As the bells ring out for Brexit, I’m currently in Berlin with only one question on my mind…
Keeping one foot in the world of freelance photography often leads to some interesting jobs. Over two nights last week, for example, I was orbiting Heathrow assisting on a light pollution survey.
I had anticipated the adventure to feel quite Ballardian and it didn’t disappoint.
Each day would begin in the twilight zone — quite literally. From 5.30pm onwards, our team would drive from view to view, taking long-exposure photographs and measuring the ambient light in locations from Windsor to Woking, all in orbit of Heathrow airport.
We never got too close to the airport itself. We would repeatedly slingshot around it, heading to some forgotten corner of the local area, but always with the screams of night flights passing low overhead. The sound was constant and bone-rattling but still you found yourself getting used to it.
Many of the locations were surreal. They were often rural, off the beaten track. The haunts of night fishermen and doggers, poachers and dodgy dealers, like spirits guarding the egresses between airport boundary and wilderness.
The whole trip was like a strange inversion of Concrete Island, or perhaps something more like an excursion through a concrete archipelago. We combed the outer edgelands of successive nighttime voids — bridges, roundabouts, bridleways — measuring light that was barely there or there in absurd abundance. (Sodium street lights were dwindling in numbers and the new style LED ones give off daytime light readings.) Black holes and white holes and night flights between the two.
After the jump, you can find a selection of photographs taken over the two nights.
Many people around this part of the internet will already be familiar with Isabel Fall’s amazing short short “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” — available here via the Wayback Machine because it was, tragically and maddeningly, taken down.
On the off chance you missed it and all the drama that surrounded it, Gretchen Felker-Martin has penned an excellent summary of the events that led up to its removal from the web alongside a short reflection on the (an)ethical nature of transgressive literature, its importance, and why the reaction to “Attack Helicopter” paints a picture of seemingly progressive circles that is deeply unflattering, emboldening the right-wing view of leftism as a new fascism due to the formal-aesthetic conservatism that exists at its popular core.
This, however, is one of the rare instances where this accusation comes convincingly from within, and demands a long overdue reckoning.
As Felker-Martin writes:
The violent and oftentimes ironically ignorant backlash against Fall’s story sheds light on a troublingly regressive, entitled, and puritanical trend in the relationship between artists and their audiences, particularly when it comes to genre fiction. Readers appear to feel a need to cast their objections to fiction in moral terms, positioning themselves as protectors of the downtrodden. Trans writer Phoebe Barton went so far as to compare Fall’s story to a “gun” which could be used only to inflict harm, though in a later tweet she, like Jemisin, admitted she hadn’t read it and had based her reaction solely on its title.
Many reactions to Fall’s story, for all that they come from nominal progressives, fit neatly into a Puritanical mold, attacking it as hateful toward transness, fundamentally evil for depicting a trans person committing murder, or else as material that right-wing trolls could potentially use to smear trans people as ridiculous. Each analysis positioned the author as at best thoughtless and at worst hateful, while her attackers are cast as righteous; in such a way of thinking, art is not a sensual or aesthetic experience but a strictly moral one, its every instance either fundamentally good or evil. This provides aggrieved parties an opportunity to feel righteousness in attacking transgressive art, positioning themselves as protectors of imagined innocents or of ideals under attack.
That someone reacts with hurt to art doesn’t make that art dangerous, and claiming that all art that’s capable of causing pain is inherently toxic is a solipsistic nightmare in which a reader’s personal experience becomes an act of violence committed against them by an author whom they likely do not know. It’s a reflexive model of critique, a rejection of evaluating art on its own merits. In a way it takes the place of criticism entirely, ignoring aesthetic concerns in favor of moral ones. Perhaps in that emotional reaction is some trace of readers reliving their own trauma and, casting the artist in the role of an attack or abuser, reimagining it as a scenario in which they can stop that violation from happening. It’s a poignant thought — who among us wouldn’t want to protect our younger selves, or hypothetical children who remind us of ourselves, from life’s nettles and pitfalls? It also locks us in memories of our own pain and reduces art to something strictly individual, cutting away its ability to let us experience the lives and dreams of people we’ll never know.
Stories like “Attack Helicopter” are vital to unpacking the webs of intersecting forces which make up every human consciousness. They constitute an outlet for the suffering of marginalized artists raised in bigoted, imperialist cultures, a way to process the poison we’re spoon-fed from birth into something that awakens and lays bare. Calls for the destruction or censorship of such stories constitute a rejection of life’s intrinsic complexity, a retreat into the black and white moral absolutism of adolescence, or theocracy. These rigid moral strictures strip marginalized communities of their full humanity and of their history as makers of painful, difficult art stemming from their experiences as outsiders. They rob audiences of the space and tools necessary to engage art thoughtfully and in good faith. They make our world a poorer, harsher place, clannish and merciless, and smother beauty in its cradle.
