Egos and Anti-Egos: Going South of the "I"

My recent post about desire in writings on accelerationism didn’t come from nowhere. It also didn’t explicitly come from Twitter. Addressing the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s hubris was simply a useful and polemic vehicle for that moment but it was also a post that I worried about, at first, in case it came across like I was throwing stones from a glass house.

I’ve written about this before — in fact, on multiple occasions. I am painfully aware of the centrality of my “ego” within my own writings. It’s a bad habit, more than anything, and something I agonise over a lot, often deciding to just throw caution to the wind and hit ‘publish’ regardless.

It’s also something I’m thinking about and wrestling with a lot at this particular moment. Not just as a background concern but as something that feels particularly scary within my life right now as I look down the barrel of an immanent shift in my public profile, which is occurring gradually, for the time being, as I go from a somewhat anonymous writer into someone who writes through a far more public face.

CTM Festival was the first instance of this that required some wrestling with but I have more public speaking engagements lined up as Egress comes out and I get on that weird and uncomfortable treadmill of promoting it and Mark’s work in the process.

This is obviously something I’ve been doing here for quite some time now but it nonetheless feels like 2020 is the year I really stick my neck out.

This has already been happening in my day-to-day life. At my current day job, for instance, everyone in the office knows I have written a book. In fact, the last time I was in the office, earlier this week, there was a copy of my book, visible to everyone, on my boss’s desk. She has even posted about it on their website and, yesterday, sent an email round to everyone about bulk buying a load of tickets to the ICA book launch next month.

I can’t deny that it feels really nice to be acknowledged like this and to feel like the publication of this book is something for multiple people to celebrate in, but it jars somewhat compared to where I was at with my “public profile” this time last year.

At my last job, where I worked for close to two years, from late 2017 to mid 2019, no one knew what I did in my spare time at all. I started this blog at almost exacting the same time I started that job and it was an explicit exercise in splitting my self in two as I re-entered the real world of work whilst trying to keep one foot in the strange temporalities of weird theory Twitter. Most days I showed up to work, did what I had to do, and then went home. I felt a bit like an alien there. It was quite a prestigious place to work and I often felt a sort of unconscious hostility from some people about my presence, simply because of the way I dressed and talked — that is, poorly, in both instances. I remember on my first day, I’d gone into my first meeting with management really confident with a load of ideas but then got quietly shut down. I hadn’t meant to put my foot in anyone’s way but rather wanted to make clear that I would be an active and involved member of the team. That didn’t seem to go down so well, but this wasn’t really a surprise. This has often been the case when working in the arts as some sort of glorified technician.

I wanted Velvet Buzzsaw recently — a film I really enjoyed, with its lampooning of the LA art world taking on an In The Mouth Of Madness quality — and I laughed a lot at the art gallery technician character, always hitting on the receptionists, saying things like, “I’m not just the muscle, you know. I have ideas. I’m an artist.” I’m not like that at all, but I understood the sentiment of wanting people to know that you’re not just a body to be put to work, even if I have personally ignored it and just got on with the job at hand without trying to change my co-worker’s assumptions to the contrary. Instead, I think I hid my other life — this life right here — out of embarrassment. I didn’t want to have to explain what I wrote about to anyone. I was quite happy just being a body, in that context. I’d anticipate the potential questions in the pub after work about what I did in my spare time with a preemptive mortification. Thankfully, those questions never really came, no doubt due to my generally secretive body language.

(I watched the Netflix documentary about the band Rush the other day, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage, and was amused to see Neil Peart also express a discomfort in relation to his role within the band. It’s nice to see that there are some people who make it big for whom this feeling never changes.)

At my new job, I’ve been a bit more forthcoming, mostly because I think keeping the blog an active secret from people I’m spending every day with isn’t all that healthy. I hate the thought of them going online to look and read it but it also feels like a better strategy to just be open about my life and not try and compartmentalise the different parts of it. Even though it still makes me really anxious, it feels better to weather the storm of visibility than alienate my co-workers through a lack of communication.

For a lot of the last year I’ve been trying to figure out where exactly this anxiety comes from. It’s not that I’m ashamed of what I think and write about, but there is nonetheless a question of how exactly I’m supposed to articulate all this; of explaining that talking about what I do here is something I find really difficult. Sometimes it erupts quite traumatically. I pride myself on a online reputation for being accessible — or at least more accessible than most — but when talking to family about politics and philosophy I think I have the opposite reputation entirely. (I became painfully aware of this over Christmas when it was me against the rest of the family in a conversation about politics which ended ugly in the early hours.) In that context, I feel like silence is taken to be judgemental — the result of a stoic but over-inflated ego. In truth, I’d rather just not talk about stuff because I don’t think I’m all that articulate in the moment and before the wrong sort of audience — that is, an audience not already laden with the particulars of Weird Theory Twitter head-scratching. (This is also to say, unfortunately, I am more comfortable speaking my mind when I know an audience has shared concerns, but maybe that’s natural.)

