a wider society. We attend to so many beliefs about the body and what it can do but also what it should and shouldn’t do, and we will find that, despite society’s taboos, are bodies will do things irrespective of the morals of the day. The affirmation of this truth is, however, more nuanced than first appearances suggest.

Bataille’s father’s outburst was no doubt offensive to all present in the moment but, in attending to its root cause as a symptom of his neurological afflictions, we may ask ourselves how we can — materially speaking — “judge” it. It undoubtedly disturbed the young Bataille to no end and yet Bataille’s affirmation of this disturbance is not the same as the act of forgiving an immoral act by deferring to the material reality of his father’s existence as a kind of base-authority.

For Bataille, the task is to affirm the horror of human materiality without such deference. He would write that the challenge becomes not “submitting oneself … to whatever is more elevated, to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am, and to the reason that arms this being.”

Here Bataille retains the subversion of Nietzsche’s original thinking in the face of a materialist progressivism. Whereas, for Nietzsche, the benefits of a materialist thinking were somewhat naive and sought simply to alleviate a persistent suffering with walks in the mountains and baths in Europe’s spas, in the 20th century the bodily materialism of “you are what you eat” or “what you do” began to carry with it a sort of dietary moralism.

You are what you eat… So eat better! You are what you do… So exercise more! The insistence that you should treat your body like a temple could not be a clearer indictment of the continuation of the religious moralism that Nietzsche despised taking on a new life in the materialism he openly embraced.

Bataille knew of this, however, refusing to give to the matter of which materialism is concerned “the value of a superior principle (which this servile reason would be only too happy to establish itself above itself, in order to speak like an authorised functionary.)” Instead, Bataile would speak of “base matter” as “external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, [refusing] to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations.”

This is likewise the “raving mad” charge at the heart of Antonin Artaud’s vision of a humanity that has “had done with the judgements of God.” For Artaud, as for Bataille, scientific materialism has done nothing but imbue the insights of already well-established spiritualities and gnosticisms with the false authority of an apparently objective “scientific reason”.

Artaud would proclaim, without mincing words, that modern scientists

have reinvented microbes in order to impose a new idea of god. They have found a new way to bring out god and to capture him in his microbic noxiousness.

And so, Artaud sought to liberate humanity entirely from the patronising cruelty of scientific reason, writing:

I have found a way to put an end to this ape once and for all and that although nobody believes in god any more everybody believes more and more in man. So it is man whom we must now make up our minds to emasculate [by] placing him again, for the last time, on the autopsy table to remake his anatomy. […] Man is sick because he is badly constructed. We must make up our minds to strip him bare in order to scrape off that animalcule that itches him mortally, god, and with god his organs.

It is in this sense, following Nietzsche and Bataille, that Deleuze would further affirm Artaud’s provocation, declaring, in the face of decades of scientific truth and progress, that we still do not know what a body can do.

Joshua Ramey, in his book The Hermetic Deleuze, begins with a wonderfully concise explanation of this point. He writes:

The decadence and debilitation of twentieth-century Western culture were, for Artaud, linked directly […] to the technoscientific apparatus — military, industrial, nutritional, and hygienic — continuously marshalled in the name of God and order to stultify the human body. Artaud’s theatre of cruelty was designed to disturb this docile creature, to shock and shatter its organs, and to force the body to react otherwise than in accordance with the habitual limits of sense and sensibility. As he wrote, “you have made him a body without organs, / then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions / and restored to him his true freedom.” For Artaud, humanity possessed a “body without organs,” a subtle body accessible at the extremes of experience — in suffering, delirium, synesthesia, and ecstatic states.

[…] Extending Artaud’s vision of a renewed sensibility into his own unique vision of thought, Deleuze argues that immanent thought, at the limit of cognitive capacity, discovers as-yet-unrealized potentials of the mind, and the body. That is to say, what connects Deleuze to Artaud is the conviction that what matters for life, and for thought, is an encounter with imperceptible forces in sensations, affections, and conceptions, and that these forces truly generate the mind, challenging the coordination of the faculties by rending the self from its habits.

