I have a further controversial opinion to tag onto my previous post — a post which caused quite an entertaining debate in the XG Discord. The cynicism I directed towards My Chemical Romance was not shared by others in there… (See meme from @geekycoconut.)
This cynicism, however, is little more than an addendum to a hot take I’ve been nursing for some time now. Unfortunately, it seems to me that Americans are terrible at navigating cultural expressions of class and class struggle.
Nothing has epitomized this more absolutely for me recently than the bizarre adjacency of someone like Donald Glover, championed for his relatively recent turn towards an explicitly politicized cultural production, engaging in a deeply embarrassing love-in at the BAFTAs for Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Before I completely put my foot in my mouth, I want to stress that this isn’t some anti-American call-out post but just a few observations about our cultural schism — a schism that often seems to come from a lack of awareness regarding Britain’s national class anxieties and a tendency that even America’s most politicised entertainers have for reterritorialising our media class struggles when they import them to their own shores.
BAFTA is very well versed at this and, perhaps surprisingly, this is something of which I have first-hand experience.
Here’s a fun and previously undisclosed fact: I spent almost two years working at BAFTA in their exhibitions department from late 2017 to earlier this year. It was nice there but the majority of that office was Fleabag‘s target audience — outside the production department where I lived, it was lots of privately educated horsey girls. So it comes as no surprise to me that their LA office would throw a Britannia Award at Phoebe Waller-Bridge so soon into her career. It feels a bit like giving Obama the Nobel Peace Prize just for winning an election and without any foresight for the indiscriminate drone-bombing and neoliberal world order he would continue to perpetuate.
Without expressing too much hostility towards my former employer — I actually had a lot of fun working there although I did spend most of my contract in a deep depression — I mention this only to stress that there have been many embarrassing examples at home of our own cultural shortsightedness. So this is not a stone thrown ignorantly from a glass house. After all, who could have ever imagined, ten or twenty years ago, that, for example, the NME — the NME — would publish something as grotesque as this.
Nevertheless, there has also been a fairly vocal and classically British backlash against the outdated cultural elitism that Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s cultural dominance represents. She is, in a way, also like Freddie Mercury (as previously discussed). Edgy, maybe, for a posh lady, but she remains the embodiment of a cultural BBC ‘received pronunciation’ establishment that infected the minds of the population by declaring a “standard” in its own aural image.
Fleabag is a kind of cultural recuperation of this long fought against establishment, constituting nothing less than a reterritorialisation of poshness for the present era.
This is to say that, whilst there have been many previous attempts to dismantle this establishment through a slow-moving cultural deterritorialisation — the eradicating the BBC’s embargo on regional accents being the most noticeable inter-generational example — Fleabag nonetheless remains representative of the upper classes’ attempts to preserve their own relevance within our media.
Beyond the nostalgia of shows like The Crown, Fleabag tries to make the posh cool again by eschewing any previous Victorian propriety and instead being a bit more open about all the risky sex and drugs they can afford to do.
Aimee Cliff recently wrote an excellent article about all of this for huck, about what PWB represents for so many, including an insightful nod towards America’s tone-deaf expressions when it comes to class. She writes:
Phoebe Waller-Bridge doesn’t need to apologise for being posh. But she also doesn’t need to have a “struggle” story, nor does she need to represent Britain in its entirety, nor be “changing the narrative” for women, in order for Fleabag to be considered good. As she becomes an international success story, we should be questioning US media’s positioning of Waller-Bridge as an unlikely champion, and interrogating the use of her to ‘punch down’ in sketches about the working class. How Waller-Bridge is presented to the world shouldn’t be divorced from the reality of the creative industries in Britain right now — which is to say, we have an epidemic of poshness.
What Donald Glover’s speech championing PWB demonstrates, in line with all this, is how, time and again, Americans are even more susceptible to falling uncritically for British posh foppishness than we Brits are!
To be fair, Cliff’s article included, all of this speaks to a broad cultural awareness that has only really (re)emerged over the last two decades. The publication of Owen Jones’ book Chavs remains the major consciousness-raising moment to my mind, stoking a rejection of New Labour’s repudiation of the very existence of class struggle and almost single-handedly culling the word “chav” from what was then widespread pop-cultural usage.
This has, very noticeably, not carried over the pond, however. (I’ll always remember the out-of-touch NYT review of Jones’ book beginning with this weird view of its opening scene, as if Jones is some member of the European literati, reimagining Madame Bovary for the 21st century.)