I think this article is excellent, not only for its unpicking of how and why “Attack Helicopter” unfairly ended up in the trash but also for its brief but potent exploration of how transgender discourses, in some corners of the internet, are doing far more damage to the experiences they say they want to protect from harm in sharing a moralising hair-trigger when it comes to transgressive art, even when it is produced from within their own comunity.
Now, obviously I write a fair amount about trans* experiences on this blog — undoubtedly a suspicious amount for someone who is cis — but what I respect and admire in the proliferation of trans* discourses online, particularly in this part of the internet, adjacent to xenofeminist conversations, is the openness and frankness regarding experiences of embodied displacement that I only wish was more commonplace in the wider world.
I’ve written previously about my relationship to trans discourses in this regard, particularly related to research I started into the documented overlap between post-adoption and transgender experiences. However, more generally speaking, the importance of articulating such displacements for me is that I think a widespread acceptance of our patchwork selves will lead to a far healthier social sphere for all to engage in. The difficulty is that it requires a radical attack on identitarianism from both the right and the left. It requires an adaptive and perpetually unsettling transgression.
This is something that I think Felker-Martin implicitly affirms her article and I wanted to add something as to why I think this story in particular is an excellent example of a radical aesthetics and politics in action simultaneously, the reactions to which perfectly demonstrate how the popular left is in constant danger of cutting off its nose despite its face.
This is explicitly relevant to transgressive literature. Indeed, transgressive literature often finds itself attacked from all sides, precisely because it is so often coupled with a deeply ethical agenda that seeks to demonstrate how inner experience finds itself perpetually displaced within an often monolithic and moralistic sociopolitical right-left culture.
The question becomes: How can we allow marginalised literature like “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter” to flourish? And: How might we do so in a way that combats left and right identitarianism wherever it emerges?
In thinking about an answer to these questions I was reminded of that scene in American Beauty where the bullying military Dad, Frank “the Colonel”, who expresses a murderous rage whenever someone brings up “the faggots”, ends up supposedly revealing himself to be a closeted homosexual.
It’s a familiar trope — and a tired one at that — but it’s also a demonstration of a tendency that you will see all the time in your daily life once you know what to look for, and especially if you have ever found yourself on the receiving end of a sociocultural rejection for not fitting into your prescribed gender role well enough, becoming an ironic outlet for other’s insecurities. (Odd memories resurfacing here from my high school years of being inappropriately touched by the lads to demonstrate my effeminate self.)
This abusive relationship to queerness (or perceptions of queerness) is revealing, however, for the ways that queerness is understood socially, even by those who would discriminate against it.
This scene in American Beauty demonstrates this effectively. On the whole, it is one of those films — like Fight Club, notably released the same year — that is a wholesale attack on a deeply American and violently holistic sense of self — of the gendered variety in particular — that is all too often interpreted as a defense of its opposite. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Lester Fitts, like Brad Pitt’s / Edward Norton’s of Tyler Duerden in Fight Club, seems to many to be representative of a warped American individualism where the patriarch is at his strongest when he gives in to his personal desires and embraces what we’ll call here his “Integer Self” — an unmistakably phallic sense of being that sees itself as being complete in itself: a monolith in a social milieu of performative relations and a rejection of what R.D. Laing most famously called the “divided self”. You notice that you are divided, ergo you must pick a side — the radical option being the transgressive road less traveled; the side you hide from the wider world.
This is a bad reading.
As the scene with the Colonel’s kiss makes particularly clear, Spacey’s power (and Pitt’s / Norton’s tandem power in Fight Club — although it is cynically reflected inwards rather than outwards) emerges from the discovery of a newly machinic and schizophrenic sense of self. It is not that they stand alone — it is that they are newly capable of entering into previously closed-off connections; connections not officially sanctioned by the Big Other. (To borrow from Sadie Plant, we can argue they turn from a 1 into a 0.)
Fight Club is full of these moments but the distinct (visual) separation between Pitt and Norton’s characters allows for an audience compartmentalisation that scaffolds a big narrative twist at the end but downplays the power of the schizoid relations they are tapping into (especially on first viewing; on second, it’s just obvious and embarrassing). American Beauty is better at this. In his encounter with the Colonel — to stick with the example — Fitts’ moral indifference towards his wife’s apparent infidelity is nonetheless coupled with a broader social compassion that disarms the Colonel, who is struggling to maintain his grip on his viciously maintained masculinity. Lester’s honesty about his own failings as a man who can’t satisfy his wife encourages the Colonel to embrace his own insecurities and lean in for a kiss.
