Ticking something off the ol’ London bucket list. Today we went to Highgate Cemetery to see the Marx family crypt where both Karl and Eleanor are buried. I’ve wanted to come and visit it since we moved here but it’s quite a trek from the south east… We found the energy today though.
The main takeaway — curtly put by my girlfriend — was, “If I died, and I ended up under a giant bust of your head, I’d be really pissed at you”, which I think is fair enough.
Combining the favourite XG pastime of weekend cemetery visits with a Marxist pilgrimage is a good way to spend a Saturday and it also feels like a good excuse to once again share The Lit Crit Guy’s two-parter on Gothic Marxism, here and here.
The disarticulation of my “Dreamless Pop” post has very quickly been remedied by a confluence of factors.
Bob was nice enough to share the post on Twitter and call it an encapsulation of some sort of position when — I must confess; as is often the case with my blog posts — it was more like an attempt to articulate something that nonetheless remained on the tip of my tongue before it consequently fell out of my head due to this lack of a firm linguistic grasp on it…
Fittingly, Bob’s use of the word “simulacra” was precisely the jolt I needed to better articulate what it is I find so disturbing about Sex Education…
So here goes…
I was watching Sex Education recently, a few days after the previous post had gone up — or half-watching it, I guess, reading a book whilst my girlfriend caught up with the latest season. I had watched the first season with a morbid curiosity but could not stomach the second. This was not entirely — as I thought — because of its content but because of its location also. For all its accusations of rootlessness — part American high school drama, part British college-university romp, part general adolescent situated-identity crisis — I am actually very familiar with its setting.
I am sure I’ve mentioned this before — either on the blog or on Twitter — but Sex Education is filmed on my old university campus in Caerleon, South Wales. It is filmed in a place where I studied for three years and lived for one. It is also the place where I met my long-term girlfriend and countless other friends.
Watching that show is like sticking my head in a waterfall of memories. Forget Proust’s whiff of madeleine cake, it’s more like a snuffed line of simulated nostalgia that violently overrides the actual experience of being there.
We were talking about the series, following a more recent episode, when I asked her how she managed to stomach the show’s wokeness that is laid on so thick. She acknowledged it was often egregious but that it didn’t get too much in the way of the story for her, which she enjoyed regardless — fair enough — but, personally, it makes me cringe, and I realised the other day that the reason I find it so hard to stomach is precisely because it entertains the existence of some impossibly woke academic environment on a campus that has explicitly fallen victim to the worst neoliberal university practices. It is a simulation of wokeness dancing on the grave of those ideals it performs and says it holds so dear. It is, in this sense, precisely a sort of poor-taste simulacra that renders its over-scripted good intentions as little more than apolitical entertainment despite itself.
I should emphasise here that I am not using the term ‘wokeness’ to give scaffolding some liberal conspiracy that seeks to undermine the creative power of political incorrectness. However, as has been explored on this blog before, I do think transgressive arts must continue to carve out a space for themselves in the face of an institutionalised moralism, and most of what thinks of itself as oppositional these days can barely defend such a claim under pressure. This is a far more legitimate critique than the rightist one, I think, because this “wokeness” is a decontextualised band-aid for far deeper structural problems that few people seem capable of separating from the capitalist forces they say they are fighting against.
Sex Education, as a cultural product, is the perfect encapsulation of this. It is a show that cannot go five minutes without tripping over an oddly bureaucratised form of political communication but it does so — oh so tellingly — on a site of great cultural and political loss.
Caerleon campus only exists as a film set for this slab of Netflix wokeness because the listed status of the clock tower has thwarted developers from demolishing it to build a new housing estate. Prior to this thwarting, Caerleon campus was home to the largest photographic dark rooms in Europe where photography was taught for over one hundred years and where countless generations had their tandem artistic and political awakenings.
This was true for me as well. It was a home where I was first politicised, developing both a class consciousness, as I came to understand why I felt Newport, South Wales, was a home-away-from-home and so similar to my actual home of Hull in Yorkshire — short answer: both post-industrial towns on estuaries left to decay and atrophy despite (or, arguably, because of) an established history of radical cultural action — and a wider political consciousness, travelling to London for my first protest march in my first year of university to oppose the trebling of tuition fees that would not effect me personally but would effect countless others after me.
With this burgeoning consciousness emerging from a generally deflated sense of my own political agency, Newport was a place of hope for a radical future, both in terms of politics and culture — with the two being explicitly intertwined as a place where prescribed aesthetics standards were told to go fuck themselves on the daily and where a small town working class consciously “avant garde” community was going from strength to strength, despite persistently butting heads with the local council.
This wasn’t new. It was heartening to learn that this sort of activity was part of a Welsh continuum… And was well-founded in Newport itself as a city… But the slow creep of neoliberalism was well-established also, at least by the time I got there…
First, the Newport polytechnic — founded in 1840 to educate local workers and tradespeople, and where photography was first taught as a trade as early as 1910 — was transformed into the University of Wales, Newport, following the nationwide culling of polytechnics in the 1990s.
This process brought together a broad family of technical colleges under a single managerial authority, cementing the neoliberal oversight of a prior patchwork of empowering spaces. As time went on, it was revealed — to the surprise of no-one — that those in charge were caught in a spiral of overspending, building new campuses they couldn’t afford and trying to continue to expand beyond their means. Before long, UWN got into trouble, and was eventually gobbled up and consolidated into an even bigger institutional body: the University of South Wales — a Cardiff-based university. (This is a process innocuously documented on the university’s website, of course, with no reference made to the perpetual upheavals that underlined its haggard development.)