I can’t claim to be any expert on America’s class structure but its bloated middle is seemingly unique to the Anglophone world and has much to do with the pervasiveness of this sort of tone-deaf response to the class struggles of others. Indeed, having spent a lot of time with Americans who have moved to the UK (usually to study), their encounters with Britain’s class structure are always eye-opening if not utterly mind-boggling. They don’t know how to deal with it — and will reluctantly admit to this when pushed on it, usually a few months into their residence.
This is surprisingly true of Europeans as well — I remember having a frank conversation about class with a German friend of mine recently and I was surprised, considering our cultural similarities, when they too admitted that they found Britain’s particular class structure a difficult thing to navigate — but it is America, most damningly, that represents the recoding of the European bourgeoisie on the world stage, representing to so many over here the ultimate success of an “I don’t see class” approach to life, diluted by the American dream as a capitalist commandment passed down from God and the State.
Perhaps this is because they have enough on their plate already. The British public lacks a relative understanding of racialised experiences in much the same way. But, in this corner of the internet, with its often hard-line Marxism, these class discrepancies are often far more egregious. In fact, I think it is interesting how many Americans conflate the Anglophonic internet to something resembling their own cultural image and will Yank-splain accordingly.
This is something I’ve noticed as being prevalent even among Acc Twitter’s supporters and detractors and I was reminded of this the other day whilst reading a blogpost from Totalitarian Collectivist that contains a few half-way self-deprecating jabs at what are supposedly the accelerationist aesthetics of an NYC Nike store. The weird (and notably working class) Englishness of Burial and Lee Gamble collides with smog, anime and video games collides with bombastic American consumerism. The music’s cultural context is explicitly removed in a way that I can’t imagine happening here.
It’s a really lucid expression of a contemporary anxiety and a great post, capturing the Catch-22 of criticising capitalism through its predominant aesthetic forms and communicative channels. And yet the experience described is completely alien to me. I recognise none of it.
The conflation of disparate cultural signifiers from here and there is, to my mind, an acutely American phenomenon. Although it’s not entirely unfamiliar. The internet, in particular, seems like a black mirror monstrosity of pseudo-American corporatism, and the effects of this are most resonant in the post’s conclusion:
Radical politics for creatures like myself (and probably you as well, if you’re bothering with a wordpress blog) is experienced as the rightful rage/despair/shame/hatred and then immediately mediated through online communication until it reaches its logical end as the ultimate combination of curatorial art/identiy creation and consumerism: the amazon wishlist.
It’s the fraught complicity of Jodi Dean’s “communicative capitalism” writ large but there is nonetheless something amiss in their otherwise lucid description of capitalism’s aesthetic melting pot and I think it is a lack of self-awareness around how this pot is an explicitly American export.
This is most visible here in the UK when we consider the fetishism with which America’s glossy clinical aesthetics are treated by the British televisual tabloid media. Morning news programmes, once appropriately shabby and innocuous, mirroring the pre-coffee malaise of the average British living room — or, perhaps more accurately, dentist waiting room — have been transformed into aggressively glossy American-esque talk shows in recent years. And it is wholly unnatural, jarring with the national aesthetic that Mark Fisher described as “boring dystopia”.
(I’ve talked about this a little bit before, in a post that is actually very relevant — in sentiment at least — to this one…)
This overlay of gloss has only happened over the last decade or so and it is bizarrely Piers Morgan who has led the way. The Brit who absconded from the UK following the hostility he faced over the phone hacking scandal, who made his name anew in the US, slotting far more easily into their aggro news cycles, and then attempting to bring that attitude back with him when he arrived on our shores like a prodigal son returned that we all rather wish we’d had aborted.
In this sense, Morgan represents the lowest rung of UK/US bourgeois collaboration. The triumvirate of Trump-Farage-Boris is a little further up the ladder. Together, they epitomise a cross-pollination of sensibilities that we, over here in the UK, see explicitly as a US style of self-representation. They are a series of square pegs in our cultural round holes. We recognise them and their habits but they don’t necessarily fit with our own worldview. It is a novel export that hasn’t been culturally ingratiated into the collective consciousness, like sickly American cereal or private health care.