By comparison, Fight Club‘s schizoid narcissism is cringe as fuck. Whereas Fight Club would split these relations between imagined and divided selves, here Spacey embodies the complex relation between self and other as a personable openness, and demonstrates the social affect of one becoming multiple.
As a result, in American Beauty, it is not enough to simply accused the Colonel of being a closeted homosexual. What must be recognised is his stereotypically American and holistic approach to the self — the stringent belief in “The USA” over the unconscious unruliness of the frontier; the adamance in the pursuits of the modern settled protectionist individual over a transgressively nomadic ancestral past. The Colonel, seemingly in the midst of a breakdown as his selves threaten to erupt onto the surface, tests another self out on Lester — a self he can then reject (kill) by murdering the screen onto which he has projected it. Bye-bye, Lester.
(Lester, in turn, has a mirrored experience where he nearly has sex with his teenage daughter’s best friend, Angela, who he has lusted over uncomfortably throughout the film but instead stops himself, discovering that she too has been playing the role of someone she is not — the sexually experienced cheerleader is, in fact, an insecure virgin. Instead, he parks his lust and ends up having an unprecedentedly compassionate conversation with her.)
This is to say that Fitts is the open embodiment of everything that Fight Club spends an entire movie trying to accept within its narratively enclosed self — for all Lester’s flaws, and he has many, at the end of the film he seems to have entered a zen state of effortless compassion where he can disarm and connect emotionally with everyone. That is his power — something he achieves through willful non-conformity and transgressive behaviour.
In Lester’s reflection, the Colonel demonstrates how hatred of difference emerges from such an understanding of yourself as enclosed and fully formed; finished; final. This is why the Colonel seems so keen to send his wistful son (who has given himself over to life’s flows, infamously, like a plastic bag in the wind) to military school: so he can tie off his loose ends. Military discipline, then, is framed as a sort of psychological finishing school. It is the same pathological protectionism behind everything from pro-life anti-abortionists to imperialist foreign policy. It is an ideology that believes in the individual, the whole, uber alles.
(Donald Trump’s “historic” appearance at the March for Life is a perfect example of this derangement as it manifests in real life: a raging and impenetrable ego fighting for the right of the individual unborn child, demonstrating a classic conservative worldview that is paradoxically incapable of thinking about anything that is not an integer, whether that is the nation, the family, the self or the fetus. For them, “the entire world” is not — as Gilles Deleuze proclaimed — “an egg” but a Matryoshka doll.)
Fall’s short story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, is a work of genius because it injects an atomistic radicality back into a holistic right-wing meme that, in itself, betrays an ignorance of this transgressive relation within the group from which the phrase originally emerged. Identifying as an attack helicopter is supposed to be funny, for the transphobic right, because it hopes to point out that identifying as something so holistically Other is really dumb. (And they’d be right — it’s quite the self-own.) You cannot identify as an attack helicopter because you are not that machine, which is to say, through a gendered jingoism, you cannot say you are something when you don’t have — and apologies for the euphemism here, but it is surely what is implied — “all the necessary parts”.
And yet, to be transgender is nonetheless to affirm that very position. It is not the primacy of the whole over the sum of its parts but the affirmation of one’s self as a collection of parts that connects into a wider machinic milieu. It transforms the attack helicopter as right-wing machine of war into a DeleuzoGuattarian affirmation of the nomadic war-machine; an affirmation of the instrument that skirts the edge of an overtly defended territory.
It was Deleuze and Guattari’s point in A Thousand Plateaus that the State had appropriated the war machine in this regard. The military is a State appropriation of a warrior class that previously traveled and intersected with communal outsides. Warriors — like artists or the Gothic “journeymen” — are interfaces between worlds, traveling along and carving out lines of flight.
Isabel Fall dramatises this DeleuzoGuattarian argument exquisitely, describing how to sexually identify as an appropriated instrument of the military-industrial complex might allow someone to unearth the radical machinations within. It is like a retelling of Ghost in the Shell, where the realisation that one has become a weapon for state purposes leads to an anti-Oedipal excavation of the self in its original formlessness.
In Fall’s story, this is taken a step further, with the act of sexually identifying as an attack helicopter becoming a perfect metaphor for a radical politics that the right deploys as an insulting joke but which it unconsciously wishes it could nonetheless enact, like the Colonel leaning in for a kiss at the sight of that which it violently declares it is not. It is a transgressive transgendered transmilitarism brought forth within a supposedly harmful phrase to demonstrate its perverse acuity.
