On Being Fated to a Problem

Having recently finished an essay about my own philosophical “initiatory ordeal”, I was left once again feeling burnt out by public online spaces whilst finding it difficult to get over my perpetual thumb-scrolling app addiction to Twitter.

I’ve been struggling recently with a new awareness of the counter-intuitive nature of this blog’s openness — a trait that I’m aware Xenogothic has become somewhat known for and which is often mentioned when I meet readers — which begins to feel less cathartic and more reckless the bigger this platform grows.

The advised response to this feeling is, undoubtedly, to retreat. The bigger something like this becomes, the less advisable it is to use it as an emotive soap box. But this “open” approach is so important to why I do what I do here that I have developed a tendency to just grin (or often scowl) through an emergent anxiety regarding what I am required to lose in letting this space grow perpetually. If not exactly “sell out”, there is great potential to “lose out” in other senses.

These anxieties triggered something of a bloggers’ block recently… Admittedly no one would ever notice my blogger’s blocks if I didn’t mention them on here but I feel them intensely even if they’re nonetheless short-lived and without much public consequence. They are minor mental health crises for me. I go into existential meltdown when I don’t have something to think about at all hours of the day. It’s an existential restlessness; a loss of contentment that attempts to remedy itself by forcing out half-baked content.

In response to this feeling, I decided to do what I always do when I find myself in this sort of bind and revisit an old emotional brain-fart, lingering in my drafts, often thousands of words long, where I just let whatever’s inside fall out onto my keyboard and see if I can’t exorcise some of the bad feelings that I’ve accumulated.

Prior to the moment in which you’re reading this post in particular, this was precisely that draft, started sometime towards the end of 2018.

The question that has been haunting me for sometime is: what am I running away from? And why do I run towards the shade cast by some monolithic “I” when it is precisely the “I” that I feel like I’m losing touch with and even wanting to escape from, in the long-term…

What follows is a bloated post about the apparent narcissism of blogging and an obsessive (and no doubt related) questioning of the reasons for this particular blog’s existence…

My Pitiful Need…

Following on from an old post about why I blog and what I think it’s all about — which was prompted by a really lovely comment that I should do well to remember in times of exhaustion over Twitter’s persistent miserablism — I nonetheless started this companion post alongside it at the end of last year which was prompted by a comment that was much less positive.

Back in March I received a very grumpy comment on the final post of my “Patchwork Epistemologies” series from some disgruntled reader who had presumably just read all 15,000 words of it and was left aggressively dissatisfied. (Fair enough — that’s how I felt after writing it as well.)

This dissatisfied commenter wrote:

This really speaks much less to Reza and his thinking as much as it reveals your own pitiful need to speak of yourself; vain attempts at speaking out and connecting yourself to figures of status or import. A sad yet typical example of such blogophile existence.

So goes the old adage: it’s always the negative comments that stay in your mind far longer than the positives ones. (And it did stick around for a while but I’d forgotten all about it before revisiting this draft… An occupational hazard as a blogging masochist with an ocean of unpublished drafts…)

However, this didn’t feel like much of a shot across my bow at that time because I’m now well accustomed to blogospheric ankle-biting and, for what it’s worth, I really don’t like that series much either… I was done with it by Part Four and only powered through it out of a sense of duty and commitment to the series. (God forbid I leave anything unfinished, even if the final product suffers as a result.)

So why return to this comment at all? All this time later?

On reflection, I probably should have left my email exchange with Reza as a private conversation but, after getting Reza’s blessing and encouragement to transpose it to Xenogothic and feeling that my attempts to find a way into Intelligence & Spirit might be interesting to others too (even if they failed), I felt like I had a duty to deliver on it.

But on even further reflection, I don’t think it was an introduction to Intelligence & Spirit that I was looking for… Not really… It was something else… The mistake was not realising that before advertising it as something it wasn’t.

Nevertheless, I got what I was originally — and unconsciously — looking for, and it is this that this comment now speaks to, albeit inversely. This commenter was mistaken in thinking I wanted an excuse to speak for myself. It was rather an attempt to lose myself (productively) before the Rupture of Reza…

Discourse Disrupted

What this disgruntled comment failed to consider, no doubt because the anon was a few months late to the original party, was that this series — in the context of broader Twitter conversations — was borne explicitly out of the way in which Reza’s arrival on Twitter really fucked things up for a while last year — for better and for worse.

His debates with Thomas Murphy, in particular, were some of the most intense threads I remember reading online for some time — now lost to the ether after Reza deleted his Twitter account. There is no better way to trigger an intense bout of impostor syndrome than watching two incredibly smart people slog it out as you watch on, mouth agape, with no real idea what either side is talking about.

As such, I fell into a bit of a crisis around that time as a result. I couldn’t think or read or get a handle on anything. I felt totally ungrounded and dumb. I think this was because I’d already been questioning everything at the time (and my mental health wasn’t that great either). I had one of those moments where everything seemed up in the air and all ideas and convictions needed to either be regrounded or discarded — a process that is, more often than not, private and quietly distressing.