This final merger came at a very tense time for the area. It occurred during the final year of my studies in 2013, which was the same year that Newport’s Chartist mural, library and art gallery was controversially demolished to build a garish new shopping centre. These actions, though distinct from one another, nonetheless felt they were both part of the same socio-political process: the broad neoliberalisation of the city and its institutions. It had already happened elsewhere in the city. The polytechnic’s old site in the city centre, for instance, before it was based before the move to Caerleon, had already been transformed into luxury flats during our time there and, following the merger, when the beautiful Caerleon campus was sold off, it felt like that was the final nail in the coffin for a tradition that was far from dead. Its smothering was merely a byproduct of mismanagement by higher-ups.
This really is unbelievable when you consider the university campus on its own merits. In many ways it was outdated, rough around the edges, dysfunctional, relatively isolated from South Wales’ urban centres, but it was ours. It wasn’t some former private school turned fancy institution, as it superficially appears in the series. It was primarily a campus occupied by young people studying either an arts degree or a sports degree, in the orbit of a still proudly working class town. It was a really beautiful place to live and study and that felt all the more important considering how academically maligned the courses taught there were. In fact, the campus was a large part of why I wanted to study there. I’d been to open days in London (Elephant & Castle) and Farnham but immediately felt these campuses were hostile to “someone like me”. Caerleon was different. It felt right and continued to feel right for the three years that followed. (I’m still in touch with the lecturers there.)
When it was reported that the campus had been sold off, it felt like this was partly why. We weren’t allowed to have nice things. The new base in Cardiff’s city centre might be better connected and immersed in local business infrastructures but Caerleon was special precisely because it felt like a haven apart from all that bullshit. It was a place to experiment — and we really did experiment.
This is not to say that a radical political sentiment died with the institution — it certainly wasn’t an institutionalised product — and thankfully many of the lecturers who encouraged this kind of engagement with the world remain on the staff — but I do not think that anyone would deny that decades of growth had been amputated without a second thought. The task became less one of extension and more one of rebuilding, and it was a task that had to be pursued under an intensification of the university’s mechanisms of bureaucratic anti-production.
With all of this in mind, it becomes very difficult not to be wholly cynical of a show like Sex Education, preaching radical but tellingly bougie politics of communication on the piss-soaked grave of a former polytechnic. Its politics are, of course, important, but so is the context in which they are contained and puppeteered. Take, for instance, Sex Education‘s persistent exploration of the politics of interpersonal consent. What becomes of this topic when it is dramatises on a site where the previous occupants were turfed off without any consultation? This may sound a bit too much like a Justin Murphy logic gate but surely if we are to take the show’s dramatic politics seriously we should be able to extend these politics beyond the fictional relationships of individuals and apply it to the very real situated politics of its location and the communities that called it home? Removed from its fictional bubble, the show becomes nothing but a parody of itself.
It is this disparity that I thought of this morning whilst reading Will Davies’ Guardian op-ed on the persistent radicality of the humanities within neoliberal institutions. (The fact that Davies teaches at Goldsmiths probably goes someway towards explaining how he is able to write from an apparent bubble of hope. The historical continuum of HE experimentation that Davies gestures to has long been impotent, broadly speaking. If the government is now lopping off humanities courses, it is less a active culling and more a sign that neoliberalism has decided to stop playing with its already butchered food.)
Interestingly, Davies argues against the political right’s cooption of “a bogey-ideology known as ‘wokeness’, constructed by conservative commentators and ‘free speech’ advocates, [that] now serves as an all-purpose bin into which any form of activism, complaint or critical theory can be thrown.” The problem with this — and the article at large — is subtle. There is no denying that a cross-section of small-c and big-C conservatives in this country despise the persistent influence of the humanities, as Davies argues, but to say that ‘wokeness’ has been constructed by the right is wholly disingenuous. It is a term — both positively and negatively — that has the left’s fingerprints all over it.
This is to say that Davies may be right in fingering the contemporary culprits of educational dismantling but his analysis just feels hollow — a sort of extension of student populism that is about two years too late, and by ignoring the left’s own failure to tackle and preempt current problems, the article reads as nothing more than cheerleading puff piece, preaching to the converted.
(Sidenote: I have more to say on the specifically anti-modernist tendencies — and I do think they are that specific — that Davies points to within the Johnson-Cummings cabinet but I want to save that for another post.)
To better articulate what I mean by this, I think it is worth emphasising the fact that Davies deploys a right-wing conception of “wokeness” — now culturally dominant — over a left-wing one.
On the left, “wokeness” has, until recently, referred to a well-established slang term borrowed from African-American political discourses referring to the possession of a kind of raised consciousness. If you’re woke, you’re awake to the banal injustices of a quotidian and marginalised existence. That’s pretty much common knowledge at this point.
The right’s disparaging and cynical use of “wokeness”, however, reveals (at least in negative) a sort of empty and apolitical leftism that has run riot through many of the left’s attempts at political organising in recent years. This is to say that the collapse of “wokeness” as a political contagion — from a call-to-arms to a disparaging and cynical label thrown at moralisers — is as much the fault of the left’s incompetence as it is the right’s penchant for cynical cooption.
