Further Notes on an Ethics of the Dialectic

I’m in research mode at the moment and going in deep on the relationship of psychoanalysis to philosophy. It’s been fruitful so far, although it has led me to read more closely a few thinkers who I’ve never previously paid too much attention to — specifically Lacan and Žižek.

I’d sort of skim-read Žižek‘s The Sublime Object of Ideology a few years ago and really enjoyed it but rereading his preface to the book tonight I found the notion of dialectical conversation — previously just waffled about to Kantbot — becoming more and more concrete.

The purpose of the book, Žižek reflects, was to explore how the two supposedly discredited theories of “psychoanalysis and Hegelian dialectics may simultaneously redeem themselves, shedding their own skins and emerging in a new shape.” The use of this for Žižek seems to be that both Hegelian dialectics and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis share a process of simplification. (Just as the dialectic reduces a thing to its “unary feature”, Lacan draws the same process out from Freudian psychoanalysis.) Žižek explains:

The dialectical approach is usually perceived as trying to locate the phenomenon-to-be-analysed in the totality to which it belongs, to bring to light the wealth of its links to other things, and thus to break the spell of fetishizing abstraction: from a dialectical perspective, one should see not just the thing in front of oneself, but this thing as it is embedded in all the wealth of its concrete historical context. […] Hegel’s formulation is here very precise: the reduction of the signifying ‘unary feature’ contracts actuality to possibility, in the precise Platonic sense in which the notion (idea) of a thing always has a deontological dimension to it, designating what the thing should become in order to be fully what it is.

I liked this, and thought about it in relation to many things. Accelerationism came to mind first.

Reduced to its “unary feature”, Accelerationism becomes, for many, a desire to “go fast.” This is certainly the “kind of epitomisation by means of which the multitude of properties is reduced to a single dominant characteristic” that Žižek describes, but it also rejects its embedded position within contemporary thought more generally. The question, then, for many of us, becomes: “How do we continue to work in this area of thought whilst simultaneously rectifying this popular understanding?”; “How do we shift the narrative from an inaccurate certainty to a more accurate potentiality?” Because potentiality is the concern, in every guise that Accelerationism takes, isn’t it? Accelerationism, no matter which qualifier it carries with it, asks: “What is the potential that arises out of a subjugated capitalist subject?” The Accelerationist formation of Žižek‘s question, more specifically — “What must the subject of capitalism (be that human or otherwise) become in order to be fully what it is?” — also contains appropriately Promethean overtones.

I also thought about this sense of the dialectic is relation to D.H. Lawrence and some of those others modernist figures previously discussed with Kantbot. You would think that a writer, long dead, is only who they are (or were) and has no more becoming to do, but that does not seem to be the case for Lawrence, whose works, to my mind, often in spite of themselves, have a fascinating resonance in our contemporary moment. The question then becomes: “What does Lawrence have to become in order to be fully what he is today?”

It is this process that I was describing with that transgressive holy trinity — Nietzsche, Bataille, Land. Each successive work on the latter’s thought seems to do this absolutely. Each is dragged into a present that updates them for now whilst nonetheless staying true to their defining trajectory.

In the comments of my previous post, an argument broke out about this between myself and Dominic Fox. Dominic seemed to interpret this function — which I linked to Blanchot’s “infinite conversation” — as some sort of suspension of judgement — something which wasn’t in the spirit of Mark Fisher’s often barbed judgements on music, ideas, or people at all. Rejecting this apparent lack of judgement, Dominic argued: “I don’t think it’s illegitimate to pick and choose from among the different manifestations of Mark as a thinker and a person.” It is possible to “accept and recognise the whole inconsistent bundle without affirming everything in it simultaneously.”

I remain bemused as to how this ended up being the reading gleaned from the previous post but I doubt any progress is possible in that regard. More to the point, I have no interest in trudging up the particulars — it didn’t seem to really go anywhere — but the above, as explained last time (or so I thought), is what I have sought to do with Mark‘s writing. And that’s explicitly involved judgements of various kinds. Is it wrong to hold the door open a crack, on the off chance my judgement changes?

It is only in this sense that I defer making a final judgement about him or others. If this is emphasised, on occasion, it is because it is already clear that, in some ways, our collective imagination has already selected the parts of Mark’s thinking that will be carried forwards. Often, these parts are little more than glib understandings, in the sense that any popular understanding of a person is always ill-fitting and inaccurate, even when dressed up in a fluency with their own terms and concepts. They’re broad strokes, because that’s all the average person has any interest in. But they are nonetheless informed by certain dominant voices.

There is a responsibility that comes with determining these strokes, I think, and people should be more careful about the strokes they’re adding to the picture. Similarly, I think observers should be more vigilant as to what motivates a final picture — particularly one still being posthumously constructed — taking on certain contours.

A few examples:

Is Acid Corbynism really representative of what Mark Fisher’s thought? Or is it an abomination? Is it a self-serving attempt to grab hold of a developing narrative? Or is it just a half-baked populist philosophy, innocuously hollowed out of the ways in which Mark’s Acid Communism was to be vital?

Was Mark really someone who undermined his own politics of group consciousness by being grumpy online? Or was his coldness to the thought of some interlocutors commensurate with his vague desire to abolish the individual? Are either of those questions even relevant? Or is it all just a few disgruntled former friends getting a final dig in?

Is there any real communal momentum left over from Fisher’s life? Or is a book like Egress just wishful thinking? Is there a political project to be affirmed despite Mark’s death? Or is it the shadow of an ideal kept buoyant by lingering grief?

It is inevitably true, to whatever extent, that in each instance, each person in question requires Mark to become something specific and — in the sense of his still-yet-to-be-established “unary feature” — new, so that they might process who he was or might have been. In that sense, mourning is integral to each example above, and the fraught nature of mourning is what keeps the truth from being uttered and the hardest questions from being asked.

I know how I feel about these questions, personally. Regardless, the fact is that time will tell, and I hope that, later down the line, these questions get replaced by new ones. The point is not to suspend judgement but, in most cases, to affirm the potentiality still left in a body of work and the associations that become attached to it. I’m sure the Acid Corbynistas take refuge in the fact that, regardless of its fidelity to what Mark was working on, it is a positive project. I feel the same way about my book — a book which makes that very process explicit. For me, the heart of the Fisher-Function — “a need to ensure this is a moment when the force [Mark] brought into our world is redoubled rather than depleted” — when translated into these new terms, becomes: “What needs to be added to Mark’s legacy so that it is able to become what it fully is?”

There were other comments made in orbit of this previous argument. Apparently, Mark thought Blanchot was boring and that Bataille was silly. That’s okay. In that sense, the line between his thought and mine is clear. More to the point, it makes the detachment and assertion of a positive project more explicit, in that it makes additions. This is the gesture that I feel stays loyal to Mark’s thought, even if the references themselves do not.

All this is to say that, despite what some of his former interlocutors might like to think, Mark persistently transformed the arguably hypocritical and vampiric qualities of his negative critiques into a series of positive projects. He remained wedded to his thoughts, in sickness and in health, which is to say that the consistency of his arguments is impressive even if the tone was variable and sometimes problematic. There is nonetheless something to be affirmed here.

The initial barbed assault might have been an inadvisable approach — a scorched-earth strategy, as it were — but Mark always reemerged later with the same critique made positive. The unfortunate thing was that many remained more concerned with the previous mess or bridge burnt than the eventual strength of the end result. (Another aspect of this deontological tendency, perhaps, that is hard for some to stomach or acknowledge.) Everyone has read “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, for instance, but who has read “No Romance Without Finance” and made the connection? Both are concerned with a project of group consciousness raising that rejects and supersedes an identity politics corrupted by neoliberalism’s mandatory individualism, but only the negative critique is remembered whilst the positive project is left to the margins.

This isn’t just true of Mark. Mark, as ever, is simply the most readily available reference point. I’ll move on from him at some point, I’m sure, but not from this central gesture. That is the main way in which Mark continues to inspire me, despite the persistent announcements of his interpersonal flaws, supposedly to the contrary. He always came to realise, within his own writing, what needed to be added or transposed so that the potential of his argument could become what it fully was in actuality. Sometimes, the end result fell on deaf ears. But the stakes of an infinite conversation, as far as I am concerned, rest in the continuation of that project, especially when the other person has dropped it — through choice or through death.