Nevertheless, the post does take (tentative) aim at British culture in this regard and questions the UK’s apparent political nostalgia in terms that are supposedly comparable to American electioneering:
The current UK leftist (or twitter leftist, I have no clue what it’s like there beyond what I see online) obsession with utopian imaginaries and paths not taken are a part of this retro-futuristic aesthetic cultivation. Raves and the miner’s strike, science fiction and critical theory were woven together in Fisher’s writing in a way that is another kind of propaganda, though one far more appealing than the edgelord brutalism of the cybertruck or the crude casino-Fordism offered by MAGA.
This is surely only propaganda to the uninitiated? Raves and the miner’s strike are “retro-futuristic” only by their nature as cultural life rafts for the British working class, necessary for anyone under the age of 30 to deal with. It is less nostalgia and more a form of “post-memory”. These images remain pop-culturally resonant because we continue to live palpably in their aftermath and would do so without the very real electioneering surrounding the Corbyn Continuum. Indeed, Corbyn is just a symptom of a national cognitive dissonance.
Films like Billy Elliot or The Full Monty or Pride demonstrate this pop-cultural continuum whereby the trauma of the miners’ strike and its adjacent cultural deviations remain a strong part of the national consciousness. They represent a tendency that has been doggedly preserved against all the odds. Whether pop- or subcultural, these media examples speak to a form of working class experience where populations still palpably live in the aftermath of these socioeconomic traumas, and where communities have long held onto an often unarticulated sensibility of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque as a result of these poorly sutured wounds.
The present “radicalisation” of the Labour Party, in this sense, can be read as a result of that post-chav reevaluation of who we are as a nation. Corbyn deconstructed the veneer of neoliberal propriety — at least enough to scare the establishment — and forced the media establishment to begin broadcasting a disenfranchisement that has never really gone away.
To live on the corpse of former industries is perhaps something that is instead compartmentalised within the American psyche to the maligned lumpenproletariat of Appalachia or inner city Blackness, as in Detroit, itself the birthplace of a strong working class (now retro-?)futurist counter-culture.
In Britain, perhaps due only to our relatively diminished size, there is no space for such compartmentalisation. The North is still defined — aesthetically, we might say — by dead industries; by rotten harbours, mills, and factories. It is these spaces that are reclaimed and repurposed for their rave potentials, even today. It is not propaganda but part of the material fabric of a society that an establishment continues to try and repress.
All this is to say that, whilst Totalitarian Collectivist‘s vision may make sense for someone on the other side of the pond, from here the conflation of all these things together feels exemplary of American pop culture’s particularly one-dimensional nature — something the country has nonetheless tried to export, somewhat successfully.
Ironically, it is this that is described as some sort of accelerationist problem. They later quote from an article by Toby Shorin called “Haute Baroque Capitalism” which lays this problem strangely at accelerationism’s feet.
I don’t find this strange in that familiar form of “that’s not ‘actually existing accelerationism’ actually” but rather that it seems to encapsulate another explicitly American version of this phenomenon. America’s Accelerationist vision does not coincide with that of its European cousins or elsewhere in the world — and this is as true of the violent alt-right as it is of the reductive new left — because it is America, above all other nations, that attempts to reduce everything to glossy spectacle.
(Indeed, isn’t the main issue with the Tale of Two Accelerationisms a war between a European and an American variety? The latter doesn’t seem to be a part of our sub-political discourse at all.)
Shorin begins by describing the new baroque grotesqueness of Trump-style property development in these terms, as well as the art-historical vomit of various skyscraper projects supposedly being proposed or in development, going on to reference an article by Gean Moreno that connects this to an unfamiliar accelerationist discourse:
Moreno looks at the lasting popularity of the so-called “grey goo” problem, an imagined scenario in which self-replicating, biovorous nanobots consume the world, leaving behind nothing but a gray sludge of nano-material. He notes that the nanobots are evocative of another non-human entity: capitalism as an “Alien monstrosity, an insatiable Thing that appropriates the energy of everything it touches and, in the process, propels the world toward the inorganic.”
Something clicked when I read this. The pure expression of capital was exactly what I had been thinking about, but unlike Moreno’s “slimed and dead world” I was noticing the twisting forms of MFGA [Mark Foster Gage Architects], the “encrusted” capital inside Trump’s offices, and the seemingly self-powered explosion of 9 Dekalb Ave out of the Dime Savings Bank. Accepted as a creative point of origin, it turns out that capitalism still subsumes everything. But it does so by blossoming into evermore absurd stylistic forms, intricate angel sculptures, and shimmering copper cluster columns.