Take this Medium post by @scenicpasture on “Apolitical Corbynism” — an excellent post that goes someway towards articulating the two factions that really gave Corbyn his staying power in the UK since 2015: a new politicised youth on the one hand, but also middle class apolitical former Green Party voters on the other. They write:
In the case of Corbyn, he inspired people who previously hadn’t been involved in parliamentary politics and who certainly had no interest in the intricacies of left factions and alliances. That appeal was largely to “graduates without a future”. There’s a big chunk of these people who were very happy attending Occupy, the demonstrations orchestrated by XR, and needless to say were proud to march for a ‘People’s Vote’. Each of these moments were, in their own way, apolitical insofar as they were attempts to ditch the constraints of parliamentary politics and appeal to something ‘beyond’. In XR’s case, this was completely explicit in their calls to establish ‘citizens assemblies’ (which under scrutiny turn out to be panels of wonk NGO experts. The Marxist critique of these forms of politics are well-documented and I won’t rehearse them here, the point for me is that in the absence of anything else they were the only game in town. The generations that attached to these political modalities did so out of the wreckage of the end of history, the failure of New Labour, the failure of social democracy in the 20th century, which occurred inextricably with the collapse of the labour movement and its institutions. Corbynism aspired to rebuilding these things, but was always just aspiring, was always in lieu of them, and therefore was in fact closer in its origins to these forms of apolitical populism than I think has previously been acknowledged.
The merits of this form allowed us to function and work as organisers without the usual baggage, and at its height produced the hysterical joy of the 2017 election. That election feels dream-like in hindsight, precisely because it did seem to actually achieve what apolitical moments always claim to be able to achieve: transcending the parameters of ideology and politics as such. Could such a colossal upheaval have happened without Corbynism’s broad, moralistic appeals to decency, change, standing up for “the many”? I’m not sure. However beneficial, though, it was precisely this strength of apolitical Corbynism that, in part, engineered its downfall. This downfall came chiefly from the despicably vain, juvenile remain campaign, indulged by far too many people who in a state of flailing panic should’ve toughened up and known better. But also, I’d argue through a specific political-cultural tendency that emerged under late-Corbynism; self-flagellation and capitulation. Taken together, these outcomes have now engineered a situation where Keir Starmer is seen by many Corbynistas as the right successor to whatever Corbynism was about. It’s worth emphasising how absurd this is. Starmer is utterly archetypal of everything that Corbyn was supposed to replace. He is a character-less centrist, interchangeable with any prominent man among the liberal professional managerial class. If someone showed you a picture of him and said he’s the head of Save the Children, or an investment bank, or the Liberal Democrats, you’d have no difficulty believing them. His appeal to exhausted, depleted, Corbynistas comes from the same empty, directionless desires of apolitical populism. Just as Occupy never articulated a demand, just as XR was somehow apocalyptic without being antagonistic, just as People’s Vote wished away 17.4 million people; so too Starmer, by looking nice and sounding posh, will alleviate Labour of its existential contradictions.
Sex Education, to me, is the ultimate cultural encapsulation of this. Whilst its script is over-wrought with pseudo-ethical negotiations of contemporary adolescent conflicts, attempting to place it at the vanguard of a new form of “woke” political communication that presents a seemingly utopian high school experience for the temporally displaced left, it is also wholly impotent and removed from the actual political struggles it is indirectly parasitising.
Endnote: Notably, the book I was reading whilst having these thoughts, with Sex Education playing in the background, was Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. I don’t have it with me whilst I’m writing this post but it’s introduction and first chapter helped to articulate how this apolitical wokeness is itself a product of neoliberalism’s cultural logics, and that is precisely because of the way that neoliberalism — and neoliberal universities most explicitly — iron out the creases and differences of our political spaces of action.
Niall Gallen hit on this too earlier today when he tweeted:
I think he’s right. I responded:
I was thinking exactly this whilst reading Jameson the other day. The absence of ‘neoliberalism’ from his description of the mechanisms of “late capitalism” at the start of Postmodernism… is telling.  Precisely because, as the elephant in the room, he is trying to prise the economic and the cultural apart in order to understand how they affect one another. Neoliberalism emerges as an ideological project for smoothing out [these] discrepancies. 
Wokeness was a concept that fell into this trap all too easily — the way that “woke” has been turned into a ironic marketing ploy by the likes of Burger King in recent weeks is a case in point.
If neoliberalism is to be have continued valence as a political term, the left must be capable of seeing its developments and influence from within its own ranks, not just pointing to it when the right gets its way.
This week I was back on the photographic survey project I’ve been working on, slingshottingrepeatedly around Heathrow.
Yesterday, on our way to a spot we’ve been to on two prior occasions — once at the height of summer and more recently on a dark January night — I noticed something I hadn’t seen before.
On the outskirts of the village of Horton, just before I turned down the muddiest road I’ve ever seen in my life, just beyond which is a public footpath where we need to take our photos, I noticed a blue plaque fly by in my peripheral vision. “John Milton, poet, lived here.”
I wasn’t looking forward to this viewpoint. Like many of the sites we are required to photograph on this strange long-term job, it is in an awkward location, situated on public land that is only public on a technicality. (More often than not, you have to get permission to pass through private land in order to get to it.)
At this location — on the outskirts of the village of Horton: a name which already means “Dirty Farm” — is a dirty farm and adjacent landfill site. To get to the public bridleway, you must first pull up in front of someone’s isolated house and then walk a few hundred metres past the landfill along a road that has been churned into brown sludge by the constant stream of skip lorries, diggers, and other kinds of heavy machinery. There are a few guard dogs on patrol to boot, although they are incessant yappers more than sharp biters. Everyone is oddly unperturbed by the roaring departures from Heathrow careening into the sky overhead.