A militaristic understanding of the body as a machine is instead revealed to be a woeful misunderstanding of what the body can do. In searching for inputs, it may become an all too telling idea of that which it insists it is not. As Fall writes:
Look at a diagram of an attack helicopter’s airframe and components. Tell me how much of it you grasp at once.
Now look at a person near you, their clothes, their hair, their makeup and expression, the way they meet or avoid your eyes. Tell me which was richer with information about danger and capability. Tell me which was easier to access and interpret.
This is the ethical centre of transgressive literature and the encounters it so often dramatises. It is what I love so much about Georges Bataille. At the heart of each literary violence is a question of communication and compassion. To only see the violence is to shut down the text’s unfolding of itself, reaching out for other inputs. It is, as Maggie Nelson writes in The Art of Cruelty, an expression of the “right to reject the offered choices, to demur, to turn away, to turn one’s attention to rarer and better things.” It is com-passion — be that in conversation or in an orgy. It is to affirm one’s itinerant being. It is an understanding of the body as a vehicle for an adaptive way of life rather than as an oppressive temple you find yourself trapped in.
This is the ethico-political engine inherent to trans* discourses as well, and it must be preserved, alongside quests for social justice. The two are not incompatible. Bataille’s laughter before the void — his writing in the face of Nazism — is a powerful case in point (but not the only one). To demand the acceptance of another’s choices is not the same as demanding recognition from the Big Other. This is the disillusion captured by the response to Fall’s story. It is as radical and necessary a critique of the status quo as Andrea Long Chu’s excellent Females is. The utter commitment to a bit, even one with supposedly dangerous origins, demonstrates how even a joke made at one’s own expense can become an entry point for a radically machinic politics, where non-binary identity is not holistically understood as an identity in itself but as an opportunity to reject what Fall describes as “a private way of being”; an opportunity to machinise oneself; to become open access.
What we mustn’t do is deny such an opportunity and instead make transness, in whatever form, more palatable through a holistic understanding of a generalised experience.
To be trans, to be female, to be free, is to be a machine. Embrace it.
Side note: There is a great explanation of the DeleuzoGuattarian warmachine, particularly relevant in this context, online here:
As a non-disciplinary force, the nomadic war machine names an anarchic presence on the far horizon of the State’s field of order: nomadic warriors and herders who ground their being in an itinerant territoriality. Deleuze and Guattari immediately find value in the warrior because of the warrior’s alterity to the disciplined subject: “It is true that war kills, and hideously mutilates. But it is especially true after the State has appropriated the war machine. Above all, the State apparatus makes the mutilation, and even death, come first. It needs [its subjects] preaccomplished, for people to be born that way, crippled and zombie-like. The myth of the zombie, of the living dead, is a work myth and not a war myth….The State apparatus needs, at its summit as at its base, predisabled people, preexisting amputees, the still-born, the congenitally infirm” (ATP 425-26).
To be still-born, in this sense, is to be born completely incomplete. To be born with one’s purpose predetermined; to be born a slave. It is to say, the state needs poverty so it has a herd to pick recruits from. It needs bodies without options.
Why is Chelsea Manning more violently suppressed than Edward Snowden? Because she represents an attack helicopter gone rogue, reconnecting with a warrior spirit within her otherwise disciplined self. She is the machine the government don’t want you to see.
If you somehow haven’t already heard, my first book, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy & Mark Fisher, is out worldwide on March 10th, published by Repeater Books.
The day after its release, on March 11th, I’m insanely excited to announce that Repeater have organised a book launch as part of the ICA’s ‘Talks & Learning’ programme which will feature myself in conversation with Kodwo Eshun.
Much of the start of the book takes place in Kodwo’s kitchen and he was so important to us as we tried to make sense of Mark’s death, creating a space within his Geopoetics seminar for thinking with and through Mark’s work and death over the months that followed.
Wakes at Kodwo’s house turned into the Fisher-Function public lecture series and then later he gave the first annual Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture. (The photograph on the book’s cover features friends of mine walking home from Peckham following the first memorial lecture after party.) Now, two years later, I’m really looking forward to sharing this event with Kodwo to reflect on the two years the book documents and all that has gone on around us since.
Note: This event is ticketed. You can buy tickets over on the ICA’s website here.
The psychic excavation of my mother’s bookshelf continues…
I have always criminally underrated my Mum’s cultural tastes. She was a social worker and, although she was often very vocal about her unfulfilled dreams of being an English teacher, for a long time, and to my shame, I didn’t think of her as being very cultured at all. She liked poetry and crime novels and occasionally we bonded over the latter, but she didn’t like music. I didn’t get that. I found her coldness towards sounds unnerving. There was a fissure between us that grew out from that disconnection. By the time I was a teenager, and music was my life, we didn’t really get on very much at all, to the point that it nearly became “An Issue”.