(To be clear: I think this is a good thing to go through, and this experience is no doubt common to many, scaring many people off as well as encouraging others to throw themselves further down the rabbit hole. Suffice it to say, whether good or bad, the experience is always — at least initially — very disorientating.)

I felt linguistically deficient, incapable of reading tweets never mind books, and this was even more frustrating amidst the new intensities that had emerged out of a Reza-triggered interest in Sellars and Carnap — two figures I had never previously read before in a field that I was wholly unfamiliar with.

This moment was undoubtedly a catalyst for some broader insecurities that were undoubtedly felt by many others also. @GoodBoyMachine put it best (and most humorously) when they tweeted:

Reza came in and disrupted the discourse, forcing it out of stagnation, new territories have been drawn, a force of difference preventing the repetition of the same. Now he leaves us, perhaps to return once a new order has been established so he may dismantle it once again???

But, taking this tweet far more seriously than was perhaps intended, we might ask ourselves if “The Discourse” really was disrupted by a barrage of new ideas? Was it not, instead, that the terms of habitual online engagement were infiltrated by a language and a mode of thinking that was alien to most who hang around in these parts? Wasn’t it more precisely the struggle to fold Reza into the communicative logics of Twitter?

This is, I suspect, something that Reza himself got off on — at least for a time. He seems to love being a cat amongst pigeons, shaking up thoughts and complacencies by dragging people in and out of disparate zones of comfort and intellectual distress.

This is, arguably, a reputation that Cyclonopedia and Intelligence & Spirit now share, at least amongst a diffusely “Weird” Twittersphere. (He’s not alone in having this affect on a conversation, of course, even around these parts, but it was very clear that this was his immediate impact on the timeline.)

This was a particularly confusing experience for me personally. I’d studied Cyclonopedia as a postgraduate student in a class that was dedicated to its contrarian twists and turns. As such, I felt like I knew Reza’s work and then immediately found out that I really did not. I knew one of a multiplicity of Reza’s — and this Reza is not much like the others.

This was emphasised, at that time, by the work I was doing at Urbanomic on both Intelligence & Spirit and Reza’s forthcoming collection Abducting the Outside. Reading through the entire trajectory of Reza’s thought, with all of its offshoots, is an intoxicating experience.

Beyond these multiplicities, however, as I saw it, Reza had once been (generally speaking) “one of us” — part of a weird online philosophical milieu that grew out of the Ccru and into the accelerationist blogosphere of the late-00s and early-10s. Many people have since diverged from this point into countless new territories but that foundational online interest in weird philosophies and politics is at least somewhat similar and familiar to both generations of the blogosphere.

We here today are the generation that followed and, even though there is plenty of overlap, I find the discontinuities and new depths explored by the current crowd really interesting to consider in light of what has come before us because the relationship between one and the other isn’t always as clear cut as some attempts at online historicising might suggest.

Are the differences a product of our sociopolitical moment? Is there something else at stake entirely today?

The questions I later emailed to Reza, in the midst of a long and meandering self-introduction, went something like this:

Are we starting from the same place? Are we going in the same direction (albeit on different paths)? Where have the divergences occurred? Is it possible for us to discuss these differences productively? What foundations can we lay in order to make some sort of newly productive conversation possible?

Because that’s the ideal, right? Even if you don’t agree with someone, there is often a way to nonetheless build a dialogue and a friendship between two disparate points.

Not wanting to perpetuate the specific sort of bad-faith sniping that defines many a Twitter encounter — which I know I nonetheless have a paranoid tendency to internalise, assuming every anon wants their own clout-farming “gotcha” moment (and I’m sure many others feel this way too) — I wanted to affirm a desire to pursue a friendship with Reza which explicitly came out of a different conversation he had recently had in orbit of the publication of Intelligence & Spirit with Robin in NYC — and likewise from working on Abducting the Outside — in which he framed his current intellectual project as an attempt at “understanding how changes in our self-conception necessarily lead to the transformation of our collective modes of acting”.

This (admittedly broad) description of his contemporary project felt like a good way to describe the principles of this blog too — again: generally speaking — with my own patchwork posts emphasising this point repeatedly and the very name “xenogothic” emerging from a desire to reinvigorate the subjective ruptures so closely associated with the literary gothic into a newness beyond the tired conversative aesthetics associated with the genre more broadly.

This is to say, there is an attempt to speak to a new self-conception that I see emerging somewhere between our consolidated understanding of the individualised subject and other burgeoning (post-)national identities — a far more chimerical “idpol” which perpetually ruptures an apparent striving amongst most leftists for a new (or even “newly old”; post-Trumpian) age of consensus. Reza’s project echoes these concerns, albeit presently more concerned with the technological development of AI and how this impacts philosophies of mind.

Hearing and transcribing the conversation between Reza and Robin for the Urbanomic website renewed a confidence in my gut that the distance between what Reza and others were interested in was not as vast as the temperature of the heated Twitter debates may have, at first, suggested.