Before making our way to our scheduled viewpoint, having parked the car and with Milton now firmly in mind, I noticed an ageing building peaking through the trees, the dark voids of its broken windows gaping through the foliage. When we were last here during the day, in the unbearable heat of summer, the leaves must have been too thick to see through, or so I tell myself, but I can’t quite shake the sensation that I am only aware of its presence having read Milton’s name out loud.
A veil has been lifted and a decrepit hollow from the past now makes itself known, where once a young man in his 20s had gazed at the world around him and perhaps seen the war to come, between monarchist and republican but also, perhaps, between nature and industry; between ruins built and reclaimed and the detritus injected violently into the ground like cheap junk into an artery.
I didn’t take too many photographs to document our edgeland traversal. I don’t think the workers, already eyeing us suspiciously as we snaked our way around their gargantuan vehicles, would have taken too kindly to this. However, having seen the blue plaque on the way in, I was suddenly a lot more excited to be here.
As is often the case with these blue plaque things, on closer inspection it may disappoint. John Milton, the ultimate Gothic poet, lived here! — but only for six years… However, doing some more research back at home, I learned that Horton remains a central location in his biography. It is believed that he wrote his poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” whilst living here and his mother is buried in the grounds of a church nearby.
These pastoral poems, often paired for their contrasting sentiments — one in praise of Mirth, the other Melancholy — allow us to imagine Milton at the family home, having returned from Cambridge at the age of 24, wondering what path his poetic life might take. Is he to be a happy man or a serious man?
To imagine Milton on this country estate, surrounded, at that time, no doubt, by fields, is to imagine a man inspired but restless with political fervour. It must have been beautiful, and yet this staunch republican must have been aware of his proximity to Windsor castle, the preferred seat of the monarchy even then. These paired poems are more likely the thoughts of a man unsure where a brewing civil war will leave the natural world in which he lives.
The outcome no doubt cemented his melancholy. With his eyesight deteriorating, later going blind and conjuring his most famous work, Paradise Lost, some decades later through dictation to his daughters, it seems that Milton inevitably chose the path of Il Penseroso:
Hail divinest Melancholy, Whose saintly visage is too bright To hit the sense of human sight.
To ponder what Milton would have written today, in these turbulent times of Brexit, feels a bit too much like a Guardian op-ed by an #FBPE humanities professor, and so I won’t bother with that, but what struck me more than anything, in walking — with difficulty — through this landscape, was the fact that Milton’s hyperbolic verse, all fire and brimstone, theology and demonology, has been rendered oddly realistic by the passage of time.
For instance, Thomas Cole’s paintings, inspired by Milton’s pastoral pair of poems — his depiction of “L’Allegro” pictured above — are quaint compared to the reality of today. The harmony between classical ruins and a frolicking through nature is downright utopian compared to what would welcome Milton if he were to open his bedroom curtains on the landscape of today.
I can’t help but think he would find the banal horrors that welcomed him a inexhaustible fount of inspiration nonetheless.
Many, many thanks to Gareth and Langdon from DEATH // SENTENCE for inviting me onto their podcast to talk about Mark Fisher and my forthcoming book Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher.
It was a really lovely and humbling way to spend an afternoon and my first opportunity to talk about the circumstances from which this book emerged with two people who’ve already read it. I hugely enjoyed our conversation and I hope you enjoy listening back to it.
This comment articulates really well what I am finding most fascinating about the intersection between Mark and k-punk at the moment, particularly in relation to his thoughts on modernism:
I wonder how much of this comes back to the old modernist argument about impersonality – viz, Eliot’s claim that one must necessarily have a personality, perhaps to an unbearable degree, to appreciate the value of impersonality as a literary/theoretical strategy.
Certainly an explicit, explicitly worked-out, aspect of the k-punk program was the practice of writing as a way of getting besides oneself, and this was dramatised as a desperate, fugitive action, beset on all sides by the “human security” machinery of personalisation, identification, facialisation. This is a common theme all the way from the earliest texts through to the VC essay – there are Oedipalising Others who insist on gluing faces to us that can never be removed, who want to round us up and put us in identi-camps, and so on. It’s against this somewhat paranoiac imaginary that the desire to become an anonymous vector, a deterritorialising cybernetic operator, etc, emerges. The closing paragraph of Libidinal Economy was a big inspiration here, no doubt: “set dissimulation to work on behalf of intensities”, and so on.
All of this was thrilling and inciting – it authorised Mark and many others around him to write, to explore, and to do so without immediately trying to format everything they produced so that it would satisfy the demands of online brand-identity. It also meant not having to be pinned down to a particular political position, or situated within a recognisable political camp. I think that when you are still trying to work out what your commitments are, or should be (and of course k-punk’s singular canon-building staked out a series of very strongly-held theoretical/aesthetic commitments – I’m not suggesting there was anything wishy-washy about him…) this kind of self-authorising freedom is useful and necessary. Does it have to be given up, later, when the “right” programme finally announces itself? (I think we are probably seeing the break-up of Corbynism as a coherent political project at the moment, and there will be a considerable dispersal of temporarily-concentrated energies as a result: these questions are never finally resolved, but only set aside for a time.)
At the same time, there was a personality, singular and powerful, at work in all of this; and the desire for impersonality was unavoidably a desire to extricate himself from the toils of this personality, and subject to the vagaries and misdirections of every desire: sometimes the door marked “exit” takes you on a loop around the building back into the entrance foyer. Some of the most ostensibly abstract, detached, analytically impervious pieces of Mark’s writing are at the same time bitingly personal, and ineluctably tangled in inter-personal beefs, mutual admiration societies, rifts, trials of strength and all the other occasions and theatrics of a vigorous “scene”. That’s just – in a cybernetic sense, if you like – how these things work.