To return to Joseph’s original question, we should be careful to note that this is not Deleuze’s way of conceptualising an independently agentic thought. Nothing about the processes at play here can be discussed in those terms. In fact, “agency” here becomes the sort of deference to authority that Bataille would routinely denounce. For him, speaking in appropriately scatological terms, this would be like applying agency to a turd when you find yourself needing to go to the bathroom for a bowel movement. The challenge to thought is recognising this movement for what it is, precisely devoid of agency and reason. (Because what is the attribution of “agency” but a way to give something a reason to exist.) (Again, this is something discussed last time — the tandem base-horror and affirmation of acknowledging that “the Queen poops too.”)

From here, we might note that Deleuze’s affinity with this thought was likewise an affirmation of his own fate as another sickly philosopher.

Like Nietzsche, Bataille and Artaud before him, Deleuze’s life was wracked by pain and suffering. Having undergone a thoraxoplasty and having one of his lungs in the late 1960s — in the midst of those months when he was meant to defend Difference & Repetition as his doctoral thesis, we might add — Deleuze was plauged by ill health and weakness for the rest of his life.

We may also note here the sorry fact that Deleuze committed suicide — a significant biographic event which is so often under-considered, perhaps because it cannot (or rather, should not) be thought in terms we are accustomed to when we hear that someone has taken their own life.

There is no evidence that Deleuze was depressed or mentally ill. He was just as physically ill as he always had been and, as an elderly man, aged 70, the mortal barrel that he had long been staring down was getting closer to him by the day.

Rather than allowing his body to have the final say, Deleuze chose to end his life on his own terms. In this sense, his death can be seen as the drastic affirmation of a man who chose no longer to live with the sickly body he had been lumbered with.

Without wanting to romanticise his death, Deleuze’s suicide nonetheless presents us with a fitting example of where a thought such as this libidinal materialism can lead us. Finn Janning would go so far as to call Deleuze’s suicide a “happy death” for the way it encapsulates the power of the Will to exceed the body in which it is contained.

Cybergothic posthumanisms aside, Deleuze pushed up against the edge of what his body could do, finding it at war with his Self and so he chose instead to undertake a spectacularly counter-intuitive attack on his woefully organ-anchored body. Janning writes:

A life worth living is a life that has the power to actualize its will to will. In relation to this definition, a happy death might be seen as the equivalent hereof, i.e. when a life no longer has this will, or simply accept that it no longer can act as becoming worthy of what happens. Such acknowledgement is the closest one can get to the Greek dictum: Know yourself by knowing your position, because such acknowledgement is fully knowing your place in time, knowing what is possible and what is not possible. — Acknowledging your limits in order to justify certain beliefs as being true, for instance, committing suicide as the only positive activity. Thus, let me stress: Know your location or position in life is not knowing your position in relation to pre-defined external categories or systems, like career-pattern, but a life’s position. The unique position of a life within the different forces of life, such a position emerges when encounters are dealt with: either in an active and positive way, or in a reactive and pessimistic way.


Deleuze didn’t kill himself because life was absurd or meaningless — as it obviously is for many who commit suicide. He didn’t kill himself due to a sudden emotional shock, e.g. loss of a child, divorce, et cetera — as it also happens to many. No, he committed suicide because his life had already ended. If life is an offspring of our will to do something, to create and such will can’t actualize itself, then you are not just dying, but already dead. In that sense he became equal of the event. He died with the event

It is from here that the “transcendental materialism” of Nietzsche and Bataille finds its next step in the thought of Deleuze and, later, Nick Land.

Land’s “libidinal materialism” is precisely another form(lessness) for this bodily overcoming, refusing to adhere to the tyranny of human anatomy and the sacredness applied to this flawed all-consuming and shit-producing machine which we insist on saying has been constructed in God’s image.

This all too easily opens out onto a cyberpunk landscape but contending with the abject realities of our present is far more prescient before we drift off into escapist fantasy.

Here Nyx’s gender accelerationism and its call to become a “body without sex organs” can be held up as a brilliant example of the contemporary political stakes of such a thinking.