This is what I find most palpable and poetic in Blanchot’s project (whether Mark liked it or not): in the persistent plurality of our voices, tomorrow is always what is at stake. That remains true whether you, personally, have a tomorrow or not.

Is that a deferral of judgement to another day? Or are judgements instead being made that keep the horizon in sight?

The Will to Deform: The Promethean Gift of Proletarian Prosthetics

This essay was originally published in Insufficient Armour, a collection of essays published in January 2020 by Nero in collaboration with Giorgio Di Salvo’s streetwear company United Standard.

After seeing that Simon Sellars published his story from the collection last week, I thought I’d do the same. I previously posted a video intro to the essay, made over Christmas 2019 with no equipment. You can now read the full thing below. It’s a fleshed-out vision of what I feel constitutes this blog’s namesake: “the xenogothic.”

01. Ontologies of Body Horror

The Gothic is not an aesthetic genre but a prosthetic sensibility. It is a mode of addition, extension and attachment, and one that has taken on many different forms.

To use the word “prosthetic” in such a general way, and in a sense that seems purely adjective, demands some immediate clarification. It is a word that brings to mind “prostheses”: objects and technologies that allow a body to exceed its own limits, as well as the history of their development, from the most rudimentary “hook hands” to state-of-the-art bionic limbs, from ear trumpets to neural-control interface technologies. To call the Gothic a prosthetic sensibility is not to appropriate this understanding but to emphasise the ways in which the Gothic embodies it most absolutely.

The body has always been and remains the Gothic’s primary terrain of interrogation. From the literary body-horror of Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to the make-up and extravagant fashions of late-twentieth-century Goth, at every turn of our civilisation’s cultural development the Gothic has seized upon the prostheses of any given age, extending their relevance beyond the fields of medical science and standardised aesthetics. It is a cultural sensibility that understands by extending the body we also extend our collective conception of what a body can do. To extend one body is to extend the potential of them all.

The “prosthetic”, then, is not simply a medical adjective but an ontological one. This is a framing that has garnered considerable attention in recent decades, and can be found everywhere from sports science to science fiction. It has also been central to modern philosophy. Gilles Deleuze, for instance, commenting on the writings of Baruch de Spinoza, most famously decried our post-Cartesian fixation on the mind at the expense of the body, writing “we speak of consciousness, mind, soul, of the power of the soul over the body; we chatter away about these things, but do not even know what bodies can do.”[1]

Deleuze’s interest in the body was directly influenced by the medical knowledge of his day and, more specifically, his first-hand experiences of certain medical procedures. Like Spinoza before him, Deleuze suffered greatly from respiratory issues, undergoing a thoracoplasty in 1968, and later taking his own life in 1995 having reached a limit with his continuously diminishing quality of life. However, whilst his poor health may have been physically restrictive, he also found it to be philosophically liberating and was repeatedly drawn to philosophers who suffered like he did. For example, throughout his works, he would echo the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille and Antonin Artaud — thinkers who were also plagued by ill-health throughout their lives, both physically and mentally, but who were nonetheless fascinated by the direct impact of bodily suffering on cognitive potential. It must also be said that, for Deleuze, as with these influences, explorations of the body’s limitations were not in themselves limited to its particular anatomy but also included the limitations put upon the body by the state and by hegemonic understandings of the body more generally.

Nietzsche is perhaps the most famous explorer of such a worldview. He wrote at length on society’s deliberate limiting of human potential and championed those who would “tunnel and mine” their way through the strata of daily life, giving a specifically proletarian and industrial agency to the denizens of Plato’s cave, driven by the belief that, as a result of their toil, they will eventually overcome their circumstances — or, as Nietzsche put it, acquire their “own daybreak.”[2] The innately unreasonable nature — that is to say, the madness — of such a pursuit was also championed by Nietzsche who, foreshadowing the thalassic geopsychology of Sándor Ferenczi, saw insanity as something “in voice and bearing as uncanny and incalculable as the demonic moods of the weather and the sea and therefore worthy of a similar awe and observation.”[3] This is to say that, for Nietzsche, madness was not simply a deviation from an otherwise “natural” reason, but rather a powerful undertow of human cognitive activity. To ignore and suppress it, at a societal level, would be the same as ignoring the grandeur of the climate or the sea and its impact on our own shores.

Bataille, heavily influenced by Nietzsche — and sharing with him a traumatic experience with familial mental illness in childhood — also wrote many philosophical tracts on the human anatomy and its “deviations”, writing that “mankind cannot remain indifferent to its monsters” and exclude human anatomical abnormality from any philosophical ontology due to some prejudiced adherence to “the constitution of the perfect type”.[4] He explored the disgust evoked by even the most fundamental and “normal” of human body parts and appendages, describing the mouth, for instance, as “the orifice of profound physical impulses”.[5] Elsewhere, and more famously, he describes the big toe as “the most human part of the human body” and yet deplores its reputation for “the most nauseating filthiness”, believing that man’s “secret horror of his foot is one of the explanations for the tendency to conceal its length and form as much as possible”, describing women’s high heels as an attempt to “distract from the foot’s low and flat character.”[6] He sees the lowly reputation of the human foot, as well as its sexual fetishisation, as an embarrassing measure of how fundamental bodily restriction is to an apparent human civility.

Antonin Artaud’s plays and writings expressed many similar concerns as the writings of Nietzsche and Bataille and he was a particular influence on Deleuze, providing him with one of his least understood concepts: the “body without organs”. As Joshua Ramey explains, writing on the esotericism of Deleuze’s philosophy, Artaud believed that the “decadence and debilitation of twentieth-century Western culture were … linked directly … to the technoscientific apparatus — military, industrial, nutritional, and hygienic — continuously marshaled in the name of God and order to stultify the human body.”[7]

Artaud’s works — his writings, radio plays, and performances — constituted for him a “theatre of cruelty” that was designed to disturb and terrify his audiences but also the stultified human subject as such: “to shock and shatter its organs, and to force the body to react otherwise than in accordance with the habitual limits of sense and sensibility.”[8] Artaud’s theatre of cruelty was, in this sense, a Gothic assault on the sensibilities of his time. Along with the paintings of Francis Bacon, it was to Deleuze as the Dionysian music of Richard Wagner was (initially) to Nietzsche; as the lingchi photographs were to Bataille. Each describes and brings forth “a subtle body accessible at the extremes of experience — in suffering, delirium, synesthesia, and ecstatic states.”[9]

Here we might proclaim Deleuze, Nietzsche, Bataille and Artaud to be Gothic philosophers par excellence. Each has explored the wonder and horror provoked by the unknown capabilities of our own bodies and, as we have already suggested, this is more than familiar territory for the Gothic in its own right. By deploying the evolving signs and signifiers at the edge of what we know and understand about ourselves and the world around us, the Gothic is a prosthetic mode that has consistently extended its own reach, out beyond the horizon of human knowledge and into the weird, the eerie, the grotesque. Whether extending the limits of a body beyond reason, beyond nature, beyond society’s aesthetic standards or, most fundamentally, beyond life itself, the Gothic provides forms with which our imaginations run amok, and it is this tendency that has allowed the Gothic to proliferate through cultures around the world for almost a millennium.

Now one of the oldest and most persistent artistic movements in human history, in being constituted by a virulent unlife we might assume that the Gothic will never truly died. However, this sensibility within the Gothic that pushes towards its own outside is presently under threat and at the constant mercy of capitalist commodification — a process that has already found some success in rendering the Gothic culturally inert.

The Gothic’s contemporary influence is nonetheless pervasive. Indeed, the Gothic is, in some respects, more popular than ever. However, whilst the emergence of the twenty-first century “mall goth” may signify a new Gothic dominance, for many it sounds the death knell of a movement finally thwarted by capitalism’s apparatuses of capture, making the Gothic into a type that has become synonymous with a largely out-dated and aesthetically conservative subculture.

02. The Xenogothic

For the purposes of this essay, in order to keep the Gothic’s present circumstances firmly in our sights, we shall give its prosthetic sensibility a new name, in order to more clearly focus on a specific process at work within the Gothic itself that remains incompatible with the forces of capitalism that have sought to neutralise it. We shall call it the “xenogothic”.