As I’ve said in various ways over the past couple of years, for me the sense of having at one time or another encountered Mark “in person, shorn of pseudonym” has to co-exist with a sense of hardly having known him at all; anyone who purports to be telling you what he was “really” like is inevitably going to be giving you only part of the picture, often as not curated to reflect their own priorities and projections. In the end, what I think about the particular drama of impersonality he staged is that it should be recognised as a powerful (and, for him, perhaps necessary) enabling fiction, a “device” which made a certain kind of writing community possible for a time. I don’t think it translates into a general formula for making exciting blogospheres happen: each scene has to discover and cultivate its own enabling conditions. My perspective on this is Badiou-ish really: everything runs to exhaustion in the end, but nothing proscribes the appearance of the new.
When did dream pop lose its psychedelia and become the generic soundtrack for every new Netflix teen drama going?
I unashamedly like a lot of weird YA dramas on Netflix. Locke & Key is a good example. Dark is a better one. I liked The Umbrella Academy too. I even continue to have time for Stranger Things despite many being fed up with its pastiching. I think I just have a soft spot for shows that emphasise or try to exaggerate the sheer surreality of adolescence and childhood.
It’s an age old trope, of course. The two-part adaptation of IT might be the most obvious big screen example in recent years but it’s hardly new. Bingeing Locke & Key from my Sunday sick bed today, I feel newly aware of just how far this continuum stretches back.
The show contains numerous references early on, for instance — explicit ones, that is, in the script — to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This got me thinking about how, as a kid, I always preferred The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Then I remembered in the pub last night how I inadvertently started talking about Skellig. On Twitter last week someone blogged about Elidor. Last year I read Alice in Wonderland aloud to my girlfriend before bed, for its own merits and to support a reading of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense…
Across time periods, the strangeness of childhood and adolescence has been fertile ground for telling stories of the weird and the eerie. Perhaps that’s because fairy tales themselves have always been good examples of the weird. Culturally, we like to scare our kids, to install superegos, perhaps, but also I think just because their minds are more easily taken advantage of. It’s a fun kind of transcultural sadism…
This is all very obvious, really, but I guess what I’m trying to affirm here is that, past or present, I’m always interested to see how youth is used as a vector for sociopolitical potentials; how a child’s innately psychedelic perspective allows other worlds and forms of life to emerge in our cultural imaginations.
At times, I find my fascination with these sorts of stories becoming entangled with a sort of nostalgia for a previous social and cultural freedom but I also love to hear the new emerging from an articulation of a sensation I am already familiar with and appreciate the importance of.
Pop music can be great for this too. Lorde’s album Pure Heroine might be one of the best musical distillations of adolescent weirdness from the last decade. It’s an album that I listened to obsessively when it came out, not long after I left university, and I was totally consumed by its songs of teenage outsideness presented with a production style that felt incredibly refreshing. You’d be surprised — in fact, I even surprise myself — just how emotional that album makes me still, as an eerie document of fading innocence. That’s certainly what it felt like to me at the time, fully entering my twenties, newly outside the bubble of full-time education, feeling fully devoid of prospects, instead doubling down on the particular temporalities of unemployment in my hometown where I felt like I was slipping through the cracks into my own subcultural underworld.
I was thinking about all this and more whilst I was watching Locke & Key earlier. I thought about how much I liked the magical realism in the show, even at its most janky. I liked how this weirdness of the Locke family home could permeate the high school environment with surprisingly little resistance whilst the adults are, for the most part, oblivious to the teenagers’ dramas. The plasticity of the teenagers’ brains and the rigidity of the adults made me, as a viewer, feel oddly in between. Both responses were weird. But there was something else that kept pulling me back from this and which made it a really jarring experience, but not in a positive way at all.
The soundtrack could not have been any more generic if it tried.
I don’t know if there’s a name for this or not. There probably is. It’s that corporate pop that all sounds the same and has no message or distinguishable production style. It feels like it’s been made by some sort of hit factory somewhere. I associate it most explicitly with something like Made In Chelsea. It’s wellness pop. Gooped pop. Middle class generic pop made by some quartet who have had a completely frictionless twenties. You’ll know what I mean. Think Bastille and their hundreds of clones. It seems to permeate every teen drama there is, and it’s all the more obvious if a show has a supernatural or paranormal element.
When I think about k-punk’s various requiems for popular modernism, I always feel like we haven’t reached the true depths of its absence yet. The BBC might have sonically unweirded Doctor Who, for instance, but there was still a time recently when the music controllers for popular programming could shoehorn in contemporary oddities. I remember Top Gear car reviews soundtracked by Boards of Canada, for instance, and even though a whole generation might have wishfully modelled their lives after Skins, it felt like very few within its target audience were picking up Animal Collective albums after hearing them soundtrack a point of narrative tension.
Looking back on a show like Skins now — proverbially, at least: to actually rewatch it would be torturous — these sorts of musical decisions made it feel contemporary. It hasn’t aged well but, at the time, it felt like the bleeding edge of… something.
Watching these new weird shows, they feel distinctly devoid of a time — which, ironically, is what makes them feel most now. These scenes with cookie-cutter dream pop make the shows feel culturally disorientated in much the same way that many have claimed a show like Sex Education is. Whereas previous shows were buoyed by well chosen soundtracks these shows are dragged down by a complete lack of sonic imagination. They are defined by a sort of ambient music, especially when diegetic, that serves only to remove any well-scripted weirdness.