I’m very anxious about this at the moment as I’ve been offered the amazing opportunity of running a short three-week module at a London university — nowhere I’ve previously been affiliated with, before you start guessing; I’ll make an announcement in due course — talking about whatever I like to a group of undergraduate art students. The focus of the course is going to be about walking, as a sort of rudimentary but radical gesture — think the Situationists — and how I think having a certain relationship to the world is the most important foundation to any art practice. It’s not necessarily about the theory or the fashionable concepts but what you do with them in your daily life. (I think my interest in this comes from a teenage interest in jazz and learning to play the trumpet as a kid. I’m a terrible musician but I get the “improvisatory mindset”, if there’s such a thing. I’m just better at putting that mindset into practice with other mediums that aren’t necessarily known for having a culturally embedded discourse around a sense of improvisation — e.g. writing and photography.)

However, with a slight hint of irony, I’m also using this course as an opportunity to talk to these presently unknown students about modernism and Deleuze and Guattari. In fact, I’m in the pub right now, trying to think of a way to articulate what a “body without organs” is, as a sort of backwards introduction to a century of radical art — from Virginia Woolf to Lee Friedlander to Burial; from writing to visual art to music.

I suppose the general overview of the course is: How do you make art about your life and immediate environment without falling into that stereotype of just making art about yourself; how do you use your self as a conduit for saying something about the world around you.

Before heading out to the pub, I was updating my Discogs inventory and ended up putting on a bunch of records I forgot I owned. I was listening to Andrew Chalk, Meredith Monk, Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach… Music is the perfect way of expressing this sort of relationship to the world because sound — even the voice, at least in Meredith Monk’s case, with her disembodied, Artaudian vocalisations — is far more easily “de-individualised” and improvised with. What I find all the more fascinating about photography and writing in this regard is that the self is far more obviously their foundation. You are working explicitly with an “I”, be it a written voice or eye that is often, at least for the practitioner, hard to separate yourself from. (No surprises I’m going to be drawing on my essay about “de-individualisation” in visual art — “Points of View” — for one of the upcoming sessions.)

It probably says a lot about me that I’m procrastinating from writing this by writing something else for the blog, which — in a sort of roundabout way — is actually the perfect vehicle for articulating and letting go of all this chaff. I can get all this subjective hand-wringing out the way and figure out a way to articulate what I really want to convey later, devoid of myself.

This blog has been very good for this over the last couple of years and the irony is not lost on me that this blog is often so self-centred, because I think it gets it out my system. It becomes an abattoir for hanging up the chunks I flay off myself, allowing me to put the choicest cuts to better use elsewhere. (This is probably what this reply to my recent post was trying to get at, which I appreciate, but I don’t think that’s what goes on on the Anarcho-Accelerationist’s Twitter feed…)

I think about what Mark would have thought about this a lot. Not out of some morbid desire to emulate him but rather because his articulation of how he was able to write so much on his k-punk blog is something that I think about often.

I’ve quoted this multiple times here before but it always bears repeating:

Folks have asked me recently how I am able to write so much.

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

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

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

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

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

(It’s very telling, I think, that he was so prolific on his blog but his books were, by contrast, always very slim volumes.)

Posts that I labour over — like my recent post about CTM Festival, for example — are labours of love for me in the sense Mark talks about when he says they are things that he feels like he has explicitly written — which is to say, I am aware that this sort of post isn’t very good. They are pieces of writing that I don’t feel particularly proud of once they’re out in the world. I think there’s good stuff in them, for sure — otherwise I definitely wouldn’t post them — but I’m aware that the chaff weighs them down. It is as a result of this that I feel I am able to write and keep writing, and this is something that I’m pretty much okay with that. I don’t really care about writing shit occasionally. The better stuff always rises to the top and I am comfortable with the fact that what people often think is good is largely beyond my control.

My recent post about accelerationism, desire and the “anti-ego” is the perfect example of this. It took off, perhaps because it addressed something a lot of people were talking about on Twitter at that time, but it was, for the most part, a load of word vomit that I threw down on the page and then cut down to its main argument before then sending it out into the world. I wrote it in an hour before bed, then woke up to it doing numbers, and was surprised by that fact.

I tend to admire other people who do this a lot also, although I’m no less surprised when they self-deprecating articulate having a similar relationship to their work. I was reading an interview with Jim O’Rourke the other day, for instance, whose album from 2019, To Magnetize Money and Catch a Roving Eye, I’ve finally taken the plunge with. (I listened to it constantly whilst traveling to, from and around Berlin the other week. It’s an incredible album.)