More than anything, it was clear that Reza’s new book — notably only his second following 2008’s uncategorizable Cyclonopedia — presented him with an opportunity to have a public-facing do-over. In clear opposition to his once clandestine (and notably Landian) online persona, Reza was newly open to talking to anyone and everyone, countering his previous — and undoubtedly geopolitically enforced — mystery, embracing the pedagogic side of para-academia and wanting to offer advice to anyone, regardless of their background and academic clout.

This, again, is a principle I really admire in him.

However, I won’t say much more on this. This was a topic discussed in my previous series and I don’t have the energy to rehash it here any further. This is really not that post.

I suppose what I’m really trying to say with all of this is that any perceived vanity I demonstrate on this blog is an acknowledgement that any consideration of your own position, whatever that may be — and particularly in this (perhaps woefully) blogospheric context — has to start with some sort of confession and some broader context, and it is precisely this act that opens oneself out to others. Indeed, it’s the driving force behind my forthcoming book Egress. As narcissistic as it might seem when done badly, it’s a wholly ethical consideration and an attempt at a tandem grounding and ungrounding of human relations.

(Justin Murphy has found great success pursuing a “very online” version of this, we might note, albeit by embracing an antagonistically Catholic confessional position that brings in the clicks like nothing else, but I feel like Justin’s apparently “radical honesty” tell us far more by way of what it omits rather than what he chooses to dramatically overshare.)

My confession, if I have one, is no doubt common to many: despite my apparent follower clout, being on Twitter regularly makes me feel dumb as fuck. And, frankly, I’m okay with that and I’m okay with admitting it.

It is with this in mind that the rest of that disgruntled old comment becomes interesting — and even amusing — to me. I’m not mad about it. (Honest.) Its accusatory tone suggests that my perpetual focus on myself is some sort of blind-spot, like I don’t realise I’m talking about myself all the time on this blog.

I am aware I am. I know I am. I, I, I, I.

In fact, I notice in more casual messages to friends that “I” is often wholly erased from my vocabulary, so aware am I of every time I hit the “I” key on a keyboard. Sentences rarely start with subjects and, IRL, I have a distinctly paranoid aversion to talking about myself. It’s a level of vulnerability that, paradoxically, I’m only able to do online. Perhaps because, to my mind, this blog is just a journal or notebook. I tend to try and ignore the fact it’s accessible to and actively read by thousands.

Suffice it to say, I think about every instance of “I”. That’s, in part, what this space is for — for me, anyway. But, despite appearances, it’s not my entire life. This blog is just one outlet amongst many. It’s an unusually polished box in the corner of my room where I chuck all the thoughts that don’t come out of my mouth. (My girlfriend will likewise attest to the fact I’m actually very quiet in person and awful at small talk.) The blog is where “I” is let loose; where what Mark Fisher called “subjectivist fuzz” is allowed to run wild, precisely because it is being powered by something else from elsewhere.

Mark couldn’t have been more correct in describing the experience of blogging as follows, in one of my all-time favourite K-Punk posts, and it is an answer I think of everytime I get asked the question of how I write so much:

The answer is that it isn’t me who’s writing.

Modesty? Metaphor? Or (lol) post-structuralism?

No. A strictly technical description of how this body has been used as a meat puppet for channeling uttunul signal.

It’s only when the writing is bad that ‘I’ have produced it. When it’s good ‘I’ am just a space through which Lemuria speaks.

The writing is already assembled on the plane and all ‘I’ can do is bodge it by introducing subjectivist fuzz.

As mystical as this sounds it is nevertheless wholly true: I’d feel much better about “Blob Blob Blobby” being the second-most popular post on this blog if it hadn’t been written in its entirety on a one-hour lunch break. Whenever I read it back to myself, I find it very difficult to put myself back in the shoes I was wearing when I wrote it. It truly feels like something channelled from elsewhere. (The meme-response: “Did Mr. Blobby write this?” is probably more accurate than you might think.) By contrast, I always end up trying to signal boost my old post “Lover’s Flight” because it’s not only a personal favourite but because I slaved over it. But the things you slave over never do the same sorts of numbers… People can tell when you’re being taken for a ride by something else within you and it is intoxicating to read. (It’s what I look for in all the writing I read for fun.)

Anyway, the plane on which this writing is assembled is likewise the plane through which I try to pass all of my readings. Specifically, I often consciously pass texts through my everyday experiences on the off-chance they slide across that plane where they can be picked up and absorbed by that something-else and that’s always a valuable starting point for me. But this type of reading always begins from a woefully parochial position. Reading anything — well, most things — the question is always: What are the stakes in this? And what are the stakes for me reading it? What does it mean for my worldview; for the way I comport myself to the world around me? This is only ever a starting point because that “me”, that “I”, might not be the same by the time I’ve finished reading whatever it is I’m reading. It’s always an attempt to chart the slippage that occurs when consuming something outside yourself.