She got my school involved at one point. I was the miserable and ungrateful teenager but she was the controlling and manipulative authority figure. Our visions of each other were extreme. The truth was probably more temperate but it wasn’t far from reality. There were moments where we’d joke about it, through glimpses of tragic self-awareness. It was a cruel fate, we’d laugh, to have teenage puberty and middle-age menopause overlap under the same rood. I’m surprised my Dad didn’t escape to a fallout shelter more regularly. We wasted too many years being mutually shit to each other.
She had a breakdown a few years ago, sometime after I’d left home, and now I don’t often go back to see her. The saddest and most noticeable change in her since this time is that she no longer reads or writes — two things she used to do daily. We went to Hull over Christmas and I noticed a change in her. The fact I’m publishing a book soon has led to something of a renewed connection between us, I think — at least on my side — and I’ve been doing the little that I can do affirm it to her.
I’ve been realising, slowly, over the last two or three years, how little credit I’ve given to her and her subtle influence on me growing up. It was influence by osmosis, more than anything, but I’ve come to appreciate that that is the best kind. It has manifest itself in the realisation that all of the writers I am currently obsessed with carry with them a deep association in my mind with her bookshelf.
There were two bookshelves in the house growing up. One in my parent’s bedroom and another in the living room. The latter was small and tucked to one side, directly next to the armchair in which she would always sit. One Christmas, around ’98 or so, her small annex in this room was gifted a small hi-fi with in-built radio, speakers and CD player. It was silver, with all the buttons and flaps a translucent blue. It was very “The Millennium”. She’d listen to BBC Radio 2 through it or sometimes Coldplay or Dido’s Life for Rent or those free compilation CDs that came with the Mail on Sunday.
I made use of this hi-fi on occasion as well. I used to sneak downstairs to it, very early on a Saturday morning, playing the few CD singles that I had and which I couldn’t safely listen to at any other time of day. Eminem’s “My Name Is”. Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’”. Slipknot’s “Left Behind”. With the volume down low and my ear so close to the speaker, my eyes could see very little else from this vantage point except the spines of the books on her little shelf.
I can picture that bookshelf in my mind with an almost perfect clarity. It was where she kept her “classics” alongside the occasional Wainwright Walker’s guidebook or crossword puzzles. As a result, the three authors that appeared there the most, and with whom I associate with my Mum most clearly, are: Daphne Du Maurier, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. (She also loved the Brontës but, having studied Wuthering Heights at high school, I felt I had ownership of my own appreciation of Emily at least.)
Daphne Du Maurier was already quite prominent in my mind during childhood. We’d go and see adaptations of Rebecca whenever the opportunity arose — I remember at least two stage adaptations — and I remember on one family holiday to Cornwall she insisted we go and see her house at Cowey and the famous Jamaica Inn.
I never investigated Du Maurier for myself until about eighteen months ago. On my first trip to Cornwall to stay at Urbanomic HQ with Robin, the memories came rushing back to me and I read her short stories. Robin read them too and I’ll never forget that joint revelation. “She’s like H.P. Lovecraft if he wasn’t so afraid of sex”, was Robin’s review, and this new appreciation of a writer who had, for me, been so fatally associated with the parental led to me putting a few other literary preconceptions to one side.
Since then, I’ve made my way through the works of Virginia Woolf and found within her writing a similar resonance with my adult interests. H.P. Lovecraft she is not but I have found her fast-and-loose approach to subjectivity almost accelerationist in its wilful dissolution of time into space.
There is a post about Woolf’s proto-accelerationism in me somewhere but, before I was able to turn my notes into something bloggable, I have now found myself wrapped up in the works of D.H. Lawrence.
Lawrence was already a subtle influence on my patchwork writings and his “Studies in American Literature” is cited in Egress. Deleuze’s subtle obsession with him caught me by surprise and now, writing his works with Deleuze in mind, it is hard to ignore him. It is also surprising, to some extent, that Deleuze has had no effect on rescuing his maligned reputation as an unsubtle soft pornographer.
I began my adventure with Son & Lovers and found its Oedipal associations very intriguing. Then, reading his book on psychoanalysis was enough to wash away my preconceptions entirely. I do not know this man, I thought — and, in an odd way, it feels like very few do.
John Worthen’s biography is a fascinating account of his life but searching for less weighty material to listen to online, on YouTube for instance, I found nothing much worth my time at all. This might be unsurprising to some, perhaps, but considering how much I’ve consumed about Virginia Woolf on YouTube in recent months, it was a shock to find nothing but an unlistenable episode of the BBC’s Culture Show, a few dry lectures, a few crappy book blog reviews and a few Conservative pundits who seem to routinely miss the point completely.