Jim O’Rourke is someone who occupies various different scenes with ease. He can make the most pristine pop albums — Eureka and Halfway to a Threeway haven’t left the rotation of my regular listening for years and my girlfriend also likes when I play him in the car, particularly his amazing Ivor Cutler cover — but what I love most is that he can write albums like this and then also be a very comfortable improviser. However, his articulation of his relationship to his own work was really surprising to me.

Asked by Stereogum about his older albums and which albums of his — partly because he is so prolific — he wishes people had more of an appreciation for, he responds:

I don’t know directly, but I hear from folks that people still listen to ‘em. Eureka, I’ve got too much on the record about my feelings about Eureka, I’m happy when someone says they like Insignificance ’cause that one came up pretty well considering how quickly I made it. […] I’m waiting for people to like The Visitor. If there’s anything, that’s the one I’m hoping someday people will like because I worked really hard on that one. That’s the one I probably feel the most least uncomfortable about. That one got really close to what I wanted to do. And I learned to play trombone.

This is also something I really admire about a lot of UK producers at the moment, particularly someone like AYA, whose infrequent Bandcamp releases, consisting of seemingly half-formed, throwaway ideas and club edits — often made with friends in mind, it seems, and (I want to emphasise) no less amazing despite their “demo” nature — demonstrate an active relationship to the scenes she is immersed in, and I think this is a product of a really interesting development following Bandcamp’s increasing popularity.

Kevin Drumm is another artist worth mentioning here too — given the prolific nature of his Bandcamp page, which I’m proud to say I subscribe to — and you should to. He feels like a new kind of musician for the twenty-first century, who has well and truly embraced a sort of blogger’s mentality within his music-making practice.

I wish more people did this. It feels like a throwback to a 2000s moment when some musicians used to have Blogspot platforms on which to share their demoes and ideas. Bradford Cox is a particularly memorable example.

The way he’d share his demoes on his blog was so inspiring to me as a teenager and I used to do much the same thing, sharing song ideas and covers of songs I recorded in my bedroom through a headset mic. A lot of people did this on MySpace in Hull at that time. Most of the bands I grew up with in that city started off in much the same way. Low Hummer, for instance, currently being treated as new kids on the block by the indie blogosphere, are led by Dan Mawer who I met fifteen years ago specifically through that kind of online prolificness. We all shared a love of lo-fi recordings and the ease with which we could create a scene for ourselves around our MySpace pages. We gigged a lot, locally, off the back of that relationship to blog technologies, and even ended up in the bedrooms of friends who had decent recording gear.

(Tentatively shared Bon Iver cover that I became quite well known for — locally at least — below…)

What I think is important about this now — this sort of “anti-ego” approach to sharing whatever comes into your head on a particular evening — is that it encapsulates, in its own way, the sort of popular modernist sensibility that Mark mourned so publicly.

I was reading Justin Barton’s Hidden Valleys earlier this evening — specifically with my forthcoming undergraduate course in mind — and Justin captures this sensibility really well I think (albeit through a somewhat cumbersome theoretical language). He writes on the book’s first pages, for instance, about the ways in which:

Modernist writers enact a lucid awarenesss of the body without organs, but the exact extent and nature of this dimension tends to be left open. Aspects of the oneirosphere of the human world can be suggested — as with Shakespeare’s inorganic beings having a contact with India that does not involve travel in any ordinary sense — but a modernist dreaming in invoking the body without organs lightly suggests its existence, but does not firmly map its extent or aspects.

Prior to this, he defines modernism as a kind of “eerie arcadianism”, which I interpret precisely to be a way of thinking about your own life and immediate environment through a sort of “anti-ego”; through making your self a conduit for outside forces; making yourself half-present. He writes that “the world of modernism is always transected by an anomalous dimension inhabited by forces that are both positive and negative, and can recurrently prove to be at a higher level of power than the forces of the ordinary world.”

I know for a fact that Justin shares my love of Virginia Woolf — the way in which she wrote so effortlessly without a face, and gave a language to these outside forces more explicitly and lucidly than anyone — and he mentions her book The Waves in this context, noting how two of the characters, Rhoda and Louis, “stand, gazing toward the fluidities of the anomalous dimension” — that is, toward the body without organs; towards the anti-ego that infiltrates a self and its communities.

Justin refers to this anomalous relationship to the world — that is, a relationship that reflects the anomalies it seeks — as a kind of “lucidity”. This relationship is capable of turning an “extraordinary lucidity and courage in the direction of the white wall” — Justin’s phrase for a quotidian form of the transcendental; “a kind of white wall which is pretending here to have nothing much beyond it” — “attempting to see what could be happening, given that there is nothing but ordinary reality, and given the insistent disturbing aspects of the human world.” It is a relationship with the Outside — and, we might note, as Mark put it, “to find ways out is to let the Outside in.”

