Notes from the ‘Capitalist Realism’ Conference

Last weekend I went to a conference at the University of Huddersfield called Capitalist Realism: 10 Years On. I had a brilliant time listening to some fascinating papers and it was interesting to see — first-hand and for the first time — how Mark’s work is being discussed and perceived within a cross-section of academic disciplines, outside the bubbles of social media.

I took a lot of notes that weekend so I thought I would very briefly flesh out some of what I noted down. (Not that it matters what I think but you know what I’m like…)

There was a great deal to be positive about. Peter Conlin, for example, brought Mark’s conception of “the eerie” to bear on Amazon’s giant distribution warehouses and the tandem presence and absence of capitalism’s hyperactive logistical infrastructures. It felt like a timely update of Mark’s elucidations on Felixstowe shipping port, albeit less War of the Worlds and more Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Inside, these warehouses are known for their appalling conditions and enforcement of extreme levels of productivity. Outside, they look like dead spaces. Conlin commented that the eerie is interesting in relation to this because it brings these sorts of spaces into the cultural, despite everything about them supposedly being set up to resist this. Through such encounters with these spaces we can begin to appreciate Mark’s argument that capitalism is eerie because it is so difficult to locate it in a tangible sense, even though it can make almost anything happen.

Similarly, I thoroughly enjoyed Nic Clear’s archaeology of the phrase “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism”, tracing it back to “Future City”, an article by Fredric Jameson on architecture that was a further comment on “Junkspace”, an article by Rem Koolhaas, which could have been lifted straight off the Ccru website. Nic was undoubtedly right when he criticised the infrequency with which people trace this phrase back to its sources — I’d certainly never done it, at least not that many steps back — and he highlighted how a new attention paid to this architectural thinking at Capitalist Realism‘s root expanded Mark’s thought in interesting new ways.

I also enjoyed Jorge Boehringer channeling moments of egress in Blanchot — “the everyday escapes, that is its definition” — and Michel de Certeau, particularly the latter’s concept of “la perruque” or “the wig”, through which “a worker’s own work is disguised as the work for his employer.”

Kier Milburn’s discussion of contemporary consciousness raising workshops was excellent, particularly for bringing in Jameson’s concept of “cognitive mapping”, and articulating how these sorts of practices can be used to gain electoral ground for the left by addressing the age gap between Labour and Conservative voters.

It was also lovely to meet fellow Twitter interlocutor Matthew Lowery who presented first on “The Aporias of Late Capitalism”, commenting on pop music and tourism as two areas where the suffocation of alternative practices and engagements has led to an odd ouroboros of cultural production. I liked, for instance, his mention of a (negatively conceived) schizophrenia — it’s odd we have to make that distinct round these parts — following Jameson’s writings on postmodernism — as being “the breakdown of signifiers in the unconscious” and how this is evidenced by pop music’s bottomless self-referentiality and the emergence of the “post-tourist.”

In orbit of this, Matt commented that, although a return to pre-capitalist territorialities is wholly undesired, we mustn’t be unprepared for them becoming a reality — something that seems hard-baked into our futures by capitalism’s current endgame.

At one point, Kier expressed a complete disbelief at the actions of someone like Bolsonaro, for instance, purposefully setting fire to the Amazon rainforests. It seems to me that these pre-capitalist potentials are precisely why many like him play chicken with planetary resources. They may see themselves as largely insulated from the worst of the end of world’s affects and so it is better for them to lord over a slide back to a pre-capitalist politics than suffer in a postcapitalist future. By watching the world down whilst in power, they set themselves up to take over as our future feudal lords.

This is the terrifying undercurrent within contemporary platform capitalism, I think. It is what should make us so wary about our present monopolies.

There were a few things at the conference that frustrated me also… But I’ll save those for a separate post…

More on that tomorrow…

To be continued…


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