The xenogothic is a term we might use to define a future Gothic form always already contained within the Gothic itself. It is a name not for a Gothic telos but for a “witch’s flight”. It is a term for the Gothic’s escape from itself and the limits placed upon it from outside. It is a form of movement, according to Gilles Deleuze, “that never ceases to change direction, that is broken, split, diverted, turned in on itself, coiled up, or even extended beyond its natural limits.”[10]

Despite the presently conservative nature of a popular Gothic aesthetic, there are still pockets of xenogothic innovation to be found throughout our contemporary subcultures. As has been the case for much of the late-twentieth-century’s dance music and rave scenes, capitalism has repeatedly failed to wholly remove their fugitive power — a power fundamentally incompatible with the structures that close in around it. This Gothic fugitivity has been maligned for some time, and at least since the final decades of the twentieth century when, extending a post-punk commitment to always “rip it up and start again”, the Gothic found itself falling from favour.

“Rip it up and start again” is a phrase borrowed from Simon Reynolds, and the title of his 2005 survey of the post-punk landscape between the years 1978 and 1984. It is a title that, for him, encapsulates the attitude of a smorgasbord of bands “who dedicated themselves to fulfilling punk’s uncompleted musical revolution”[11] by smashing “the boundaries that keep [art] sealed off from everyday life”, adhering to a militant “ethos of perpetual change”. [12]

Writing on Goth specifically, Reynolds highlights the subgenre’s initial inversion of the Gothic forms of yesteryear. He explains:

The original Gothic movement in literature had been anti-modernist. It represented the return of the repressed: all the medieval superstitions and primordial longings allegedly banished by the Industrial Revolution, all those shadowy regions of the soul supposedly illuminated by the Enlightenment. It was only when the dark, satanic mills appeared that ruined abbeys came to be considered picturesque and alluring. Goth was based on the idea that the most profound emotions you’ll ever feel are the same ones felt by people thousands of years ago: the fundamental, eternal experiences of love, death, despair, awe and dread.[13]

This Gothic continuum, despite its penchant for Romantic decadence, began to resonate with the politics of class struggle that were explored far more explicitly by the punks who proceeded them. Reynolds continues: “Goths enjoyed the energy of Oi! and anarcho-punk gigs, but ultimately didn’t really care for either option: lumpen Oi! wallowed in its own oppression, they felt, whilst anarcho-punk seemed dourly didactic and sexless.”[14] Reynolds goes on to explain that Goth’s post-punk credentials were instead found in its desire to redefine punk as an “inversion of values and deviance from norms”, with the movement proposing “a flight from the crushing ordinariness of everyday English life, into a common wildness of ritual and ceremony, magic and mystery.”[15]

Here Goth foreshadowed the return of a Bakhtinian carnivalesque that would explode back into the public imagination with the dawn of rave culture. And yet, once rave reigned supreme, Goth itself seemed to relax into an uncharacteristic complacency. The initial working class despair, and the sonic embodiment of social decay, epitomised (at first) by the likes of Joy Division, The Fall, Throbbing Gristle, and Bauhaus, gradually lost their edge, arguably reflecting the rise of neoliberalism across Western society in post-punk’s aftermath. Class struggle was replaced by a soft existentialism, reduced it to a type that is now marketable across commodity forms. Here the Gothic becomes a darkened prosthesis for capitalism itself — a control value for the release of a tension that capitalism itself creates; of disenfranchisement, depression and hopelessness.

However, all is not lost. Even from the depths of capitalist co-option, there are Goths who continue to glide along the edge of a shifting human frontier, quietly exploring our ontological and aesthetic limits. We might consider the recent work of Gazelle Twin, for instance, the current queen of British Goth, who, on her 2014 song ‘Belly of the Beast’, sings menacingly: “I’ll beat them all at their at own game / Bite the hands and the fingers that feed.”[16] She snarls these words over the infernal bleep-bleeping of supermarket self-service checkouts, bringing a violently Gothic sensibility to the banality of contemporary capitalist consumerism. It is a revolutionary anthem for the unassuming “mall goth” of the twenty-first century and epitomises a xenogothic tendency that may be far less visible today but which has still never truly died.

03. What was the Gothic?

In order to better account for the xenogothic as it exists today, it may help us to ascertain what the Gothic was, prior to its capture by authoritative and, more specifically, market forces. It is only from here that we might better account for the potentials of its prosthetic sensibility in the present. However, such an exercise comes with its own challenges, and these challenges are by no means new.

Beginning his 1911 study of form in Gothic art and architecture, Wilhelm Worringer writes that the “earnest endeavour of the historian to reconstruct the spirit of the past from the materials at his disposal [in the present] is at best an experiment, conducted with unsuitable means.”[17] This is no less true today, over a century later.

Worringer may have been speaking generally of the historian’s eternal dilemma — navigating the impact on one’s own work of an innate contemporary bias — but the Gothic, in particular, with its architectural beginnings, its literary peak, and its sonic finale, presents the cultural historian today with a shape-shifting, disconnected and amorphous “movement” that may be easy to recognise but is, in fact, harder than ever to define.

As a collection of disparate movements and mediums, brought together restlessly under a single banner, this problem at the heart of the Gothic today may seem like an exemplary postmodern affliction in which genre is dissolved within itself, but such an experience has been central to the Gothic since it first emerged as a popular mode of architectural expression in twelfth-century France. This is because the problematic that the Gothic first attempts to contend with is, fundamentally, a problem of time. It is an expression and affirmation of our own fallibility as the inevitably blinkered subjects of a given moment — be that the Age of Enlightenment or capitalist modernity. Indeed, as far as Worringer is concerned, it seems that historiography itself is the ultimate Gothic pastime. After all, the Gothic as a cultural movement, in all of its forms, has always been a creative exploration of the past’s influence on the future from the knowingly flawed perspective of the present.

Describing this same essence more recently in his 2014 book on the genre’s literary and visual aesthetics, Fred Botting writes that the Gothic — contrary to Reynolds’ description of Goth, we might note — is “more than a flight from nostalgic retrospection or an escape from the dullness of a present without chivalry, magic or adventure.”[18] Instead, it is a movement that “remains sensitive to other times and places and thus retains traces of instability where further disorientations, ambivalence and dislocations can arise.”[19] It is from this same position that Worringer begins his seemingly paradoxical evaluation of an historical Gothic.

The solution to this, for him, is to note how the “true” essence of the Gothic is its “will to form”[20] — that is, a will to speculatively give form to the presently formless. For instance, we may note, as Worringer does, that the Gothic’s initial instantiation as an architectural form was an attempt to grapple with the so-called Dark Ages, during which time the style came to dominate the façades of churches in medieval France before spreading throughout the rest of the European continent. For many, this style may have accurately given form to the beliefs of the time, representing another unseen world where dark forces fought for dominance over civilisation’s God-fearing congregations, kept at bay by imagined gargoyles and a community’s liturgical faith. However, as the style was transformed into a popular collection of motifs, the Gothic was later widely dismissed by many for its cheap horror and reactionary affection for darker times. The French playwright and poet Molière, for instance, famously derided France’s “besotted taste of Gothic monuments” in his 1669 poem ‘La Gloire du Val-de-Grâce’, echoing the fashionable opinions of his time, claiming these Gothic façades depicted little more than “odious monsters of ignorant centuries” from which “the torrents of barbarity spewed forth.”[21]

With its initial popularity waning over the centuries following its initial explosion across Europe, many nonetheless continued to find Gothic architecture and, later, Gothic art to be illustrative of a new darkness found at the limits of an emerging Age of Enlightenment; the Age of Reason. Indeed, a recognition of the power of this unknowable darkness is closely tied to one of the founding principles of Enlightenment thought, as found in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, for whom humanity is forever trapped by its own experience; by its own contemporaneity. As Worringer writes of his own historiographic task, echoing Kant, “the exponent of historical knowledge remains our own Ego with its temporal limitations and restrictions.”[22] This is to say that the persistent darkness of the Dark Ages was not assuaged by a new institutionalised reason, nor has it been assuaged today by the domination of capitalism. Gothic darkness remains an important symbolic void, constituting knowledge’s own event-horizon.

