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…


  1. “I contain multitudes” is well and good, but so is “we must become the pitiless censors of ourselves” – with Mark I think you got one or the other somewhat depending on mood. There was writing where the entire purpose was to surface something uncounted in the ego’s self-accounting, to get out of one’s own head. There was also the regular purging and denunciation of bad aesthetics, bad politics, bad interpersonal energy (“grey vampires” et al). Neither side was good or bad in itself: “nihilation” could be exhilarating, clearing the path for the affirmation of different values; the pursuit of limit experiences sometimes led to pratfalls, or the unleashing of reactive energies (a polite way of saying “an occasionally greebly misogyny”).

    The upshot of this is that I don’t think it’s illegitimate to pick and choose from among the different manifestations of Mark as a thinker and a person – one can accept and recognise the whole inconsistent bundle without affirming everything in it simultaneously. I described my own poem sequence about him as a “critical elegy” for a reason: it’s very much an attempt to connect the strengths to the weaknesses, and to make some comparative judgements of value in the process. (My model for this is Geoffrey Hill’s long poem “The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy”, which celebrates its subject’s genius while also noting his propensity “to ‘exult’, / to be called ‘wolfish’ by your friends”). Ultimately this kind of evaluative sifting is part of the work of mourning, of course – whether it’s a parent, a lover, a friend or a mentor. The process of choosing what specifically to honour and retain is part of the process of letting go of the living presence of the person, in all its vanished complexity.

    I don’t think one can simply cut away the VC essay as an aberration unconnected to anything else he ever did – it expresses both some of his strengths and some of his weaknesses – but I do see it as a failure in the terms that finally matter: the cri de coeur, which resonated so powerfully with many people, overpowers the analysis, and the latter is (in my view) inadequate to its subject. The strongest symptom of this is the succour the essay has offered to people Mark would unhesitatingly have denounced as total pricks: when you have the likes of Nick Cohen tapping into that intense feeling of ambient victimhood, you know that the text is being read and enjoyed for its wild affect, not its critical pertinacity. I also think that the egregious misreadings of so many of the essay’s detractors stem from the same cause: they’re reacting to the affect above all. If you’re trying to diagnose and critically deflate the instrumentalisation of an intense feeling of ambient victimhood (“how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional?”), it’s probably best to keep it cold-rationalistically frosty: in the end, the whole debâcle around the essay seemed to me to be a predictably ugly squabble about who had the right to that intensity.

    1. I disagree. In fact, I think this elevation of a personal sifting to a position of such import to be wholly unethical and self-aggrandising, particularly when it ends up being imbued with a certain authoritative tone. That’s sort of the point here, in this post, and part of what I like about Blanchot’s “The Infinite Conversation”. It deals with the complexity honestly, even when that honesty is ugly.

      Beyond that, having literally just finished transcribing a lecture Mark gave on Lyotard’s ‘Libidinal Economy’, I think he took these multitudes very seriously, within himself and others (such as Marx for instance, as is the case in that text). If you can’t account for and affirm the collective within the individual, what hope is there of affirm it within society? That’s the stake as I see it.

      So what does sifting achieve? Nothing positive, at least beyond your own self-satisfaction at having sublated the dissonance. Does anyone read what you or anyone else puts out about Mark and go, “Wow! What great sifting!” No, they take the position at face value and then passersby select for certain visions of Mark that rise to the top, regardless of the fact that most of them are, in a personal sense, wholly reductive. That’s fine, but there should be space for discussion about how this then affects the work. I’m all for letting a thousand Fishers bloom, personally, because the visions of Mark that emerge alway say far more about the person doing the posthumous carving than Mark himself. And we should be capable of acknowledging that fact openly rather than burying that beneath superficial appeals to morality. Otherwise it ends up looking wholly manipulative rather than interpretative. And I resent the manipulation.

