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…