Continuing his description of the effects of the Gothic as an art-historical genre on the temporal subject, Botting writes: “In seeing one time and its values cross into another, both periods are disturbed.”[23] The human subject and its ego remain caught in a chaotic middle. However, for the last two decades, much has been written on our present era’s “stuckness” — the hauntological affects of late capitalist ontology. It is a truly postmodern affliction otherwise epitomised by Francis Fukuyama’s declaration that we have reached the “end of history”, a time during which the “future is always experienced as a haunting: as a virtuality that already impinges on the present, conditioning expectations and motivating cultural production.”[24] This is to say that the start of the twenty-first century has been defined by the failure of our own speculative imaginations; our once wildly psychedelic tendency to construct new futures for ourselves. The implications of this situation for the Gothic are particularly unusual. It suggests an abject normalisation of the Gothic mode, used to structure human existence rather than propel it forwards into the unknown. As a result, we might ask ourselves today: Does the Gothic still disturb us as it once did? Has the Gothic not become a victim of its own “will to form”, losing its transgressive essence as it is historicised and consolidated into a recognisable aesthetic mode?

It is here that the Gothic has once again — albeit subtly — shifted its focus. Whereas Gothic expressions of a fear of a post-human subject were once a reaction against rampant technological progress, the speed of which seemed to outpace the intellectual development of post-Enlightenment reason — as dramatized, for instance, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — today, rather than a fear of what we might soon become, it is a fear of our own ontological capture that seems to terrorise the modern Gothic subject. It is our limitations, our susceptibility to control, our prejudices, our addictions and a blind reason that stalks the Gothic subject. Barbarity does not emerge from a deep past but from right here, from the persistent system of capitalism itself. As such, we find that the rapid consolidation of the present into a seemingly final human form has turned the Gothic on its head.

For the contemporary capitalist subject, according to the hauntologists of the early twenty-first century, there is no moving forward. We are passed our best, and if capitalism can achieve anything in the present it is a return to an immediate past, a time of mythical decadence. This hauntological thinking has, thankfully, undone itself, begging the return of a Gothic questioning and a probing of the gulf between the capitalist “truth” of market stability — be that of market economics, market democracy or any other subsection of a neoliberal system that seeks to maintain its own status quo — and the actuality of capitalism’s perpetual unrest.

Today, in response to this, it seems that a new Gothic is emerging once again. Beyond its eventual European capture, occultural movements around the world now ask themselves: Is this all that we are? Is this really the moment we should choose to arrest ourselves, in our self-destructive mediocrity? The current prevalence of the questioning of our own standing is a symptom of both a dormant Gothicism and a maligned progressivism. It is the perpetual simmering of the xenogothic and it is precisely our infinite questioning that pushes us forwards. But forwards into what?

04. Promethean Prosthetics

To recognise the necessity of our own questioning is to recognise our innate will to form, but a will to form must be infinite in its potential adaptations. It is not a will to be formed but an unending process of creation and becoming. Perhaps this is why, as Leila Taylor writes, “fashion plays such a vital role” in the Gothic — “Victorian goths have their mourning drag, the Vampire goths their custom fangs, Rock-a-Billy goths their Bettie Page bangs”.[25] The rapidity of fashion, with its decadent associations and short shelf life, makes it fertile ground for cultural innovation. However, as Taylor warns, this makes it all too “easy to dismiss goth purely as style or an affectation.”[26] Whilst this may appear to be true at a glance, the importance of fashion to Goth instead expresses something entirely to the contrary.

Goth fashion places the body itself as the most potent terrain onto which the Gothic can extend itself. From the classic anachronism of Victorian mourning attire to Instagram’s recent obsession with “health goth” sportswear, fashion is the vector through which the Gothic must continue its own experimental formulation, appreciating but always exceeding its prior developments that, when taken together, present us with an art-historical cyclonopedia of tropes and motifs that all tumble towards the voided mass of the Gothic’s centre of gravity: the ruination of the contemporary subject itself.

Prosthetics are most generally understood as addendums to this damaged subject, a body incomplete. To wear a prosthetic limb is to wear an object that returns functionality to a lost or damaged corporeality — but what of a corporeality-to-come? Prosthetics may also be extensions of an otherwise intact body (potentially challenging Bataille’s appraisal of heels). The cybergothic is heavily associated with this sort of extension — an extension that augments a body woefully insufficient before an ever-expanding social reality, whether capitalist or otherwise, and often involves the installation of digital and cybernetic augmentations, which is to say new connections. In this sense, we might view the stultified body of late capitalism to be breaking boundaries in multiple senses. Not only does it extend the capabilities of the individual subject but also extends that subject itself into a newly collective formulation.

Here the Gothic includes an innately Marxist undercurrent, haunted by the spectre of communism or, we might say, a collective subject beyond the limits of that presently imaginable to the individualised capitalist subject. This is a Gothic worldview arguably introduced by Karl Marx himself, who writes repeatedly of spectres and vampires in his seminal critique of political economy. We may even wonder if the collective subject called for in The Communist Manifesto is not a positive view of the terror that populated the Gothic fictions of Marx’s era. Whereas the bourgeois writers of the day feared the disenfranchised masses and the unreason of the peasantry, Marx sought to cultivate a new proletarian solidarity that might truly frighten the ruling classes. Here the Gothic represents the Promethean gift of proletarian prosthetics.

This kind of unruly and amorphous subjectivity was central to Gothic literature at that time, as Kelly Hurley explains, describing the importance of the body to Gothic literature of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

In place of a human body stable and integral (at least, liable to no worse than the ravages of time and disease), the fin-de-siècle Gothic offers the spectacle of a body metamorphic and undifferentiated; in place of the possibility of human transcendence, the prospect of an existence circumscribed within the realities of gross corporeality; in place of a unitary and securely bounded human subjectivity, one that is both fragmented and permeable.[27]

The emphasis placed upon this permeable subject has changed repeatedly over the decades. Today, it is more likely to refer to the ruptured homogeneity of capitalist individualism. We are all individuals. In similar terms, discussing the state of the Gothic a century later, the cult writer Mark Fisher noted how this subjective shift was epitomised by Siouxsie Sioux and her band, the Banshees — a central influence on the tribalism of Goth makeup and dress. In particular, he writes about the Banshees’ track “Painted Bird” from their 1982 album A Kiss in the Dreamhouse — a song based on Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel of the same name — noting how, contrary to the individualist existentialism of a twentieth-century Gothic, it is a song “about the triumph of collective joy over persecuted, isolated, individuated subjectivity”.

Fisher explains how the song takes its name from an encounter the book’s unnamed young protagonist has with a bird-catcher whilst wandering through war-torn villages and towns during the Second World War. Painting the bird with vibrant colours, he throws it back to join its flock. However, no longer recognising the bird as one of their own, the birds attack and kill it. Fisher notes how, unlike the bird — symbolic of Jewish persecution by the Nazis — “Siouxsie’s Goths are not painted by another’s hand; they are ‘painted birds by their own design’.”[28]

For Siouxsie Sioux, as well as Mark Fisher, this apparent paradox of Goth belonging — a hypocritical collective that goes against a herd mentality whilst all looking the same — is still a shot fired across the bow of neoliberalism’s mandatory individualism. Other forms of collectivity are possible! The point is not to be wholly individualist but simply different from a prescribed type. The violence that Goths often wreak upon their bodies is exemplary of this. Fisher writes: “Goth is in many ways an attempt to make good this symbolic deficit in postmodern culture: dressing up as re-ritualization, a recovery of the surface of the body as the site for scarification and decoration (which is to say, a rejection of the idea that the body is merely the container or envelope for interiority).”[29] If body modification is a step too far, the extreme fashion of the Gothic is an ample alternative. “Clothing recovers its cybernetic and symbolic role as a hyperbolic supplement to the body, as what which destroys the illusion of organic unity and proportion.”[30] Here we find Worringer’s Gothic line inverted. The twenty-first century Gothic is not only a will to form but also a will to deform.

To return to the prosthetic ontologies with which we started, it is in this way that the Gothic is the true drive behind Deleuze and Artaud’s call for a “body without organs”. Though it is a phrase that may conjure up images of evisceration, it is also a demand for a body beyond organisation; a body which is defined by the sensation of its own experience and is therefore able to define itself through the intensity of its being rather than through an essentialist adherence to an anatomical type.