      We see the very real impact of this on Mark’s work quite explicitly at the moment. In VC Mark is making a passing observation and deciding to leave social media. “But Mark was mean on social media!” Maybe that too is why he left it. He wrote on k-punk about recognising his own tendency towards vampiric qualities. This isn’t some appeal to Mark’s morality and immorality cancelling each other out. Never did he position himself above it. But now we see people positioning themselves *above him*. Your comments come across like that sometimes. They vacillate between constructive and patronising. Maybe that comes with the territory of a “critical elegy.” So what should I do with your multitudes? Select for them in real time, block you or just ignore you on occasion? On the one hand, it’s irrelevant; on the other, it couldn’t be more relevant to the stakes involved. But most agonising over it has led to a wholly disingenuous posthumous landscape emerging where people over-inflate personal grievances with unnecessary political significance. And the responses to that from other quarters have been deeply embarrassing. Mark might have ended up with egg on his face but he moved on from it in really productive ways. Jeremy Gilbert, instead, went so far as to turn it into an entirely myopic political project that throws out everything vital in Mark’s emerging thought (at least all of that that Gilbert himself hadn’t supposedly given him), and Owen Hatherley now has a habit of just swiping at Mark whenever the opportunity arises whilst exorcising any reference to the personal disagreements that informed his posthumous opinion of him. This is presumably because no one wants to air their dirty laundry in public, and that’s fine, but I find trying to include it implicitly in philosophical discussions, under the guise of a sort of ethical hand-wringing –which outside readers then take to be authoritative and objective readings (see the Hatherley-inspired, completely inaccurate and unkind generalisation of Mark’s work in The Wire this month) — to be intensely nauseating. That’s not cold rationalism, it’s just disingenuously hiding behind a thin veil of objectivity. Your personal grievances are still visible on the other side, even if you think they aren’t.

      It’s just as nauseating to see the superficial response of “Way to prove the existence of the VC!”, but on a deeper theoretical level that deals with the kind of thought Mark was interested in, about the obstacles and impasses within political organising, it does nevertheless remain very telling.

      1. This will probably break something, but anyway.

        Someone very close to you dies; you loved them, they shaped your entire world, but you also know that they were sometimes obstreperous and silly, that certain of their life-choices went awry, that when they were exhausted and felt cornered by life they could have an unpleasant temper and say wounding things to those around them. You don’t edit all of that out of your memory of them: you accept it as part of the person you’ve lost. It’s too late for judgement, for winning arguments. But you may – eventually, you must – size up the tangle of their strengths and weaknesses, and decide for yourself what you will incorporate and what you will set aside in what you take from their life, as you knew it, into your own. Everyone who mourns has the right to do this.

        So that’s what I mean by “sifting”, which might never be particularly consciously or outwardly articulated – perhaps it’s expressed through the choice of objects and occasions that especially signify the lost person, perhaps it leaves a trace in one’s speech-patterns, something they used to say creeping in here and there, a certain familiar inflection. Sometimes people feel the need to say more, and say it more publicly. That can produce conflict, because it can seem like an attempt to shape others’ recollections. I remember my dad being quite distressed about the way his sister had chosen to memorialise their father – in reality (as I think he eventually accepted) both of their ways of seeing him could exist at once, and her public expression of hers did not infringe on his.

        I am wondering, at this point, whether Robin MacKay’s tremendously resonant appeal to go on computing “the Fisher Function” was an invitation to prolong mourning, to delay the point at which one must recognise that the real person, in all their multitudinous complexity, is gone for good, and that what one has retained of them is of necessity an introject partly of one’s own fashioning, in which one’s own judgements and prejudices are unavoidably entangled. That is actually quite a painful thing to recognise, and it is not unusual for people to resist it. I may agree with you that the Gilbert version of Mark is somewhat self-serving. You might well find my version hard to live with for one reason or another. So it goes. You evidently see that this is true of other people, but I wonder if you yourself are not attached to an ideal of infinite, unending mourning, in which everything is retained, all strands are gathered, the entire reality of the deceased preserved and prolonged. You refuse to judge: you stand by the ethical necessity of non-judgement, of never cutting anything away. I would just like to observe, again, that this was very much not Mark’s ethic, for better or worse.

        1. Yes, regarding your first paragraph, I agree with you. And I understood that the first time. My point remains that inflating that to be some kind of profound political insight is self-aggrandising rubbish.