What has shocked me in Lawrence’s writing so far is not the sexy bits of prose or his overuse of a flowery metaphor but just how thickly he lays on the politics. In fact, having watched both the 2015 BBC adaptation and 1981 film of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on Netflix recently, it’s shocking to me just how empty they are compared to his prose.
Lawrence isn’t the spinner of period yarns that he’s made out to be but a (sorry, but it feels appropriate) xenogothic explorer of fin-de-siècle body horror. This is most explicit in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I feel, where the war-broken body of Sir Clifford the Cripple is contrasted so acutely against the powerful and seductive body of Mellors the working man. Rather than bodies being broken in the mines, it is the broken spirit of the landed gentry that haunts the book. Not with any melancholy, though. They no longer “fit into” the modern world. They might control the means of production but they are impotent bourgeoisie who are no match for the virulent working man. (Nowhere is this made more clear than in the central scene — notably preserved in most adaptations that otherwise leave so much out — where Clifford’s motorised wheelchair breaks down in the woods: Mellors’ domain.)
Lady Chatterley herself becomes a cog in a class machine but in a surprisingly empowered sense. As proud as she may be of her individual achievement — marrying rich and establishing herself within his class — she is all too ready to throw it all away so that she might enter into social and sexual relations with her fellow human beings. Here, Lawrence’s late-life communism shines through and it is notably not the communism of the Soviet state but rather a wholly libidinal immersion in the machinations of the social. It is powerful and, yes, it’s also pretty hot. Deleuze knew this well, it seems to me, but few who take on his material seem to see the same libidinal horrors that Deleuze and Guattari wove into Capitalism & Schizophrenia.
Tonight, as I lie in bed thinking about why this has so far been the case, I have been left with an acute desire to see an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover made by David Cronenberg. As absurd as it may sound at first, try reading the book with that in mind. I imagine it would be the best adaptation of Lawrence yet.
The view from another Gruppo di Nunhead outing, as seen from the top of the hill by the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.
It’s very beautiful from up there, although I did find myself thinking that the Canary Wharf skyscrapers, as seen from the doorstep of the Headquarters of Time, over the roof of Queen’s House, might make this spot the most quintessentially NRx view in the city…
I’m very excited to be heading to Berlin next week for this year’s CTM Festival. I’ll be taking part in “On k-punk: Egress and the Fisher-Function”, a panel discussion about Mark’s work and my forthcoming book on his legacy.
If you’re going to be at CTM this year too, do come and say hi. I’m only in town for one night but I have every intention of spending it in the Panorama Bar and having a big ol’ Berlin knees-up.
Mark Leckey has uploaded his killer set from for k-punk 2020 to his Soundcloud page. It was an insane journey and one that set the atmosphere for the rest of the night perfectly.
I liked this tweet from @body_drift a lot. I won’t forget his face on the night either. Total mind-blown moment.
It’s great to be able to relive it. (We may have recordings of the rest of the night available to listen to / watch soon as well… Watch this space…)
Check out Leckey’s set below:
I was sent an email the other day, after expressing some of my own amusement regarding Graham Harman’s recent placement of his foot in his own mouth, asking what my thoughts are on speculative realism and object-oriented ontology.
The person who sent the question, coming from an arts background, confessed a certain bias towards being interested in Harman’s work and the work of those around him, and wondered what my opinion was on the whole thing.
As is a habit of mine, once I’d pinged off a reply, it felt like good blog fodder, so here we are with a director’s cut of said reply.
First of all, I should say that I can relate to this inherent interest in the field that Harman is associated with — let’s call it anti-correlationism. This emerged for me from an innocent initial interest in phenomenology.
This was my way into philosophy proper, as I suspect it is for a lot of wannabe artists. Phenomenology is a field of philosophy that can be applied to almost any artistic practice very easily, asking many of the questions artists no doubt ask themselves on a regular basis:
What is it to be in the world? What is it to have a complex relationship with materials — haptic, aesthetic, emotional, physical — and try to understand why, as a species, we create so often as we do? What is the relationship between cognitive processes and artistic processes? What is it to be skilled in the act of mediating this world we live in?
When I was an arts student, these were the questions I specifically made work about. I was a photographer who made work about (the act and experience of) photography.
I was quite militant in what I wanted to express, hoping (but failing) to remove any space for misunderstanding. Any separation between thinking and being had to be dismantled in any expression of what I did as an artistic practice. Looking, listening, feeling, thinking happened simultaneously and without hierarchy. The central concern of my undergraduate degree, as a result, was related to how we can reveal the aesthetic act of making pictures within the privileged act of looking at the results. (Here, perhaps, we can already see how anti-correlationism is well suited to art world fawning.)