In fact, as I’ve written recently, I really like philosophy that starts with and then attempts to obliterate the “I” in this way. It’s something in common with the art I like also. I recognise how ephemeral that “I” is; how fragile and transitory. The “I” is a writerly obelisk that has a tendency to dominate but, the more you look at it, the thinner it appears, constituting a succession of snakes-and-ladders detours throughout any text. It’s the “I, I, I, I, I, I” of Kathy Acker; the “I” of Bataille; the selfishness of a selfie. It’s not a grounding but an ungrounding, and this was especially true of getting to know Reza and his work, and the work of everyone else who orbits these parts. (More on that later.)

Not to compare situations in the slightest but I did really related to how Nina Power addressed this question of who “Nina Power” the online writer is and what her aims are — a question she asked of herself in a blog post that addressed all her recent — albeit perpetually unfolding — life drama. (No further comment on that drama on this blog — there’s plenty of that elsewhere and, the more words accumulated about that, the more anxious I think everyone gets.)

Nina asks, wondering why she’s even bothering to write a response to her critics in the first place:

Is writing this now just a sort of perversely enjoyable thing to do, to get things clear in my mind, or to divert myself because I have other things to do as always, as everybody does, and maybe I am trying to soothe myself, because writing, and not sleep, and not anything else, unfortunately for me, and also unfortunately for my readers, ha ha, is what works the best?

Reading this for the first time, I felt like clipping it and sticking it permanently to my blog’s header as some sort of warning — because writing does work best, for better but also, more often, for worse. (And it seems to work best for those who want to take Nina to task also — feeling like they themselves are called into question by bearing witness to perceived sociopolitical shifts.) But whereas they seem to want to account for themselves within a contemporaneously progressive milieu, Nina’s response was admirable for its honesty in wanting to account for herself to herself. And what else are blogs for? Agree with her or not — and there are some instances where I’m know we disagree — I admire the self-awareness and the working through of that self-awareness in public. (As suspect as the somewhat selective — and therefore untrustworthy — “radical honesty” that Justin Murphy has spoken to is, I still admire Nina’s previous posts on this topic for the blatant intellectual — and, more broadly, ontological — questions she attempts to tackle.)

Writing is likewise how I process stuff and it always has been. This blog is almost two years old but I have had at least one blog or another on the go since at least 2004. I was a geocities baby at first and a prolific MySpace blogger after that. I have about two dozen blogspots (thankfully) lurking in password-protected obscurity, as successive online masks have become redundant. The timeline is quite astounding to me when I think about it. I’ve never not had a blog at any time over the last 15 years. That’s just under half of my life at this point. Maybe that is just a symptom of being a narcissistic millennial but — what can I say? — I love blogs and it’s even occasionally been my day job to run them. (In fact, I’ve just set up a new one at my new day job as a communications manager for an art gallery… I can’t help myself…)

What is weird about blogging at the moment, however, is that this sort of tension only comes from having accrued a certain amount of followers. I do still write like I’m talking to myself — because, in a lot of ways, I am — and that’s fine when you’re a little blog with only accidental views. (“It’s a diary. Who cares?” I try to assure myself.) Nowadays, however, having inadvertently swelled to some 3500 followers across various platforms, I feel like my tone is starting to feel weird to some, as if I should take better account of my audience and the diminished size of my “I” in that context. But that only makes the “I” more interesting…

…Somewhere down the line of thinking about all this and writing this mammoth exercise in depressive navel-gazing, and trying to account for and challenge it, I heard that Nic Roeg died — yes, this draft is really quite old — and this weird disorientated spiral of insufficiency went all the way back down to ground zero; to the first extended piece of writing I was ever happy with. 

I ended up thinking about the last decade of my life, how the hell I even ended up here, and I decided to read my undergraduate dissertation again…

Reza Blades

Nic Roeg directed a few films that have been hugely important to me at various stages of my life so far. The first was The Witches, which I have such vivid memories of watching as a kid although having no knowledge of him as a director. (The scene where the witches take off their disguises legit gave me nightmares for years.) Then there’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is iconic, of course, but it was Don’t Look Now that sank its teeth into me furthest.

I watched Don’t Look Now about a dozen times in 2013 and the opening scene even more frequently. It was the inspiration for my undergraduate dissertation on anxiety and photography — a truncated 2015 edit of which I put on the blog a while back — and, after hearing about Roeg’s death, I couldn’t help but read it again for myself.

Despite always pitching the essay as being about “anxiety” and “photography”, today I know it was about so much more than that. It was my first fumbling attempt to articulate something below the surface that had repeatedly gotten in the way of my attempts to make photography. There was an “anxiety” present, for sure, but about what? I discussed it abstractly in terms of a Lacanian “lack”, as so many photography theorists had already done, but this isn’t satisfactory anymore.

Today, I know that this essay was about all of those things that I continue to write about on the blog. (“The Primal Wound” is a better and more mature account of it, I think.) Most of these things are likewise encapsulated in Roeg’s film — based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, no less, who I have been obsessed with for a lot of this past year, particularly her book The House on the Strand.