Why do I feel like the fault lies with Spotify? Maybe someone better informed can shine a light on the silent death of smart licensing? Maybe music licensing is one of those jobs woefully given over to algorithms? Or maybe this is the trickle down cultural impact of capitalist realism at its most banal?
Whatever the cause, all narratives of new worlds suffer if they’re incapable of referencing the newness of now. How are we meant to find connections between the radical magic of a coming new and the already contemporary if the characters on our screens aren’t given the same opportunity?
It’s almost as if we’re not supposed to. No longer are these strange tales of psychedelic childhoods meant to keep the fire of otherworldly potentials burning. They’re salves. Nothing more.
This stasis doesn’t lie with music licensing alone. I want to offer up another case in point that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: Gilmore Girls.
My girlfriend just completed an epic rewatch of that show’s seven seasons and I enjoyed watching it myself for the first time — at intervals — alongside her.
The show’s wit still holds up todat and its machine-gun cultural referencing is pretty electric. But I kept thinking: All that aside, what are we left with? A relatable story of a modern middle class family. A girl and her mum, growing up together in Small Town USA. Rori Gilmore’s life aspirations of going to Harvard and joining the rat race as a hot shot journalist are weirdly 00s and bougie but the rapidity of the hypertext dialogue was pretty incredible to me. In fact, it was what made the show so entertaining for me personally. Bands and films and other references, from low culture to high, old to new, pepper every exchange. An otherwise generic sitcom is given a unique energy as it feels like the two central characters are, when not on screen, jacked into a rapidly emerging cyberspace and a contemporary moment of atemporal postmodern cultural proliferation. It’s the sort of metadialogue that has been fetishised in a sitcom like Spaced or, more recently, Community (where it is reduced to a particular trait of an autistic character) but here it exists intergenerationally and effortlessly.
What does this mean, if anything?
I’m not sure. But I’m increasingly disturbed of late that we’re continuing to lose a lot more from our pop culture than we’re aware of. I feel more and more like this is what constituted the “frenzied stasis” of late capitalism for Mark Fisher. The spectacular but superficially new distracts us as we lose far more than is currently being produced to the ambient incursions of capitalist stasis on our cultural imaginations.
There’s a brilliant new (multi-part) long read on Mark Fisher, k-punk and the blogosphere up online via the Sydney Review of Books. It’s a really fascinating read and well worth dipping into.
In it, a group of familiar names consider what it was like to float around the blogosphere at the height of Mark’s k-punk powers and, initially, the fear that came with engaging with him and it.
Later, there are reflections on Mark’s somewhat diffuse legacy throughout the left more generally today but I found this chatter about the blogosphere most interesting personally because Blogosphere 2.0 is very much still here, albeit more explicitly attached to social media platforms. Nevertheless, much of the atmosphere that is discussed here still remains pervasive today.
It’s also interesting because, at the start at least, there’s this certain moralising of k-punk on display, a moralising of Mark the Moraliser, the Position-Haver, the Excommunicator, the Hard-Nosed Critic…
This is telling, in one sense. In every discussion of Mark the Online Polemicist that happens today, there is a sense that many of Mark’s former interlocutors have themselves moved on, but social media remains a more fierce battleground than ever before, and as problematic as Mark’s conduct may have been at times, we can still learn a great deal from it.
There is an understanding — an implicit one, perhaps — that, in person, so many of the people who engage in the blogosphere today are not who they are online. (I’ve had that comment repeatedly made about myself — about a stony “xenogothic” Twitter camouflage that does not coincide with an IRL personality.) I think this is more important now than ever before and I think Carl Neville’s comments in this conversation are particularly resonant with the blogosphere as it continues to operate. He says:
It felt necessary at the time to be as unremittingly harsh as possible because to some extent it was a life or death matter, at least in psychic terms. My own experience of the Noughties was one of a continued and sustained assault on the psyche, capitalist realism as embodied in the high-watermark of neoliberal hegemony — in London, its epicentre, around 2005-2008, there was a sort of world-historical gas-lighting for anyone who came out of a left tradition or had attachments to ideas about the relation between politics, political economy, and culture. Do we need it now, post-financial crash? Not really — capitalism has done its own ‘unmasking’ — but at the time criticism was often grim and unforgiving because it was a desperate survival strategy, an attempt to carve out a liveable collective psychic space. That sounds grandiose or melodramatic but as I say, the daily reality of the London bubble (in both senses) was deeply demoralising.
I am sensing a bit of a clap back at Mark’s Vampire Castle piece in the question too. He was, as you say, likely to excommunicate and also to inspire fear, the things he accuses the Identarians of doing.
Contrary to Neville’s position, I feel like this sense of a criticism that was “often grim and unforgiving because it was a desperate survival strategy, an attempt to carve out a liveable collective psychic space” remains necessary today for precisely the same reasons.
The London bubble — to take up Neville’s own example — remains deeply demoralising, albeit in a contrary sense. It is not that we must fight to have these discussions — we are here and we are having them — but now it is certainly the case that we must fight to continue having them on our own terms.
This is the sense in which Facebook has become the primary habitat for these formerly IRL remoralising tendencies. Capitalism — platform capitalism in particular, which has reached its ascendency over the decade since Blogosphere 1.0 — has captured its own unmasking. This is to say that, whilst capitalism has certainly had its own “unmasking” in political terms, it is has also culturally unmasked all of us as subjects in the process. We are now as personally vulnerable as it is.