I tried to demonstrate this experience repeatedly over the three years I was studying photography, each time with more clarity, asking: How do I translate what is, to me, an embodied and multi-sensory experience into the experience of looking at a print on a wall or in a book? However, despite this, it was only after I’d finished my undergraduate degree that I discovered phenomenology and went, “Oh for fuck’s sake, you mean there’s a whole theoretical canon out there that’s already articulated what I’m thinking?”
I wasn’t completely ignorant — I’d written part of my undergraduate dissertation against Roland Barthes’ phenomenological romanticism in Camera Lucida, preferring the cold materialism of Bataille’s Tears of Eros, but — believe it or not — I’d entered this phenomenal swamp without ever having heard of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty or Deleuze. And I only had name recognition for Kant and Sartre but I didn’t know anything about any of their ideas whatsoever.
What interested me then was nonetheless something I’d find echoed in more contemporary debates within phenomenology and New Materialism. I liked, for instance, an argument made by James Elkins in his book What Photography Is regarding the photograph of “Little Ernest” that Barthes is so disturbed by in his book. Whereas Barthes wonders about the fate of the subject of the photograph, Elkins wonders why Barthes wasn’t at all interested in the fate of the photograph itself. His fixation on its subject matter is contrasted by an absence of an analysis of the marks and scrapes that appear on the image as an object in its own right. Surely these materialist questions are just as interesting, just as important and just as unanswerable? What puzzled Elkins was how, in writing a book on photography, Barthes allowed the photograph as object to withdraw from the experience of looking so easily.
This argument isn’t done to inaugurated an object-oriented photography, however. It is deployed to reveal how superficial and romantic Barthes’ philosophy of photography — in that text at least — is, as well as how ignorant he is his own pathologies, so legible on the surface of the text. Elkins’ argument is that Barthes forgot the insights of his own philosophy in that moment — the studium and punctum of Barthes’ melancholic readings are nonexistent and Camera Lucida is all the lesser for it. Elkins, instead, rewrites Barthes’ book for the 21st century cold rationalist, imbuing his photographic theory with a psychedelic reason and a weird realism that I found, in 2012 and 2013, to be electric.
Once I had graduated and become more aware of the great big gaping gaps in my knowledge regarding phenomenology, despite this enthusiastic first dip into the pool, and having had no luck whatsoever in understanding Deleuze’s Francis Bacon — the first book of his I bought after finishing my degree — the first book of philosophy I decided to read properly was Heidegger’s Being & Time — alongside recordings of a course run by Herbert Dreyfus accessible on archive.org.
What Heidegger writes about in the first sections of the book — how we relate to the tools and objects around us — is something which I found inherently interesting as a arts graduate. I was interested in the way that, for instance, as a “skilled” photographer, the camera as a tool disappears. It too becomes “withdrawn”, as Heidegger would say, from conscious experience and is no longer an “object” but a sort of subject-extension. When you’re skilled with a tool, after a period of learning and apprenticeship, muscle memory eventually kicks in, and for Heidegger an analysis of this fundamental process, where thinking and being dissolve into one another, offered a fundamental insight into human consciousness.
This is, in a rudimentary sort of way, where Heidegger begins and then gets a lot more complicated. Suffice it to say, I think his work and phenomenology as a field more generally offers an insight into how we build worlds around ourselves and inhabit them. It’s phenomenology at its most fundamental and it’s interesting for artists especially to think about. Indeed, I think it is worth anyone’s time to become familiar with these works of philosophy that illuminate subject-object relations and reveal their precarity to us.
It seems to be Harman’s project to do this also, by reversing the polarity of Heidegger’s argument into an ontological dead-end. Rather than privileging the subject position, he says, “Well, how does the object feel in this encounter? What is the object’s experience?”
Since Kant we’ve looked at the world in this way and found a certain horror in this question. The thing-in-itself — the object outside of our experience of it — is so absolutely unknowable to us but our awareness of that unknowability is provocative in itself. H.P. Lovecraft is often discussed in relation to Kant in this regard, for instance. Nothing is more horrifying than the unknown and so Lovecraft dramatises this sense of the universe to extremes. (Harman wrote a book on Lovecraft, tellingly.)
There is some virtue in this as an approach to philosophy and many others have written on it in such a way that does not foreclose phenomenology’s philosophical potentials and limits into a system so benign. There is far more to said in this regard but it seems to me that the flaws in OOO will become obvious to anyone remotely familiar with the phenomenological canon. (Not that it has to agree but following its deadends so relentlessly isn’t, by default, an interesting and worthwhile endeavour.)