Ruminating on this anew, I think I can summarise what it is I perpetually write about here and elsewhere as follows:

  • Loss and mourning, and the speculative ways we might deal with these affects that might actually be productive — how can the intensive affects of grief survive the cold rationalism of so much philosophy, and vice versa? (As much as I believed this to be a recent concern, following Mark’s death, my previous writing on photography makes it clear this was not the case. I’ve always struggled through grief with philosophy, turning to the latter to process the form, and finding myself somewhere in between.)
  • “Me”, or “I” — the “I” of photography and of writing and their immanent obliterations through their violent sublimation when presented in an “image” or a “text”; the tandem formation and collapse of the subject through appearances — which is to say, the burden of (re)presentations. (See my essay “Points of View” for a specifically photographic exploration of this.)
  • The “cybergothic”, in the broadest and most generous and internally perforated sense of the term — how the traumatically new is so often understood and processed through our understandings of the ruptures of a radical “before” (deep time, the dead, the redundant, etc.).
  • Fate, choice, agency; the pathologies of a nascent para-phenomenology.

…I could go on but these are the main four. If I’ve written about it on this blog, chances are there is shades of it in that undergraduate essay.

When I finished reading my dissertation again, recognising the naive and tentative explorations of these topics, which I explored, in my mind, as just “anxiety” and “photography”, not really understanding either, despite the relative depth of my research, I was newly aware that what interested me was the way that these two things were, in essence, “symptoms” of something deeper. And this something has stayed with me ever since. I don’t write about anything else, when I really think about it.

And I thought about this for weeks, particularly when Reza appeared on Twitter and in my inbox, eventually tweeting about it, and the tweets I wrote got a response that I really wasn’t expecting. It turns out this bizarre sensation was very relatable (but of course it is!).

I wrote:

Every time I reread my undergrad dissertation I am shocked to find all the antecedents to what I continue to write about in there, 5 years later, but also I remember that, at the time, I had no idea what I was talking about. [1]

It makes me feel really weird to think that everything I continue to discover is stuff I intuitively knew already on some level from cultural interests but didn’t think could be articulated with words. [2]

This has been a “wow philosophy” tweet. [3]

After I finished reading my old dissertation, I found myself remembering that “Fresh-Faced Graduate” head space that immediately followed its completion, openly excited and quietly depressed in late 2013, traumatised and thrilled by everything in equal measure, so similar to the feeling I have right now: that pregnant lull when — after going a few rounds with Education and a certain mode of expression — you look up for a moment and realise just how much you have left to learn beyond what has now become, inevitably, a kind of “comfort zone”. 

But here the paradox emerges. Yes, it is all well and good to expand your horizons and find new modes of thinking beyond the ones you know. But does the subject matter itself ever really change? Is this, to put it another way, an templex process of becoming what you’ve always already been? How to account for the realisation that what has been arrived at in the end was always already there in the beginning? I later tweeted:

I also just remembered in one of our first lectures as [undergraduate] students, a lecturer told us (re art practice) “you’re only gonna have one idea in your life which you’ll approach from a dozen different angles”. This is true in my experience so far in writing too. And it’s annoying af. [4]

(Or, as Amy put it: “‘Everyone is fated for a problem.'”)

Don’t Look Now remains a horrifying example of this sensation: the traumatic collisions within its narrative between academic research and a para-ontological searching; the myth that the careerist buoyancy of an academic life can falsely calm the sea of a life being lived. As Donald Sutherland discovers to his horror in Roeg’s adaptation, the traumas you keep in your back pocket fall out when you least expect them to, always after we’ve forgotten they are there. Academic research becomes a surrogate process for something else and, in Don’t Look Now, these lines of enquiry are constantly blurred.

On closer inspection, the editing in Don’t Look Now — and, as a result, the experience of watching the movie itself — begins to reflect the experience of thinking-in-itself for me. The dead-ends and unnatural rhythms, the internal narrative loops, the Eternal Return of the same that actively encourages repeated viewings (an externalised memorial reminiscence) in order to sketch out its fated loops — does the opening sequence not contain within itself the entire plot of the movie, retold at a different scale? Each, so closely related, is nonetheless discombobulating and anxiety-inducing in their own unique ways, only making sense after the fact.

Having revisited this essay, this film, and still wanting to reground myself, still wanting to find the base of my fated problems once again, in the face of recent Twitter ruptures, I decided to see just how far back these concerns go.

And. at the risk of deeply embarrassing myself, I wanted to share my findings with you…

When my undergraduate photography class was told we would inevitably be “fated for a problem”, I was just 19 years old at that time and it was a pretty depressing prospect. We had our whole lives ahead of us! Surely we couldn’t be fated so soon? But it was true. In fact, it was already true. Even the work I had done. aged 15 to 18, as a GCSE and A Level art student, was about these same issues, wrestling with constructions and deconstructions of the self.

Digging back through some of the more embarrassing corners of my photographic archive, I see the same problems visually — but also terribly — represented, coming into view completely devoid of nuance. Raw and inchoate.

Aged 16, I was obsessed with building rudimentary masks for my friends, putting tape onto their faces to make a canvas and collaging or drawing onto it. (It was all very Tumblr 2005.) I would document the construction of the masks and, then, I’d also document the — often painful — process of pulling it off. (Below: my old school friend Callum, taking one for the team.) (Obviously, they also made good GIFs but GIFs were not as readily accepted “art objects” back then as they are now.)