Like it or not, these comments made by Nick Land recently on the difference between the pre-blogosphere and the internet landscape today summarise this shift very well:
There was an extremely exciting wave that was ridden by the Ccru in the early to mid-1990s. You know, the internet basically arrived in those years, there were all kinds of things going on culturally and technologically and economically that were extremely exciting and that just carried this accelerationist current and made it extremely, immediately plausible and convincing to people. Outrageous perhaps, but definitely convincing. It was followed — and I wouldn’t want to put specific dates on this, really — but I think there was an epoch of deep disillusionment. I’d call it the Facebook era, and obviously, for anyone who’s coming in any way out of Deleuze and Guattari, for something called “Facebook” to be the dominant representative of cyberspace is just almost, you know, a comically horrible thing to happen!
Capitalism unmasked itself and then all of us with it, and it is precisely this that I think Mark struggled with, along with the rest of us.
This is largely why there is such animosity between Facebook and Twitter circles of blogospheric interlocutors today. Twitter remains a notoriously hostile place precisely because of this ambient resistance to having spaces be coopted by a certain forms of groupthink, which many people despise the existence of in Facebook groups.
I think this is, most accurately, the division of power that Mark was attempting to skewer in his most infamous essay. Yes, Mark excommunicated whilst deriding excommunicators but to eradicate the collectivised nature of Twitter mob rule — that Mark was explicitly deriding in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — from the equation seems disingenuous.
Mark may have excommunicated people but such is the experience of having a public platform where you are open to all interactions with all interlocutors. Remember when Mark suffered a pile-on for closing the comments on k-punk? Today, the equivalent is perhaps a liberal usage of the ‘mute’ button on Twitter, which so many people quietly deploy. (Myself included.) Sometimes people just get to a point of sucking more energy out of you than their engagements might otherwise put in. The line might seem fickle but it’s real.
We might think of the scarlet letters of the k-punk logo as being an explicit choice here. Mark wanted to own his existence as an outside node at the same time as he resented the shame cast upon him at that time for doing so.
However, things did not stay that way. We can see a tension that comes from seeing his tone soften, as he discovered his writing and platform had become his livelihood and suddenly “Mark Fisher” emerged quite explicitly from underneath the hermetic shell of “k-punk”.
Neville comments on this again, very perceptively: “His political positions changed considerably over a decade or so into basically woolly left-liberal humanism as far as I can see, and I suspect his tone softened and his range of interests broadened and he became more engaged with institution-building.”
This later phase of Mark’s life is the one that many now attempt to essentialise. The Jeremy Gilbert’s of the world wish to affirm Mark Fisher the wooly left-liberal humanist above every other Mark Fisher that existed prior to this but, it seems to me, that Mark was still figuring this out for himself at the time of his death and the Mark Fisher that existed in the world post-“Exiting the Vampire Castle” was watching very closely where things were headed.
There are other reasons too. Some have argued that Mark’s tone softened as a result of his journey into fatherhood. I wonder how much his position in a university and job security were also factors in toning down some of his more radical opinions when writing so publicly. (In my brief experience, these opinions were not absent from the classroom or interpersonal conversation, but softened in the articles he was being paid to write. Make of that what you will.)
The sense that Mark himself now needs to be unmasked is both illuminating and unfortunate, with all of this in mind. I think the drive behind an emerging posthumous backlash is warranted, in many respects.
Resisting the beautification of “Saint Mark” is important because I’m sure he too would have resisted it. We mustn’t essentialise Mark, for better or for worse. (Essentialisation was the fourth rule of the Vampire Castle after all.) Shining a light on the various shades of Mark k-punk’s personas is worthwhile only if we are understanding them as a range of masks that he wore consciously. (He wrote under a number of pseudonyms as part of the Ccru, lest we forget.)
To moralise about them in turn, however, will always be uncomfortable. Anything else is arguably perpetuating the face-assigning Vampire Castle of our contemporary moment.
I can’t help but picture Mark in his Punisher t-shirt here. Mark suited the position of vigilante antihero well precisely because he understood his complicity in capitalist society as a whole. He becomes reminiscent of a comic book figure like Blade — the Gothic daywalker — a half-vampire using his vampiric powers against his own kind: the emerging commentariat; the hegemony tyranny of the LBC radio and the Guardian’s Comment is Free section. Perhaps this was how Mark saw himself as a “para-academic” always on the edges of the academic institution or, when inside it, always critiquing it from within.
Mark derided the Vampire Castle most explicitly for its deference to the morality of the Big Other. Critiquing this does not make having one’s own sense of morality hypocritical. It is instead a call for a Bataillean sovereignty through which a radically new sense of community can reemerge. Carl Neville seems to understand this, implicitly, but here fails to articulate the difference between the two.
I think it is necessary that we pay attention to this difference as Mark’s posthumous legacy continues to develop. The biggest tragedy of Mark’s death is that the infrastructures he critiqued are continuing to mutate whilst his thought now exists in a posthumous resin, but he left us with all the tools we might need to continue his work as vigilantes against a system that always wants to enclose and neutralise its outliers in each successive update.
It will never not be frustrating when those who powered the first blogosphere, now largely detached from its current iteration, lose all sense of critique for what their communicative networks have been replaced with. Mark certainly didn’t lose this. His comments on what was to come have only been vindicated since.
(To reiterate, there is a lot more to the conversation had than this. This simply tweaked by blogger’s drive. Go check out the rest of the piece and join me in looking forward to its subsequent parts.)