It is a kind of anti-ego that, even if later articulately through an “I”, is capable of allowing itself to be a conduit for transgressive desires — transgressive in the sense that they permeate, as Justin writes, “across the fundamental religious (oneiric-metaphysical) dreaming and thought-systems of the social field in which [we] find ourselves”.

Here, Justin is discussing Barbara O’Brien’s incredible text Operators and Things — an odd biographical text written by O’Brien in the midst of a very real schizophrenic episode. (I’m not sure how readily available this text is — I read it when it was shared with me in 2017 via a Google Doc link, which felt very appropriately occulted.) However, there are still plenty of other examples of such tales in popular culture.

Whilst sorting through my Discogs inventory earlier, I watched the new Netflix film Horse Girl, starring and co-written by Alison Brie. Brie apparently drew on her own family’s history of mental illness for the story and it is incredibly well done, I think.

Brie plays a shy woman who works in an arts and crafts store and has a neurotic obsession with a horse she rode at a local stable as a child called Willow. The film follows her quotidian existence with a sort of mumblecore vibe until she starts to succumb to a schizophrenic episode that she finds meaning in because she is wholly aware of her mother and grandmother’s previous struggles with mental illness. (It is this same awareness of seemingly hereditary mental illness that Brie drew on for her co-writing credit.) She starts to believe that she is her grandmother’s clone and her nightly dreams of alien abduction, intensified by experiences of lost time and an unconscious penchant for sleep walking, lead her to believe her abductions are very much real experiences, particularly because these are experiences that her grandmother also spoke of. By the end, the film descends into a sort of waking-dream sequence in which we watch Brie’s character living out her delusions with disastrous consequences.

I was really impressed by this film, particularly because Netflix has been incessantly recommending I watch Girl, Interrupted recently — a film I have already seen multiple times and which I have long hated for its high-school-drama-meets-One-Flew-Over-The-Cuckoo’s-Nest plot which romanticises time spent on a women’s psychiatric ward full of big lunch-hall egos.

The difference between the two films, I think, is precisely this sense of “anti-ego”, which Girl, Interrupted infuriatingly lacks. Brie’s character knows, to an extent, that she is “crazy” and that her thoughts are delusional, but she is incapable of wresting herself from the grasp of her schizophrenia whilst she feels it affords her a palpable connection to her immediate family’s prior experiences. She does not feel that she is experiencing something unique and instead feels herself becoming part of an intensive continuum. In the end, she sheds her self entirely, believing that she is not a “clone” of her grandmother but that she is her grandmother, and this alien-familiarity manifests for her as an surreally believable lucidity. These are not anomalies from within her own mind that she is experiencing but rather an anomalous world that others are also plugged into.

The impetus behind Justin’s elucidations on modernism emerge from a similar place. The subtitle to his book — “Haunted by the Future” — resonates with Horse Girl’s dramatisations of a strange templexity in which Brie’s character feels she can perceive the future but also is the future for the alien-subject that is her anomalous and almost mythical grandmother. It resonates profoundly with the conclusion to Justin’s book — which I also use as a chapter epigraph in Egress — which reads:

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

Beyond the ongoing disaster of ordinary reality is the second sphere of action. You don’t get to be there on a sustained basis unless in some sense you are part of a group, and a group can only form (no plan is possible, only continuous improvisation) if you have learned to let yourself be swept away into the intent-currents of Love-and-Freedom that run through the world — intent-currents that take you South, into the Future.

This is a lovely point to end on, and I am fighting a temptation to end this post here also, but I can’t help but want to affirm the very difficulty of enacting this sentiment in day-to-day life.

Because it is so easier said than done, and it is also, frankly, a terrifying process. Justin’s invocation of “intent-currents that take you South” feels like an explicit reference to the horrifyingly liberatory journey that Kerans undertakes in JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, and this is hardly a “sober-joyful journey” into the intensities of community — unless you see lizard–brain people as constituting a kind of intentional community.

And in a way, that is a community of the anti-ego, quite explicitly, and whilst Ballard whilst emphasises the horror of it, the horror is nonetheless an important consideration, because that horror is the horror of giving into alien-familiar desires that take one out of one’s self.

I don’t think I know anyone who is really committed to this sort of communal, body-without-organs thinking who doesn’t find its innate sociality difficult to bear. Maybe that says something about it… Most optimistically, it is a concern for those who feel most stultified by their ego and by its inescapability. That’s certainly how I feel. The question becomes: How can this be enacted in a way that is just an exercise in positive affirmations?

I’m reminded of Simon O’Sullivan’s essay about this, which also features in Egress briefly, in which he articulates the importance of thinking Deleuzian communities precisely because, he says, friendships have never come easy. That essay is a feature because I feel that way too, and the tragic irony of these concerns is that simply having them — over-thinking them — is often an obstacle to enacting them.

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