          The Fisher-Function precisely celebrated the best of Mark. His generosity and capacity for movement-building and consciousness raising. The fact that Mark decided he didn’t have time for some people doesn’t negate the great generosity he had for others. That’s my position. And from speaking to others in the course of the last few years, I’ve found that, regarding those who now insist on proclaiming Mark was a bit of a prick sometimes… Well, it seems the feeling was often mutual. That’s why these accusations often stink. People cowardly come out the woodwork when they know Mark isn’t around to offer a typically barbed response.

          It’s also not that I can’t live with your version of Mark. I simply find your insistence to articulate it here quite telling, and the often patronising tone in which you do so even more so.

          I don’t know where you get this idea from that I refuse to judge. That’s not the case at all. I am simply capable of seeing beyond the end of my personal interactions with Mark to see a bigger picture. What I stand by is the ethical necessity to continue a conversation rather than decide to start one when I know it’ll be one-sided. That’s all others seem to do.

  2. I’m trying to work out why we continue to be talking at cross-purposes here. I think it may be that you are taking my remarks about Mark’s willingness to make sharp, exclusive and often rather final judgements – about people and ideas – as a kind of gotcha: see, he hypocritically failed to live up to the ideal of open community! He was mean (to me, personally) and this discredits his principles! But that isn’t really what I’m driving at. What I’m trying to say is that those weren’t his principles to begin with – or at least, not his only principles.

    The friend/enemy distinction was absolutely critical to him, and overlapped with a principle of evaluation according to which only the thinkers and artists that energised you, that incited fanlike devotion sufficient to carry you beyond yourself, were really worth bothering with at all. What this meant in practice was that “the Kollective” was always a pretty rigorously curated affair. Anyone could come along and have a go (at least while the comments were open), but timewasters, snobs, smugonauts, bores? Zero tolerance. When he first started issuing taxonomies of trolls and vampires, taking a trope from Graham Harman and running with it, this was the flipside of the libidinal economics of fandom: for every Bryan Ferry or Grace Jones, there was an opposing subject position, an energy-sucker, an avatar of pacifying bourgeois subjectivity. Those who embodied those positions were to be ruthlessly expelled.

    As a way to energise a short-lived scenius polarised around a few charismatic individuals, this all worked pretty well: momentum at all costs! I don’t know to what extent Mark’s practice in teaching at Goldsmiths resembled this; in some ways, I hope he was a lot mellower when dealing with students and colleagues. But amiable collegiality certainly wasn’t *k-punk’s* thing. And it has to be said that this was part of the fun – as you say, he could be “barbed”, and it made good spectator sport.

    In short, none of this is about trying to undermine Mark’s moral credentials, or posthumously do him down. The point is that there’s a poor fit between the kind of “infinite conversation” you want to uphold, in which all gestures of expulsion, disavowal, denegation are suspended, and the kind of conversation Mark wanted to have, from which you absolutely could be summarily booted out for being a (neo-)reactionary racist bore. (That was Mark’s appraisal of Moldbug, by the way: that UR was simply too boring to read, not even *interestingly* reactionary. I don’t think he’d have been enthused by Kantbot either, to be honest). It really seems to me as if you’re trying to make Mark a standard-bearer for the wrong standard, and are then interpreting attempts to challenge this as attacks on *him*.

    1. I agree with your characterisations, as I keep saying. Never have I argued to the contrary of what you’re arguing you. (It’s getting really boring now.) I simply don’t understand where you’re getting this idea that “the kind of ‘infinite conversation’ you want to uphold, in which all gestures of expulsion, disavowal, denegation are suspended.” That’s clearly not the point — and I’ve said as much — but you insist on repeating it.

      What seems to be the underlying issue is that the things I have supposedly aligned myself with, whatever they supposedly are in your reading, aren’t the things you think Mark would have aligned himself with or, more to the point, what you would align yourself with. And that’s fine. But maybe that’s a judgement made on my own part, and maybe I don’t need you to persistently waddle in here and act like you’ve come to save my soul.

Leave a Reply