For Deleuze, it was the twentieth century expressionist painter Francis Bacon who depicted this body without organs most viscerally. For Bacon, the human form was often rendered as amorphous liquid meat — a horrifying image, perhaps, but a phrase that connects the reality of the human body to its anatomical objectivity. Bacon captures externally the experience of becoming-body and it is this that Deleuze defines as the essence of a Gothic art which “dismantles organic representation” by adhering instead to “a realism of deformation, as opposed to the idealism of transformation.” [31] It is “the manner in which the body exceeds the organism or makes it fall apart.”[32]

This is how the Gothic pulls our contemporary understanding of the aesthetic — which, according to Terry Eagleton, was “born as a discourse of the body”[33] — into new arenas: by generating its own prostheses. The Gothic, then, is always one step ahead, even of itself. Whereas many artistic movements and fashions have come and gone over the last thousand years, now contained within historical periods or momentary aesthetic trends by historians and critics alike, the Gothic has instead undergone nine centuries of extension and reinvention, always mutating the last form to define it in the popular imagination.

There is still a Promethean fire that burns within the Gothic to this day: an outsideness that eschews a commodification by capitalist forces and continues to speak to a prosthetic sensibility that considers capitalism’s ruination of the modern subject and finds ways out of it from within. We must embrace anew this ruination of the modern subject and its insufficient armour against a capitalistic idealism of social transformation. To find ways out is always to let the outside in. Only then will we be in a position to discover what our bodies can really do.

Continue reading “The Will to Deform: The Promethean Gift of Proletarian Prosthetics”

Notes on Dialectical Modernism

Before having this really excellent conversation with Kantbot on his podcast the other day, he had told me in advance that he really want to talk about dialectical materialism in relation to the book. My initial response was one of terror — I thought, fuck, that’s interesting, but I am not sure I am remotely capable of getting deep with that on the fly… So, about an hour before we started talking, I wrote my initial rambling response down in a txt file.

I thought this would end up being a small part of our conversation but, in reality, it ended up being the persistent crux that we kept coming back to, and it articulates a function of Egress that no one else has yet got close to articulating — myself included — so I’m really grateful to Kantbot for having me on his podcast and asking such pertinent questions.

Suffice it to say that we covered a lot of what is below in our conversation so, if you want the fleshed-out and less garbled version, go listen to Kantbot’s podcast. But I’m still quite glad to have gotten this down in writing, so take this as some notes or a podcast teaser, if you want.

Dialectics, as far as I can tell, is popularly understood as a process of simplification whereby contradictions or tensions find a moment of equilibrium and then we move onto the next thing.

That’s incorrect, obviously, but that’s what I hear when people talk about Marxian dialectics.

There’s an irony that emerges here in the fact that dialectics seems like a particularly complicated concept. You’ve got your Marxian and your Hegelian and your Nietzschean dialectics and there doesn’t seem to be a dialectic for these dialectics, at least not in the sense that most people seem to use the term dialectics…

In a Hegelian sense, we don’t seem to see a whole lot of proper synthesis going on, just a populist tendency towards compartmentalisation and misattribution and just a general mess of incoherency. In reality, synthesis is an ever-complicating process, not one of tidying up contradictions.

Modernism, as I see it, is the sort of cultural impact of this kind of theory emerging — which is to say, in brief, that Marxism leads to modernism. (And, lest we forget, that Mark Fisher was a persistent advocate, following Fredric Jameson, for the return of a “popular modernism”.)

Take someone like Virginia Woolf, who I’ve been obsessed with for much of the past year. I find a novel like Mrs Dalloway a really interesting exploration of dialectical materialism in this regard. Plot summary: Mrs Dalloway, the wife of the fictional Prime Minister Dalloway, is throwing a party and goes out to buy flowers, and then there’s Septimus Smith, a war veteran out for a walk who is thinking about killing himself, and these two characters loom large in a story also filled with all kinds of voices and violences.

Does the existence of Mrs Dalloway and Septimus Smith resolve itself into a utopia finally sprouting within the city of London? No. Because nothing has ever died of its contradictions. Septimus is committed to an asylum and kills himself, and when Mrs Dalloway happens (through sheer chaotic coincidence) to hear about his death she comes to admire his act and chooses to affirm the life of this man she’s never met.

But originally, Woolf hadn’t intended to include Septimus in the book at all, and it was Mrs Dalloway who was going to off herself at her party. So Woolf comparmentalises two mental states but, in doing so, and by giving them the superficial appearance of opposites, what she really does is make these two minds echo back at each other, like two mirrors facing each other. They don’t cancel each other out, they multiply each other to infinity and make you feel like you’re on the edge of some Lovecraftian hellscape of abject interiority unfolding into outside.

That’s what I like about Woolf. Her novel The Waves does this even more explicitly. She skirts the edges of some sort of high society classic bourgeois novelist — and she is, in one sense, precisely that — but there’s this horror that perforates through the pages that betrays her fascination with the darkest regions of the mind. (It’s not a coincidence, after all, that Hogarth Press, which first published all her novels, was also the publisher to originally publish the complete works of Sigmund Freud in English translation.)

This is also what I’ve also been loving about D.H. Lawrence recently. His novels explore this really explicitly too and in a way that is less stylistically transgressive but is really transgressive in its content. He’s like the British Bataille, with all the particular neuroses that would entail.

And this is relevant, for me, because its like this popular dialectics just diminishes the great stature of these projects. The complexity of their very selves, Woolf and Lawrence’s, is reduced by some compartmentalisation of their transgressive natures. These implicitly emancipatory literary projects are shorn of their limbs and either they’re thrown on the trash pile for not always affirming the “right” kind of emancipation, or they’re otherwise stripped of their vitality and talked about in truly lifeless terms.

The particular insights of D.H. Lawrence get absolutely shredded by fickle culture studies departments, for instance, and a revolutionary anti-capitalist novel that sexually embodies a process of dialectical materialism like Lady Chatterley’s Lover becomes nothing more than “the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day”.

If you’re not really into your literary modernism, think of Nietzsche instead. He was the most famous victim of this kind of moronic thinking. His absolute unconditional attempt to emancipate himself from the very foundations of Western civilisation — Christian morality most famously — led to him being called just about everything under the sun during his lifetime and afterwards, and it took about a century of hard persistent work by all sorts of people to rescue his thought from a second-hand impotence.

The great irony of this is that this probably fits into a kind of Nietzschean dialectics… His dialectic being rhetorical, a kind of conversation, and there is a thread of this in my book that is very implicit but comes from the frequent references to Blanchot.

Blanchot’s book The Infinite Conversation contains a sort of proto-ethics of psychoanalysis — in being pre-Lacanian at least — where he writes on the process of transference that Freud talks about. Psychoanalysis thinks of itself as a kind of rhetorical dialectic — you know, if you talk stuff out with another person, then this very act of conversation will settle your neuroses, but transference, in which the analyst becomes a sort of screen onto which emotions are projected, calls bullshit on this. And Freud, as far as Blanchot is concerned, didn’t seem to understand the real implcations of this. So the true task of psychonanalysis is a practice is both accounting for and resolving this process of transference, infinitely. What is the analyst, in themselves? What are your projections? What are your projections in themselves? Mapping this out is all part of the work but, of course, the work never ends and it shifts as life shifts and experience shifts and continues.

If you want to see this process today, philosophically, you can read three books. Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Bataille’s On Nietzsche, and Nick Land’s Thirst for Annihilation. This is a radical conversation that spans generations, where Nietzsche, following the insights of German Idealism, has conversations with himself, leaves his self behind and also takes his self to its absolute limit, and then, decades later, Bataille enters this conversation with Nietzsche and tries to take himself to his absolute limit, and then, a few decades later still, Land enters this conversation with Bataille and tries to take himself to his absolute limit.