It was nerve-wracking running a workshop that was essentially built around an attitude of “Let’s just go outside?” We were in White City and I didn’t know the area at all. My tentative suggestion was, let’s just see where the wind takes us and maybe end up in a pub. It’s one thing explaining a dérive in a classroom but it is another making it fruitful under the productive pressures of an academic institution. Thankfully, the students were as keen to slip out from underneath its watchful eye as I was.
On exiting the building where I’d thrown a century’s worth of literature, art and philosophy at three unsuspecting postgraduate students — essentially asking “What connects Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to Kim Kardashian’s Selfish?” — we left buoyed by the rich current that I had attempted to describe: What impact has modernity had one our understanding of the self in its environments? The environment we found outside was more immediately interesting than I could have hoped.
Turning left, off campus, we walked the short distance up Wood Lane to the Westway flyover. The disused land that lurked underneath was an immediate point of interest. Formerly home to a large contingent of the homeless — the detritus of human refuge clinging to the walls and pillars — the underpass felt eerily reminiscent of a dismantled refugee camp. Food containers, clothes and the occasional duvet and blanket appeared in strewn across the concrete expanse.
It was an odd sight. Homelessness is endemic in this city but it felt unusual to see such a wide-open area bearing the signs of a collective shelter. (Not to mention an open area not undergoing some sort of (re)development.) It was nonetheless closed off by large concrete pillars and fencing, beautified with a superficial lick of purple paint. To look at it — to really look at this space — felt voyeuristic, precisely because the suffuse intention was evidently for it to be hidden.
Nearby, various office buildings, university departments, generic and soulless institutional spaces insisted on being looked at. Postmodern architecture has begun to dominate White City’s more recognisably modernist structures and the big windows that make up almost every ground floor space felt like the rows of empty tanks that you might find lining the back wall of your local struggling pet store. Goldfish bowls awaiting occupants.
The contrast between this hyper-visibility and the ambient secrecy of more traditionally industrial spaces was stark. Walking through an underpass that passed under the Westway we became fascinated by a series of heavy iron doors, attached to the former Cardboard City, previously ignored by the students who had walked this way on other occasions.
Looking through the cracks, they were shocked not to be welcomed by darkness and the stench of damp urban decay. Behind one door in particular we could glimpse a large grey-painted room with a single desk and computer located at the far end. It was an acutely Ballardian vision. We felt like we had uncovered some deep state operation, hidden in plain sight. The surprise that one of the students experienced was palpable. She responded like Nada in They Live!, donning his sunglasses for the first time and seeing a new world underneath the superficial gleam of the one he otherwise knows.
In the classroom, it was precisely this sort of intersubjective tension I had wanted to explore. Fascinated by the corporous relationship between Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, it was precisely a sense of being a part of (and apart from) “the crowd” — an otherwise collective subject — that I wanted to unearth in the London of today. Whether this was even possible was part of the tension I wanted to explore. How has London faired under the “mandatory individualism” of late capitalism and how has it changed compared to the radical modernism of Virginia Woolf’s urban wanderings?
This was a question I had hoped to take three weeks to ponder but our first and only session — although I am sure this question will remain pertinent as we partake in the UCU strikes — nonetheless provided us with strangely telling spectacles, as if the world was already keen to show us the answers.
Descending a flight of stairs into an underpass, below the Westway, for instance, we were greeted with a bizarre mosaic at a pedestrian T-junction. An unnerving parade of school children’s self-portraits watched us, separated by mirrored shards, with even more shards arranged into an oddly didactic message, “It’s good to be me.” Above, a convex mirror reflected our distorted selves back at us. A security measure, no doubt, to be watched paranoiacally by those traversing this space after hours. To the right of this, the black eye of a security cameras blinks silently in our direction. The mural’s message becomes increasingly anxiety-inducing as a message of individual self-worth is enclosed within apparatuses of risk management and crime prevention. The individual must be protected, perhaps most elusively from itself. The multitude much be surveyed, so as not to gain any form of momentum.
Pulled in both directions by sub-street level public art is to feel an unconscious — part your own, part something else’s — suddenly aware of its own innate disorientation. The medium of school children only makes this all the more dystopian. The unruly and desirous id of the Cookie Monster is poised around the corner to tell us the letter of the day. It’s the letter “A” — for alienation.
With Valentine’s Day just gone, I was mourning an old tradition we used to have that has since become technologically redundant.
My girlfriend used to have this cute red car for scooting around the place. It was the quintessential first car and was equipped with little more than an engine and a tape deck. Always keen to foist my listening habits onto our long summers together spent exploring the Derbyshire countryside, I got into the habit of making her cassette tapes, specifically for use in her car’s tape player.
I’m not sure where these tapes are now. They’re probably in a box somewhere, stored out of the way. The car died a few years back, I’m sorry to say, and went to scrap. It had a good run. She has since graduated to something with a CD player and an aux cord.
I thought about making her a mixtape, for old time’s sake, this year — something I haven’t done since at least 2015. Unfortunately, I no longer have the tools to make them. We also don’t have the tools to play them. I can’t even burn CDs anymore. The CD that lives in her new car’s slot is a masterpiece I spent the whole summer of 2016 honing and adapting until it was just right. I no longer have the tools necessary to replace it and so we continue to drive around in a 2016 timewarp.
Coincidentally, whilst looking for something else in the depths of my archive, with these old mixtapes not far from my thoughts, I found these pictures of them from 2013, taken for posterity, as if I assumed they’d one day go astray and it’d be worth having some pictures to remember them by.