There was little thought behind this practice. It was just fun to do. In fact, this series in particular was made on a lunch break, hanging out in the art rooms, a strange mixture of emo kids and enthusiasts who hadn’t yet discovered smoking behind the bike sheds and so truly had nothing better to do.

At some point, over the next year, I moved onto self-portraits, and I remember, somewhat bitterly, my grades for these experiments were atrocious (but I think rightly so). I wasn’t interested in the process of constructing my own identity, as was very common fodder for teenage art projects, but rather how my identity was, in that moment, actively being constructed from the outside, endearingly but also traumatically, by friends and family and even teachers. (If I’d been capable of articulating this, the work might have had a better reception.)

The final project took the form of a series of photographic Magritte studies. (Below, a poor inversion of his painting Attempting the Impossible.) (Part of me wants to die embedding this here now but it remains illustrative of a nonetheless important moment in my own naive experiences.) I got a C. I didn’t understand why at the time — I thought I was being clever — but technically the photos were pretty terrible. I got a lot better later on, if nonetheless stubbornly retaining an intuitive approach to that medium over the sluggest professionalism of technical mastery.

At its heart, this first photograph — made without Photoshop and instead with a flawed understanding of what is “good” lighting in my childhood bedroom — remains an honest document of an on-going project and — beyond that — ontological experience.

The girl in the photograph, my best friend at that time, was complicit in this process more than we were both aware. I had asked her out on a date two years previously and she agreed. We ate desserts down in the local pub and I became the first person, in that instance, that she came out to. My feelings were not wholly assuaged — nor were hers, she later confessed — and we were nonetheless entangled for the rest of our time at school. I loved her and, in her own way, she loved me, but rather than form a romantic relationship, we each became that person for the other onto which we hashed out the selves that we would soon become and — for a few years at least — settle on. Her availability as a “model” was convenient but my late teenage self was truly defined by her in a way that I was undoubtedly unconsciously aware of.

Unfortunately but also unavoidably, for everyone involved, all of the images were laced with a sort of underdeveloped sexuality, which was, on the one hand, the function of my surrealist source material, but also reflected my own teenage self, at sea with itself. I can only imagine what my grade might have been if I’d had the self-awareness to articulate what exactly it was I was exploring but the process was ultimately more important than any of that. (Evidently — the lack of encouragement did not dissuade me from continuing to explore these ideas.) They may have been presented as quasi-art-historical studies but, for me, it was “honest” work, reflecting (albeit through a unconscious and jilted romanticism) the confused pretensions of a sixteen year old heterosexual boy, embedded in a community that was predominantly queer despite myself.

Already, this early on, there was a void opening up. Photography wasn’t enough. Painting might have been better but I was too ham-fisted to be any good at that. With hands made — so I was told — for rugby rather than painting, my sportsman’s genes were utterly wasted on me. I was starting to understand and come to terms with the fact that both the boyhood activities I took part in reluctantly and the visual mediums I loved weren’t capable of expressing what I wanted to say without falling into an ostentatious soft-focus romanticism or weak aesthetic horrorism.

But it was too late.

Later, doubling down on an undergraduate photography degree that I felt committed to as a outlet for both self-expression and career aspirations, when I found myself at its limit, moving onto the “next thing” — in late 2013, that was “Sound Studies” — I was already in too deep to pull myself out and try again.

I became a better photographer as a result of this course but I still overcame its limits. I studied photograpy but felt constantly at war with it. Whilst my peers were splashing about happily in its constraints, I felt like all I wanted to affirm was its insufficiency.

Writing, always already open to its own insufficiency, became the better medium for cutting through the self whilst photography — at its limits — became a way to explore a mutant objectivity.

Still, to this day, I have not stopped awkwardly taking weird portraits — portraits that come with an embedded self-awareness of how little they are saying, or the ones that knowingly exacerbate the distortion of their subject.

What was so strange about rediscovering these photographic antecedents to an “I”-obliterating interest in philosophy, in light of (semi-)recent Twitter events, was that, whilst Reza had triggered this most recent abyssal feeling, he had also helped alleviate the previous one.

I did a course on Cyclonopedia when I was a postgrad — 15 weeks of “decelerated reading” heralded by Kodwo Eshun — which was a sort of trial-by-fire introduction to the mutant post-CCRU view of 20th century philosophy and 21st century geopolitics.

It was an exhaustive picking apart of that book’s stubborn and contradictory nature that likewise doubled up as an intensive exercise in critical and vigilant thinking. It was just what I needed to kick myself out of an engagement with philosophy that had already begun to tire of the dick-measuring of academia. It was an academic consideration of para-academia — an academic exercise in autobiospy — and it was the foundation I needed to create and embrace this space for myself anew. It was a text alien enough to drag me out of my naivety and into this new world where I had to think about these problems of thought impersonally.

Everything had been read through my own life prior to that — attempts to think through and process the latest trauma — and here was a book that dissolved the self of its author(ity) straight away in its introduction — in being penned by Kristen Alvanson.