Who would dare write an On Land today? It seems like an impossible task, and is easy to become alarmist over because Nietzsche, Bataille and Land are so scary. But there is a very real ethics on display here, where we take the complexities of a person to their limit and set ourselves beside ourselves and fully enter into another mind, finding the projections we bring to the table in our contemporaneity, and extending this original project beyond the limits that were imaginable to its originator. It’s a sort of project I am fascinated by and whoever will be capable of continuing this conversation will be of a wholly different species to the kind of intellectual we know today…

Now, what I’ve done with Egress isn’t quite such a leap forward into the outside of contemporary philosophy, but, if I might be so bold, it is nevertheless my On Fisher — or, Sur Fisher, to get really pretentious about it. It is an attempt to take the complexities of Mark’s thinking on community, pop culture, capitalism and communism to their limit within a certain timeframe, which is the aftermath of his death. That limit is a limit already contained within this thought itself, but Mark’s death gave us the opportunity to exceed them.

A death is one of those moments — if not the only true moment — where a person’s thought really starts to come apart from within. Without a self to maintain the boundaries, all sorts of things start flying out of it. And what we see emerging on the left, when faced with Mark’s posthumously rendered thought in particular, is either an attempt to cancel Mark outright or instead just a sheering off of his work’s unattractive bits. Either Mark doesn’t deserve any attention whatsoever because he wrote an essay like “Exiting the Vampire Castle” or we shouldn’t talk about that essay and just focus on the nice bits about party political organising.

Mark was so much more than either of those things. And this isn’t just because Mark was some great and complex thinker but because he was human. This kind of complexity is present within everyone. But today we live in a culture that rejects this absolutely, on the most mundane level which, I think, is the most damaging. Like, most will reject an argument like this with alarmist examples like the fact someone can be a member of the communist party and they can also be an abuser. That’s a alarmist contradiction of a certain type and one that must be cut out without a second thought. Of course I agree that abusers and bullies are really bad, and I have no interest in affirming their existence, and I’d be quite content bullying them out of the things I hold dear, but today we find people can be excommunicated for having far less troublesome contradictory thoughts than these. You can find yourself socially shadowbanned for simply not following The Narrative, and the people who will deplore this kind of whingeing the most are, of course, those involve in the sorts of institutions that maintain the narrative, whatever it may be.

I’ve felt this myself, in a sort of ambient way, in a few of the reviews that the book has had so far. The “biggest” reviews, as it were — the ones most likely to be seen by the most people — have failed to really articulate what it is they don’t like about the book. No one can really say why. They settle on the fact my writing is occasionally cliched or clumsy or maybe a little bit too academic or they just attack a wholly reductive version of Mark instead. Neither kind of review — one that dislikes Mark or my writing — seems to address what the real problem is, but what I see under the surface of these reviews is a discontent with the fact that this book about Mark Fisher, which is so thoroughly evidenced with instances from his life and his work, does not fit the still-emerging popular narrative of who Mark was.

And so I find it really interesting that Kantbot would ask about dialectical materialism in relation to the book on his podcast, given the podcast’s dedication to “bad thought” or “wrong thought”. Bad and wrong thought is the only thought I care about, but not in the correct sense of what is “bad”. The frustration I feel with my blog at the minute is that I spend all of my time explaining how the “good” thinking about Mark or Land or Accelerationism is all incredibly dumb and inexplicable. And I end up getting incredibly angry about it — it’s becoming a real neurosis for me at the minute. The consensus is wrong and so I feel like I’ve become stuck in a self-righteous hobby of fuelling a furious dissensus about the complexity of these people’s lives — a complexity that has so much left to teach us if we take the time to deal with it on its own terms rather than in search of some Cliff Notes summary of what x meant when they said y. This isn’t an attempt to devolve all political philosophy into a Derridean indeterminacy but rather an attempt to affirm the chaos within these poor compartmentalisations so that the free radicals that result allow them to interconnect. It is to engage in a dialectical materialism proper. It’s not a cave allegory in which I want everyone to see the light of nature’s complexity but the opposite.

This is something that Virginia Woolf said about her own characters. She wondered how she could

dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, and each comes to daylight at the present moment.

That’s the only ethical approach worth pursuing in the present for me. As far as I’m concerned, everything else tends towards bullshit. I want to engage in an infinite conversation with Mark or Blanchot or whoever, or not at all.

Saying that, I know we’re on a time limit so I’ll happily grant you a concise conversation that is listenable just this once…

Quarantine Clear-Out: XG’s Rare (and Not-So-Rare) Art Books

Just a shameless shill post: I’ve been trying to clear out a load of stuff at my parents’ house over the last few years and have scraped through the layers of previously ill-advised purchases and childhood mementoes until I’ve reached the stuff that I can’t just throw away.

I’ve just started a new eBay account and I’m going to be using it to list rare art books and photo books (and the occasional comic) I own and really don’t have the space for anymore. The photo above is everything I’ve just listed. Have a browse here if you’re interested.

Front Window #8: Wonderlust

Whilst I’m aware that commenting on every comment made about Egress is going to start looking pretty myopic and self-involved soon enough — if it doesn’t already — I’ve nonetheless been really intrigued by some of the more consistent comments made about it as it has settled into people’s hands and been read by strangers, particularly those who have deemed its idiosyncrasies to be flaws rather than purposeful features of the text.

Frankly, it’s hard not to use a public notebook to think about these things, even if such things aren’t typically made public, but that’s what blogging is after all — socially sanctioned over-sharing. (I’m still holding back, nonetheless: the pressure to not stick one’s head above the parapet after having pUbLiShEd A bOoK is real. Every thought had and written down feels like the crossing of some great line of professionalism but let’s not pretend like this blog has been a routine exercise in doing anything other than this so far — so suck it up.)

I want to write about these things because it has so far been a hugely constructive experience. As I work on a new manuscript that feels vastly different in terms of its style and presentation, I am very much aware that the new things I’m working on appear, to me, like a reaction to what has been said so far about this now-finished three-year project.

Most interesting to me are the blatant stylistic habits I’ve picked up from my own influences that perhaps go unacknowledged or read like bad form despite the intention very much being to present my ideas in a certain way.

For instance, similar to comments made about the book’s unfolding of Fisher’s folds, many readers have been correct in pointing out that it is a “meandering” affair; a “restless and shifting” read. In some instances, this reads like a compliment; in others, a criticism. To each their own, of course, but I’d like to affirm that the book is intentionally presented this way.

Although Mark Fisher wasn’t a fan of W.G. Sebald — something I finally understood for myself last year after travelling to Lowestoft for the first time (whilst making the final edits to the Egress manuscript no less) — I have personally always loved the style of The Rings of Saturn, as a mediation on both inner and external experience, creating a meandering sort of auto-fiction that is somewhere between the two.

That’s what it is for me: auto-fiction. To call it “psychogeographic” feels reductive and cliche considering its scope. It is a label that only helps to flatten its contours. It is about as “psychogeographic” as Proust is, but there is far more going on in these works besides a wandering through landscapes real and imaginative. It is in this sense, however, that Sebald has a lot to answer for. He was certainly guilty of flattening the contours of the landscapes on which he walked, reducing them to a shadow of his melancholic mind, but the journey he takes through history is nonetheless inspired. Often, just for fun, I will read that book’s first chapter. I won’t bother to follow the book through to its end unless I’m really in the mood. Sometimes I just want to get a quick hit of that labyrinthian wanderlust through the life of the mind-body. It is genuinely addictive; a sort of purely distilled escapism for the European misanthrope.

This is a kind of auto-fictive writing very much in vogue at the moment, which is partly the reason why I feel quite vigilant about it now. When talking about my book with Guy at Tank Magazine, for example, I mentioned the influence of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on Egress. I’d read that book two or three times in 2017 alone and the way she navigates lived experience and philosophy inspired just about everyone else who picked it up during that same time period. Of course, having read something so acclaimed does not warrant the same thing for my book, but it is interesting that the more personal parts of Egress feel far more accepted and palatable to people in The Argonauts‘ aftermath. The Argonauts made such an impact — for better or for worse — because it expanded the possibilities of life-writing for a new generation, and it no doubt quickly became a cliche when mentioned within writer’s classes now as a result.

Perhaps a nod to The Rings of Saturn is a more productive nod to make but it is also a book that has had a very similar impact on a certain generation of reader, to the point that Sebald Studies is now a somewhat dry and uncritical cottage industry surrounding a book too universally acclaimed for its own good. Indeed, to the extent it tends to replicate a classist unconscious within the mind of many a Guardian columnist to this day: a fact obvious, I think, to anyone who travels to the Suffolk coast unblinkered by a love of Sebald.