It’s the sort of analysis that begs a history lesson — for Moreno if not Shorin. The analysis itself isn’t new in the slightest and, in fact, can be found — where else? — in the arguably proto-left-accelerationist writings of Felix Guattari, who writes in his book Three Ecologies about the way in which this goo reaches its zenith in American society, and he expounds at length on the contentions that Moreno, Shorin and others supposedly have about the superficiality of cultural production and aesthetic theory in relation to material praxes. He writes:
Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally’. Just as monstrous and mutant algae invade the lagoon of Venice, so our television screens are populated, saturated, by ‘degenerate’ images and statements [énoncés]. In the field of social ecology, men like Donald Trump are permitted to proliferate freely, like another species of algae, taking over entire districts of New York and Atlantic City; he ‘redevelops’ by raising rents, thereby driving out tens of thousands of poor families, most of whom are condemned to homelessness, becoming the equivalent of the dead fish of environmental ecology. Further proliferation is evident in the savage deterritorialization of the Third World, which simultaneously affects the cultural texture of its populations, its habitat, its immune systems, climate, etc. Child labour is another disaster of social ecology; it has actually become more prevalent now than it was in the nineteenth century! How do we regain control of such an auto-destructive and potentially catastrophic situation? International organisations have only the most tenuous control of these phenomena which call for a fundamental change in attitudes. International solidarity, once the primary concern of trade unions and leftist parties, is now the sole responsibility of humanitarian organisations. Although Marx’s own writings still have great value, Marxist discourse has lost its value. It is up to the protagonists of social liberation to remodel the theoretical references so as to illuminate a possible escape route out of contemporary history, which is more nightmarish than ever. It is not only species that are becoming extinct but also the words, phrases, and gestures of human solidarity. A stifling cloak of silence has been thrown over the emancipatory struggles of women, and of the new proletariat: the unemployed, the ‘marginalized’, immigrants.
It is this which both confirms and reevaluates the accelerationist disavowal put forward by Shorin that “most arguments for accelerationism rely not on reason but on compelling visual metaphors.” Guattari’s ecological thinking explains why.
I wouldn’t limit this disavowal to the visual, personally, but I absolutely see the value in inventing new forms of metaphor for collective solidarity and the workings of an increasingly para-organic (or at least non-anthropocentric) world. (Totalitarian Collectivist does this too, of course, in their bug communist writings.) For Guattari specifically, he imagines a world in which institutionalised forms — for him, most specifically, the apparatuses of Freudian psychoanalysis — “must be played with, rather than cultivated and tended like an ornamental garden!” This sort of praxis is far more familiar to a British cultural sensibility, I think. But of course, I’m biased. America, instead, has a reputation for treating the rest of the world like its own ornamental garden.
No wonder those over the pond have such little faith in calls for cultural subversion and reinvention. On their home soil, this takes the form of an EPCOT cultural imperialism that bastardises everything it touches. But just because it is bastardised in the US does not make its bastardisation so widespread elsewhere. Thankfully, though America’s influence on the world is second to none, many nations have nonetheless resisted its less palatable day-to-day cultural norms. This is to say that, in my experience, America’s own lack of cultural potentials and its capitalist recoding of the cultural potentials of others do not translate well when brought back home to the UK. They appear as bloated and hollow as everything else that defines the nation’s particular brand of “haute baroque capitalism”. Their treatment of Burial — and the history of rave culture more generally — is unrecognisable to us over here because they have radically transformed — or otherwise ignored — the material realities from which those sounds emerged.
With all this in mind, it is unsurprising that the “baroque sunbursts” brand of accelerationist discourse has far more traction outside of the US than inside it. Its American detractors do not seem to know any different than what they have been lumped with and so tar all other discourses with the same brush. Thankfully, their situation does not resonate with the material fabric of our realities abroad and so we continue unabated.
I’m not going to patronise — any further — regarding a necessity to unpick why it’s probably best the Americans consider themselves more closely, paying particular to the specificity of American grey goo, and its particular success at dissolving cultural solidarity. It is a goo that absorbs everything, yes — like capitalism, yes — but it also absorbs the Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s of this world with a distinct lack of criticality that is, they would do well to observe, far more prevalent at the source.
In some strange inversion of the Boston tea party, today we’re very vigilant about what the USA’s elites try to export to us. We might have a better chance of building solidarity if the US were as vigilant in this regard too.
Loved reading this. have some thoughts on what you said I’ll probably respond to in blog form very soon.
Looking forward to it! 🙏