When Reza’s unruly voice emerged, it tried to drown you in its subsequent pages. You had to lose yourself in it, and to do that with others — in the midst of our grief for Mark no less — was both incredibly informative and frustrating in equal measure. What I acquired from that book was a patience and a vigilance, an approach to thinking creatively and collectively through a book that was written in such a way as to make impossible any “secondary literature” appeal to understanding it. In this way, it was undeniably Landian in nature, but also pushed so far beyond this into something frighteningly new.

Whilst Reza has since renounced the Landian thinking of Cyclonopedia (not to mention Land himself) the affective nature of this writing still remains in tact in so much of his work. It also remains just a frustrating and challenging.

To explain exactly what I mean by this, it is worth quoting Reza’s renouncement of Land in our email exchange. He wrote to me:

Land’s way has been quite detrimental to thinking and philosophizing. His thinking requires too much commitment to settled ideas and determinations. This is not essentially a bad thing, but I have seen throughout [the] years that this form of thinking ultimately becomes stifling and prevents one from branching out to new territories and adopt[ing] new methods.

I find it quite oppressive that his fixated hatred for some philosophers (eg, Hegel and Plato) makes one […] dismiss these philosophers and not actually engage with their thoughts without prior biases which can be way too strong. In that sense, yes, I see my new work as a ‘reaction’ to my former more Landian way of thinking. But reaction is not always Oedipal and/or reactionary, it can actually lead to further experimentations with the self and a more expansive reflection on one’s past and possible futures. 

My response to Reza was that, in my own experience, Land remains a figure who represents an expanded and active thinking outside the rote learning of a highly-competitive and routinely stifling academia. Whilst his own biases may be readily apparent, for some immersed in the academic canon, Fanged Noumena — although for me it was his Thirst for Annihilation that shook the not-yet-settled dust off me in my first semester as a postgrad — constitutes an enticing open door to elsewhere.

The detriment of Land’s thinking, which is painfully apparent in the current accelerosphere, is when it is treated as a foundation rather than its own “reaction” to something else. Such is the fascination with his “neo-reactionary” thought for so many. Whilst many adopt various (mis)understandings of his oeuvre as an (appropriately imperial) “emperor’s new clothes”, it’s untapped relevance is to be found in the time-spiral it constitutes within an otherwise linear canon of philosophical thought. Something that, I’d argue, Reza himself has attempted to constitute for a certain type of contemporary thinker — although obviously with far less political controversy. Evidently, building bridges towards the complexities of analytic philosophy is far more forgiving a task than building bridges to the reactionary thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

This is to emphasise that this does not mean “stopping” with Land — that was what brought about the somewhat inevitable downfall of R/Acc: Land was held up as a prophet and, as a result, his critical scalpel was irreparably dulled by his adoption into a canon of contemporary rightist thought. Nevertheless, Reza’s reaction is surely — unavoidably — Oedipal but that’s not to deny the ways in which this has been productive for him. Kill your idols, and all that.

Or, better yet, don’t adopt idols to begin with. Recognise that your fellow travellers are that and that alone. The best readers of Land — or at least those who have survived his influence and can wonderfully tell the tale — share this in common, I think: they do not rest on their Landian laurels and instead carry that critical irreverence forwards, past that which has been supposedly “settled” into new areas, and use it to attack other ways — and perhaps, as many would argue, more important ways — of thinking. (As Mark Fisher used to say, in this regard: “He was our Nietzsche.”)

In this way, to me, as I start, once again, to digest it, I start to view Intelligence & Spirit as a book that continues to discuss the problems that Reza once explored through the post-Ccru aesthetics of a Land-infused Bataillean geohorror — Fisherian gothic materialisms most specifically, taken to sur-Bataillean extremes (Reza’s essay “The Corpse Bride” remains the most memorably grotesque piece of post-Landian philosophy I’ve ever read) — and which he has since moved explicitly beyond into the evermore post-inhumanist realms of computer science and AGI.

However, as Gregory Marks has explored in a fantastic essay, any posthumanity — specifically the post- of an anthroparochialism that has long needed to be overcome for the establishment of a collective subject; perhaps even an AGI — is inherently related to the gothic: “Where once only humans were recognised as agents or as the vessels of spirit, now the whole material world is given the dubious honour of inheriting this humanist baggage.”

Reza may be keen to articulate a split within his own thought, but this is the controversial lineage that Land today represents — albeit often lost under his contrarian political manoeuvring — the thought of Bataille and, even before him, Nietzsche and de Sade.

In light of this, we may start to uncover traces of Gothic Reza throughout Intelligence & Spirit — albeit in its depths. His philosophy of intelligence explicitly takes on some of the problems first put forward in the nihilorationalist writings of Ray Brassier, Mark Fisher’s Gothic Materialism and Nick Land’s own belligerent philosophy of intelligence, updating them for the technical realities of our present moment and (perhaps) near-future, with an attention to the philosophy of science and computer science that has been a common concern for a number of Ccru affiliates — Brassier and Luciana Parisi most notably, to my mind. In taking this view of Reza’s work — an admittedly reductionist view, for argument’s sake — we can see that, whilst his theoretical arsenal has shifted away from Land and Bataille, towards Carnap and Sellars, the project remains the same, albeit far more technically refined. 