This was the flaw at the heart of Patience After Sebald — a documentary a little too high on its own supply. It is a project that is (in a sense more literal than most) hauntographic rather than hauntological. Sebald is great for the ways in which he inhabits the latter; those who make work about him reduce themselves to the former. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I wrote about this fine line here.)

As a result of all this, it is also the case that Sebaldian writing becomes defined by the landscapes through which Sebald walked rather the critical approach to European history he brought along with him. His narration in this regard — in The Rings of Saturn and in Austerlitz — is utterly addictive and compelling but I don’t think I can bring myself to read another melancholic ramble about the coast or a Macfarlanesque burrowing through the English overgrowth by anyone else who lacks the same navigational prowess. Thankfully, there are others who have not fallen victim to their own legacies. Iain Sinclair still resonates, thankfully, and is inimitable precisely because his trajectory is often so weird and wonderful rather than amounting to little more than a wistful pop-anthropology.

But I think there remains much to be said for a kind of literary journey like that — one that wanders through an author’s thoughts like a landscape, replicating and capturing the contours and non sequiturs of a developing line of flight with the flair and subtle objectivity of a cartographer and diarist. This is a rare skill, and one I can only hope to acquire as I keep writing and learning to write.

Not to downplay my own abilities but, whenever I find myself taking too sharp a critical scalpel to my own output, I have to remind myself that I have only been writing with any seriousness for the past three years. Prior attempts to be published and sustain a writing blog alongside a photography blog — between the years 2014 and 2016, quite explicitly — amounted to nought, but even then I was aware of the pratfalls that were interchangeable between the medium I was trained in — photography — and the new one I was trying on for size.

We used to agonise, as photography students, over our own influences and we would openly ridicule those posh enough to be able to afford to travel to the great photographic cities of the world. The irony of photographic travel, of course — and one later acknowledged by the guilty parties — is that when you are a trained photographer who goes to a city over-photographed like New York, Paris, London, or Tokyo, you find yourself inadvertently recreating the images etched into your art historical unconscious. It becomes increasingly difficult to be original; to meander in your own way without falling into the rhythms and footsteps of those who have come before you.

It is an interesting condition, I think, and one far more recognisable when rendered photographically. We like to meander, but only in ways that are already recognisable to us. When that is the case, how much are we really meandering?

(This was in around 2012 and much of this agonising was no doubt informed by the critical trends of the day around photography and memory, for which Sebald himself was an indirect catalyst — I still own copies of Searching for Sebald or Daniel Blaufuk’s Terezín somewhere, both of which I bought around that time…)

It’s something I find myself ruminating one far more frequently at the moment, having not left the square mile surrounding our flat for over a month. I am left with an itch to see more of this city than present circumstances allow, wanting to finally visit certain neighbourhoods precisely because they won’t be swollen with the usual traffic and crowds. In this sense, I am finding myself drawn back to the symbolic London of our collective imagination, rereading Mrs Dalloway again or, much closer to home, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Iain Sinclair’s London Overground.

Robin sent me his copy of Sinclair’s book a few months back when doing a clear out and I am incredibly grateful for it right now. As I sit in bed, facing out the front window, typing this post out, the empty corona carriages of London’s overground trains pass cleanly along the top edge of my laptop screen, still heading for New Cross station, despite the great diminution in demand for public transport. It helps to imagine Sinclair, tucked in the corner with his notebook, even under these circumstances.

If I can’t leave, I’m glad to have the wanderlust of others — as much an intellectual wonderlust as a physical one — to help me stretch my mind-legs.

If Egress is a meandering book of its own, its because it too hopes to initiate this wanderlust in the mind of the reader: to make egress as possible through reading it as reflecting on it later.

Although the subject matter will change drastically, I don’t think I’m going to relinquish this intention any time soon. I can only hope I get better at it.

Dialectical Modernism: XG for the Pseudodoxology Podcast Network

On Saturday afternoon I had what might be the most productive conversation yet about my book Egress with the inimitable Kantbot.

There was so much we could have kept talking about and maybe we’ll chat again sometime for your pleasure. First, we laid the groundwork of what my book is about and then — as Kantbot has put it out in the episode’s tags — we dove into “Accelerationism, Capitalist Realism, Dialectic Materialism, Flying Nightmare Skulls, Grandpa Munster, Hauntology, LSD, Matrix 2 Rave Scene, Mrs Dalloway was Hegelian, Nick Land”.

For me, the core of this episode emerged about two hours before our conversation began when Kantbot DMed me with: “And also want to get your thoughts about dialectical materialism”.

This totally sent my mind spinning as I hadn’t considered this in the context of the book at all but it got right to the very core of what I think I’d implicitly wanted to do with it and also went a long way towards helping me articulating what I’m doing next — far more explicitly, at least — with my current work-in-progress One Or Several Mothers — currently a purposefully disjointed book of two halves: one on psychoanalysis and the other on literary modernism.

(I ended up writing a blogpost immediately before our conversation, trying to make my initial thoughts somewhat coherent before jumping into things, which I might post in a few days time as a little something extra.)

So, personally speaking, this conversation was amazing and I am very grateful to Kantbot for having me on the podcast and for being such an excellent host. I look forward to talking more soon!

You can listen to the episode here.

Support Kantbot’s podcast on Patreon to hear more of his excellent conversations in future and, of course, buy my book!

(NB: Coronavirus lockdowns are throttling distribution channels at the moment so physical copies of Egress are becoming quite rare commodities. It is probably most readily available from Amazon right now but, if you’d rather not give Bezos your money, best to hold out as they will become more readily available soon. For now, you can either check the ebook on Repeater’s website or buy me Kofi or something if you want to support the blog directly during these weird quarantine days.)

Front Window #7: Extremely Online Mode

At some point, about two weeks ago, I dropped off normal quarantine time and entered extremely online mode. I am not sure I have achieved much of anything. I have primarily been tweeting a lot and working from home in a bubble of writer’s inertia — constantly writing nothing.

Below are some highlights salvaged from extremely online mode — dreams, shitposts, bot murmurings — not because I am particularly proud of them, but because this fragmentary onlineness is far more representative of how the days have been spent than any lacklustre diaristic drawl I could muster at this point.

Monday 6 April 2020

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Wednesday 8 April 2020

Thursday 9 April 2020

Friday 10 April 2020

For the first time in my life, I went for a jog.

At the time of writing, I have been on a jog every other day for a week. This is where it began. I have somehow put weight back on during this time.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Emptiness. Listening to missed episodes of the PlaguePod and staring at the ceiling.

Sunday 12 April 2020

Chocolate won heals wounds. Resurrection. Plans start to form and we return to our regular cognitive programming…

We Have the Unconscious We Deserve: Notes on Resident Evil and the 21st Century’s Machinic Unconscious

It’s funny thinking back to how we used to play video games as kids. When I first started playing games, progression wasn’t really the point. Games — all games, irrespective of their design or style — were what you made of them.

Before the gaming market became overrun by the open-world “sandbox” genre, that’s precisely how I’d play even the most linear of titles: I’d complete a level and clear out all the bad guys, then I’d just hang around for a bit, role-playing, running about and getting to know the level’s layout, exploring every nook and cranny, and making up my own additional narratives whilst doing so. (I’d be curious to know if the often “mature” sandbox genre was not directly inspired by underage players in the way, playing games in ways that undermined developer intentions.)

I remember doing this very explicitly with the Spyro the Dragon series. That was the main thing I loved about those games. When playing the recent remakes, I was struck by how small most of the levels were compared to my memory. I didn’t have the patience to play it like I remembered, spending hours in a single level just being Spyro and pretending I had extra quests or things do to, like he was an action figure for whom I granted an infinitely unfolding internal monologue as I threw him about for hours and hours in the mud.

I only really thought about this difference in playing styles when watching a friend’s child play Mario (and a few other things) recently. It was interesting to see this same approach but from an adult perspective. He was naturally adept at playing the game and using the controls but he didn’t necessarily understand how to read the game’s environmental prompts for progression, instead treating it like a virtual toy box, developing an object-relation with the character on screen and playing out his own story lines as he saw fit, like an illiterate kid “reading” a picture book, making up their own narrative based on the pictures before them, wholly ignoring the worded guide and having no sense of the ways in which they’re usurping the object’s intended use.