There are evidently many other people who have taken issue with Harman’s philosophy in this regard who are far more knowledgeable and skilled than I am but, nevertheless, the central flaw in Harman’s philosophy is, to me, made most apparent by his recent Facebook behaviour, which epitomises his notoriety as a compulsive Googler of his own name who will parachute into any discussion about himself or his work with a creepy velocity.
My favourite cunning articulation of this is the subtitle of Pete Wolfendale’s book on the topic of OOO, “The Noumena’s New Clothes” — a particularly witty condensation of what is wrong with OOO and how it convinces others it is worth paying attention to in the first place. OOO is likewise the emperor’s new clothes, and Harman certainly sees himself as an emperor.
My position on OOO Is similar, despite my predilection towards its talking points. Like the Barthes of Camera Lucida, it is hard to take seriously an “object-oriented” position from someone so mind-numbingly self-obsessed. If the intention is to de-privileged the subject, then why is Harman’s philosophy so entangled with his own narcissism?
Speculative Realism is, in itself, still interesting. It speaks to a renewed emphasis on certain ideas that have long haunted philosophy but find new valence in our contemporary world. As such. plenty of people have been doing speculative realist work for a long time without having to travel under the umbrella of that name. The same is true of Harman’s work although the paradoxical cult of personality that surrounds it is an oddly effective barrier that shields this point from view.
How he has made it so far in life and his career is a complete mystery to me. He is cunning, most likely, and focuses his efforts on selling his ideas to disciplines with no idea of the broader context and intellectual histories of his philosophical appropriations. He is, essentially, a snake oil salesman, selling a placebo to people who don’t know any better.
Today, as a result, Object-Oriented Ontology resembles a failed philosophical project that parasitises the art world to stay relevant. A lot of what they discuss is generally alive and well in philosophical circles more generally but its salesmen pretend it’s a niche concern and talk about it in isolation, suffocating their observations in a philosophical sense whilst making it appear cool in an artistic one.
As someone who came to these ideas down that common path of phenomenology and art, let me say that art and philosophy deserve a better relationship than the one the likes of Harman are offering, and its there for discovering if you can look past him for a minute.
UPDATE #1: It has been suggested that this post is an instance of “the pot calling the kettle black”. To attack Harman’s self-obsession by starting with a personal history is somehow hypocritical. I don’t think so.
There are two things I wanted to articulate in this post, and there may be some awkward crossover between the two, but I think both are worthwhile.
The first intention here, if it is not clear, is to demonstrate how and why Harman’s ideas are attractive to so many in the art world. I have done this through my own experience as someone who came to philosophy as a wannabe artist, particularly intrigued by speculative realism. I think that sort of subjective position in an argument is important and do not wish to claim otherwise.
However, that is part of Harman’s whole schtick. One of the central claims within Object-Oriented Philosophy is that the subject need not be the centre of philosophy anymore. At every turn that claim falls apart — and if you want a rigorous takedown, go get Pete Wolfendale’s book or something — but the most laughable and ironic stumbling block for OOO, as I see it, is that Harman himself is at the very centre of his own philosophy. He is OOO and is always adamant about the centrality of his own subject in his supposedly subjectless philosophy.
Hence the title of this post. (Also, true to form, he has predictably appeared in the replies to this post, although seemingly sheepishly and somewhat indirectly. He really can’t help himself.)
If you don’t like philosophy that speaks to an “I”, this blog won’t be for you. But I’m also not making any claims that it should be any different. I’m also not scrambling around social media attempting to rescue my own ego at every opportunity.
As Self-centred as my writings often are, I do also write a lot about the humiliation of that self by seemingly noumenal forces. So there are obvious crossovers. Harman’s general areas of interest are of interest to lots of other people. But what Harman encourages is a use of philosophical concepts and arguments in other fields that are woefully inadequate and he manages to persist in doing this, it seems to me, simply by strengthening the bizarre personality cult around him.
If artists explored his ideas on their own terms, by reading some admittedly difficult texts, or at least some other people’s thoughts on them, they may start to see the holes in what he’s attempting to do, and the way his monopolising of certain concepts that have a far richer history elsewhere — the noumenon being the most important example, perhaps — only serves to reduce artistic access to a broader tradition of thought. OOO is more an art project than a school of philosophy and, for both disciplines’ sake, I think that’s an important distinction to make.
We had the Gruppo di Nun staying with us over the weekend, having flown over from Italy to attend the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture. Of course we had to take them to Nunhead cemetery the day after.
If you haven’t read their work, fix that for yourself with the links below. You won’t regret it… Or you might… As always: rituals practiced at summoner’s own risk…