As I write this, I hear Thomas Murphy in the back of my mind, calling out those sycophantic appeals to Reza’s authority after he arrived like a new moon — (but really: “That’s no moon!”) — in our Twitter orbits, and rightly ridiculing them. It’s not for his “thought”, in any woefully contained sense, that I admire Reza becayse I can barely profess to understand it at present, only feeling in possession of a general overview. Rather, what I like about and relate to in Reza’s work is the way that he’s taken what he already knows and then attempts to use it against himself. In Cyclonopedia, he took his Iranian heritage and made a cosmic horror out of it. In Intelligence & Spirit he takes his engineering background and uses it like slice layers off our collective prefrontal cortex. We can likewise argue that each of these actions casts templexed shadows over their other.

Whilst Reza might profess to be on the side of “The (Platonic) Good”, that does not mean that his work must cease to be fundamentally wounding to our manifest image. This is a project I can relate to. Constructing masks for yourself with the sole intention of ripping them off when they’re done. Whether people agree with his conclusions or not, this is at least a starting point that many of us can recognise and relate to.

But enough about Reza. I was trying to talk, as I so often do, about myself…

I the Filthy Beggar

As a photography student, the most (in)formative experiences were the most bitter ones.

I always hated the documentary projects, lauded as Proper Photography, burying what is little more than a journalist’s entangled instincts for self-serving impropriety under layers of uncritical romanticism and a sense of a greater good — prying into other people’s lives, flying off to war zones on mummy and daddy’s money to get the scoop for the sake of a grade — and just fucking stop giving disposable cameras to homeless people, will you? Jesus. (A condensed and perhaps hard to untangle nod to these experiences is all that can be achieved without wandering into another woeful tangent on what I hated most about my time as a photography student.)

I always swore by an adage I’d heard from the psychogeographer Osi Rhys Osmond one time: you should know your own backyard, your own square mile, like the back of your hand before you even consider moving onto the next one. This doesn’t necessarily translate to philosophy, but I nonetheless believe that you should write about what you know.

(This was a telling utterance by Osi — link to his appearance on BBC’s The Culture Show here, embedding is disabled — a Welsh artist whose village I did an artist’s residency in back in 2015. Those of us selected were anticipating meeting Osi and working with him on our ideas. He lost his battle to cancer before that could happen and, instead, on our first day in Llansteffan, we respectfully stood outside the church whilst friends and family attended his funeral, so that we might get to hear some words about the man we could no longer meet. It coloured that trip with certain eeriness — failures of presence and absence — that, as we’ve seen, I was already well attuned to. It was yet another instance of fate catching up with a fated problem and it was an incredibly moving and influential experience for all of us.)

When I was an undergrad at a Welsh university, this adage was, at first, taken all too literally. I only made projects about myself and my friends, but soon I learned how to traverse the fine line between a blinkered parochialism and finding the alien on my own doorstep. And it is this affinity that I felt most palpably in reading Land’s early work.

He writes, in a previously trademark intoxicated fashion, in the introduction to Thirst for Annihilation:

… it is remarkable how degraded a discourse can become when it is marked by the obsessive reiteration of the abstract ego, mixing arrogance with pallid humility. The chronic whine that results — something akin to a degenerated reverberation from Dostoyevsky’s underground man — is the insistence of a humanity that has become an unbearable indignity. ‘I’ am alone, as the tasteless exhibition of an endogenous torment, as the betrayal of communication, as a festering wound, in which the monadic knitting of the flesh loses itself in a mess of pus and scabs, etc. etc. . . . (You yawn of course, but I continue.)

Such is the perpetual tension. I hate “I” and yet I persist nauseatingly in talking about it… Fated to a problem, at war with my own shadow…

The shadow this monstrous post has cast over my drafts has been substantial in this regard. Posting it is less an attempt to embrace it but rather exorcise it. It has been a meandering series of encounters with old ghosts and if it is as unsatisfactory as the series of posts that occasioned its existence, perhaps I’m not yet ready to account for the accusations that were held against it… But I’m trying…

I think often, today, about how my photographic work at university was, in my final years at least, colourful and vibrant. The darker tones of a gothic sensibility were resolutely repressed and put away for a while. Instead, I liked to photograph the weird, the ironic, the mismatched forms that aesthetically define our postmodernity, where consumer culture tries to recycle itself but still cannot fully account for its own image. (It too is fated to this same hall-of-funhouse-mirrors problem.) It’s a common encounter wherever we look. The photography used in your local takeaway is often the best example. Food never looks realistic when photographed. It never looks appetising. Who hasn’t experienced the disappointment of ordering a Big Mac and receiving some squalid imitation of the succulent beef burger that is advertised? Such is photography; all photography. Such is writing; all writing. Such is “I”‘; mine or yours.


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