Believe it or not, the mansion in the original Resident Evil was another example of this kind of sandbox for me. So was the Raccoon City portrayed in the series’ second and third outings.

It’s weird to think back to these games now in this context — to think that I was playing them at an age when I was young enough still to be toyboxing them — but my parents really did not seem to understand age restrictions. Thankfully, I was also aware of my own limits too. I loved Resident Evil but I left Silent Hill well alone until I was a bit older.

Just like in Spyro, these enclosed and claustrophobic environments felt really expansive within my imagination, and this was only exacerbated by the pervasive sense of fear they provoked. These games were so terrifying that I spent hours trying to buck up the courage to make the slightest bit of progression. The puzzles were also often way out of my league. Somehow, as a kid, I had the patience for playing the game without them.

This is probably why, when my Dad took me to see the Resident Evil film adaptation in the cinema the year it came out, I had no idea what was going on. Where the fuck did all this technology come from? Why was this Gothic adventure, set explicitly in the 20th century, somehow more 2001: A Space Odyssey than Night of the Living Dead?

As familiar as I was with the backstory of the Umbrella Corps’ genetic engineering and supersoldier creation — I loved to draw my favourite “character”: the Nemesis — I just didn’t care about any of that when playing the games how I wanted to play them. I really just liked the mansion and the overrun metropolis. Those were two of my favourite gaming environments ever.

When the HD remake came out on the GameCube — which I recently played again, in its further remastered edition, on the PS4 — I remember playing it a lot differently. After all, I was older; I was a teenager who better understood what he was in for when he loaded up that weird little MiniDisc.

I felt like I knew that mansion like the back of my hand — at least its initial sections — and I remember feeling weirdly disappointed when I got to the point of going underground and entering the Umbrella Corps’ labs. The same was true last year when I escaped the police station and made it underground in the brilliant remake of Resident Evil 2. (As indelibly as the police station was marked on my consciousness, I never made my way passed it in the original PS1 version of the game.)

I remember finding the anachronism so jarring. I remember suddenly being aware that in most narratives like this, the opposite trajectory usually unfolds: you start in the futuristic hi-tech lab and then go down to uncover some ancient conspiracy. This was particularly true when your progress took you underground — doesn’t down mean backwards? The subterranean connoting the past?

This was also the moment of hubris found within just about every action/adventure or horror film I loved growing up: The Thing‘s primordial alien, lying in wait; Indiana Jones combination of Nazis and ancient relics; the Tomb Raider series of films and games also had various storylines in which ancient powers were naively harnessed through modern technologies. There was a similar lesson within each version of this story: the future is not the master of the past; the planetary unconscious is eternal and it will bite you if you try stick a lead on it. But reversing the polarity of this Kurtzian expedition does strange things to that narrative. It doesn’t reverse the lesson; it just convolutes it… The linearity of traveling from present to past does not work in the same way when travelling from past to future. In hopping over the all-important present, the machine jams.

Nevertheless, there are obviously a few great examples of this anachronism put to good use — and it is worth emphasising that these are very much recent affairs. Cabin in the Woods might be the most perfect example for this context; Westworld is another — but Resident Evil still sticks in my craw as a jarring instance that doesn’t work so smoothly.

These games have a very particular way of dealing with their anachronism — a subtly that any and all film adaptations have wholly missed (the Tomb Raider film adaptations have also dealt with this combination of techno-relic pretty poorly, it must be said). They lose the video game’s sense of downwards progression.

I think the absence of puzzles in all film adaptations actually has a lot to do with this. Puzzles in survival horror games aren’t just quaint novelties but function as a vector for this templexity — the templexity of Gothic sliding bookshelf puzzles being made functional by technological cunning.

What does it mean that these haunted house puzzles, that would typically be the hobby of some eccentric eighteenth-century polymath in more familiar media, are instead part of a megacorp security system? It is a small instance where this time slippage makes sense. Puzzles are timeless; keys are universal, but they allow for a seed to be inserted where the polarity of your usual haunted house narrative is inverted.

Maybe this is purely cultural… When I first started thinking about this kind of survival horror anachronism, I thought: is it just a Japanese thing? Or maybe it’s just a Japanese-view-of-America thing? But then I considered the fact that the shoddy anachronisms of their uber American film adaptations are exacerbated primarily because of a shift in medium.

This kind of anachronistic cybergothicism makes sense in a video game, precisely because the medium progresses along with the latest advances in computer technologies. For many, advances in film CGI will never not be an intrusion — nothing will ever look as good as 2001‘s hand-made models or The Thing‘s bubblegum gore. The strength of film as a material for horror is the way in which it expresses materiality. (As a sidenote: of course it was David Lynch who would first make digital cameras work in the context of cinema by affirming their uncanniness in INLAND EMPIRE.)

So, given that video games are inherently machinic — a coded medium — perhaps it makes perfect sense that their horror matches the immateriality of the format itself: if you dig down beneath the surface aesthetics of a familiar Gothic, you’ll find circuitboard hardware and coded software.

But this isn’t Blade Runner, in which robotics becomes a screen — the machinic unconscious of video games is all too immanent. To dig below the haunted house you know into the megacorp you don’t is to reach into the corporation in your head. It is to tinker with the unconscious of now.

It was hard not to think about all this whilst playing through Capcom’s streamlined but lacklustre Resident Evil 3 remake under quarantine last week. What’s more, I was reminded of Felix Guattari’s introduction to The Machinic Unconscious:

We have the unconscious we deserve! […] I would see the unconscious … as something that we drag around with ourselves both in our gestures and daily objects, as well as on TV, that is part of the zeitgeist, and even, and perhaps especially, in our day-to-day problems. … Thus, the unconscious works inside individuals in their manner of perceiving the world and living their body, territory, and sex, as well as inside the couple, the family, school, neighbourhood, factories, stadiums, and universities… In other words, not simply an unconscious of the specialists of the unconscious, not simply an unconscious crystallized in the past, congealed in an institutional discourse, but, on the contrary, an unconscious turned towards the future whose screen would be none other than the possible itself […] Then why stick this label of “machinic unconscious” onto it? Simply to stress that it is populated not only with images and words, but also with all kinds of machinisms that lead it to produce and reproduce these images and words.

There is a intriguingly philosophical reason why all the Resident Evil games after RE4 and before RE7 were shit. RE4’s European adventure had a novelty to it, dipping into the viral cultural-unconscious of European (that is, proto-American) ancestry — a little view of history, no doubt, but a culturally effective on.

However, as soon as the series went to Africa, it stopped exploring that which was under-acknowledged and instead stumbled over a century’s post-colonial tropes of new savagery — ebola zombies in a land left ravaged by America that only America could fix. In this sense, these games dealt all too firmly with America’s conscience rather than its unconscious. It was clumsy and ill-fated.

RE7 brought the original cybergothic intrigue back to proceedings, injecting a contemporary class consciousness and fear of the bayou with a little bit of state military-industrial complex — echoing the rhizomatic unconscious of the Swamp Thing.

But, at its best, this series has always interrogated the new unconscious emerging at the dawn of the 21st century — the unconscious we newly deserved; an unconscious dragged from film to video games and transformed through the process, from screen to codes and circuitry. Once we dig down beneath the old horrors we know, we find they have a new constitution — and it is hypercapitalist, thoroughly corporate, and tellingly computational…

The real horror is that, once you master this, there is no Infinity Rocket Launcher to help you out of it…

Tank Magazine: XG Interviewed

How can the experience of death become an occasion to imagine new ways of living together? In this episode of the TANK Podcast, Guy Mackinnon-Little speaks to Matt Colquhoun about his new book Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher, which narrates the collective mourning of Fisher’s death while using this experience as the basis for a new politics of community and post-capitalist desire.

It was a pleasure to chat to Guy Mackinnon-Little from Tank Magazine about Egress the other week.

The chat we had is excellent and I’m very grateful to him for cutting through to the very heart of the book in such little time. We talk about writing personally about the impersonal / impersonally about the personal, philosophies of community, the weird and the eerie in acid communism, and how this is all the more pertinent under our present circumstances. (Speaking of which, please blame desocialised coronabrain for my occasional ramble.)

You can listen to the podcast here.